Ah, the ceaseless variation of genre! While it's truly impossible to track the exponential splintering of the indie-rock scene, leave it to us journalists to keep finding new ways to mix and match descriptive adjectives, thereby doing our bit to elongate the rock-taxonomy continuum and perpetuate our pathetic existences.
Los Angeles-via-New York-via-Washington, D.C.-area rockers Dead Meadow have been dogged by the burden of petty labeling since their inception. The group was originally tagged as stoner rock, a designation that might have been fitting if you consider that their early work focused on repetitious, heavy riffage filtered through the lens of late '60s proto-metal. Sure, Dead Meadow had a thing or three in common with sludge mongers like Iron Butterfly, Steppenwolf, Blue Cheer, or early Black Sabbath at their most blues-influenced moments.
Step forward to 2008 and, thankfully, Dead Meadow is now more likely to be classified as some variant of neo-psychedelia. Nevertheless, the stoner-rock categorization still crops up as an invariably easy way for music hacks to crank out yet another column inch. Yes, Dead Meadow sometimes employs heavy guitar riffs. And yes, Dead Meadow's music sometimes has dreamlike passages, space-y resonance, and a haunting, hallucinatory quality. The flaws of the psychedelia and stoner-rock tags for Dead Meadow are threefold: they're too damned easy; they're not always accurate; and both categories have drug associations that, whether or not they're true, have proven to be burdensome for the band.
"I don't think that stoner rock thing has served us very well at all," says Dead Meadow bassist, Steve Kille. "The drug association is unfortunate. In reviews, people will say our lyrics are all about Tolkien or some kind of mystical Dungeons and Dragons kind of stuff, and they're not. But the psychedelic aspect can make the shows more fun sometimes. You never know how people are going to react.
"It's so easy to pigeonhole, and it seems like that's what invariably happens. When we first came out it kind of hurt us because people didn't consider it as what it is, which is just rock 'n' roll. People end up focusing on these huge guitar riffs that aren't always there. We just wanted to create music that's kind of like what we love, like Neil Young or Led Zeppelin."
The group's latest album, the aptly titled Old Growth, reveals a band that has far outstepped the borders of stoner rock, psychedelia, or whatever they're calling it last week. The album touches on a variety of styles from meandering, blues-inflected rock and raga-like drones to occasional hard-and-heavy passages and moments of sheer pop bliss. All told, Old Growth is just evidence of a good old American rock 'n' roll band taking lots of chances and succeeding more often than not. Imagine a frenetic Canned Heat or a blissed-out Nazareth and you might have an inkling of what these guys are like—or not.
Now that the band is nearing the 10-year mark, Dead Meadow's steadfast work and seemingly endless tours are beginning to pay off. Rather than being associated with any fleeting musical trend, the group is becoming known on its own terms, as purveyors of good music.
"All in all, I think that these days people are developing more eclectic tastes in all genres," says Kille. "We have definitely evolved, though. I think any time there's a progression, it shows that you're getting better as you know your craft more. Every time we make a record, it gets a little bit closer to what we've always wanted to do."
Asked if the band's recent move to Los Angeles has had any influence on Old Growth's more relaxed and melodious songs, Kille is reticent. "Really, [the pop element] is just a quality that we've always had. I don't think the relocation made the new record any lighter. I mean, most of the songs were written before we moved. So it's not based on the atmosphere of L.A., it's just something that comes from within us."
While the band is far from living the debauched life of excess typical of bigger acts, they are at least managing, finally, to make ends meet and continue doing what they love. "The plan, if there is one, is to just continue making the music we love," Kille explains. "It's hard to set goals and say you're gonna accomplish something. Because really it's just a crapshoot. Being in a band is a lot like being a carny. And for us, making a record is just a way to get out and tour and make a little money. It's always kind of a struggle."