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Roadside Monument, 15 Years And 2,700 Miles Later, Reunite A Lost Seattle

Roadside Monument got back together for one night because of U2... sort of.
Chris C Bowden
Courtesy of the artist
Roadside Monument got back together for one night because of U2... sort of.

It took a few songs for them to lock in. "We'd like to dedicate this entire set to the memory of John Spalding," guitarist and primary vocalist Doug Lorig said, referencing a Seattle guitarist who died of cancer in 2008 and played in punk bands like Ninety Pound Wuss and the wildly destructive Raft Of Dead Monkeys, all of whom shared members (at one point or another) with Roadside Monument. It immediately reinforced the tone of the evening, channeling a beloved friend who had connected so many of Seattle's punk satellites. And in Barboza, a basement venue in the record store and bar-lined Capitol Hill neighborhood, an old scene realigned for a show which I'd traveled across the country to see.

This is not the account of a late-but-curious convert.In the late '90s and early 2000s I taught myself rudimentary code by running an exhaustive fansite (now only available inarchive form), nearly released a tribute compilation (featuring covers by indie-country, metallic hardcore, chamber-pop and glam-rock bands), bid on rare t-shirts online, distributed live bootlegs of old shows from Roadside and post-Roadside bands via FTP servers (you know, pre-BitTorrent). Roadside Monument was my favorite band.

The band challenged conventions of emo, post-hardcore and math-rock by operating at its rawest edges.Doug Lorig's impenetrably abstract lyrics, theband's dramatic shifts from quiet guitar noodling to abrasive squalls, Matt Johnson's muscular-yet-musical drumming, and Johnathon Ford's rumbling and heavily foregrounded bass were a strange fit for the pop-punk altar calls of church basements and youth halls they often found themselves playing on tour (and that they would desperately try to avoid towards the end of their first life). Its small-yet-loyal audience tuned into a frayed wavelength. I've yet to hear a band quite like this since — and I've looked.

From 1996-98, Roadside Monument released three very different records in just three years, with a scattershot of compilation appearances on long-forgotten labels like Crank! and Glue Factory and split EPs with alt-rockers Puller and chaos-punks Frodus. Signed to the Seattle-based Tooth & Nail Records, whose improbably strong '90s output hewed to no sonic doctrine but was nevertheless branded as "Christian," Roadside Monument was a band both in and out of the era, at odds with and navigating through an alternate Seattle scene.

Records like Eight Hours Away From Being A Man (produced by Shellac's Bob Weston, and coincidentally celebrating 20 years this week) and I Am The Day Of Current Taste (produced by Jawbox's J. Robbins) not only played with song structure, through the trio's seeking instrumentals, but genuinely experimented with mood shifts in blushed and broad hues. Even the band's 1996 debut Beside This Brief Hexagonal — with a completely different rhythm section and second guitarist — retains a tentative, messy charm.

Set list from Roadside Monument's Barboza set in Seattle, June 4.
Lars Gotrich / NPR
Set list from Roadside Monument's Barboza set in Seattle, June 4.

Fifteen years ago, on a farm in the middle of Illinois,bassistJohnathon Ford hung from the thick, wooden pole like a ship's mast, shaking violently and desperately urging, "CARRY YOUR... CARRY YOUR..." The dust and sweat from the festival tent, kicked up by a throng screaming along to "Sperm Ridden Burden," a stark reflection on single motherhood etchedin clustered chords and bass lines like barbed-wire picket fencing. This was where we would leaveRoadside Monument — a brief-but-spectacular second phase which saw the band evolve from its mussy, emo roots into a ballistic rock band. At that performance,a global community had descended upon a Central Illinois farm for a music festival, many just to see Roadside Monument for the first time. "It will survive... It will survive..." The lyrics from "Sperm Ridden Burden" felt like they had a double purpose that night, extending the lifeline. But after a few more gigs and a few unfinished songs, long before nostalgia industry kicked the reunion economy into high gear, those lyrics did not. For a long time, at least.

Over burgers and beers in one of the many microbreweries in the Ballard neighborhood, Matt Johnson and Doug Lorig told me it would take Ford flying into town for a U2 show, of all things, for Roadside Monument to suddenly announce a last-minute reunion in its Seattle home earlier this month. Once again, I made the long trek — cross-country and by plane this time, from Washington, D.C. — to see the band on its own turf. We were surrounded not by a global community, but by the '90s Seattle scene itself; old roadies and roommates, members of bands from both flavors (punk and emo) who never made it to the East Coast. David Bazan, the wry-yet-thoughtful songwriter who often employed Roadside's bassist during his years under the Pedro The Lion moniker (and who played drums on Ford's first Unwed Sailor EP) was overheard saying: "I don't usually like reunions, but this feels right."

Lorig and Johnson are dads now — which doesn't mean they don't play music, just that they do so more sporadically. Lorig plays around town, often in metal-leaning heavy bands, while Johnson admitted to me that he hadn't played "rock drums" since Roadside's last break-up. Ford, on the other hand, has been the most consistent, with Unwed Sailor, the long-running instrumental band largely built around his melodic bass lines and recognizably bold tone. Now splitting his time between Tulsa and New Orleans, it was Ford who, visiting Seattle to see U2 with friends, suggested the trio play a few songs after Unwed Sailor's scheduled show on June 4. Three songs turned into six, into nine, with a set list culled from the band's last two albums.

By the time they hit "Nothing Short Of A Comfortable Situation" from the Frodus split EP at Barboza, the quiet-loud dynamic that defined much of their output coalesced into thrilling, rhapsodic blocks of Paul Klee-like shapes and colors that popped into and out of shaded corners. The performance of the vividly titled "My Hands Are The Thermometers" from Eight Hours Away From Being A Man, premiering here with a striking black-and-white live video shot by and Maurice Morales, meditates on metallic feedback before tapping into Drive Like Jehu histrionics, drawing a jagged line from Seattle to San Diego post-hardcore. It is one of Roadside Monument's most feral songs, with a soaring bridge that allows the band to improvise live. In that crowded basement, Lorig's Hawkwind obsession bled through a spaced-out solo as the rhythm section rode into the hall of the mountain grill.

It's unclear if Roadside Monument will ever play again. Ask the band members and they don't know themselves. Those last few gigs past the turn of the millennium ended very suddenly, but after closing the Barboza set with "Sperm Ridden Burden," it felt both like closure and a bombastic opening, the trio's new experiences exploded into old songs. "It will survive... It will survive..."

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