The benefits of stage fright

Tulsa find their inner noise
By WILL SPITZ  |  September 18, 2007

VIDEO: Tulsa, "Shaker"

Tulsa, "Shaker" (mp3)
I first met Carter Tanton in early September 2005. We were strangers moving into the same house in Allston — me from around the corner, Tanton from Baltimore — who’d been brought together by a mutual musician friend. A bit unkempt, with straight brown hair that fell just past his ears and looked as if it hadn’t been washed in a day or two, he spoke softly, seemed shy, almost timid. One night just a couple of weeks later, before we had gotten to know each other, I bellied up to the bar at ZuZu as Tanton — then 25, with a number of years of playing in bands and as a solo artist behind him — sat at the front of the room, looking sheepish with a blue Fender Mustang strapped on, getting ready to play his first show since moving to town. He started to strum the guitar, and when he opened his mouth to sing, the sound that came pouring out was so enormous and resonant — a direct contrast to his speaking voice — I had goosebumps, and not just because I knew him as my diffident new roommate. The whole room was transfixed.

Two years later, I’m in the basement of that same Allston house, out of which I’ve since moved, drinking Busch beers and smoking cigarettes with Tanton and Erik Wormwood, the bassist in Tanton’s newest band, Tulsa, who came together during that fall of 2005. (Drummer Greg Hatem couldn’t make it.) I tell Tanton about the shock I felt on hearing him sing for the first time and how I think his soft-spokenness is at odds with his on-stage demeanor. “I don’t think that’s a rarity,” he says. “There’s that eternal contradiction in people who feel the need to perform: half of you doesn’t want to do it, half of you is petrified. And half of you feels incomplete without doing it. You kind of set yourself up for a really tumultuous life.”

Like Tanton’s opposing halves, Tulsa’s music is marked by a sort of push-pull between melody and dissonance, concision and unhinged sonic exploration. Tanton cites an instinctual drive to write tightly structured pop tunes, but he’s also turned on by playing longer, freer songs, music that breathes and flows. Their new EP — I Was Submerged, their second for Philly-based Park the Van Records, the release of which they celebrate upstairs at the Middle East this Tuesday — leans more toward the pop end of the spectrum. “Shaker” — one of the EP’s best — is based on a couple of simple, tuneful melodies, and it’s over in less than four minutes.

But Tanton and Wormwood say they’re headed in the other direction, especially since guitar/keys player Marc Pinansky — a rock classicist at heart — left to focus on his band Township. (Tanton used to play in Township, but he and Pinansky decided to devote themselves fully to their respective primary projects.) Tanton points to Hatem — who grew up listening to and playing krautrock-influenced psychedelic and noise music — as leading the charge to the left of the center. “I really want to have long songs — that’s something I’ve never been able to feel comfortable doing. If you play a three-minute song, it’s done before you know it. Just when it’s over is when you’re finally feeling comfortable with it. But no matter how much we try to take it into that realm, there’s still going to be catchy songs. It’s just inevitable, I think — that’s the way I sing. I feel like I have to leave that print on a song. If I open my mouth, I want it to be, if not catchy, just, like, memorable.”

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