Longwave riding the crest with 'Tidalwave'

May 30, 2003



'Tidalwave," the signature track and the first single from Longwave's RCA debut, "The Strangest Things," is a burst of pure pop bliss that starts with the hypnotic finger-picking of a chiming guitar.

"Take me down in a tidal wave," bandleader Steve Schlitz sings in a distinctive and heartfelt voice. But it's only after the first chorus--"I am everything you wanted/I am everything you need"--that the full strength of the band's swelling sound comes crashing down, the wall of fuzzed-out guitars contrasting with the song's jangly intro and making the tune all the more powerful.

"There's a song with the line 'I'm praying for a tidal wave,' and I've always had this idea in my head for a song called 'Tidalwave,' " Schlitz says. "One day I sat down and it just came out.









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"I definitely go through periods where I kind of feel irritable and down and I don't know why, and then I realize that I haven't written a song lately. It's weird--when I complete a song, it's more like I'm just happier in general. It feels like I've been productive and I've done what I'm supposed to do. Not because it's my job now; I just have some kind of inclination that I feel like I should be doing that, and I like doing it, and it just fulfills something.

"It's not like I walk around 'out of my head on inspiration,' which I think is something Bob Dylan said one time," Schlitz concludes, laughing. "It's one of those things where I just have incoherent thoughts and ideas in my head, and if there's something for me to focus it on, like a song, everything seems clearer--everything seems more like the right side up in my life and in my outlook."

The emotional directness of Schlitz's lyrics has won Longwave a growing following in the emo scene, though the New York quartet can just as easily be fitted into the burgeoning renaissance of New York bands and the so-called "New Wave of New Wave." (The group has a flair for big, bouncy, Beatlesesque hooks in the style of the early "bubblegum psychedelia" of The Teardrop Explodes and Echo and the Bunnymen.)

But Longwave isn't nearly as easily pigeonholed as some of its peers, and its attitude is refreshingly unhip for a New York band touted as yet another Next Big Thing in the manner of its pals, the Strokes.

"There's a lot of pride in New York right now, but I guess I'm a little cynical about the New York revival," Schlitz says. "The first wave--the Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the Liars--I can see a kind of musical thread running through that, but then you have Interpol and the Moldy Peaches and us and the French Kicks, and it just kind of blurs. To me, it's just kind of like the media fascination with New York. I don't feel like a part of it, really, and I don't feel like there's a well-defined place for our band.

"As for the New Wave comparisons, I'm kind of an R.E.M. and early U2 guy myself. There are a lot of bands that get thrown around when describing our music--like House of Love and the Chameleons--but I've never heard these records. It wasn't what I was going for, and I guess I always end up feeling a little unhip, like, 'Wow, you really had a lot of really cool records that I don't know about!' I was hung up on 'The Unforgettable Fire' and 'Life's Rich Pageant.' That's how I learned about music."

A native of Rochester, N.Y., Schlitz first ventured into the music world as part of a sextet called Dizzy Monk. "It was a lousy name, and it was a lousy band, too," he says, laughing again. The group toured, recorded a D.I.Y. album, and signed a demo deal with Capitol Records before falling apart. Still barely in his 20s, Schlitz decided to take what he'd learned from that experience, move to New York City, regroup and try again.

"When that band broke up, I just felt like I had entered a void," he says. "I felt like I needed to keep doing this. You know, I was kind of young to think about what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, or even for the next few years. But I thought, 'I'm already doing this, this is really what I want to do, and Rochester isn't really such a good place to do it,' so I moved to New York City."

Longwave came together when Schlitz recruited drummer Mike James, a friend from high school in Rochester, and bassist Dave Marchese, who was living in Queens. The group recorded its first demo at an eight-track studio run by Shannon Ferguson, who had relocated to Brooklyn from Petaluma, Calif.

"We somehow talked him down to recording us from $10 an hour to $0 an hour," Schlitz says. In fact, the trio hit it off so well with Ferguson that Schlitz asked him to join the band, even though he'd never played guitar before.

"I had already been playing guitar for a long time, and I thought I could handle whatever needed to be done and as long as he just made noise it'd be all right," Schlitz says. "I just liked his attitude, and we were good friends, so it seemed like it was better than having some guy out of the Berklee school of music or somebody that was totally proficient."

What Ferguson lacks in technical expertise he more than makes up for in imagination; one of his favorite tricks is applying a children's toy called a Mega Mouth Warper to the pickups of his guitar to create howling waves of noise as Schlitz navigates the more melodic guitar parts and the rhythm section provides a potent kick. At moments such as these, the band recalls the warped invention of the Flaming Lips circa the early '90s. So it's no surprise that the band turned to the Lips' regular producer, Dave Fridmann, to record its debut album.

"He's amazing," Schlitz says. "We met him when we were touring behind our first EP, and we drove like four hours out of our way--two hours one way and two hours back--just to go meet him for 15 minutes. We liked the studio--it was in the middle of nowhere and I liked that; I didn't want to make a record in New York where people bother you on the subway and there's all kinds of distractions--and we loved [the Flaming Lips' album] 'The Soft Bulletin.'

"All those things were factors that made us want to work with him, and I'm very, very satisfied with the record."

Schlitz's pride is justified: "The Strangest Things" is one of the strongest dream-pop records since the heyday of Ride and My Bloody Valentine, and the band is even better live. Longwave returns to Chicago for two shows at Schubas, Monday with Sleeping at Last and Tuesday with Phaser.