Some bands are just so out of step with their times that when they break up, they leave behind little trace of their existence and are quickly forgotten, their shadowy melodies disappearing like smoke into the ether and their most heartfelt lyrics drowned out in a cacophony of radio static. Acetone emerged in the early ’90s when grunge was becoming commercially popular, but as the Highland Park trio evolved over nine years, its members stubbornly pursued a subtly hypnotic, deliberately slow and achingly delicate sound even as most other groups of the era were bellowing their rage and cranking up their guitars.
Nonetheless, singer-bassist Richie Lee, singer-guitarist Mark Lightcap and drummer Steve Hadley managed to make a distinct impression in the underground-music scene, with their early records gaining crucial exposure through the Virgin Records–affiliated indie label Vernon Yard Recordings before the final two albums were released by Neil Young’s Vapor Records. Acetone toured with The Verve and performed on bills with Oasis, and they were praised by such prescient fans as Spiritualized singer Jason Pierce and Hope Sandoval (whose Warm Inventions covered the trio’s glassy ballad “Louise”).
But everything came to a sudden halt when Lee, age 34, hanged himself on July 23, 2001, a tragic event that drew little attention from the national media beyond a terse obituary in Rolling Stone. That might have been the end of Acetone’s story, but they are receiving some overdue attention. In conjunction with the career-spanning music anthology Acetone 1992-2001 on Light in the Attic Records, a Seattle label that specializes in reissuing “lost gems,” the group’s untold history is being explored in Sam Sweet’s new book, Hadley Lee Lightcap, which was simultaneously published last week by All Night Menu Books.
Billed as a “nonfiction novel,” Hadley Lee Lightcap is an unusual companion piece to the record and doesn’t feel like a typical rock bio. After moving to L.A. from Maine a decade ago, Sweet, a 35-year-old freelance writer, became so fascinated by this city that he began a five-volume collection of vignettes about Angeleno culture, which segued into a 10-year series of interviews with surviving Acetone members Hadley and Lightcap.
“I wanted it to feel like a story of three characters — their lives, how they interacted — to experience them as characters in a novel,” Sweet explains in a phone interview. His intention was to create “something that would feel like a novel but was of course nonfiction ... not just a work of history or criticism.”
“It’s a bizarre thing,” Lightcap says by phone. The guitarist, now 50, lives in Sierra Madre and continues to record solo music at home and collaborate with the expansive, trance-inducing psychedelic combo Dick Slessig. “It’s strange to see yourself as a character in a book, but I guess we’re all characters in some kind of historical fiction of our own.
“I toyed with the idea of not reading it at all. I became friends with Sam and was afraid I’d hate the book,” Lightcap says. “But it wasn’t a friendship killer. It’s very accurate. He did an incredible amount of research.”
Lightcap works for the Mike Kelley Foundation and had to deal with suicide again when its namesake killed himself in 2012. Discussing the death of his former CalArts classmate Lee, he says, “It was a shock, but it wasn’t a complete surprise.” During Acetone’s later years, Lightcap was frustrated when Lee got into hard drugs. “I was looking forward to a new phase of the band.. … Who knows what would have been next?”
Hadley, Lee and Lightcap went through several distinct phases after splitting off as a trio from the punkish late-’80s group Spinout. Acetone’s self-titled 1993 EP and first full-length album, Cindy, alternated between loping, countrified idylls and louder fits of hard-rock psychedelia, but the group slowed the pace considerably on 1995’s I Guess I Would, a somnolently spacy collection of country-rock remakes, and tempered the volume further on 1996’s If You Only Knew. As Sweet relates in the book, “Instead of songs, there were long strands of sound, luxurious and seasick.”
Light in the Attic’s Acetone 1992-2001 isn’t a typical greatest-hits assortment. Although such quintessential studio tracks as “Louise” and the riff-swirling “Chew” are included, the double LP features nine previously unreleased recordings. “The tapes they made just for themselves I always thought was their most essential music,” Sweet says.
“We didn’t always do our best work in the studio, so a lot of times those tapes and demos were a truer representation of what we were trying to do,” Lightcap agrees.
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“The path is fresh. … They [Hadley and Lightcap] had never talked to anyone about their story,” Sweet says. “The record’s release can be enhanced by the book, but neither needs the other. The greatest test of this book is the response from people who have no prior interest in the band. I’m always writing more for these readers.”
Sweet admits that when he initially heard Acetone while living in Maine, he found their music “anonymous, forgettable. When hearing them in the context of Los Angeles, they sounded meaningful in a way that hadn’t been here before. … They did have these coded references to L.A.,” he continues, citing their 2000 record, York Blvd., “but there were no other references to L.A. in their music. … A lot of it was intuitive, a certain profound warmth meeting a certain profound coldness that’s commonplace in L.A. … a feeling I get from anonymous corners in L.A. rather than landmarks.”
In the book’s final paragraphs, Sweet underscores Acetone’s connection to Los Angeles: “Their music made sense anywhere the late afternoon light caught a lonely wall. Everywhere I looked, the answer was always the same: The hidden is essential and the essential hidden.”
Hadley and Lightcap reunite for an Acetone set with guest Hope Sandoval at Zebulon, 2487 Fletcher Drive, Silver Lake; Wed., Nov. 15, 8 p.m.; $15. (323) 662-0966.