Mendoza Line Interview |
by Gus Mojica
At their Oct 4, 2004 - Iowa City, Iowa show.
Rockzone: Tell me a little bit about the history of the Mendoza Line, a bit about when and why the band was formed, and if there are any underlying goals.
Mendoza Line: The band started in 1996? Five full lengths, one long ep basically. We're from Athens, Georgia - well, hlaf of us are from Mclane Virginia, friends in high school. We played together while we were in high school. $kimgracey?$, one of the songwriters who went to the University Georgia, well, I spent a little bit of an inheritance on drinking with him down there and playing music, so that's how he came about, to the band. We put out a couple records around this time on a label called Kindercore, which doesn't exist anymore. Then around the tail end of 1999 we moved to Brooklyn, New York and put out some records on a new label - we've done three records since then. And we don't really have any underlying goals, we just like playing music. We're all big music fans. Music is a big part of our lives. We just put a band together.
RZ: Is it true that the Mendoza Line began as a sort of "garage recording band?"
Well, kind of…
RZ:Those are in the words of a member of the band, so I don't mean to be throwing rumors in your face or anything like that.
Oh, yeah, yeah, well, that's mostly right. When the band started we were called "the Incompetones", which was a very good description for what we were at that time! We listened to a lot of the Replacements, stuff like that, and we played a lot of punky stuff… we've grown up a lot since then. I guess we're not so much of a garage band anymore, but we mostly were then. But I mean, I still don't know what a G7 is, so we still have kind of a DIY thing going. I remember when we were first doing four-track recordings, our drums were literally, like, cardboard boxes, so there was an element of the "garage" thing, but I think it went away pretty fast.
RZ:Was it a difficult transition from being a studio-only band to playing the amount of live shows you do now?
Well, I think we basically never intended to go out on tour when we started. We had a thirty minute EP and three full-lengths before we went out on a proper tour. We never wanted to tour, we just never saw the point in it, which was probably to our detriment. But even now, we're still a studio-focused band, I mean, our latest album, Fortune, is the only release where we have only the core members playing. On our earlier stuff, there were like 25 to 30 people playing on the record. All of our friends, anybody who wanted to make a contribution.
RZ:You could definitely make a more unique recording that way.
RZ:How well do you think you're doing with playing the songs live?
Well, we have three songwriters so its all really about the songs. We spend nine months recording a record, so recording is key. But I think we're getting to be a good live band. We've played a lot in the past year or so. We toured England three times. I think we're just now starting to become a good live band after like three years together! We never toured on any of our old records, we just thought, well, we're going to record this and if anybody is interested, if anybody wants to buy it. But we're not going to tour all around the world. We've been taking it a lot more seriously in the past three years. We've been touring a lot.
RZ:The Mendoza Line is often described as a "band of frontmen", all of whom have differing songwriting sensibilities. How is this dealt with during the recording process?
I think everybody just comes in with five or six different songs and we record them all. Shannon sings her songs, I sing my songs, $tim?$ sings his songs, and Shanon sings one of $Tims?$ songs. We're all really different, but there's not a lot of competition. We're all after the same goal. There was a little competiton about three or four years ago when Shannon first started, but mostly there hasn't been much of that sort of thing. We just get along really well. We wrote the last record knowing what it was going to be about so it wasn't hard to put together. We did twenty songs and put out a twelve song record with one hidden out-take at the end. It's pretty egalitarian, I think. Nobody complains like, "oh, I'm getting my songs cut", or whatnot. It's very democratic and fun. We all just like being together and playing music. And playing poker together.
RZ:I notice you have your official University of Iowa Hawkeye Playing Cards there.
Oh yeah. (smiles)
RZ:Fortune seems to be of a very different ilk, at least from a literary standpoint, than the rest of the Mendoza Line's work.
I think in the current climate it's impossible for any artist to not say at least something about what's going on in America. I don't know if it was conscious, since we all write our songs separately, but we all came to the table with something relating to the current climate. I think we were affected mostly be playing in Greece and playing a couple shows there, and seeing these signs. There was this big picture of Bush and all this handwriting that we couldn't read. I asked someone "what does this say?" and it turned out to say, "the world's worst terrorist, George W. Bush". I mean, that has a major effect on you. Traveling around in England and Greece, it's impossible - irresponsible - to go around writing songs about love or getting drunk with your friends. I think there are five or six songs, maybe more, that mention, sometimes in code, what our feelings are on this climate politically.
RZ:Were a lot of people in Europe kind of bringing down their hatred for the U.S. on you?
RZ:The photographer I brought along went to Spain recently and some people there kind of took their anger out on her, questioning her very fiercely and things like that.
That wasn't happening to us since we were there on somebody else's bill, so people wanted to hang out with us. But a lot of people just told us, "you guys are really nice, but your president just stinks!". It was really refreshing to know that there was such a major opposition to know what was going on, but when you go over there, people are actually happy to know that people here aren't necessarily with the president, with the bombings of innocent people in Iraq.
RZ:The Mendoza Line website has a lot of writings and art, lots of multimedia. Have any of you thought about expanding the mutlimedia aspects of the band?
Paul, our bass player, has a website called $theamerciancongressishthing?.com$ with writings by friends of his and a bunch of people we don't really know who just write various things and they comment on each other's writing. So Paul's definintely interested in expanding that a lot. I'm interested in baseball! (laughs) Tim's also a writer, he does a lot on our site, but I think that down the road, five years when we don't want to be a band anymore, Paul and Tim are going to be writers. $shaun?$, his fiance directed this movie called Evergreen, which was actually in Sundance and a few other film festivals -
RZ:Yeah, I've heard of it.
Right, Paul helped with the music direction for that.
RZ:And the Mendoza Line makes multiple appearances on the soundtrack.
RZ:There's this band called Kill Me Tomorrow from San Diego that has a full-length novel coming out to compliment their latest record. Have you thought about putting out something similar?
Paul has thousands of pages of writing just lying out, and there's the stuff on the website. I think that would be really fun, but how are you going to pay for that? (laughs)
RZ:Out of curiosity, what is a "Mendoza Line", and how does it relate to the band?
A Mendoza Line is a term referring to a 215 batting average in baseball, and it came out in 1979 when Mario Mendoza batted a 198, which is a pretty bad average. Two of his teammates coined the term, you know, because you're doing okay as long as you're above the Mendoza Line. It actually means a 198 batting average, which is pretty horrible because you fail 80% of the time! Ever since then its come to mean a batting average of 215. It's used in different contexts all the time. If you watch Sportscenter obsessively like myself (laughs) you'll see that it's often used improperly. But, you know, unfortunately it does sort of relate to our band in some ways. I think the bands we grew up loving, the Replacements, the American Music Club and all these bands that had great potential but never grew to that REM level [of popularity], I think that's living through us. I mean, our band's doing okay, we could be a little bit better, but we definitely hit below the Mendoza Line. (laughs)
RZ:Any closing comments at all?
Go Hawkeyes! (laughs)