Almost Infamous

The New When goes underground — again.

Five years ago, a yet-undiscovered Arcade Fire opened for a Bay Area band with a short history but a fervent following. It was a weeknight at a now-defunct local club, but hundreds of fans turned out to witness one of the rare live appearances by Oakland headliners the New When. By all accounts, the evening was unforgettable: Both bands’ inspired performances of Springsteenian rock laced with gospel, classical, bossa nova, and punk seemed to mark the dawn of a passionate new era in independent rock. “It was easily one of the best shows I’ve ever seen,” said Matt Johnson of San Jose, who attended the concert and launched a New When fan page on MySpace the next day. “The energy in that room was amazing. Nothing else has felt quite the same since.” But the two acts’ alliance was short-lived: Arcade Fire went on to deliver one of the decade’s best debuts in late 2004, while the New When were never heard from again.

Or so they wanted us to believe. In fact, the same men who orchestrated that band’s flirt with fame had already been working closely together for years and continue to do so today. Since meeting at a Los Angeles wedding industry convention in 1998, these four professionals have collaborated under a lengthy and overlapping roster of names with one thing in common: an intense aversion to the mainstream. Throughout, they’ve struggled to remain as unknown as possible without suppressing their popular, often prophetic, creative instincts. In a Bay Area scene dominated by a culture of independence and innovation — where the underground conveys ultimate credibility and cool — they’ve taken the zeitgeist to the furthest extreme.

But even recluses can crave recognition. For the first time in eleven years, the men formerly known as the New When and nearly a dozen other monikers have agreed to divulge the details of their grand scheme. “It’s not as hard as it may seem,” band member Jim Bow wrote in an e-mail. “The right mindset, a little planning, and a healthy dose of paranoia is all we need to keep going.” Although declining to speak via any means other than e-mail or to reveal their current project or true names, Jim and bandmates John Son, Frank Lin, and Stu Wart did agree to be candid about what they’ve done and why. While it all may sound like an elaborate prank, Jim balks at the suggestion: “This is not a game,” he wrote. “We may be having fun, but it’s not a game. Fame and popularity just aren’t for us.”

In retrospect, it’s easy to see how they’ve played with the idea. Each of their bands, from 1998-99’s Art (which Stu says disbanded upon receiving album-of-the-year nods from two local publications, the Express included) to 2004-05’s Search Field (a bare-bones blues band that broke up when the White Stripes released a single using the exact same chord progression) has lived and died by an unusual sense of frivolity. Perhaps most surprising of all, to the musicians and their fans alike, was Candy, a garage-rock act that toured Iceland expressly for its obscurity in 2002. The band planned to issue a follow-up album in 2003, but scrapped it when they learned that in the interim a number of influential blogs had made Candy one of the most buzzed about rock bands in the country.

“We’ve essentially changed our style every time we’ve hit on something good,” wrote Frank. “Most bands try to give the fans what they want, but we find that to be a sign of weakness and insecurity. In our case, the fans get what we want to give them. It’s much more enjoyable for us that way. And the music is still killer.”

In order to conceal their identities along the way, Jim explained, they’ve employed a number of tactics. At live shows, for example, they always remain incognito. Each musical persona comes with its own disguise: As Art, they performed entire sets behind a translucent, back-lit screen; and as 1234!, an exuberant synth-pop group that gave its debut and farewell shows two days apart at Noise Pop 2003, they wore full-body raccoon costumes. Inscrutable liner notes, band names that aren’t search-engine friendly, abstract merchandise entirely lacking words, and vinyl- or even cassette-only releases have also helped keep these four musicians mysterious and anonymous.

“It may sound perverse,” said Frank, “but we feel it’s quite genius. We do it because we get joy out of it. This is our way of freeing ourselves from the grind of the underground and the emptiness of commerce. Anyone who takes either seriously is a fool.” Of course, retreating from fame for creative freedom is nothing new. Fellow East Bay band Green Day has pulled a couple such stunts, including New-Wave side project the Network in 2003 and traditional rock ‘n’ roll outfit Foxboro Hot Tubs in 2007. In both cases the members of Green Day secretly recorded and released full-length albums, then later revealed the full connection.

But no one has taken it as far as the men from the New When, especially considering they were never truly famous in the first place — at least not as far as they’ll admit. It doesn’t seem likely, however, considering the day jobs they keep: Both Frank and Stu work in high-tech, Jim is a sous chef at an East Bay restaurant, and John is an elementary school teacher in Novato. Their musical breadth is also more wide-reaching than Green Day’s. According to a detailed list furnished by the band, other aliases include Cambios (acoustic Spanish-language David Bowie covers, 1999); Jazz Quartet (avant-garde jazz, 2002-2004); Thank G*d It’s Friday (Jewish reggae, 2003-2005); and Band The (folk/bluegrass/country, 2007-2008). Even established musical chameleons like Ween can’t compete with that repertoire.

Critic Eric McCall, who contributes to popular music site, landed an interview with Band The in late 2008 after witnessing their performance at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival and contacting them via MySpace. He was lucky to receive a response; Jim, John, Frank, and Stu have been extremely stingy about granting interviews over the years. “I still remember it as a very odd experience,” McCall says. The interview took place over a conference call, but all four members’ voices were concealed by voice-changing equipment. “I couldn’t escape the feeling that they were fucking with me. They seemed to constantly contradict themselves, but never fessed up when I called them on it.”

Exactly two days later, Band The announced that it was dissolving due to “irreconcilable differences.” At the time, McCall wasn’t surprised, figuring their behavior during the interview had been a symptom of inner-band turmoil. Now he knows the truth: They really were messing with him, and planned the nonsensical interview to coincide with their next disappearance. Which leads one to wonder: Why have they suddenly decided to bare all, and can they be trusted? “You may as well take our word for it,” wrote Jim. “We have nothing to gain by revealing this to you, and everything to lose by finally being discovered.”

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