Virginia Ann Tate may be the very definition of an American hero. To her, proving that individualism is not necessarily a form of selfishness was an unconscious pursuit. She was a performance artist in the South, into spiritualism, an empiricist. And she knew how to raise her children, blue-eyed Shelby and his soft-spoken younger brother, Cinjun, both now members of the obscurely famous ”rock“ band Remy Zero. Her sons were taught early on to harness their inner dialogue, to do away with typical modes of thought, and not to put too much stock in negativity. Thus Virginia didn’t challenge Cinjun and Shelby‘s decision to drop out before high school and begin their music-making odyssey. They were merely acting on instinct.
Since arriving in Los Angeles on July 13, 1996, the Alabama-born brothers Tate — multi-instrumentation by Shelby, vocals and acoustic guitar by Cinjun, along with Cedric LeMoyne on bass, Gregory Slay on drums and Jeffrey Cain on guitar — have veered from spending inglorious time on the streets and in sorry old boarding houses, to being the toast of the town among Hollywood’s elite, to not having a record deal at all. Remy Zero have thickened their skin.
”We‘re not concerned about growing out there,“ explains LeMoyne in reference to the external world, the media and their ultimate success. ”It’s about growing in here, in this circle, within ourselves.“
It‘s this kind of resilience that may foretell Remy Zero’s longevity, especially since they‘ve twice watched the curtain fall on their sentient-rock formula: once via Capitol Records in 1996 (which brought the band out to L.A. after spells in Atlanta, New Orleans, Montreal and San Francisco), and then courtesy GeffenInterscope (with which they released two albums) during the label merging in 1999. In that time, they’ve toured with Semisonic, Travis and Radiohead while watching media attention shift from their music to matters not related to music. They‘ve been lauded by everyone from Courtney Love to Adam Duritz of the Counting Crows for their exceptional second CD, Villa Elaine, which produced the semihit ”Prophecy,“ the heaviest track on an album teeming with lyrical and melodic riches. And finally, in what became the biggest shadow cast over the band, Cinjun married actress Alyssa Milano and was treated in the press like a sweepstakes winner rather than the angelic voice of Remy Zero.
So it’s been a veritable circus, yet according to the band, the slings and arrows have all been just part of the process for these ”musical hoboes.“ To hear them tell it, Shelby and Cinjun‘s lifestyles are as transitional and volatile as the passing seasons, solely dedicated to seeking out individual moments that define human existence.
Musically, those individual moments are crafted in what Cinjun describes as ”abstraction by committee, tuning in to the same line of energy and allowing the songs to flow naturally, free of influence, edit or coercion.“ The players cite influences such as poet e.e. cummings, John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, Cervantes‘ Don Quixote and Toni Morrison’s Beloved — ”There‘s a beautiful chapter in the middle of that book; the rest is insulation, or coating,“ explains Cinjun, who likens Remy Zero to that one mysterious chapter.
Remy Zero confess an interest in societal disorder, and wish to submit themselves and their music to boundless pastures — a set list is never used in their live show, and half their songs are written in the studio. Amazingly, such an impulse to chaos results in tightly constructed, beautifully melodic songs. The free-associative poetry of Remy Zero’s verse, as in ”Wither Vulcan,“ ”Life in Rain“ and ”Motorcycle“ on Villa Elaine, seems to mold these five individuals together into one sympathetic machine. Exquisite instrumentation adds depth on the first album, Remy Zero (1996), on Villa Elaine and in a compilation, California, recently released by Substance Records. That last includes three new tracks, notably the unsettling ”Apology for You,“ whose eerie keyboards drift atop maudlin guitar and Cinjun‘s ghostly lament.
It’s a time for new beginnings in the Remy Zero camp. They‘ve just signed a deal with Elektra Records, Shelby has a newborn baby, a tour is under way with Scotland’s Travis, and the CinjunMilano saga is past-tense. A new selection of songs has been assembled, featuring ”Glorious #1“ and ”Hiding,“ musical-theory-based compositions that introduce a slightly drier vibe to the band‘s sound.
It’s to the credit of Virginia Ann Tate that there‘s no fear in her progeny: Success, failure, consequence — to them, these things just don’t matter. Balance matters. For now, Remy Zero are content being free in the moment.
When asked what it was like to start over again with a new record deal, Gregory Slay observes, ”The ink was blue.“
Remy Zero open for Travis at Universal Amphitheater Thursday, October 5.