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Dave Burtch, the drummer for Built Like Alaska, slid smoothly into the back of the van and yanked the door tightly shut behind him. We began driving back from Taqueria Teocal, a late night taqueria in Oakdale. Oakdale is a small town about 15 minutes north of Turlock. Teocal boasted great tortas and a fine collection of tejano music (and a few indie rock gems like Radiohead's Kid A) on the jukebox. We were making our way down Yosemite Avenue when Burtch turned to me and announced that he would gladly answer any remaining questions on our way back home.
The last question of the interview slipped out quite naturally: Where does the title of the record come from?
"Well, that's a hard one." Burtch's hand landed on his chin as he reflected. "It's a about nostalgia. Which is a good thing and a bad thing. Cause that means you're missing something that is not there anymore. Like the vineyards in front of Neil's house. Did you tell him about the vineyards Neil?"
"Neil" is Neil Jackson, guitarist and vocalist for Built Like Alaska. Together Matt Candelario (bass), Susane Reis (keyboards), Sean Norman (guitar), Burtch (drums), and I have spent the evening visiting two Oakdale landmarks: the taqueria and a local watering hole, the Cow Track.
"I tell everyone about those vineyards," shouts Jackson while negotiating the tangle of streets that lead to his house. Perched on the top of a large hill and neighbored by dairy farms and new housing developments, Jackson's house seems ancient and towering, like some gothic castle. It was built brick by brick by his grandfather Les.
"He even built most of the bricks by hand," recounted Jackson. "Sears used to sell these brick making kits and you would mix all this mud up and shape them into bricks. He would just get mud and bring it up from the river."
The old house at the top of the hill, known as the Tioga House, is the nexus around which the band revolves. It serves as rehearsal space, occasional venue, and a makeshift recording studio. Back when it was built, the Tioga House was a stone's throw away from the banks of the Stanislaus River, but due to rerouting and the building of dams farther upstream, the river dried up and the distance between the shore and the property grew. Now when one gazes from the porch one can barely make out faint slivers of the river on the horizon. Vast tracts of newly minted homes and developments haven taken root in the former riverbed that lies between the home and the Stanislaus.
"This used to be all orchards and vineyards in front of my house," says Jackson, gesturing down the hill towards the collection of portapotties, dirt and lumber that currently lie at the base of his driveway. A train track runs directly behind the home, a slow moving line run by Santa Fe.
"I hope it comes while you guys are here," mentioned Jackson. "It shakes the whole house."
"Sometimes when we're all partying out back the conductor will slow down and wave at us," added Candelario.
I asked him if the conductor has ever stopped the train and jumped down from the engine to have a beer.
Lurking inside the Tioga House are old flyers and posters featuring the names Grandaddy and Fiver. There is also a stuffed Ram's head, Christmas lights and the odds and ends of a ramshackle recording studio.
"We meant to clean all this up, but we never got around to it," noted Jackson.
The lack of tidiness is understandable as the band was busy with two big projects: they recently completed and released their second album, Autumnland, which was released February 1st on Future Farmer Records, and they also completed a soundtrack for the Naomi Watts film, "Ellie Parker", which premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival.
"I didn't even get to see the film. They sent me cues, like, this happens in this scene', and then we would just write around that," commented Jackson. "We recorded everything here. We lucked out so much with our record. We borrowed everything. The bad thing is that we had to give it all back."
Jackson showed me from the rehearsal space to the control room/walk in closet, then further on downstairs to the basement. His roommate, a filmmaker, used the room to store funky costumes, fake blood and other tools of the trade. Built Like Alaska used the room to record drum tracks, the hard surfaces helped create an echo-y, big sound for certain tracks.
"We used to think this room was haunted," said Jackson's roommate/filmmaker, an affable guy named Abe. He demonstrated by flicking the light switch on and off. And contrary to my feigned toughness, the room, which went pitch black, was pretty spooky.
This year marks the start of Built Like Alaska's eighth year together as a band. Candelario and Jackson first started the band when they moved into the house together in January 1997. In a quirky fashion the band's history is tied to the house. As the two showed me around from room to room and recounted stories of crazy roommates moving in and out, they calmly segued into anecdotes about members of the band leaving and joining the group. Needless to say, Built Like Alaska lineup has undergone many changes.
"For awhile there, we were losing a member a year," recalled Jackson. "We would have to pick up and retrain someone every so often."
The group is on solid ground with its current lineup, which is a good thing, as they are receiving more and more national exposure and the timing seems right for the band to break out into the mainstream. This potential for success paired with the release of Autumnland, the Watt's film, and their upcoming national tour, has forced upon the group a whole range of new issues to deal with.
"I'm a little worried. It's getting more business like," commented Jackson. "How do you keep things creative and still have it be business at the same time? I don't want things to dry up. I don't think it will."
"It's all new to us," said Candelario. "Having a label and a booking agent. We're feeling our way through it all and trying to get advice from people who have done it before."
Luckily, Built Like Alaska has friends that they can turn to for advice. Neighboring Oakdale to the west is the city of Modesto. For most residents of Oakdale, Modesto is the place where one might go to buy clothing or groceries or visit the mall. Maybe hitch up your horses and visit the dry goods store. Jackson and Candelario went to Modesto seeking inspiration.
"We had to go to Modesto to buy records. You still have to go there. Oakdale doesn't have many record stores," noted Jackson.
"When I was in school, I was the one guy on the bus who'd be listening to Bjork or the Sugarcubes and people would give me a hard time," recalled Candelario. "When Radiohead came out with that 'Creep' song, it sort of helped lessen the abuse."
While canvassing Modesto for good records the pair made friends with Modesto kids who had bigger record collections and more cosmopolitan tastes. Jackson and Candelario became enamored with bands like the Red House Painters and Sparklehorse.
"There has always been this sort of underground club of all these bands in the Central Valley and we all kind of meet up and hang out and play in each other bands," commented guitarist Norman over the purr of a laundry machine in the next room.
Consequently, as Built Like Alaska grew they quickly became a larger part of the "Modesto Scene". They regularly crossed paths with critically acclaimed indie bands like Fiver and Grandaddy. The Modesto kids and the Oakdale kids began hanging out after shows and getting together for parties at the Tioga House. Watching the careers of these other Modesto bands take off has afforded the group the luxury of getting to watch how their peers cope with the business aspects of music.
And as the positive reviews of Autumnland continue to pour in, it becomes increasingly likely that Built Like Alaska will be the next "Modesto" band and the first Oakdale band, to be initiated into the big time.
Built Like Alaska will be performing February 17th at Fat Cat in Modesto, March 3rd at the Mainzer Theatre in Merced, and March 11th in at Howie and Sons Pizza in Visalia. Autumnland is available in stores everywhere.