Drawing His Strength From the Right Atmosphere

 

The smokily poetic sound of Spain, an L.A.-based band that is causing a growing buzz in the record business, is hardly predictable in the world of alternative rock.

But group leader Josh Haden's career path could have been predicted by almost anyone. He probably couldn't have stayed out of music if he'd tried.

His paternal grandparents sang on country music's Grand Ole Opry. His maternal grandparents performed in a mandolin orchestra in Los Angeles. His mother played the oboe only as a hobby but always kept records spinning in the family's Santa Monica home. And his father, the family's most noted musician, is the highly respected jazz bassist Charlie Haden.

"From the minute I was born," says Josh Haden, sitting in a corner booth at a Hollywood restaurant before Spain's recent tour of Europe, "I listened to really amazing, deep music. Gospel and R&B and jazz and blues and country--all these kinds of music that little kids rarely get exposed to so heavily."

As a teen, however, Haden rejected most of his early influences, turning instead to punk rock as bassist for the Treacherous Jaywalkers, who in the late '80s released two EPs and an album of politically charged songs on SST Records, the same label that launched Black Flag, the Minutemen and Husker Du.

But when punk grew too limiting for Haden--"People weren't really interested in what I had to say because I was so angry"--the singer-songwriter took a seven-year break from record-making while earning an English degree at UC Irvine.

Haden, who bears a slight resemblance to a young David Letterman, reemerged last year as the leader of Spain, whose smoky, atmospheric album of melancholy love songs, "The Blue Moods of Spain," was released last fall on Restless Records.

"I wanted to write music that was more subtle and harder to figure out--music that was simple on the surface but became more complex the more you listened to it," says the 28-year-old Haden, whose group will play tonight at McCabe's and Monday at the Opium Den. "I don't know if I was successful, but that's what I tried to do."

His father is among many who like the change in direction.

Charlie Haden, who first became known for his groundbreaking work with free-jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman in the late '50s and early '60s and with eclectic pianist Keith Jarrett in the '70s and '80s, chuckles when he recalls first hearing the aural assault of the Treacherous Jaywalkers.

"I didn't really understand it," he says. "But I didn't negate it and I didn't put it down."

Charlie, though, can more easily identify with the music of Spain, whose understated arrangements combine traces of blues, jazz, country, R&B, soul and even gospel into a hypnotic late-night groove.

The band--which also includes drummer David Harte and guitarists Merlo Podlewski and Ken Boudakian--has drawn mostly positive reviews from critics. England's influential Melody Maker magazine included "Blue Moods" among its top 50 albums of last year.

Europeans have been quick to respond to the album, buying about 30,000 copies. "Blue Moods" has sold only about 8,500 copies in the United States, according to SoundScan, but Spain has attracted a cult following here that includes a growing number of major-label record executives interested in the band and in affiliating their companies with Restless.

"People started falling in love with the record, and some execs at other labels began buying copies of the record and giving them to their friends," says Joe Regis, president and co-owner of Restless. "That generated more interest, and it created a groundswell of support and enthusiasm for the band."

His family's obvious influence notwithstanding, Haden credits outsiders with helping to inspire the restrained music of Spain.

"I really wanted to write love songs because I was falling in love," he says. "But with Treacherous Jaywalkers, it was more like I was screaming at people. I couldn't really write about love, or the nature of love. The lyrical content was so stamped that I couldn't really deviate too much from it."

By chance, he and Boudakian were thrown together as roommates at UC Irvine, where they began collaborating on softer, less threatening songs.

But they didn't put a band together until a few years later--after two of Josh's younger triplet sisters, Petra and Rachel, joined Anna Waronker to form the alternative-pop band That Dog.

Waronker's quieter songs, played on acoustic guitars, were a revelation to Haden, who wrote all the material on "Blue Moods."

"Listening to her songs made me think that people would like my songs," he says. "I'd had this misconception that songs were supposed to hit you in the face."

With Spain, Haden has drawn on his childhood influences while discovering that less is more.

"I wanted to pare my songs down to real foundational, basic forms of traditional music--like blues and gospel and country," he says. "I'm attracted to those kinds of music because they can say so much without saying very much.

"In a country song or a blues song, they'll often leave the meaning of the song beneath the surface. And that's what life is about. The stuff that's really important goes on beneath the surface."

* Spain plays today at McCabe's, 3101 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica, 8 p.m., $12.50. (310) 828-4497. Also Monday at the Opium Den, 1605 1/2 Ivar Ave., Hollywood, 10 p.m., $5. (213) 466-7800.

 

 

JERRY CROWE