By Drew Ailes
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There's nothing St. Louis loves more than reunions — especially when it involves beloved bands from the past. '90s electro-rockers Gravity Kills do an annual gig around Thanksgiving, while beloved '80s act the Unconscious is playing at Lucas School House on Friday night. But the reformation of late-'80s Landing staple Pale Divine has caused the biggest local buzz this year.
To mark the occasion, the band is releasing what guitarist Richard Fortus hopes is a "quality time capsule" of its time together: a boxed set featuring a remastered version of its debut, Freedom in a Cage, a CD of unreleased demos and two DVDs of live footage. The set comes in a lavish, book-like package full of vintage photographs and quotes from musicians, writers and DJs about the band's significance.
When it came time to look back, Fortus — who now plays with Guns 'n Roses, among other gigs — was surprised to find out how influential Pale Divine was locally.
"Basically, the one consistent thing was people said that we raised the bar as far as what was expected from a band," he says, calling from his Los Angeles home just before Thanksgiving. "That was flattering — and interesting, because I didn't really realize that at the time.
"There were so many bands, and everybody had their own thing going on. Especially when we first started, because you had bands like the Unconscious, and then you had Uncle Tupelo, and you had Chicken Truck and Stranded Lads. Everybody was doing their own thing. It wasn't until we got signed that we started noticing, 'Hey, there's a lot of bands that sort of sound like us.'"
What that sound exactly was is harder to pin down. The quartet's influences were diverse, and included the Britgoth of Gene Loves Jezebel and the Cult, the metal-funk of Red Hot Chili Peppers and the dreamy melancholy of the Psychedelic Furs.
"In terms of the industry, it was difficult for them to say, 'Well, who are they? What is this band's sound?'" says bassist Dan Angenend. "Well, it's like we're all these sounds. That's hard to market."
And while that likely contributed to why Pale Divine never became superstars, it's only part of the story.
On a frigid night in early December, three-fourths of the band – Angenend, vocalist Michael Schaerer and drummer Greg Miller — are at the new Shock City Studios in Soulard, preparing to re-learn and fine-tune its vast catalog of songs. Angenend says that things are going "better than expected" for the gig; the band is re-learning an impressive 25 to 30 songs for the night.
Pale Divine — then known as the Eyes — formed in 1984. Miller knew Fortus through a mutual friend. Even then, the latter's talent for and love of the instrument was apparent. In fact, Miller remembers Fortus answering the door at his house with a guitar slung around his neck.
"We saw how phenomenal he was," the drummer says. "And it was like, Wow, I want to jam with this guy because he's so good."
Along with bassist Steve Hanock, the pair started playing together in the basement, mostly on jazz-fusion stuff in the vein of Mahavishnu Orchestra. And then one day, Fortus mentioned he knew a vocalist he thought they should play with.
Schaerer, without missing a beat, says, "Because it was my favorite band." Everyone laughs loudly.
Miller continues: "We finally did get to meet Michael at a party. I remember I was in a different room, and Michael was in [another room] playing. [I said] That's Michael, that's the voice! But we had never seen him. We went into the room and Michael was sitting there — [and we're like] 'Where's the guy with the long hair?' He had really short black hair, and he had a leather jacket on. He almost looked a little bit angry."
The second-wave ska of the English Beat influenced the band's early songs. But the Eyes didn't start to gain popularity and traction until it started taking cues from bands like U2, R.E.M. and the Psychedelic Furs. And things really took off when bassist Dan Angenend, who was already playing at clubs like Kennedy's (now the Landing outpost of the Drunken Fish) with the Newsboys, defected from the band to join the Eyes.
In 1988 the band released its debut cassette, Freedom in a Cage. By now, the Eyes was becoming a popular regional draw, from big cities like Chicago and Kansas City, to college towns like Columbia, Carbondale and Lawrence, Kansas. But it was their local shows — especially at Kennedy's — that became the stuff of legend.
"It was like the Thunderdome, man," Schaerer says. "It was great. It was so packed. On the DVD, you can see there are a lot of crowd shots. And you get a sense of how exciting it was. Here we are on this ten-by-ten stage and we're surrounded — literally, in front of us, above us and behind us — there's people just loving it."