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Dynamic duo

Steven Vallarelli and Tim Griffiths forge their own Antiques
By IAN SANDS  |  December 11, 2007

COMMITTED: Vallarelli and Griffiths are in some ways opposites — but they do share a fondness for fake beards.

As Sting once famously suggested, being in a band is like marriage without sex. And joining a band is often a lot like entering into a romantic relationship — it’s a commitment that entails long hours at the practice space, working together to write and record material, book shows, and keep all the egos in balance.

That doesn’t even begin to skim the surface of experience the local band Antiques have had over the past several years. Formed by Steven Vallarelli and Tim Griffiths, the band have taken the idea of commitment to a whole new level. Not only does Griffiths live in the Arlington home Vallarelli shares with his wife and their dogs, but that’s also where Antiques do their recording. And outside the band, the duo support themselves with a small business they’ve started — Marquis De Sod Landscaping.

The pair’s intimacy tends to be reflected in their live show. When, for example, they played P.A.’s Lounge back in September with a full band, it was hard not to notice the lopsided way in which the energy was distributed among the four players. On the one hand, you had Griffiths (drums) and Vallarelli (singer/guitarist). Every so often, Griffiths would rise from his seat to enter into a fit of frenzied convulsions, all the while taking desperate stabs at his kit. And Vallarelli, wearing a fake beard, would stumble over to the drums to share in the excitement. They spent more time jamming together than any drummer/lead-singer pair I’ve ever seen. The other half of the band simply stood their ground: Billy Durette was nearly motionless as he delivered his keyboard parts, and beside him bassist Ari Sneider was similarly subdued. It was as if the two pairs of players were in two different bands, playing two different shows.

When we get together to talk at my house in Cambridge, I ask Griffiths and Vallarelli about this seeming disconnect. “It’s a little weird, sure,” remarks Griffiths. Sitting beside him, Vallarelli doesn’t seem to feel the need to add anything to that statement.

Griffiths and Vallarelli first met in 2004 in Vicksburg, Mississippi. The New England–raised Vallarelli, a Civil War buff, had been touring the South and ran into Griffiths, a Michigan native who had been working as a session musician in Memphis, outside a diner. The two became fast friends and Griffiths eventually followed Vallarelli back to Massachusetts.

Griffiths, who’s 23, tends to choose his words carefully. Vallarelli — a 26-year-old law student — is more gregarious. They do share the same bizarre sense of humor. They often perform in costume. “Sometimes it’s fake beards,” Griffiths says. The pair also once showed up to a club with bullhorns and gas masks. Vallarelli: “We originally tried to figure out a way for me to wear the gas mask with a microphone in it . . . but I couldn’t see my guitar, and I was having trouble breathing.”

The first Antiques album, 2006’s Forgotten People Tread Water, was assembled in the basement of Vallarelli’s house. Together, he and Griffiths were able to play a small caravan’s worth of instruments: they had set up an upright piano, an old organ, a keyboard station, and a computer to record the proceedings. The result was an unpolished album teeming with angsty pop gems. It makes one wonder how Griffiths and Vallarelli might fare with the benefits of a professional studio.

Rather than take that route, the duo recorded the follow-up, the new Floodlight, in the very same basement. Griffiths: “When Tom Waits was doing Mule Variations, they were doing ‘Chocolate Jesus’ in a big barn, and they didn’t like the sound at all. So they played outside instead. You can hear chickens walking by and a rooster calling. I always liked that kinda stuff. In some ways, we’re emulating that.” Floodlight does boast its share of animal cameos, albeit of the domesticated kind; listen closely and you’ll hear Vallarelli’s talking bird or one of the dogs.

You could even say that Antiques have regressed in their production methods. Forgotten People was recorded on a computer; Floodlight was captured largely on eight-track and four-track tape. And instead of refurbishing the basement with shiny new instruments, they found yet more junk to abuse. The broken-down ’60s-era organ had one small problem. Vallarelli: “It would electrocute you. . . . Tim would be in the middle of a really complex part and he’s like, ‘Ahhhh!’ ”

All the same, Floodlight is a DIY triumph. The brief opener, “He Swims in Yellow Smoke,” is a sparkling introduction, an oozing, undefined mass of melody. “Fire Away,” about a soldier raising his kids after their mother dies, layers organ, bass, acoustic guitar, and drums into something bright and wonderfully creepy. The organ is then tossed aside for “Pink Slip” and the war ballad “The Horseman.” Vallarelli’s voice grows more compelling the deeper he gets into a song, and it’s his late-song vocal theatrics atop Griffiths’s tidy drumming here that lifts “Pink Slip” from good to great.

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