Wandering Stars

Jan 20, 1999 at 4:00 am
The snow has turned St. Louis as white as Dick Clark's teeth. The sidewalks are glazed -- virtually unwalkable -- and cars are like roller skates forced to be ice skates. In one wintry neighborhood just fit for a snow globe, there's a house where the warmth is so thick you could cut it with a knife. There's something heartwarming about a rock band sharing a pizza on a carpet on a snowy day. As the pie's aroma rises and curls, spreading the tease of tomato and mozzarella across the room, the group Drift digs in.

"It's still amazing to all of us," says lead vocalist Brandy Johnson. "We've been together only a couple of months. It jelled almost instantly."

A recent performance at the benefit for the local fanzine Silver Tray showcased a band brimming with synergy. It didn't hurt that its members are seasoned veterans, albeit ones who've been wounded in battles of the bands. But you'd never know it by their fresh-faced exuberance.

Drift consists of Johnson, guitarist Kurt Groetsch, bassist Brian Hayes, keyboardist Greg Berg and drummer Toby Mechem. Veterans of some of the now-darkened bright lights of the local scene, including sugarstickygirl, Bella Wolf and the Ken Kase Group, each member has an integral role in Drift -- from Johnson's folk-singer connectiveness to Berg's keyboard-rippling blend of "get down" and "get happy" to Groetsch's spotlight-resisting guitartistry -- that combines to form, as Johnson describes it, "a whole greater than the sum of its parts." You may have heard that one before, but you have to hear the band to catch her particular Drift.

"Our approach," Groetsch says, "is to listen to the song, figure out what suits it, what's going to bring it out the best. So, if that means I don't play for a verse because it needs that tension of not having a guitar -- fine, I won't play. If you overplay, you risk losing the song." Mechem chimes in, "Everybody kind of says, 'What does it need there?' or, 'What can we do different here?' And it's worked out really nicely so far."

"I'm not the whip-master," jokes Johnson, alluding to the cancerous ego problems that can kill a combo.

Mechem agrees: "Brandy has been the songwriting force up to this point. But it's not really by design; it's because she does it. And she encourages everybody to alter or do whatever we can to the song."

The band's sound is an ethereal breeze of folk-rock that can suddenly swirl into a tornado. Drift's collective experience and leanings weave pagan with pogo -- they balance deep earthiness with lean, jumpy New Wave. And just try to spot a seam in the band's material: It would be easier to find one in a Mobius strip. And you've got to admire a dressed-for-success (but not cockily overdressed-for-success) band composed of local-scene alumni -- particularly when their enthusiasm has remained intact despite the personality conflicts that sidelined some of their previous combos. Although the city can lay claim to a variety of truly talented bands, that's its very problem: St. Louis has never fostered an identifiable music scene. The area may have given the world twang-rock, but longtime local-music supporters have watched most of their homeys build an audience -- perhaps even get signed -- only to implode or move on to more adult concerns, like getting a job and starting a family.

Drift is a happy family of its own. "A lot of times," notes Hayes, "you can say what's gonna be the problem in this band. I can't find anything that's a major problem." After a pause, he inside-jokes, "Except for the Kiss and football thing." (Presumably those are collectively "a guy thing.") "I think what helps is that everyone gets along," says Mechem without a hint of Waltons-esque treacle. "I've been in bands where there wasn't a good feeling outside of the music; you didn't like hanging out."

It's not as though the members of Drift go fishing together -- but they agree on the same hooks, the same lines. And they want to leave people hungering for more. Drift, you see, doesn't adhere to the view of CDs as musical sardine cans, where as many songs as possible are squeezed in just because technology allows it. The band plans to release an old-fashioned EP as a debut.

"I just like the smaller format better," Groetsch opines, noting, "It's hard to get 65 consistent minutes of music."

Johnson agrees: "It's a bit more than a demo, a bit less than an album. It gives people a good enough taste." She pauses, then switches to a "nah" expression. "If we had all the money in the world," she laughs, "we would definitely make full albums, double albums."

"Double concept albums," Groetsch tops her.
Drift's main inspiration, though, comes from the decade after prog-rock. Observes Johnson, "The consistent thread in the band is that we seem to be bringing out these old '80s references. That's definitely the language we all know. Suzanne Vega is one of my heroes. And the Cocteau Twins."

If there is an '80s influence, Groetsch hints that it's more Goth than Go-Go's. "In some of Brian's bass parts," he notes, "I can hear a little bit of a Cure influence, just because of the effects and the style."

Johnson describes the band's appeal better than any critic could hope to: "I like the combination of the passive acoustic wooden guitar and the beautiful keyboard mixed with the real electric approach. I think Toby's drumming works so well with Brian's bass style and the tone that Kurt gets from his guitar."

The pizza continues to disappear, section by section, over the course of the interview. For a band that wants a piece of the pie -- St. Louis-style -- it's a tasteful metaphor.