Tracking the Fallen

Oakland's Heavenly States unveil an offbeat and devastating antiwar cry.

Ted Nesseth has advice for the challenger: “If I were John Kerry,” the frontman for Oakland’s Heavenly States declares, “I would go up to Dave Matthews and say, ‘Dude, please don’t tour the swing states. You’re crampin’ our fuckin’ style.'”

He’s making an aesthetic judgment here; the States (Heavenly, not swing) seem unlikely types to rock out to “Dancing Nancies.” But Matthews is an easy target, so here’s a tougher but juicier one: the abrupt and highly suspect glut of rock ‘n’ rollers sowing their political oats.

Rolling Stone is about to pass out from anti-Bush hyperventilation — the pages of recent issues overflow with Springsteen-saturated Kerry-benefit blather. Meanwhile, professional brats like Green Day and NOFX have scared themselves temporarily straight via Punk Voter, Moby is rubbing elbows with Public Enemy, and Linda Ronstadt is getting booted from Vegas casinos for dedicating Eagles tunes to Michael Moore. The paradigm has shifted, seemingly overnight, from “Where are all the protest songs?” to “Awww, cute, all the rock stars are voting this year.”

Election fatigue has set in, people. Your sincerity and political awareness are admirable, but please, by all means, shut yer waffle traps every once in a while and just rock. As the man says, you’re crampin’ our fuckin’ style.

Then again, don’t mention this to the Heavenly States, who’ve just released “Monument,” a song consisting of three multitracked voices reading off the names of reported Iraqi civilian dead. The seventy-second track aims to make the victims “purely physical,” keyboardist and violin player Genevieve Gagon says. “I just wanted these names in my ears, and in my mouth.”

The band compiled its list of the fallen from mainstream media such as Reuters, as well as more-independent ventures like, a think tank message board community that places the official Iraq war civilian death toll as high as 14,571. “Nobody even questions the fact that 80 percent of these people aren’t even fuckin’ identified,” Ted says.

Their goal of “Monument,” bandmembers say, is that listeners “give these people a moment.” The States settled on 420 specific names, read by three people in an overlapping, spiraling Tower of Babel style. “We wanted to get a bunch of people to speak, but that turned out to be impossible,” Genevieve notes. “Anyone who was a native speaker of Arabic turned out to be terrified of the project.”

The bandmembers describe Arab Americans terrified of a Secret Service visit; Ted says he can hear the automated wiretap clicking on his phone as he confers with the States’ Australian record label. (Evidently Ted’s e-mail has been a great deal slower, too.) “We’re all paranoid,” notes drummer Jeremy Gagon, Genevieve’s brother. “We’re all conspiracy theorists.”

It’s hard to tell if he’s being sarcastic. If not, you could hardly blame him — political statements don’t get much more overt, experimental, and bombastic than “Monument,” snuck onto the B-side of the band’s new “King Epiphany” single. And though the States have hardly been politically inscrutable before, this is an awfully blunt step reflecting awfully blunt times. Genevieve acknowledges the bandwagoneering nature of much poli-sci rock these days, but the far more sober, literate, and mature (thirtysomethings all) States seem likely to retain their fury regardless of what Election Day hurls at us. “When we’re onstage, we’re always pissed off,” she says. This time, “We just couldn’t stand it. We had to do something.”

Let’s just hope the band’s apolitical sonic greatness survives, too. As evidenced by a recent Friday night gig at Oakland’s reborn Mile High Club, the States’ “The Story Of” is one of the greater live-set leadoffs in recent memory. The quartet takes the stage looking studious, polite, and endearingly awkward — “Oooh,!,” you think as Genevieve picks up the violin. But Jeremy’s pounding snare rolls launch the band into a high-octane rustic Pottery Barn-burner, with a whiplash pace and a killer Hey! Hey! Everybody’s gonna die today! chorus. It combines 924 Gilman Street aggression with an NPR sensibility: postgraduate punk.

Oddly enough, the band tours abroad frequently as a headliner, playing for raucous UK and Australian audiences alternately described as “drunk,” “dangerous,” and “fucking dangerous.” But in the Bay Area, the States are renowned for scoring plum opening slots for indie-rock big shots — “Lately we’ve been opening up for all the bands that we want to,” Ted says — and some end up sounding not nearly as Heavenly by comparison. The States made a half-assed two-shlubs-and-a-boombox Sebadoh reunion farce look ridiculous last month at Bottom of the Hill, and have more than held their own against home-run-hitters from the Pernice Brothers to Mike Watt.

Will solo headlining glory in their own backyard inevitably follow? The revolution starts today: The “Monument” controversy presages the rerelease of The Heavenly States, the band’s debut, originally out last year on local label Future Farmer, but since relocated to Australia’s Baria Records. That record undercuts the band’s ferocity somewhat, but substitutes a pack of glassy-eyed ballads (“Empire” chief among them) guaranteed to ensnare readers of everything from No Depression to The Believer.

But “Monument” is first and foremost in everyone’s minds at the moment. “This was gonna be a little disposable project, something authentically punk, to end up in the dustbin of history,” Genevieve says. “Then we learned there was something to it.”

In an increasingly overpoliticized musical environment, it’s hard to take a stand without sounding like a piggybacking doofus, but the States pass that litmus test via force of will and effort of innovation. “If there ever was a political rock ‘n’ roll motherfucker to follow, it’s Jello Biafra,” Ted notes, and clearly he’s taken notes. For once, a band’s political stand will bolster its reputation, instead of pigeonholing it. Couldn’t have happened to a better bunch.

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