Codeine

This is pretty rare and quite special.

Codeine is one of those 90s bands that lived for a short time in the 90s underground. Eclipsed for years and brought back to life from All Tomorrow’s Parties love for electric guitars. God bless them. Must admit, I discovered Codeine recently.

The name caught me instantly. Because I am a chemist and because I love Morphine (the band!).
For the records. Codeine and Morphine are the only two bands that I know named after some opioid derivatives.
They both are from the East Coast of USA. They both are a trio. They both were cult and seminal in the early 90s.

Here the analogies end, however these elements have been enough for me to buy all the Codeine production (not that huge to be fair) in one of my compulsive shopping attacks on Amazon. It happened more or less when they announced to reform for a tour.

In the meanwhile Codeine, to celebrate (and earn something out of) this one-off reunion, remastered their entire production. Not large, there are 2 full length CDs, Frigid Stars (1990) and The White Birch (1994) and an EP, Barely Legal EP (1992) that sat in the middle. All published by SubPop.

A release of an amazing boxset When I See the Sun, 6LP+3 CD + a 7″ appears to have happened too. It looks already the rarest collector’s item. I couldn’t find a single copy available on the entire internet and should have been out for less than a month. Maybe something happened in the process.

It wasn’t only my chemistry to make me interested to this New York trio. It’s their chemistry.
Codeine belong to the slowcore scene that was born in USA around those years. I love slowcore as you may know reading this place. Bands as Low have always been among my all-time favourite chill-out soundtracks.

What I didn’t know is that Codeine registered their debut, Frigid Stars, in 1990 (SubPop released it to a wider audience in 1991). Low formed in 1993. The historian in me can see an influence. Alan Sparhawk, Low guitarist, sure has been listening to Frigid Stars a lot when he was planning to form Low. You may say they were seminal to most famous bands of that kind.

I am not going to dismiss Low. To me they remain the most amazing of slowcore bands. They deserve the success because they have been the ones who managed to mix the idea of slowing down rock, bringing guitar sound to the its experimental barest, but at the same time mixed it up with unique melodies and delicate taste. Success needs melody and I love a bit of it too.

Codeine on the counterpart sounds more as what you would call a radical version of Low. Or an earlier. In fact they were born before. The sound, and the arrangments, and the singing is radical. Almost austere. There are no frills whatsoever.
I see them as a slowcore version of Shellac. And I’m not surprised Steve Albini is a friend, despite he wasn’t at the studio mixing their album.

When the trio walked the ATP stage I instantly liked them.
Three men finally having the opportunity to bring back to life, and to a deserved larger audience, what was too sophisticated and avant-garde for SubPop in 1991.

No one fault. In the first half of the nineties Seattle was the hottest city in music, SubPop cleverly invented a genre and it would have been mad not to rode the wave to push a niche reality as Codeine.
Rock guitars, flannel shirts and damned rockstars were back on the front pages after the “synthetic” eighties. Even Neil Young resurrected from his darkest decade. There was no room for intellectual music.

With his lecturer glasses, a red bass, a t-shirt of some philosophy department and few, weighted words I instantly sympathise with Stephen Immerwahr.
On his right John Engle is very concentrated on his guitar. It looks like he has found an old friend to spend time together reliving those good old times.
Chris Brokaw is on drums and of the three, to my quick internet search, he has been the most active post-Codeine musicians. He has worked for solo projects and with a plethora of artists including Thurston Moore, Evan Dando and Steve Wynn.

With the informal atmosphere of ATP festival, a couple of friends met Codeine members in the Alexandra Palace hall. Chatting about music, life and their short tour, we learnt that they have have moved from music, to have their family lives and different careers. Funniest moment they also had to get some holidays from their everyday job in order to tour. Hence the short tour. That Stephen T-shirt makes more sense. The concert increases its event-status.

Sign of the times. What wasn’t very ‘rock’n’roll’ only few years years ago looks quite normal nowadays.
Or it only sounds familiar. Creative jobs: artists, photographers and even the best musicians rarely can live only out of their own art.
Young bands, still plenty of energy and empty of needs, can survive on sausage rolls and free pints but, on the long run, if you have a mortgage, houses, bills and family it’s hard.
Harder if your fans don’t buy your music because they think it is cool to get it free on the internet.

This rare chance to see some of the most critical music of the nineties, live, in front of me, with the high probability that it is a not going to happen again are quite a lot of ingredients to make an eventful recipe.

Spanning their career (what else?) in a hour long set, Codeine’s was probably my favourite concert of the entire I’ll Be Your Mirror 2012 weekend.
Guitars make a wall of sound that freezes and hypnotizes. The words are almost whispered. The lighting essential.
It’s the soundtrack of a post-industrial era where desolation eradicated a society built on the wrong assumptions. Thinking about it, it is more actual today than it was in the nineties.

I can see this music coming out of the skeleton of unadorned buildings. Wind and dust flowing.
It’s like they have relived those songs as a reminder that the austerity we are asked to believe to resurrect is the last step before the final collapse.
Codeine had to get a break off work to remind us of such a catastrophic option.

Chances to see another Codeine concert are slim unless the CD remasters sells millions, top the charts and convince Stephen and John to give up the daily job.

You can still treat yourself buying the gorgeous editions of the three albums or, if you are lucky to find it, the limited edition 6 vinyl boxset. In that case, please leave me a message with a link where I can find a copy (at a price not too close to my mortgage).

Online Codeine have their [subpop page], there is [chris brokaw site] but maybe this [semiofficial Codeine site] is your best place to start surfing.

Photo tip

Austerity in Codeine music was amplified by two simple Fender amplifiers on stage and a minimal lighting pointing at them. (another affinity with Shellac)

The set was one of the easiest to photograph at this festival. Mostly an interlaced network of white spots pointing at them after designing a geometric grid. Few coloured lights. Thanks god, (thanks their light engineer more appropriately), there weren’t led bulbs as main lights (as Dirty Three will use the gig that followed and I reviewed here) and that is the reason of better lighted photos.

The trio was standing geometrically in a classic triangle. Bass on the left, guitar on the right, drums on the centre-back.
When this happens in a small stage it’s a great chance to get some band shots. They look intimate and the triangle makes the composition “stable”.

On a tall and wide stage it’s a problem. To include the full band, with monitors in the middle and the musicians looking tiny isn’t easy. It needs a wide angle but then, even cropping into a panoramics shot doesn’t get the proportions optimal if there’s a lot of black within.
Here it is where those white lights designing geometries came in support. To fill thet darkness in the middle with light helps.
To minimize the amount of darkness in a frame is always a good tip.

Or catch the other opportunity of having poor dynamism, white bright lights and a dark background. Try some sharp portraits.
Mount a long lens, choose the aperture, if there’s lot of light there is no need to stay 2.8 try 4 or even 5.6. Assuming you can still be around 1/125s shutter (the faster the better) the neutral background doesn’t need bokeh and lenses perform better a couple of stops down. Shoot raw.

Learn how to spot meter. Do not make the error of pointing your spot on the brightest point. That is a classic error delivering underexposed frames.
You want the spot on an average lit zone, not a bright white. Clothes or instruments are usually my best option.
To get the right exposure is essential if you want to have a perfect portrait.
I know it is always possible to trigger a bit the raw file in post-editing to compensate the exposure but it is much better to fix it in the camera than trying to save a great image that was wrong exposed.

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~ by Valerio on July 24, 2012.

2 Responses to “Codeine”

  1. “a slowcore version of Shellac” – Man, I think I need to get me some Codeine. Smashing pictures, as always.

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