Tarnation – Who in Tarnation?
In the elbow-to-elbow confines of the minuscule music room at the Hotel Utah, one of San Francisco’s most promising bands headlines a Friday night show. The place is packed to see Tarnation, including many of the local music scene’s luminaries. Chris Isaak makes an appearance. Mark Eitzel drops by, as does Mark Kozelek of the Red House Painters. Even the non-local Harry Connick Jr. (for whatever reason) shows up. Onstage, lead singer and songwriter Paula Frazer ably leads Tarnation through a set of the band’s genre-melding songs.
The band is featuring tracks tonight from their coming release, Mirador (due out April 8 on Reprise). The album features a driving sound and Frazer’s angelic, multiple-octave voice. The small space of Hotel Utah seems perfect for Frazer’s voice and the band’s rolling, cinematically-inspired sound. On this night, Tarnation is sharp, Frazer relaxed, and the crowd appreciative.
You wouldn’t think this is a band that has been totally retooled since the release of their second album, Gentle Creatures, in April 1995. The disc hadn’t even hit the shelves of record stores before Frazer split with guitarist Lincoln Allen, drummer Michelle Cernuto, and bassist/lap steel guitarist Matt Sullivan.
Over lunch in the Potrero Hill neighborhood of the city Frazer calls home, she describes the situation and the changes. “I wanted Tarnation to be my vision. Not completely, but I wanted to be able to write my songs and feel free about that,” she says. The original lineup faced creative problems on many fronts, according to Frazer, especially after the band started garnering recognition. “I was feeling self-conscious because I was getting a lot of the attention. I wanted to sing my songs. I didn’t want have to not do my songs because there was only enough time in the set to do a few of each member’s songs.
“We were just being pulled in different directions. I finally just had to decide that I had to move on and start anew. We were all getting too angry with each other and feeling like we were creatively stifled, including me. They’re all really talented,” Frazer says about her ex-bandmates. “Michelle and Lincoln left to start a new band, Lava. It’s just a lot better for them. They’re playing their own music. In the long run, it’s been the best for everybody.”
One of the diciest topics that remained from the original lineup was the name of the band. Even though Tarnation was her brainchild, Frazer says she almost gave up the name up because of the former lineup. “I thought about taking another band name, just out of respect for them. But I had the name Tarnation before I met them. And I started it with my songs and that name,” Frazer says. “I had worked so hard for that name and had released two albums under Tarnation. So after a while I decided to keep the name.”
Guitarist Alex Oropez and drummer Joe Byrnes, who had previously been in a band called Broken Horse, joined up with Frazer soon after release of Gentle Creatures. The new lineup solidified with the addition of Jamie Meagan, who is also Frazer’s long-term partner. “People say relationships and bands don’t mix,” Frazer allows, “but it’s been really working out.”
Frazer has directed the new lineup down a rather different road musically. Where Gentle Creatures relied on a moody and atmospheric sound that seemed to float eerily (not surprising, then, that it was released by the famously ethereal 4AD label), Mirador drives dynamically. This is Frazer’s love of Western music emerging, particularly the movie soundtracks of Ennio Morricone. “In those spaghetti Westerns, they would add an almost opera feel to the singing. It’s a really cool combination,” Frazer says.
Born and bred in the South (she grew up in small towns in Arkansas and Georgia), Frazer says her love of Western music comes from a couple sources. “I grew up with spaghetti Westerns, as well as Gunsmoke, Big Valley, Bonanza.” Living in a state that was once a Spanish colony also has made an impression. “I love the West Coast and the whole Mexican/Spanish culture,” she says. “[San Francisco’s] Mission District and the countryside just looks really Spanish. I’m really influenced by that.”
“An Awful Shade of Blue”, the lead track from Mirador, succinctly exemplifies these influences — and the differences between the two bands. Frazer brought the song to the old lineup shortly before the breakup. “They thought it wasn’t completed,” Frazer says. “They thought the song was just a bunch of ideas.” As it appears on Mirador, the song moves into a higher gear almost immediately. Byrnes’ driving drumbeat puts the song into motion quicker than anything on Gentle Creatures attempted. Oropez’s guitar sidles through the song with vigor. Meagan’s bass acts as the backbone, holding all the pieces together for Frazer’s voice, which she utilizes as the band’s fifth instrument. In this case, it’s like a trumpet you might hear in a soundtrack of a spaghetti Western.