Eureka California’s new album Versus encases wisdom and bitterness within a thunderclap. Clear-eyed and introspective, Jake Ward and Marie Uhler trudge down a path walked by everyone from Dylan to Springsteen to the Replacements. Recorded in the UK under the guiding eye of MJ from psychedelic noise-punks Hookworms, the record alternates between acoustic witticisms and noisy confessionals, and is both a powerful addition to the band’s catalog and decisive step forward in their songwriting.
Ward and Uhler have been members of the DIY scene in Athens for nearly a decade now, working tirelessly in a community where bands wax and wane like Wisteria blossoms. As a result, their observations of the Classic City are often world-weary, sometimes bitter, but always filled with an energy undimmed by years of touring and recording.
Recently, I met up with the band in downtown Athens for pizza, and we talked about the new record, Athens drinking culture, and the cost — both spiritual and economic — of making music.
Even though you’ve received some buzz over the past few years, your press release calls this your “first stab at greatness.” Why are you going all in now?
Marie Uhler: [laughs] We didn’t write that.
Jake Ward: I think the records have been getting progressively better, and I think with this one, the jump in quality is noticeable. With this one we were really swinging for the fences. We have just been trying to write good songs that are fun for us to play live and with this one we succeeded.
MU: It’s also because our label (HHBTM Records) now has in-house press. I don’t know how you do press on your own; we can barely book shows on our own. People don’t take you seriously if you do it yourself unless it is DIY specific. The in-house press didn’t exist a few years ago, plus this is the first record we’ve done in the studio. Besides our records, we’ve had some other 7-inches and splits. We once did a five-month tour and we didn’t have a record so we just sold crappy CD-Rs and tapes. The tapes were 60-minute tapes but we only had 15 minutes of stuff on it. We only made 10 of those.
JW: When we were making the tapes we forgot they had two sides so we recorded everything on one side.
Dead Kennedy’s did that too, I believe.
JW: They might have been more intentional.
MU: Or they were just trying to play it off.
Have you ever felt limited or pigeonholed as a rock and roll duo? Is the fuller sound on your new record a natural progression or a conscious choice?
JW: Yeah, it has been natural. I don’t really listen to many other two-piece bands intentionally to see what they’re doing.
MU: Two-piece is not a genre. It’s weird that people always compare two-piece bands to each other.
JW: It is really weird, especially as a girl and a guy. People are like, “Are you White Stripes fans?” When our bass player left, we tried replacing him but nothing worked out. We had a tour booked and we did it as a duo and then just grew from there. It was definitely a learning experience, but in some ways you can do more with dynamics as a two-piece. You just have to get more creative as you push forward, even when you have less to work with. I did start playing out of two amps before this record, so when we starting working with MJ, he knew how huge we sound live and were somewhat able to match that.
MU: We never really wish there was anyone else now. It just doesn’t really come up. Sometimes on tour… only having two people on tour is weird. With driving a long way and trying to run the merch table.
JW: And that’s a thing people don’t think about that much when forming bands. In addition to technical skill, personality is a massive thing. Do you get along with someone? Because you have to spend every day with them on tour.
Speaking of tour, you recorded Versus while you were on tour in England. What was it like working with MJ?
MU: Well, we did the whole thing in four days and mixed it all in a fifth day. We were over there on tour, but it didn’t really feel rushed. I guess I don’t know what other people do in the studio that takes so long. We just sat down and did it. I did all the drums on the first day.
JW: On the first two records, the drums are either first or second take. But on Versus, MJ wanted to do three-take minimums on everything. We were putting in 8-hour days.
MU: We were just working. It costs money so we weren’t going to just fuck around.
JW: We had known about this opportunity for a while so we wanted to be extremely professional and get it done quickly. We didn’t want to be the rock band doesn’t know what we are doing.
MU: Yeah, we didn’t want to do one take and drink beers for the rest of the day. I just wanted to get it done because I don’t like recording. I just hate sitting in a room by myself and then listening to it. I love playing live; it’s just more relaxed. Especially for this studio thing we didn’t have time to mess around. We were in another country so we had to get it done in five days. I guess we were pretty lucky.
JW: It was not going to be fun if we had to come back and be, like, we didn’t get the record. We probably wouldn’t have come back. [laughs]
What were you listening to while you were recording, or did you cloister yourselves?
MU: Our phones didn’t work and we got picked up to go to the studio, so we were just there all day. We didn’t have internet really. We could either hang in the control room or sit in the front room and read National Geographic.
What was your favorite one?
MU: There was one with a bunch of photos with people from different countries holding vegetables — just happy old people holding big vegetables.
JW: They weren’t all happy though!
MU: My favorite one was happy, though, this lady holding a cabbage like it was a baby and beaming.
JW: I did buy the new Titus record while we were over there and I also had some Fucked Up, Brand New, and the last My Chemical Romance record. So it was a weird mix of pop-punk and hardcore. We had just come off a tour where we were hearing new bands every night, so it was nice to decompress and watch TV. We got really into British reality TV.
MU: They can do a lot more on cable over there, like showing shit going down. Their MTV is way more raunchy. It was awesome!
Drinking is referenced quite a few times on the record. Do you have a drink of choice?
JW: Honestly, I think most of the songs on the record are anti drinking. Like downtown Athens is just all bars, and especially in the summer people just get fucking wasted all day. So songs on the record like “Sober Sister,” that is about a summer in Athens, in 2004 I think. I don’t really drink anymore, I just feel a lot better not doing it both mentally and physically, and Marie doesn’t really drink on tour.
So there’s no ‘Eureka California’ cocktail?
JW: At some point there probably would have been.
MU: And it would have been probably gross [laughs]. If we want to do this band stuff, we have to be working all the time. So that doesn’t leave the money or time to go drink all day.
JW: Yeah, I don’t know how we used to get drunk on tour and be hungover the next day and just keep doing it.
MU: Because we’re old. Maybe we did that when we were 22.
JW: I’m 28 now and if I have two beers I’m hungover the next day. It’s terrible, but true. The opportunity cost of drinking is pretty high. It’s more worthwhile for us to be able to do things clear-headed than to be drunk for a few hours.
MU: I used to think I played better after a few drinks, so I used to get tipsy at shows. But now I realize that’s not true. Still it wasn’t till a year ago that I could play a show without a drink. Now I realize there is no reason to be nervous. I’m not going to forget a song.
JW: Honestly, drinking just started to dry out my voice. Even on the second record I couldn’t hit notes if I had been drinking. I don’t know, I guess we are just not rock and roll. To be fair, if my mom offers me Baileys in hot chocolate on Christmas I’m not going to say no. I’m not a monster.
What is the Athens scene like right now? How have you seen it change in years since you started Eureka California?
JW: It’s really supportive in that it is so low stakes. If you want to start a band and you want to play you can just reach out to a few shows and get a show on a random Tuesday. Whereas other cities, you have a battle of the bands or something. If you win, maybe you can open.
MU: Oh yeah, we played a show in Phoenix where if you won the battle you would have to open up for Alien Ant Farm.
JW: And we didn’t know in advance, and it was Alien Ant Farm in 2011.
MU: I mean other places you have to sell tickets or something, which is terrible. So that’s always been good, but now sometimes people fight paying a cover, and that didn’t used to happen. People just don’t want to pay to see local bands sometimes and that sucks. I don’t know what that’s about.
Is that part of the commodification of music?
MU: I don’t know. We go on tour and we need to get paid so we can keep touring and sell records. Even when we come back with a little cash, it’s not like we can pay rent with it. We need gas and food and emergency $40 hotels. People just don’t want to spend a lot of money, but they also buy five beers that they pay for.
JW: It’s weird. People are like “I can’t afford a five-dollar cover” but then they’ll spend twenty bucks on beer, and it’s like, well, fuck you buddy.
MU: Sometimes we get weird vibes from people because our merch costs this much and we can’t give it away for free. We had to pay to make the t-shirts. The records we get from our label we sell to make more records. We can’t play out of town for free. We don’t have stuff we can just give away. We aren’t independently wealthy. We work multiple part time jobs for very little money. But there are other bands that think music should always be free for everybody; you shouldn’t try and make money off it. And I guess that’s cool if you don’t need to work. To be able to go on tour takes a lot of money, until that doesn’t cost money we need to make money. I guess if you are in a band for ten years and never go on tour, then you don’t need that money. But overall it just costs a lot to make music.
JW: Yeah, when I first moved here nine years ago, no one would think twice about paying a $5 cover. Now I am hanging at shows and people will walk up find out there is a cover and walk away. So that is something that has changed a lot in Athens and I just don’t know what to do with that. I don’t really know what else has changed in Athens, mostly because I believe if you can’t say anything nice you shouldn’t say anything at all.
MU: Yeah, overall though I still like that you can play a show on a whim here. Everyone here lives within a couple miles of each other.
JW: Also, here so many people practice at their houses which is a thing many cities don’t have. Here you can start a band at your house and then play a show down the street.
MU: Sometimes it does feel very isolated, though. You can exist in the bar scene and never go anywhere else. Some just people moved here for school and have lived here for four or five years and still see it as a temporary place to live and don’t get involved. I know people who have lived here longer than me and still aren’t registered to vote here.
JW: Yeah, people just don’t see it as a real place. The way the downtown music community at times is standoffish with the university, but sometimes is very welcoming. Like, we do the Flagpole Awards and AthFest, but we do that at the end of June when students aren’t around. There are tons of people here during the school year who might come out to shows but they don’t know anything about the music scene. Maybe it could be much more beneficial in March or April.
MU: I just think it’s on purpose during the summer. People don’t travel during March or April and it’s a tourist thing.
JW: I suppose that’s true, agree to disagree.
Maybe Athens just needs more than one festival.
MU: Popfest is coming back now, though.
JW: That will be cool!
Flagpole said that 2015 was the year of loud music in Athens. Do you have comment on that?
MU: That whole scene happens at the Caledonia Lounge and I don’t think I can say any more than that. There is more going on than that.
But people say that the Athens scene is perfect, and way more unified.
JW: It’s a grass is greener situation, the bands they mentioned as being the heavy bands is a very microscopic view.
MU: They play at the club that books heavy shows. Any given year you could say is the year of ‘blank’ because there is always so much music happening in Athens. Or maybe we are just out of touch.
JW: I don’t know if we are one of the those heavy bands.
MU: We’re definitely not.
What’s coming out of Athens that you like right now?
JW: Grand Vapids, Feather Trade, etc. There really are so many bands. Hope For Agoldensummer is great. Antlered Aunt Lord’s recent album weaves in and out and is really killer.
MU: Yeah, when Antlered Aunt Lord plays a show you never know what’s going to happen or even who is going to be in the lineup. There is so much happening right now. I also really like Wanda right now and Emily Ireland. She will make you cry, her voice is so good.
Athens/Atlanta bands often seem to lack the coverage or even perceived legitimacy of bands from New York, LA, Austin. Is there anything the Athens community can do to improve this, or is it just a result of external factors?
JW: That’s hard for me to answer, because I can’t imagine being in a band that doesn’t tour. So I can’t imagine expecting that respect or coverage without venturing out to play shows. But, when we tour people are like, “You are from Athens, that’s awesome!” When we were in Scotland some old guy comes up and was just like, “How bout them Dawgs?”
MU: People on tour really think it’s cool that we are from Athens or they think we are from Atlanta and they think that’s cool as well.
JW: Yeah, it’s always weird to hear who people namedrop when they find out where we are from. Like R.E.M. or the B-52s or some Elephant 6 band.
MU: Or only those bands… There are obvious advantages to being in a big city with media outlets, but I don’t know how anyone from could Athens could expect to receive that same response as bands from big cities.
It’s really that myth of working hard and having it pay off. There’s no guarantee. But there are so many people here that work hard and make great music and they just can’t afford to get it out there.
Is there any way for Athens to improve that network?
MU: Between doing publicity stuff now and meeting other bands, we’ll sometimes meet another band and then realize that they have tons of money and are paying people to get their stuff out there. So we aren’t even playing the same game. And maybe that’s true for New York bands, too, although I don’t really know. You really have to pay people so they’ll say your stuff is good. That’s how you get written about. We’re really just lucky that we are on a label with in-house press and that we are not on our own.
JW: We’re just lucky. I don’t know how Athens can boost its image.
MU: I don’t even know where that legitimacy comes from. Money? There’s been plenty of Athens blogs over the years but they never last long. There’s the Flagpole and that’s it and it only serves a small part of the music scene. It seems like there are more sites, blogs, and magazines in Atlanta, places to find new bands. Maybe once in a while there is a band that is completely organically discovered, but I don’t think that happens often. From what I know you only get to that next level when you pay someone, and that is still a valid thing. But learning that has been both good and bad for us. We were like, what are we doing wrong playing shows on our own? But now we are just like, too bad we’re not rich enough to spend money on a press campaign that might or might not work.
JW: I guess for Athens it just comes to down going out and touring if you are in a band.
MU: That’s true for bands everywhere, if you care about that stuff. Why wouldn’t you want to connect with bands out there? We’ve met so many great people and seen so many cool things that I didn’t even know existed. We’re not always stuck on bills with bands just like us.
JW: Yeah, it’s really more fun when you get paired up with bands you wouldn’t think of.
MU: Yeah, it made sense to record with MJ, just because we did a previous UK tour where we did a tour with a dude’s band who booked the whole thing just because he picked up a record from our label and loved it. So that whole thing all started because one guy listened to our music.
JW: It’s surreal.
So it’s either money or random chance?
JW: I really think so. You could play a few shows and people fall in love with you, or you could be a band that you just keep getting better over the years, or you could change your sound after five records and then people like you. It’s just random how it all happens. There is no way to tell if you’ll be successful as far as I can see, unless you have a trust fund and want to throw money at it.
MU: It’s really that myth of working hard and having it pay off. There’s no guarantee. But there are so many people here that work hard and make great music and they just can’t afford to get it out there. Although some people just don’t need or want to get it out there.
JW: That’s true. Some bands just aren’t looking for that.
MU: It really does come down to chance. When I moved here, I would go to house shows where bands would play and people would lose their minds over it and they never made it anywhere. You can play to a really dedicated audience and unless the right writer sees you then maybe nothing will happen.
Eureka California will perform on Wednesday, May 18 at 529. Supporting them will be Witching Waves (UK) and Rad-Isaurus Rex. Doors open at 9 p.m. Admission is $5.