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Lightening the Load

The Radar Bros. are not a sad stoner band. They're a happy stoner band.

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Radar Bros.: Stoner music for perfectionists.
  • Radar Bros.: Stoner music for perfectionists.

Jim Putnam is having one of those days. The Radar Bros. frontman recently threw out his back during a "grueling tour in Europe." Making matters worse, the Los Angeles-based trio are scheduled to begin a two-week tour of the States in a few hours, and Putnam isn't quite sure his body is up to it. "I guess there's going to be a lot of horizontal action on the bus," he says, and for once, this often-heard statement isn't a rock-star-meets-groupie boast, but hopeful therapy to make the next couple of weeks less painful ones.

"It's an accumulation of a lot of things," Putnam explains. "I do remember lifting my amp at one point and something went, but I didn't think much of it. I remember being surprised that my back didn't actually go out at that point. I guess it's a delayed reaction."

Even if the guitarist himself isn't quite cheerful about the Radar Bros.' upcoming road trek, the band itself certainly sounds upbeat on its second album, The Singing Hatchet. Relatively speaking, that is. Putnam and his bandmates (bassist Senon Williams and drummer Steve Goodfriend) have carved out a six-year career as creators and purveyors of melancholy music to open-minded listeners, stoner tunes to more cynical ears. The Singing Hatchet, a combination of thoughtful life musings and in-studio jams, is the group's most melodic offering.

Recorded over a year-and-a-half period, the album turns toward a more tuneful style, which was completely intentional, says Putnam. "We wanted to make it fuller sounding and have more harmonies going on and stuff. And it was made over a course of a good period of time, and we didn't have a label at the time, so we could take our time."

Considering that Putnam's previous bands, the noisily arty Medicine and Maids of Gravity, generated material much more quickly (Medicine's debut, the only album of theirs that Putnam was involved with, was recorded in two weeks), it's safe to assume that he's become somewhat of an obsessive studio hound over the years. "I guess I'm some sort of perfectionist," he laughs. "But that depends on the meaning of perfectionist. I think that . . . um, yeah, I think that, in a sense, perfection is like, "That's OK, that's not OK,' when probably what I think is not OK is OK. For some reason, that bugs us. So, yeah, I guess we are perfectionists."

The Singing Hatchet itself sounds like a blend of Pet Sounds soundscapes and Pink Floyd/Neil Young-like downhearted dirges wrapped in indie rock aesthetics. Because it and their 1996 self-titled debut often plod along at their own leisurely paces, the Radar Bros. tend to be dumped into the slowcore/sadcore category of the modern rock and roll library. And this bothers Putnam.

He points out that, when the band gathered in the studio to record The Singing Hatchet, it addressed the downer tag that's followed it by consciously constructing a more upbeat album. He adds that he doesn't mind being referred to as a "stoner" band by fans and the media, but adds, "The whole sad thing kind of bugs me. I do think the music is kind of melancholy, but it's also uplifting. It's got a function to it."

Still, Putnam says that he remains more comfortable in the studio than on stage. The Singing Hatchet was recorded in Putnam's garage studio, and the liberty to work at his own speed certainly aided in the album's more relaxed tone. ("They definitely stay out of our hair," he says of new label SeeThru Broadcasting. "They give us the freedom to do our thing.") "A lot of times we'll just jam in the studio," he says. "There are a few songs on there that we were just rehearsing.

"I do think I'm getting better at the stage thing, though. On the last record, I didn't really like playing live. I didn't like touring. I find it depressing. But I've gotten a bit better at making it a little less depressing and making playing live more interesting and fun. I'm kind of enjoying it more."

Putnam concedes that the Radar Bros. are a collaborative effort. "I don't tell anyone what to play," he says, but quickly adds, "Let's just put it that way," hinting that the group, indeed, is his project all the way. "I really wasn't in charge there," he says of his past bands, and the nurturing of the Radar Bros. has become somewhat of a singular passion. "I basically got up the nerve to put myself out there and start a band because I was just kind of the hired guitar player in the other two bands. It takes a lot of nerve to start your own band, and I just didn't have the self-esteem really to do it back then. I kind of mustered it up and went for it."

Now that the foundation is in place, Putnam says, he wants "to keep making records that sound better and different than the last one. I do think that this record is more melodic and upbeat than the last one, but I can't always tell, because I don't have any perspective on it. I'd like to stretch it even further on the next one."

But the Radar Bros. are staying right where they are labelwise. Putnam says he wouldn't jump to a bigger company if given the chance. Because his previous two bands' albums were both released by majors (Medicine was on American Recordings, which was distributed by the Warners group at the time, and Maids of Gravity called Vernon Yard, an EMI group member, home), he knows the peril of such an arrangement. "As much as the money would be nice, it's like we're on a major label, but they're probably going to drop us after the first record, because they feel that they could probably market us in some specific way that's actually going to sell records. Then they'll realize that it's not going to work. I've watched all that happen."

Even their previous album, released on Restless, posed hurdles for the band, "especially after they were bought out by a big film company and became an R&B label. That's when things started to become kind of weird."

Which, in a record company shuffling kinda way, explains the band's obscurity in its own country, while overseas it enjoys a burgeoning cult status. "I've always felt that Europeans are very, very passionate about music," Putnam explains. "If they hear something and they like it, they're not as afraid to express that. I think people here are a little too caught up in being into something that's cool rather than just hearing something and liking it. Maybe they think it's embarrassing to like something, so they won't admit it, you know? Not to generalize or anything, but the indie labels over here that kind of made a name for themselves can be a little pretentious.

"But then again," he laughs, "our European label is kind of one of those labels, and that's certainly helped us."

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