If you've spent any time in the city's thriving original-music district (the entire south side), you've noticed that most of the bands playing on a given night can be relied upon for comfortably familiar sounds. Rockabilly, blues, country, swing, garage and punk are well represented, and local-music lovers swallow it all with terrific relish. It's a good thing. It suggests that St. Louisans value the classics and are inclined to honor them -- and hey, shouldn't Midwestern music sound like it's from the Midwest? However, the fact that some local bands are actually paying label scouts to come to town and lend an ear says substantially more about the appeal of the "St. Louis sound" as a whole. Hip-hop is likely the least-derivative pop-music commodity St. Louis has had to offer for a long time, hence the gold rush of attention the genre's locals have spawned. With most everything else, our musicians seem inclined to refer to the golden greats of yesteryear as thematic templates. There's nothing wrong with that, but some fresher, less derivative rock and pop would sure hit the spot. At the very least, we need more music derived from less-violated graves.
For a little less than a year, south-side supergroup Red Eyed Driver has been concocting and serving up some of the freshest rock available locally. Not too surprising, when you consider that the project was essentially begun by former Tripstar vocalist/guitarist Bryan Hoskins, whose shiny tenor soars and swoops with the grace of a falcon, holding audiences rapt and taking them on a dynamic, emotional flight. There's an ocean of passionate longing and vulnerability in Hoskins' voice and songs. If Radiohead were from Motown, OK Computer would sound like his dark rock and soul.
Hoskins' obvious talent caught the attention of vocalist/keyboardist Andy Patania during shifts at Mangia Italiano, where both tend a mean bar between gigs.
"Tripstar had a second record that was laying around unfinished, and that's when Andy and I started playing together," recalls Hoskins. "I was sitting there with a bunch of songs and nothing to do with them. I'd heard that Andy had some keyboards and some nice gear, and I mentioned to him that we should get together and play some time. We did, and it was a lot of fun. We kicked around some ideas and --"
"Actually, I asked Bryan to play because he thought I hated him," Patania interrupts. "We used to work together at the old Cicero's, and apparently I said something rude to him."
"Well....at that time, I had long blond hair," Hoskins says. "Andy worked in the kitchen, and every time he came out he'd give me a look, like, 'Who's this guy with the long blond hair working the floor?' So we never really talked much."
Something in the mood of the closing shifts they worked together at Mangia plastered the musicians' respect for one another, and an alliance was forged. The duo dove into the demos Hoskins had recorded alone, paying extra attention to building the vocal harmonies he'd sketched out. When the time came, they didn't need to look far for a drummer. Musicians are plentiful on both sides of the bar at Mangia, and drummer/vocalist Jill Aboussie happened to be in the right place at a few of the right times.
Sharing equally in singing duties, Patania, Aboussie and Hoskins are creating what may currently be the most sophisticated harmonies in local rock. Like the queer daylight of an eclipsed sun, Red Eyed Driver's vocals are bright with virtuosity, yet dim with inky melancholy. Rather than relax into unison harmonies, the three often diverge onto separate-yet-concurrent melodic paths. The effect is that of hearing three lead vocalists at once. It's complex, eerie listening, reinforced by veteran bass demigod Todd Dorsey's low-end finesse. His recruitment came shortly after working sound for the band.
"The first I saw of them was at Lemmons when they played without a bassist," remembers Dorsey. "I was sitting behind the board, the whole time thinking about what I'd play under what they were doing."
"Todd plays a fretless [bass] and uses a lot of space in his technique," adds Aboussie. "I've always liked his playing, and I thought it would work really well with us."
Aboussie, who has played with Dorsey in the past, convinced Hoskins and Patania that the bassist would round out Red Eyed Driver's core lineup impeccably.
"Since Jill wanted Todd, that made it easier for us," Hoskins says. "Boom. There's the rhythm section. The next time we rehearsed after that Lemmons show, Todd came over. He'd had the demo for a week and blew us away with what he did."
The discussion pauses as Hoskins phones Languid guitarist Josh Kohn to confirm his presence at an upcoming rehearsal. Red Eyed Driver was briefly blessed with the lead guitar of Jimmy Griffin, whose busy schedule of paying gigs didn't leave room for the commitment the band needed from him. The band's hopes are high for where Kohn's colorful string work will take the music.
"We've played with a few different guitarists since then, but nobody we really wanted to stick with. Josh is coming over tomorrow, and we have high hopes for that. We're all pretty familiar with how he plays, so we know this might be the closest thing to what we have in mind for the sound."
If Kohn's accomplished guitar innovation tells us anything about what the band has in mind for the sound, it's that we should expect more uncommonly good music. Considering the soulful, spine-tingling rock they've already succeeded in creating in less than a year's time, it's a safe bet that Red Eyed Driver will continue to take us on a picturesque ride. With a solid foundation of talent already poured and a fresh, ever-onward attitude toward vocal experimentation and democracy in songwriting, the band's tank is full.