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Marriage Records: Coupledom in Indie Rock Has a Special Patina but Is Not Without Its Perils 

Witness the Submarines

Wednesday, Sep 24 2008
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Blake Hazard and John Dragonetti, who are the Submarines, hooked up, broke up, wrote songs about each other and then got married. Explains Hazard, who is the great-granddaughter of F. Scott Fitzgerald: “We both lived in Boston for a while before we moved out here. I asked [John] to produce my solo record, so we got to know each other working together. And as we were working on my record, we kind of, you know, fell in love and became a couple by the end of making that record.”

Dragonetti says that the trajectory of their relationship was exciting but not without its perils: “It was a really great, fun and romantic beginning to a relationship to be able to travel and play music together. We were together for a short while, and then we moved to Los Angeles about four years ago, and like a lot of couples seem to do when they move to L.A., we split up after we were here for just a few months.”

Postbreakup, Hazard continued to work on music at Dragonetti’s house, and soon the two were dating again. “We had all this material we’d each done, and it was all about the same time period and experience but two different perspectives,” Dragonetti says. “We thought it would be kind of interesting to put all this stuff together and make a cohesive record [2006 indie-pop triumph Declare a New State!], and we thought it would be cool to have this document. We also decided, after getting back together, that we were going to get married — we were just going to go for it.”

click to enlarge JENNIE WARREN - The Submarines
  • Jennie Warren
  • The Submarines

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Coupledom in indie rock has a special patina, an unrivaled potency. While the “indie-rock” descriptive is played fast and loose by critics and marketers, it remains a particular genre, with many stripes of sound that share a common and overarching sensibility. Yes, love and relationships are constant themes everywhere, but in indie rock, so are love’s attendant issues, like romantic glory, divine friendship, alienation and existential dislocation. Indie-rock fans take shit personal, unlike any other pocket of contemporary music culture.

And indie-rock practitioners and enthusiasts are justified in viewing themselves as sort of scrappy outsiders, considering the low-fi preoccupations that rule the genre’s underworld. Not counting the version of “indie rock” being sold by Converse, sharing the ethos of this genre with lovers, friends and local communities is unusually important for indie folks. Together, the bread-and-water tours, the middle-class sex angst and the urgent necessity of differentiating oneself from whatever the mainstream is selling compose a definitive, for-serious lifestyle.

And, being loser romantics, we want to share it while we hold hands. So when a band contains a couple, or when a band is a couple, like the Submarines, their musical output is likely to reflect that idealized relationship, providing a heady opportunity for fans to pin their weighty romantic aspirations on some familiar, accessible, desirable, sexily rumpled kings and queens, from local bar-band heroes to Kim and Thurston.

As in real life, each public indie-rock couple has its own character. Brooklyn’s Matt and Kim are dance-party co-captains; their relationship and music both capture the happy mania of prepubes discovery-world adolescence. The couple in Low, Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, are mysteriously Mormon. Ex-Luna, now-duo Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips are enduringly lovely and more sophisticated than everyone else (Wareham even wrote a well-received book about it). Mates of State are accessibly weird, and, as such, are tremendously engaging (but this is likely due in part to the coupledom subtext).

The White Stripes are less interesting together, even as a divorce concept, than Jack White is alone, defying the indie-couple paradigm. Maybe because the illusion of romance has passed, or maybe because Meg just seems kind of boring and is a bad drummer. While Arcade Fire’s elegant apocalypse is very much the work of the whole band, married couple Win Butler and Régine Chassagne are particularly captivating live, and both are unsettlingly attractive and strange. And, while Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth are supremely cool and enviable (especially in these recent days of their Massachusetts/Coco evolution), long-married Georgia Hubley and Ira Kaplan of New Jersey’s finest, Yo La Tengo, are the premier indie-rock couple, the platonic ideal of this stuff.

Though less established as Scene Ma and Scene Pa than most of these other couples, Hazard and Dragonetti ably look the part. Hazard is a fairy-dusted, sweet-faced blonde, and Dragonetti is classically thrift-shop cute. Their music is an atypical kind of indie pop, both hopeful and intelligent, driven by Hazard’s charming vocals. The lessons learned from love and life are apparent on their records and skew optimistic. Even “You, Me, and the Bourgeoisie,” which lays bare the inherent problem of being an average but thinking citizen of Target’s America, is sunny and manages to also comment on the importance of endurance and how to (try to) be good. “Every day I wake up, I choose love, I choose light, and I try, it’s too easy just to fall apart.” Sage, considering what the two of them went through to make it happen together.

It’s true that our fascination with famous or semifamous indie-rock couples involves plenty of babe-based idol worship. While the couple factor may somehow benefit girls who are into the dude-centric nation of indie rock (it seems that the lady half is usually equally involved in the music), such coupledom also speaks to an awkward kind of male approval, or legitimacy by association. Typically, indie cred eludes most women, from collectors (girls are far less likely to be bigtime catalog-memorizing fans) to guitarists and producers. And the most celebrated women in the genre (Cat Power, Joanna Newsom) are usually a lot foxier, or at least overtly foxier, than their male peers.

As with the the hotness factor, the couple element can be a clever hook, but the process of creating and selling any kind of art — indie rock and otherwise — is notoriously tough, and tough on relationships. Hazard acknowledges the business negotiations as a process at which the Submarines are becoming increasingly adept. And they’d have to be, considering that their music has been scooped up for an emo moment in Grey’s Anatomy, and their breakup breakdown anthem, “Brighter Discontent,” was, weirdly (and perfectly), lip-synched by characters on an episode of Nip/Tuck. Still, Hazard says, “It’s hard, definitely hard. Luckily we are like-minded aesthetically and musically.” It doesn’t hurt, she adds, that “our manager is a really good friend. It helps to have a third party. Sometimes we call him ‘The Diplomat.’”

Asked about inevitable conflicts of opinion regarding the music itself, Dragonetti says, “When we’re in the studio working together, we can be critical of each other. We try to be sensitive about it, but I think it’s healthy checks and balances. It’s hard, you know? I can’t speak for Blake, but you try to not be defensive about things and trust that the criticism is valuable.”

Hazard says it helps to be prepared: “Sometimes I feel like I sort of solidify my ideas more before I come in [to work with John] so I can stand up and fight for them more than I would if we didn’t have the dynamic we do.”

Adds Dragonetti: “I think we both have really different strengths. I have my head in the speakers all the time, working in the studio. Blake is, I think, more of a songwriter and a singer. I wish I could sing like her, but I can’t. I don’t try to. If [competitiveness] is there, it’s subtle and it’s not really an open kind of competitiveness.”

That noise aside, playing in an indie-rock band is still a crucial adventure for a lot of people with creative tendencies and hearts on their sleeves. Having that adventure with your partner is essentially great. Blake Hazard names travel as her favorite aspect. “Getting to tour together and going to sort of romantic places or even really horrid, sketchy, awful places and having a good partner to help you deal with it is really nice. You definitely go through so many ups and downs together — touring in particular — where it’s really nice to have someone who’s on that roller coaster with you, who understands why you might be feeling the things you’re feeling.”

“At the same time, it’s difficult sometimes,” Dragonetti adds, “and it’s tiring and you don’t have your personal space, but it’s really incredible. We’ve both experienced [situations] where you’re coming off [touring] on your own and you’ve got someone back home, like a girlfriend or boyfriend, and that can get pretty tense and weird. We just feel really fucking lucky.”

 
The Submarines perform downtown on Sat., Oct. 4, at the L.A. Weekly Detour Festival.

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