When songwriter Brandon McCulloch moved from Washington, D.C., into the Villa Elaine apartment complex on Vine Street four years ago, he wasn’t feeling picky, and he had no hint of the serendipity he was about to encounter — he was desperate and took the first place he could find. At the time, Villa Elaine, which was built in the 1920s and was once home to Orson Welles and Man Ray, had a poor reputation, for housing junkies, prostitutes and transients of sundry scary sorts. It never occurred to McCulloch that he was moving into an emerging art community.
Nobody knows how, but somewhere around 1997, a kind of gentrification took place, and the incoming residents of this urban oasis — which has a majestic courtyard encircled by old red-brick walls thick with climbing vines — began coming together. It was there that McCulloch, along with his sister Dionne, began their ultramelodic rock band, Silver. And it was there that a real, and perhaps somewhat incestuous, counterculture began to materialize.
”We realized right away that there were a lot of artists moving in,“ he says. ”Painters, poets, performance artists, thespians and musicians — lots of musicians. It wasn‘t long before we started gravitating toward one another, having cabaret shows at my apartment, where in order to come in, you had to perform for everyone.“
These cabaret nights were thematically titled things like ”Ides of March“ and ”Summer Solstice,“ and friendships began to germinate through bold, often drug-inspired-addled performances. Musicians such as the members of Remy Zero, who named their 1998 Geffen album Villa Elaine in honor of this spirited scene, were regulars, as were instrumental experimenter and singer Aaron Embry (who played guitarist Skszp in the theatrical version of Hedwig and the Angry Inch), Sara Lov and Dustin O’Halloran of Devics, Brian Bell of Weezer, and a rotation of other stragglers. The music was spontaneous and plentiful, but hardly the extent of the festivities. Some people would labor through readings of their journal entries or poems, while still others — such as Andy Warhol‘s old chum, painter Mac James — acted out symbolic hostilities.
”It’s been crazy,“ says McCulloch. ”One night Mac painted a picture of a shark, and he just ripped it up in front of everyone. Or [Remy Zero singer] Cinjun Tate would get up with an acoustic guitar and perform ‘Twister’ and blow us all away, or Dionne and [Remy Zero drummer] Gregory Slay would put together an improvisational instrumental piece.“
This kind of camaraderie led, in the spring of 2000, to the founding of Substance Records, spearheaded by Brandon and Dionne, along with Virginia-based childhood friend James Dion, with the intention of concentrating Villa Elaine‘s talent onto one record. The resulting CD features three tracks by Remy Zero (who at that time had just parted ways with Interscope), highlighted by Tate’s observational dreamscape ”Lamplighter‘s Parade.“ There are also two songs by drippy-voiced Embry, prior to his role in Hedwig; a sobering number by Slay titled ”Grin“; an opening track from Bell, with his side project Space Twins, called ”Rust Colored Sun“; Devics’ beautiful ”Ghost“; and one song apiece by Lauri Kranz and Tiana.
Silver also has a couple of tracks on the disc, ”Castle“ and ”Suspicious,“ rock reveries that float downstream like driftwood and that lyrically serve the band‘s communal altruism to a T. The former track is undoubtedly a tip of the hat to the artists who made the compilation and label a possibility, and to the scene that spawned them: ”We swore, we’d open our castle to them, and to youwe swore, we‘d open our castle door.“ ”Suspicious“ is an ever-mutating tune that follows no formulaic boundaries when performed live; McCulloch says the emphasis is on letting go in order to possess the moment. ”Mostly by command, suspicious by design,“ he sings, ”anything we had to lose has been gone a long, long time.“ The CD was produced and released with the artists’ personal investments, and created with the sole purpose of capturing what McCulloch considers ”real substance in music, being a part of something larger than egotistical consciousness — a music family.“
A new Substance compilation is in the works, while other projects are in various stages of development, with Embry set to release his newest album on the label sometime in the spring. Among the blueprints is the debut full-length album by Silver, an odyssey three years in the making. Silver‘s new songs are heavier than before, with more sophisticated chord changes and instrumental bridges, but still trademarked by the fluidity of McCulloch’s voice spilling over, as if the music were a ledge.
”A lot of the early songs were about my experiences and relationships within this community of Villa Elaine,“ says McCulloch, ”and the trials that we endured. The new songs are a battle cry to anyone out there who‘s with us.“
Silver plays at the Viper Room, Tuesday, October 16.