How are you to know the shape and dimension of your dreams, much less the dreams of those you share a stage with? In the beginning — and we’ll begin with Tom, because this story is his story as much as it is the story of the band; he’s the one telling it — in the beginning he was just playing with people, because that’s what Tom did. He played the guitar and David played the bass and Danny played the drums.
They were all music students in Boston, then, just mixing and seeing what might match. They played together a few times before Danny said to Tom, “Hey, I have a band called Via Audio, and I think you should join it.” So Tom did. They had already constructed most of what would end up an EP — Danny and David and Jess, who Danny saw singing and playing guitar on the street in Boston. He saw her and thought she was cute. That was part of it, certainly, but she could write songs too. Danny was the leader. He saw in people the kind of creative energy that might make a match, and he found Tom’s, which was to fit in, to be sensitive to what the music wanted. Tom thought: these are interesting musicians, it will be an interesting time; no matter what, we can go where ever we want.
Danny said he wanted them to be a live drum and bass band, but the process of figuring out what that was, what the band should be, that process never stopped. Danny demoed a song for Tom. He was proud of it, and Tom listened and liked it and wrote in his part, and they had their first track, “Developing Active People.” They put the track up on garageband.com and everyone loved it, so they went on tour. They toured from ’03 to ’05 with just that four song EP.
In Ypsilanti, Michigan, they played a show for just one person. In Nashville, no one came, so they set up on stage and the other band set up where the audience was supposed to be and they had a jam session. They toured out of a van Danny bought, an old Dodge. Before long it started to fall apart, its cylinders misfiring until eventually everyone figured out that if you put your gear in certain vans they just die, and that you have to have a Ford.
Eventually Kill Normal records out of Connecticut brought them on and paired them with a lot of punk and emo bands, an all ages crowd, this young skater scene in Hamden. Then Jess got their EP to Jim Eno, the drummer for Spoon, who was also a producer, and they were invited to South by Southwest, and Danny moved to New York. This was 2006.
Around the same time, Danny started making music with Elizabeth, who became Elizabeth and the Catapult. Danny and Elizabeth were working on the Catapult so much that eventually David and Tom had to tell Danny, “If you don’t want to be in Via Audio, you should just do what you want to do.” And he was like, “Yeah, I think that makes sense.” So he kind of left, but he left them with a bunch of songs he had written.
They still had Jim Eno’s attention, and they still went to South By Southwest, where they got a deal, and recorded their record in Austin, at Eno’s studio. By the end of the year Tom and Jess and David had all moved to New York, and were very ready to get serious. They got a good review on Pitchfork, they were getting decent tours, they had momentum but still felt poor and kind of sick of driving a certain distance to play a show, only to have the pay cover the gas money. They fired their manager, not because they blamed him, really, they just needed better connections. They got a new one, and at the end of 2007 they played Red Rocks with Spoon and the Flaming Lips. Danny was still playing with them, though everyone kind of sensed it was his last tour. They’d fight because they were upset about that. It was just beneath the surface, Danny’s leaving.
It felt like they were accomplishing something, but the thing was falling apart. Then, in December, they toured the whole country with a band called Tiger City. It was a hard time, a deliberately nasty time. They fought the way old couples fight, knowing just what to do or say to drive the other person crazy. Then Danny left for good.
In January they found a new drummer named Adam who could perform Squarepusher songs solo on the drumset. On his third rehearsal with the band, David got a call, went upstairs, came back and asked: “Hey guys, you want to go to Japan and open for Spoon?” So they did. They also played at an Apple Store in Tokyo, and ate some food Tom thought was really terrible, like chicken tendons. He also noticed unsettlingly specific cartoons on warning signs. On one, about where not to swim, there was a man weeping while he drowned.
Soon after they were back in the States and touring still, up in Michigan, Tom fell asleep in the back of the van and woke suddenly to hear David cry out, “Oh shit, I’m sorry everybody!” He looked out on the left side of the road and saw black ice and snow, then he looked out the right side and saw the same. They he was pressed up against the side of the van and there was just snow, covering all the windows. The van was stuck in a drift in the median. The first tow truck arrived after two hours and broke its winch trying to get them out, because of all the equipment, maybe. They were stuck there another three hours.
The band made another album. Each album was so different, it was a whole new chapter.They got a loan from David’s aunt to go back to Austin, to Jim Eno, and there was even some money leftover to use for publicity. The album came out and Pitchfork gave it a negative review and, well, it mattered more than any of them wanted to admit. They toured less, there were fewer opportunities, they began to do other things, play backup in other bands.
Still, slowly, from 2010 to 2011 they began to assemble enough songs for another album, did a Kickstarter to raise money for it, and raised $9,500 of the $8,000 they needed. They were hardly playing any shows, and when they finally did book one, it was the last David played. They drove all the way down to North Carolina, because someone from Yep Rock records had promised to check them out. By this time they had finished the album, “Natural Language,” and it felt like it might be their very best. The songs had come spilling out. Danny had even come back to produce it. Anyway they made the record, despite it all, and now no one was getting back to them about distributing it. Yep Rock was a possibility, but then no one from the label came to the show. Afterwards they agreed to pretend that never happened because it was pretty much the worst thing ever. They drove the 10 hours back home.
The next day David said the band felt like a job, and he just wanted to play music, and he had just talked to their booking agent, too, and both of them were done. “I think it would be irresponsible for me to continue,” he said. “In order for you to break up, or do something good, I have to leave.” So he left.
Tom and Jess didn’t know anyone else to send the record to, but they owed their Kickstarter backers a record, so they sunk some of their savings into a small run and set up a release party at Glasslands. A few weeks after booking the gig, Jess went out to visit her boyfriend in LA and decided to give things a real shot, and move out there with him. Tom gave her his blessing. “Listen,” he said, “the band is fun but I wouldn’t want the band to get in the way of my life, and you shouldn’t let it get in the way of your life.” They decided to accept the possibility that this might be Via Audio’s last show.
The drummer who played with Jess and Tom that last night at Glasslands was an old friend of Tom’s. They’d been playing together since they were 12. On bass was another guy they knew from school in Boston. Halfway through the set they played a song called “Reservoir,” one of Tom’s tracks on “Natural Language.” The song is about a place, Otis Reservoir, where his grandfather built cabins and where his family went, growing up. The song is also about that very particular feeling, the feeling of losing someone, and how the memories we share with that person are bundled up into certain places, and certain times. It’s about how that feeling of loss can be so very bittersweet, and how you don’t need a picture to remember it. It can’t be remembered in a picture, anyway.
At the end of their set, over the applause, Tom lifted one arm and shouted. He was back from the mic, it barely picked it up. “And that is why you must rock on my friends, no matter fucking what,” he said. And the crowd, several dozen friends and family and fans and fellow musicians, clapped hard and long, and Tom and Jess sat down to play one last song, just the two of them, together, under the bright red lights.
Ryan Bradley is a writer and editor in New York.