Everything about Jonathan Bates dares you to say something snotty to him. His shirt proclaims his own band, Mellowdrone, sucks. He talks about playing shows during which people heckled him about his music. He tells stories about how he had a rough childhood — “Everybody remembers that kid in third grade who said something really mean,” is how he puts it — and about how he went to the Berklee School of Music in Boston because “it was the farthest place I could go from where I was.” Which, as it happens, was Miami, Fla.
Taking a few minutes to chat before opening for former Smiths’ guitarist Johnny Marr, on tour with his new band the Healers, Bates is affable, wrapped in a striped scarf and thrift-store sweater. He talks about touring with Marr, who he claims has been a “real sweetheart,” and the difference between his life and music now as opposed to when he was attending Berklee.
“You can’t teach art, and you can’t teach someone how to trust in themselves,” Bates asserts. “You can only teach them how other people have done it. After I got tired of learning how other people had done it, my brain was full of it.”
He eventually wound up in Los Angeles, recording an album during an eight-month time span that found him crashing on various folks’ couches. Vowing he wasn’t going to return to Boston — “Everyone I knew at the time talked about doing things but never did anything, so I was like, ‘Fuck it, you only live once,’ — he began playing L.A. nightclubs, attracting the attention of a number of major labels.
Bates decided to sign on with ARTISTDirect based not only on A&R rep Tony Berg’s track record at Virgin and Geffen (he signed Beck and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club), but also on Berg’s history as a musician himself and ARTISTDirect’s presence as a strong Internet company. There was also the issue of creative control; ARTISTDirect was willing to give Bates the space he needed to create the looping, introspective mass of electronic layers that dominate his first two self-released records.
“The way the record business is today, it’s not making any money (on a sound like mine),” Bates says. “You listen on the radio right now and bands like Good Charlotte are the ‘in’ thing. I’m not saying they’re good or bad, but it’s just not who I am.”
Bates, the son of a musician-cum-architect father, was born in Venezuela. His family moved to Miami when he was 7 years old, and his memories of childhood are peppered with feelings of awkwardness and memories of being teased and beat up by other children, things he brusquely dismisses as “the standard cliches for musicians.” Bates has an aggressive vulnerability, an almost perverse desire to thrust his music into the spotlight, as if to dare people to take a shot at him.
“All that taught me a lot about human characteristics,” Bates explains. “I don’t find it coincidental at all that when you get picked on as a kid, you’re afraid of attention. So what do I do? Sit up on stage with a guitar by myself.”
Yet he can’t stop himself from doing just that.
“It’s kind of like looking at yourself in the mirror,” he says. “Music is an auditory reflection of who you are if you’re writing it. (Performing on stage) is a huge vulnerability. It’s the scariest thing, and because of that, it’s the biggest payoff. When you fuck up, it’s so embarrassing, it’s so stupid and you feel like such an idiot. But if you didn’t take those chances, you’d be sitting there kicking yourself in the ass. That’s why I like playing live. It makes me not take myself so seriously.”
A Demonstration of Intellectual Property, the first Mellowdrone release on ARTISTDirect Records, features six songs that range from a short, acoustic lullaby (“Tinylittle”) to Radiohead explorations of emotional intensity (“Fashionably Uninvited”). A fatalistic sense of detachment guides Bates through guitar drone, rich layers of keyboards and drum beats, creating an atmosphere that indulges a listener’s sense of drama.
Clocking in at less than 20 minutes, the EP wears its influences on its sleeves — think Jeff Buckley, Beck, Elbow, Yo La Tengo — but retains a sense of individuality that is manifested lyrically. Irony drips from Bates’ tongue like honey in phrases like, “What did I do to deserve you?” finding refuge in simple, monochromatic passages of phrasing.
“When I went to Boston, I played guitar, and I was very skillful technically,” Bates says. “I could guitar solo all over the place, but one day, I was like, There will always be a million people who are better than (me). And you know what? It just doesn’t matter.
“So hopefully, my songwriting is getting more and more about not having to do with physics and more about stream-of-consciousness,” he says. “I feel like I’ve done really well when what’s in my head is coming out exactly without any translation or any tangible medium seems to mess it up.”
Ultimately, Bates wants to be that guy whose music touches listeners in some way, whatever that might be.
“You know the feeling you get when it’s raining outside and you’re lying in bed, reading a book, and it’s a Sunday afternoon?” he asks. “Whatever sound makes me feel that way, that complete, womb-like comfort, that’s what I want musically.
“If lyrically, I can make people go, ‘Ouch,’ or, ‘What did the fuck did he just say,’ then cool,” he says.