Judging by the clutter of Jim Putnam’s Atwater home, you‘d think he’d be fixin‘ to blow the proceeds from his first platinum album on a little Cessna: A half-completed model airplane sits at a workstation behind the living room, and his tubular-shaped backyard studio has been christened Skylab. Tacked onto the studio’s walls — above the old keyboards, a half-killed bottle of cheap Burgundy and other studio toys — are scattered satellite and space-shuttle prints. Sorry, almost forgot about the Pink Floyd poster.
It‘s the Floyd poster that gives away the Radar Bros. front man. Truth is, he prefers losing himself in the safety of inner space to actually being up in the air, lest he pull a JFK Jr. There’s a flying obsession in there somewhere, but probably the kind a psychoanalyst would be interested in.
”I like to be at the controls,“ Putnam explains. ”I know it sounds kind of cheesy, like piloting a plane or something, but I think the death part of it slips into the music somehow. Death is a really scary thing, and there are so many ways it can happen. Crashing in an airline jet would be pretty frightening — just being crammed into that little space with all those people you don‘t know.“
We’re having a Christopher Walken moment — specifically, that scene in Annie Hall where he‘s driving Diane Keaton and Woody Allen through a horrible rainstorm while he ruminates on his car-accident fantasies. But Putnam doesn’t describe plummeting planes with hand-wringing abandon; rather, the outburst just sort of comes forth. Thank god, then, that it‘s highly unlikely the Radar Bros. will be going platinum anytime soon.
Which, as far as Putnam’s concerned, is just as well. ”That would be terrible,“ he says. ”It seems awful, like Marilyn Manson or something, the collagen lip implants and stuff like that. Prosthetic penis. It‘s kind of cool that that’ll never happen.“
It‘s enough just to get Putnam and his Bros. — bassist Senon Williams and drummer Steve Goodfriend — out of the studio and onto a stage. Putnam is a classic tech rat: Instead of dealing with crowds, he’d rather shut himself up and play in a controlled environment like his home laboratory, judging by the soldering irons, vintage amps and CB radios that wait to be messed with. ”I‘m not so good at touring,“ he says. ”It’s kind of a weird thing when people are paying attention to me. It kind of freaks me out. It‘s kind of creepy, you know?“
Creepy might be a good place to start describing the The Singing Hatchet, the Radar Bros.’ haunted, haunting new collection of tunes. The music floats vividly and deliberately through the mind — songs like ”All the Ghosts“ and ”The Pilgrim“ are like watching a stop-motion death march in a dream, punctuated by a funereal piano and Putnam‘s weepy, Neil Young–like vocals.
But the songs’ cryptic quality, Putnam says, is deceptive: ”I think they‘re about a lot of stuff. A lot of personal stuff seeps into it.“ Like . . . ”I’d rather not get too specific.“ He‘s not being cagey on purpose — he himself may not know. Anyway, he’d like listeners to discern their own meaning. And, in a sense, Hatchet is very effective in that way. As it hovers through your personal space, a line like ”Why did you have to let the pilgrim out of its cage“ emerges, and, BOOM — an epiphany.
Although Putnam had considered forming a band since his late-‘80s days at CalArts, an aversion to the spotlight directed him toward supporting roles as a guitarist for Medicine and, later, the Maids of Gravity, two noisy combos whose vibe was 180 degrees from his own slo-mo aesthetic. Instead, while in those bands he retreated to his studio and made his quiet songs alone. ”I didn’t get up the nerve for a long time,“ he says. ”I think it was just a matter of getting up the self-confidence. I thought, you know, maybe I can do that.“
Ultimately, he became frustrated by his lack of creative input — remember, he likes being in control. ”My process is really slow,“ he says. ”It takes me forever to come up with stuff. By the time I would come up with something, someone else would have come up with a hundred things.“
It may be a deliberate pace, but it works for the Radar Bros. Still, Putnam defensively notes that The Singing Hatchet isn‘t nearly as plodding as the band’s 1996 self-titled debut (they also released an EP on Fingerpaint Records). ”There are songs on this record that are kind of fast,“ he says. ”I don‘t think this record is that slow.“
But that’s about as irate as Putnam gets. Mostly, he‘s just a guy who’s happy to be here: ”It‘s amazing that we get to go out on the road and put out records. That’s nice.“