Tombstones In Their Eyes: bright stars & moonlight

Sinking ship

Record: Collection (Somewherecold Records, 2020)

Quick Overview

“Collection” (Somewherecold Records, 2020), the latest record from the Los Angeles-based neo-psych-rock band, Tombstones In Their Eyes, is a sonic storm of 19 songs gathered from five years of releases, all remastered by engineer Alex DeYoung, and released in one — glorious vinyl — double-LP collection. Whether you’ve been along for the ride with TITE from their beginnings, or are new to their extended, stratified cyclone sound, “Collection” is a milestone achievement, a retrospective in microcosm. Known mostly as a studio-rat recording band rather than as touring road-dogs (they played their last live show in early March, 2020, just about the week the whole world dropped into shock-mode over the COVID invasion), for Tombstones, isolation is perhaps more of an ally than an adversary in their songwriting development. More quality alone time! Some of these songs, such as the opening track on Side A, “Sleep Forever,” as well as “Happy” and “I’m Already There,” have been supercharged from their 2015 debuts (“Sleep Forever” is now a sonic monster). Tombstones started out and remain a tight unit of friends and collaborators happily working in their own evolving bubble (with only a few changes in personnel). They’re also passionate music nerds who find joy in using their studio hours for whipping up their guitars into dark storms for every occasion, revisiting vocals that needed more push, and generally having a lot more fun (than the rest of us are having) attacking their “lockdown to-do lists,” making old favorites into shiny new playthings. William Faulkner famously said about writing that for anything to be really good, you must “kill all your darlings,” to get to the best stuff. But, sometimes this process isn’t about impulsively throwing away what, at first blush, one might be a little over attached to. It can also mean bringing fresh eyes (and ears) to songs that never reached their full potential when they were first released into the wild. “Collection” is a feast of some of the best songs written and released in the early years of Tombstones (2015 through 2018) by John Treanor, James Cooper, Stephen Striegel, and Paul Roessler (wizard of LA’s exemplary Kitten Robot Studio). It’s worth mentioning that on the songs where Striegel’s drums and percussion play a central role (on almost half the tracks, following notable earlier contributions from Michael Sanger, Samuel Sherwood, and Larry Salzman), from the Striegel throne, his kit explodes in a propulsive and hypnotic pace, especially when this record is played loud. Striegel is a master of his craft. Somewherecold Records pressed a small run of this release on vinyl, which is a rare treat. Grab one before they’re gone, and they will be gone. There’s also a new TITE release coming this year; I’m reliably informed it will be called called “Looking for a Light.” Tombstones In Their Eyes is making astonishing use of our COVID compression. In their prolific hands, we can get some of what we want as they tidy up their backlist, while we count the hours and the days, waiting for their new songs, and for our turn in the vaccine line.

[Review Below]

Bandcamp

Tombstones In Their Eyes band LP art for their record, "Collection."

Collection (2020)

Track 1: Sleep Forever
Track 2: My Head Is Fighting Me
Track 3: Happy
Track 4: Gone Again
Track 5: I’m Already There
Track 6: I Can’t See the Light
Track 7: Bad Clouds
Track 8: Everybody’s Dead
Track 9: You’re to Blame
Track 10: I Want to Fly
Track 11: Separate
Track 12: Always There
Track 13: Another Day
Track 14: Fear
Track 15: Shutting Down
Track 16: Take Me Home
Track 17: Silhouette
Track 18: Take Me Away
Track 19: Nothing Here

Tombstones In Their Eyes

Tombstones In Their Eyes band photo by Cathryn Farnsworth.
Tombstones In Their Eyes (photo by Cathryn Farnsworth, used by permission)

I got what I wanted for most of the songs collected on this release — a chance to ‘fix’ some of the songs, and something to do during COVID lockdown. I’m fortunate that I no longer experience the same kind of depression or anxiety I experienced when I wrote songs like ‘Happy,’ ‘My Head Is Fighting Me,’ or ‘Gone Again’ (and a lot of really sad demos).

John Treanor

Revise in wonder, might be one way to receive “Collection” (Somewherecold Records, 2020), the latest “retro-release” from the Los Angeles-based neo-psych-rock band, Tombstones In Their Eyes (TITE). (Last fall, the band reissued a collection of their tweaked demos, “Demos Vol. 1,” recently reviewed by The Palace.) As the world holds its cumulative breath waiting for a break in the ongoing (and utterly exhausting) COVID storm, what’s a studio-locked band to do? How about “fixing up” some potentially great songs from the back catalog that are too good to leave behind (on their scattered EPs and singles). Why not cherry-pick half of the best songs from the band’s first LP, too, and amp up the overall sonic punch while you’re at it?

And if you’re going to do it right, why not bring in a virtuoso engineer to remaster the whole thing for a glorious new double-vinyl release? “Bandcamp Friday’s” have become, at least into spring, 2021, a thing — a way for artists to scrape a small revenue stream from a reluctant (in some cases moribund) supply chain and a suspended touring network, with some distributors (and all live venues) sidelined entirely until they feel it’s safe to bring their staffs back in to pack shipments and sell tickets. (One notable exception, of course, being those enchanters of distro, Nick Rennis and Evie Opp of The Business, who are shipping nationally and globally every week supporting hundreds of labels and recording artists, including TITE).

“The ‘Collection’ project came about because I wanted all — or almost all — I left off half of the first album because the songs didn’t totally fit in with the others — of our material to be available on vinyl,” said John Treanor, in a recent email to The Palace. “And to clarify, the remastering was not handled by me, but by our trusted mastering engineer, Alex DeYoung. The remastering was necessary because when you take songs from 5 different releases, recorded at different times and mastered at different times, you want them to fit together sonically. That’s why we remastered all 19 songs as a piece.”

There’s nothing like sitting down, plugging in the guitar, and having something come out that’s beautiful and unexpected.

John Treanor

The songs pulled from TITE’s first record, “Sleep Forever” (self-released, 2015), include the now opening track on Side A of “Collection,” “Sleep Forever” (as well as “My Head Is Fighting Me,” “Happy,” “Gone Again,” and “I’m Already There”). “‘Sleep Forever’ was missing some guitar interplay that we brought into proper alignment,” said Treanor. “There are two guitars that intertwine, and we didn’t get it right the first time around. I also redid the solo — or medley line — on the bridge to make it a little less fuzzed out.

“On ‘Happy,’ I totally re-sang the song because I didn’t like the way it came out the first time. We really built up the middle — the soaring bridge part — with more underlying fuzz guitars, as well as other tweaks on the end section, feedback, etc.,” he added. “‘I’m Already There’ was too simple and we [John Treanor with Paul Roessler, Kitten Robot Studio] have really gotten into layering, so we were able to do a little bit of that, to bring it more in line with what we’ve learned in the studio over the past 6 years,” added Treanor. The remastered “I’m Already There” emerges as a fresh, swaggering eulogy to the joy (and resignation) of getting to the other side of overthinking everything. Useful mindset for these times.

For some bands, it’s all about the process, not the final form, about creating the demos and the flash of inspiration — usually alone and late at night — that comes with new discoveries. Making art is a lonely calling. Still, there’s a paradox at the heart of any reissue, at least from a writing point of view. There have been famous and infamous exceptions, of course, but in the main, writers write and then tend to move on (or wander on, more out of boredom, perhaps, than purpose).

“The ability to go back and ‘fix’ some of the songs was great fun — and the thing is, the original songs still exist, so now we have both,” said Treanor. “For this band, it’s mostly about the demos. Taking a demo and trying to recapture the vibe in the studio is hard. Trying to sing a song like I sang it in my basement, late at night, is impossible sometimes!”

Returning to earlier songs has given Treanor and his long-time collaborator and friend, James Cooper, a chance to objectively explore why a given song didn’t work as released. “The real revelation was on ‘Fear’ [from the “Fear” EP, Send Me Your Head Records, 2017]. The demo of that song was so much more eerie, sort of ‘Cramps-y,’ than what we ended up with. So I had James, my old friend and a vital part of TITE, even though he lives in New York City, take a look at ‘Fear’ to find out where we went wrong,” said Treanor. “James discovered that we needed to bring up certain elements of the song — his suggestions totally worked! I normally default to boosting the rhythm guitar because that’s what my songs are usually based on. It’s what I write first. For ‘Fear,’ it was the creepy other guitar parts that needed boosting — plus, James added some eerie synth that we ended up using.”

Songwriting and the studio are my bread and butter. I love writing the demos, love going into the studio to try to flesh them out with Paul [Roessler] and our drummer, Stephen [Striegel], then seeing what cool stuff Josh [Drew, bass and backing vocals], or our new guitar player, Paul Boutin, will add on bass or guitar. I haven’t talked about this, but I see this band as more of a collective now.

John Treanor

With the band rolling on toward their new record in 2021, while almost simultaneously reevaluating five years of creative output that became “Collection,” both processes gave Treanor the clarity to remain a productive member of a dysfunctional society in a year not unlike the year 1974 (the culminating year of Watergate, gifting us as a nation with a legacy of unmatched, for its time, political sociopathy, but one we’ve rapidly expanded into domestic terror, a period Kurt Vonnegut might once again call “the gruesome now”). And here we are again.

Treanor has always been open about how playing guitar is both catharsis and purgation for the days when he feels adrift. “As the band has gone on for 6 or 7 years, I’ve come out of the worst things mentally,” said Treanor. “I’m grateful that I’m still able to come up with some good songs. Our new record, ‘Looking for a Light,” is very different than ‘Maybe Someday‘ (Somewherecold Records, 2019), and the songs on ‘Collection,’ but that’s a natural progression of my songwriting.” As for the darkness-fueled journey that produced a dozen signature TITE releases and singles? “I don’t have that kind of frantic drive now,” said Treanor, “but the guitar is still part of my healing process. I wrote the first demo — one that I felt was worthy of posting online the other day — and that was a wonderful feeling. Simply put: the guitar has been my best medicine.” Vonnegut would probably add, “So it goes.”

“And really, even the downer songs have hope in them,” Treanor concluded.

photo credits
(where not otherwise credited)

“Ghost ship” / by Alwi Alaydrus on Unsplash
“Sea and sand” (footer) / photo & design done on Canva