It's an unseasonably warm January night in St. Louis, although you'd be forgiven for thinking you were in London: The remnants of the recent snowstorm have melted, and a thick, viscous fog hangs in the air, making extreme caution a necessity when driving through south city. At a rehabbed dwelling not too far from the taquerias and hipster retail shops of Cherokee Street, the fractured-folk quartet Theodore is playing a house party.
The party guests have come for the music but are momentarily sidelined by the spread of homemade goodies laid out by the hosts. Between a Crock-Pot full of bacon-wrapped chicken wings and a plate of beet Reubens sits a tip jar full of ones and fives, which is soon to be split between Theodore and its opening act, the Omaha acoustic duo Outlaw Con Bandana. Coolers of Stag beer are stationed throughout the three-story house, and a sense of bonhomie is shared among the friends and strangers.
On the house's top floor, a decent-size bedroom has been converted into an intimate concert space. About 30 people are huddled near the makeshift stage where Theodore is about to start playing. Bypassing a customary greeting to the crowd, the quartet launches into "Death's Head," the climax of its soon-to-be-released album, Hold You Like a Lover.
To understand Theodore is to see the band in action. For this song, J.J. Hamon replaces his guitar with a harmonica; he runs it through a maze of effects pedals, which turn its reedy tone into pinging sonar distress signals. Andy Lashier curves his body into the frame of his upright bass, while drummer Jason Torbitzky fights the desire to kick the turgid, intensifying song into overdrive. At the center of the improvised stage, singer and guitarist Justin Kinkel-Schuster turns from folk troubadour to punk-rock preacher, delivering the song's ominous, entrancing refrain from somewhere deep and dark: "Death's head next to you all night long/Will hold you like a lover till the morning comes."
Most bands don't have the stones to open up a show, no matter the size, with their best song — much less one concerned with the heavy themes (e.g., the wheels of fate and the wages of sin) frequently found within its catalog. But Theodore's years of gigs at home and on the road, as well as a seemingly endless supply of songs from Kinkel-Schuster's pen, have helped it forge a shared vision and almost telekinetic communication.
Theodore is already known as one of the most dependable, accomplished bands in town. However, the release of Hold You Like a Lover, which is being released on the new indie label Moon Jaw Records, will give Theodore its greatest shot at national exposure. (Moon Jaw is an imprint of Absolutely Kosher and Misra Records, two record labels whose roster includes acts such as the Wrens, Sybris and Centro-matic.)
In a sense, Lover is a continuation of the seeds sewn on Theodore's 2007 debut, Songs for the Weary, a record with its feet planted firmly in the folk/alt-country tradition. It's also somewhat of a departure — by design — from 2008's vinyl-only Defeated, TN. Based on a box of letters found in an abandoned house, Defeated catalogued a family's dissolution through a haze of alcohol, prison stints and desperate attempts at reconciliation. After such a structured record, the band found it somewhat challenging to compile an album without an obvious over-arching story arc.
"Like with Defeated, we knew that [these new songs] went in this order before we ever recorded them," says Hamon, in reference to the process of compiling Lover. "But after we recorded them, we weeded out ones we didn't want to come out and spent two or three nights trying to make them into something workable, into the right order."
But if Lover lacks the concept-album narrative of its predecessor, it retains Theodore's knack for writing great songs about bad situations. Nearly every protagonist in Kinkel-Schuster's songbook is deeply flawed: the cuckolded would-be murderer in "Back From the War," the deadbeat dad in "One Good Fall" or the meth head in "Half Pint." Yet for their sins, these characters are not unlovable or unredeemable. They're simply good people who can't stop doing bad things.
At the house party, Kinkel-Schuster introduced a new song by saying, "This is a song about being a shitheel." When asked if his characters are ever anything but shitheels, the songwriter offered insight into his process.
"As a writer, it's important to never give myself the benefit of the doubt, so I'll always come at it from that perspective of not having a position of moral or any other type of authority," Kinkel-Schuster says. Torbitzky echoed the sentiment. "That's why bad news always makes the newspaper, and why we're interested in reading the books of Raymond Carver, things about failure and the human condition. No one gives a shit about the good things."
All this would give a bleak view of Theodore's songs and the members' outlook on humanity in general. But like Carver's fiction, remorse and the hope for forgiveness hang in the background of the band's humble, regret-soaked universe. We have to sin before we can be forgiven.
Theodore is normally thought of as a folk band, a fair appellation given the dominance of acoustic instruments, country-flecked heartbreak and folk-song idioms employed in the songs. (For instance, a beautiful a cappella rendition of the folk standard "The Water is Wide" appears as a brief reverie on Lover.) But with each release, the band has pushed the amount of experimental, untamed noise to the forefront.
Lashier places the band in the folk tradition but emphasizes the push-pull between tradition and invention. "All folk music is hand-me-down songs, and if you can tap into that common sound, melody and structure and still let J.J. take it into this roaring thing, you get the best of both worlds."
Adds Torbitzky: "Justin's always written really great songs, and it's just been the rest of our jobs to make the songs interesting to us and hope that they'll be interesting to other people. We've redone a lot of songs to keep them interesting to us, and it always turns out to be heading in an avant-garde direction."
Like all great bands, Theodore is the product of four distinct but interlocking musical personalities. Kinkel-Schuster often sings with his feet together and his head tilted toward the ceiling, keeping his slight frame stock-still while singing with the conviction of a soul man. Torbitzky is the kind of refined, tasteful drummer who can play propulsive beats while wearing a sport coat and never relies on perspiration alone to affect the tenor of a song. Lashier switches between electric and upright bass and might add trumpet, keyboard and musical-saw flourishes. And like the Band's Garth Hudson, Hamon is Theodore's fuzzy-bearded wild card. He uses guitar, accordion and lap steel to create dense, layered moods within the songs — ranging from wild peals of feedback to bucolic, undulating swaths of sound.
This spirit of collaboration helps drive the band creatively and makes each show a different, of-the-moment experience. "It wouldn't be a fucking band if what eventually comes out isn't a bastardization of everything all of us thinks and feels and listens to," Kinkel-Schuster says.
Hamon chimes in, laughing: "We have an album full of bastards! Great."
"Right, it wouldn't be a band," Kinkel-Schuster continues. "Without the chemistry of people playing together, it's just not the same."