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June 12, 2013

Shoot me out the sky

Rodan reissues old recordings in a new world

a fire in its heart
will not let it die
it roars and fumes and cries all day
shoot me out the sky

—From “Shiner”

Fifteen Quiet Years ended up taking 19 years. The album, a reissue of early material by Rodan, one of the defining bands of the Louisville scene, made it out despite roadblocks created by bankruptcy, death and relative indifference.

Fifteen Quiet Years isn’t the definitive collection of Rodan’s music, and this story isn’t the definitive story of Rodan; it’s likely that neither can ever happen now.

A band with the conventional rock line-up of two guitars, a bassist and a drummer, Rodan evolved from a late-teens attempt at hip-hop by Jeff Mueller and Jason Noble, the duo who would become Rodan’s guitarists. The band would break up after three years. Officially, the members wouldn’t work on Rodan again for 15 years — hence, the title of the new collection released June 11 — though the truth is, as usual, more complicated.

You are what you eat

Jeff Mueller and Jason Noble’s previous group, with friend Greg King, was King G & the J Krew (“G” being Greg, “J Krew” being Jeff and Jason — brilliant, stupid, or both?). As the Krew struggled to play their sample and electronically based rap/rock compositions (as heard on their CD Indestructible Songs of the Humpback Whale), King left the band.

“(The group) was just too crazy, and we just didn’t know how to make live music. It had been entirely a craft project to that point, just a studio project,” Mueller recalls. “We tried a couple of times to play live shows and it worked, sort of — it was very loose.”

King G had songs like “Bass: The Final Frontier,” “Kung Fu Kick to Ya Mind” and “Biscuits N Gravy (Bowel Death N Raven Mix),” demonstrating the goofy humor known to all who have encountered them, and a quality less obvious in Rodan. Musically, they were inspired by some of the first wave of hip-hoppers who had appealed to white, middle-class teen boys like them — Public Enemy, Run-D.M.C. and LL Cool J. But in trying to translate their hip-hop to the stage, the guys realized they lacked the know-how to make it work. Also, Mueller says, “We thought it was just too fun to be loud and dirty and punk.”

As they returned their focus to their guitars, Mueller and Noble had become even more inspired by the local bands they were going to see.

Though their national audience would assume Rodan had been primarily inspired by the Chicago post-punk underground, in part due to their eventual deal with Touch and Go Records, their local social circle had a larger effect on Rodan than Second City bands like the Jesus Lizard or Big Black.

“I had freshly graduated from high school and actually dropped out of Indiana after two years of college,” Mueller says. “And going to see Kinghorse, Crain and Slint and those sorts of things, that was our access; that was our conduit into that kind of music, those bands.”

Their allegiance to their hometown came with a price.

“I always think it is an interesting criticism, when it’s so apparent that Rodan was clearly a band from Louisville. From the start, it was ‘Rodan, Louisville band.’ To me, that’s what it felt like. It felt like the Kentucky Derby, you know? It’s what Louisville felt like,” Mueller says.

“We would get harshed for sounding like some of the bands that we grew up with.”

But you are what you eat, he adds. “I think it is impossible not to draw comparisons between certain things and to source our inspirations … but we always tried to plant our own vantage point on things.”

A little family

Rodan became a combination of the band members’ influences, their city, the times in which they lived, and the chemistry between them. “As far as the impetus or the inspiration for Rodan, it was very broad,” Mueller recalls. “I think we were just trying to grab onto whatever made sense once we were in the room together for practice.”

In late 1991, Mueller and Noble moved into a Victorian in Old Louisville known as “The Rocket House.” Its owner was friend and fellow musician Jon Cook.

“Jon had agreed to help us make some of our song ideas into actual songs, and that was one of the most cathartic moments for me — figuring out which way to go with music,” Mueller says. “Playing with Jon (on drums) was one of the most invigorating experiences because he was so fast and easy in some ways — in some ways he was really, really horrible to play with,” he says with a laugh, “but he was amazing to be in a room with.”

Now the band had a drummer, and the last slot left to fill was bass. Tara Jane O’Neil played in a band called Drinking Woman, and had sung and played bass live for King G. She was a walking contradiction — someone who would go to hardcore shows wearing a hippie tapestry dress.

“I literally was a teenager,” says O’Neil, who is now working on her seventh solo album. “It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, this is going to be a career.’”

They were all just friends hanging out. “There was a time when we all lived in the Rocket House,” she says. “We were a little family.”

But Cook didn’t last long, nor did replacement John Weiss. Finally, Kevin Coultas, who had added drums to King G’s album, entered as the final permanent member. He might have been the original drummer, but his parents insisted he finish college, while the other three were impatient to hit the road.

Finally, he earned a degree in psychology, “so naturally I joined a rock band.”

“It was almost full-circle,” Coultas says about his circuitous return to the band when they needed him most, “like it was in a script or something.”

They went through a few attempts at naming the band before stopping at Rodan, a 1950s Japanese movie character — a flying monster who was frenemies with Godzilla.

Meaty beaty big and bouncy

Rodan recorded a demo, called Aviary, in Baltimore in 1993. That demo appears cleaned up and in its entirety on Fifteen Quiet Years. Some of its songs were also re-recorded for their national debut, Rusty, a year later, with engineer Bob Weston. “We were just kids trying to figure out how to make it work,” Mueller says.

He continues, “There are some from the Aviary session versus the Rusty session (where) the (demo) versions of those songs to me sound more ferocious.”

Which is not, he stresses, to discredit the more professional job Weston did with their material. In Baltimore, it was all so new and exciting to be in an actual recording studio. “We didn’t really know how to play our instruments, and (so our attitude was), ‘Let’s just kind of go at it and make it as brassy as we possibly can,’” Mueller says.

At that point, they were more fond of abrasiveness, and keeping mistakes in — or making sounds that sounded like mistakes but really weren’t, that were planned, as long as it sounded right to them. But as they toured, Rodan learned to refine their rougher edges without losing the original spirit.

Mueller points to a song called “Shiner,” which they recorded twice. The first version appears on Fifteen Quiet Years as “Shiner 92” to differentiate it from the 1994 Rusty version. He likes the original better — “I just think it sounds more meaty and raunchy.”

That’s one reason why Fifteen Quiet Years was put together — to try to rewrite what little of their story they can, to clarify what they were trying to do, and to show people how much more they could do.

Another song, “Darjeeling,” was recorded for a 7” single for Simple Machines, an indie label in Arlington, Va. During the re-mastering process in 2009, Weston beefed the song up even more, says Mueller. “He made it more grisly ... and that version of the song sounds — maybe to someone else it might not sound that different, but to me it sounds significantly different.”

Moving on

Rodan broke up less than a year after Rusty’s April 1994 release. Though they could bicker like siblings at times, there was no big blow-up. Noble and O’Neil had other ideas they were eager to explore, and Mueller alludes to troubles within the band’s social group in Louisville at the time. Mueller started a new band, June of 44. Noble resurrected his modern classical group Rachel’s (in which he was reunited with King G, Greg King). O’Neil started two of her own projects, The Sonora Pine and Retsin. Coultas continued working with O’Neil for a period. Soon, Mueller and Noble reunited with a new band, Shipping News. Though Mueller hasn’t lived in Louisville since 1995, and Noble stayed, they continued to work together on Shipping News for the next 15 years, until Noble’s death from a rare form of cancer last year.

A bad connection

On their one tour of England, Rodan played on legendary BBC radio DJ John Peel’s show. His “Peel Sessions,” recorded between 1967 and 2004, became a touchstone for bands. Rodan’s biggest goal, and problem, in compiling Fifteen Quiet Years became getting the BBC to license them their own recordings, three songs performed on June 3, 1994.

“They were just really slow,” Mueller says. “An email exchange that required a yes or no response — that could take them six months. Often times, it would come back convoluted.”

As the years passed, the price came down as interest in the band waned and the music business changed. During those quiet years, a few offers came in to reunite, but nothing like the sold-out tours Slint came back to when they reunited in 2005. “We were a success in our own eyes, and I think we had some pretty intense and amazing fans,” Mueller says. “But I don’t think we were one of those status bands.”

Playing together again “could have been fun,” O’Neil says. “Who knows? I’m glad this record came together. That’s just going to have to be good enough.”

Jimmy Fallon’s music booker, Jonathan Cohen, is a big fan of the band. He tells LEO, “I would have killed to have had them reunite on the show. The thought never occurred to me when Jason was alive simply because there was no activity in their camp, and they had always consistently said (in the press) they weren’t interested.”

Back in the spotlight

In 2009, as the band worked on the project, Touch and Go Records, the Chicago-based label who had signed them and several of the members’ subsequent bands, announced they could no longer afford to release new albums. Victims of the downloading era, the company laid off most of its staff and focused on keeping their catalog in print. Their subsidiary, Quarterstick Records, has now briefly awakened from its coma to release Fifteen Quiet Years.

Label head Corey Rusk is “really excited to finally be releasing Fifteen Quiet Years.” Rodan has remained close to his heart throughout the years, both for the music and for the personal relationships it led to.

“They are all such special, sweet people. In regards to Rusty, I don’t think any of us felt like it really needs re-mastering,” he says, though Coultas disagrees. “But the tracks on Fifteen Quiet Years have been MIA for far too long … this album really needs to exist.”

Mueller and Noble often discussed how best to put the collection together affordably. Another question became, “What do we do if the record does come out? How do we promote it? If you’re not touring, you won’t sell any records these days.”

“I don’t know how it will land, or if it will register,” O’Neil muses about the scattered media landscape. “People could be super-excited about it, and I wouldn’t necessarily even know.”

Last month, Cohen posted “Shiner 92” on the Jimmy Fallon show’s Tumblr, calling Rodan “one of my all-time favorite bands.”

“It was the first time we’ve ever done something like that here, and I really went to bat for it because I am passionate about exposing new listeners to Rodan’s music,” Cohen says. “It isn’t often that a band who was barely around for three years and only released one album is finding new fans nearly 20 years later. And the reason why that still happens is because the music remains so vital and unique.”

The children

These days, Mueller is a family man who runs a letterpress business with his wife in New Haven, Conn. O’Neil remains a traveling musician. Coultas is a fifth-grade teacher in Louisville. Noble and Cook died within six months of each other, in August 2012 and February 2013, respectively; Cook died of complications from pancreatitis, exacerbated by alcohol use.

According to Mueller, “(Rodan) was mostly a creative project for all of us to exercise our musical demons, to try and make something for ourselves that was worth something and hopefully make it viable for someone else as well.”

Mueller hopes this release is received as sounding as fresh as the band felt about their music back then, rather than being perceived as a nostalgia record. “I hope people like it. I hope it is not seen as a vanity release or something like that — and it kind of is, to be perfectly honest,” he laughs.

Ben Sears, 24, drums in several Louisville bands. He says, “Rodan will always be relevant. Sure, they came out in the ’90s and they are from Louisville, so that might make them ‘period pieces’ to some people, but the songs are so intricate and aggressive and well-played that they can’t not be relevant … (Rodan) definitely changed how I observe and play music.”

Coultas recently taught a guitar class at his school. One day, a fifth–grade student — the son of another musician — said to him, “Hey, Mr. Coultas! I like Rodan a lot. Can you play some Rodan?”

Coultas, bemused, told him the music wasn’t playable on acoustic guitars, but the child persisted.

“Don’t tell my dad, but I like Rodan a lot better than any of his bands.”