Codeine: The Welcomed and Unexpected Relapse of “Slowcore”

Despite their brief existence as a band, Codeine maintains a legacy as the pioneers of a genre eventually known as “slowcore”. Releasing three records from 1990-1994, the trio gained exposure on Sub Pop records as the east coast eccentrics on an otherwise genre-specific northwestern label.

With Stephen Immerwahr (bass/vocals), John Engle (guitar) and Chris Brokaw (drums), the band’s sound consisted of seemingly slacker lyrics and glacial-paced tempos that culminated into an onslaught of heavy-hearted vocals and heavy-handed instrumental crescendos.

Despite being a New York band, Chris Brokaw lived in Boston where Codeine had their first official show. Eventually resigning to start the band Come, Codeine would continue on, but the band’s life proved short-lived.

After years of being asked to reunite, it was the extensive Codeine vinyl box set reissues  on Numero Records that brought the band back together. The snazzy 6-LP compilation with previously unreleased studio tracks and 4-track demos, is out now and the band recently did a brief tour that included a slot in the Mogwai-curated All Tomorrow’s Parties to promote the release. I caught up with original drummer Chris Brokaw and singer/bassist Stephen Immerwahl, separately, to preview their recent Boston show.

Interviews with both Chris and Stephen are included below. Enjoy.

–>Interview with Chris Brokaw<–

How did All Tomorrow’s Parties go?

CB: All Tomorrow’s Parties London was amazing. We had done a warm up show in Seattle in early April, but ATP London was kind of our second show. It was definitely the biggest stage we’ve ever played on and definitely the biggest audience we’ve ever played to. I think it went really well. We were well rehearsed and had an excellent sound guy with us, which makes a huge difference in a room that size. Just the response from people was really great. I wasn’t too surprised because people were always asking me about the band a lot, particularly over the past ten years. People were really excited.

Was being asked to do that the impetus for getting the band back together?

CB: No, in fact, Barry Hogan who runs ATP has been asking us to get together for the past 8 years. In all that time we said “Thanks, but no thanks.” We thought about it, but we didn’t see any reason to go out and play. John, Steve and I have remained really good friends over the years and see each other very often, but it didn’t seem like there was a reason to get back together. The main impetus was being asked by Numero Group to do these reissues. Once we realized the scope of those reissues, we felt like we had to go out and play some shows to let people know this was happening. Barry was the first person I called and he immediately set us up with ATP London. He also had a stage at the Primavera Festival in Barcelona. And this year they also have a festival called Primavera Porto, in Portugal and it’s looking like we’re going to do an ATP in Tokyo in November.

So it was the organizer and not the curators that got you guys on ATP?

CB: They [Mogwai] asked us to play that day and that was once they knew that we wanted to do something with Barry. I have been friends with the Mogwai dudes for several years and they released a solo record of mine on their label, Rock Action. They put that out in 2005 and I’ve done a bunch of shows opening for them. Those guys are also superbig Codeine fans.

Were you surprised that the band would have this sort of staying power this many years later?

CB: I mean I don’t know. We all knew that we were doing something very unique and very specific when we were doing it and people recognized that we were doing something very unique even back then. In some ways it’s not entirely surprising because people zero in on things that are that specific, but it’s extremely flattering. In some ways it’s hard for me to divide the style of what we are doing from the songs themselves. I can speak objectively because I didn’t write the songs. Stephen wrote the songs. I think the songs are really amazing. He’s a really great songwriter so I think that stuff has real staying power.

I know the tour hasn’t officially started, but as far as how the band was back then, was Codeine an in-the-know type of band that grew in time or was it a big deal back then as well?

CB: I mean people were pretty aware of what we were doing. In some places the band was certainly popular and drawing crowds like we’re drawing now. When the second record came out (and I stopped playing in the band when that record came out), I went to see them play on one of their tours over in Germany and all of those shows were sold out. We had a profile for sure after a point. People were paying a lot of attention to everything coming out on Sub Pop at that point. So just being on Sub Pop raised our profile a lot. Being on Sub Pop and being the first non-Northwest band on the label, and more specifically being so different from everything on that label also brought some attention.

Did words like “Slowcore” exist back then when you were starting out? Or were you guys the pioneers for that term?

CB: To a degree, but I think what it meant then was different from what it came to mean afterwards. At the time, I remember we were throwing the term “slowcore” around as a joke. New York slowcore was a take on New York hardcore. If we thought that term meant anything back then we thought it meant the Swans and the Melvins as the very crushing sort of thing. I think particularly we had a little of that thing going on, but it wasn’t as brutal as those bands. I think over the years that term started to change. It’s almost like the word “emo”. There was a period of time when the term “emo” specifically just meant the band The Rites of Spring. Then over time it became a lot of different things. I think “emo” and “slowcore” became terms that anyone called those terms doesn’t want to be referred to that way. It was a thing that cultural pundits came up with that didn’t mean much.

You said you left the band. Did you rejoin the band at some point?

CB: Basically I left the band because I was playing guitar in the band Come. I was playing in both bands for awhile, but once Come’s first album came out, I knew we would be on tour for a few months and it didn’t seem to be right to be in both bands. So I left the band and new drummers took over. Over the years as we were approached to reform Codeine it seemed like an unspoken thing and made sense that it would be the three of us.

I was always under the influence that Codeine was a Boston band. Was Come a Boston band?

CB: Come was always a Boston band. We played enough in New York that people thought we were a New York band, but we were totally a Boston band. Codeine was definitely a New York band. There was a period of about three months when Codeine was starting that I lived in New York. I went back to Boston to specifically start Come with Thalia. We were both going back and forth, but decided we wanted to live in Boston to start Come. So most of the time I was in Codeine I lived in Boston and would go to New York to practice and record.

So what led to the end of Codeine?

CB: My sense of it was there were a few things. I would say one is that they had been touring a lot and kind of got burned out. Also, I think they were supposed to do some recording in 1994 and they didn’t have any new songs. But I think also, my sense is that Steve felt like what he wanted to do was very specific and very finite. When the band started I remember him saying that he didn’t think the band would last more than a year and a half. The band lasted 4 or 5 years. I think he had a specific thing that he wanted to do and after he did it, he was done.

What were those guys up to after Codeine?

CB: Steve played a little bit of music with different people, mostly accompanying other songwriters, but eventually they both stopped playing music all together. They both stayed in New York and got different jobs.

Was anyone hard to convince to restart the band?

CB: It wasn’t hard to convince Steve. He was and has been firm about keeping it limited. Initially he said he would do up to ten live shows. Now it’s 17 shows, but my sense is we’re just going to do those shows and that’s it.

How did the reissues come to be and is it the whole catalogue?

CB: Yes. We were approached by Ken Shipley at Numero Group and he sent me an email and said “Codeine Vinyl?” The cd’s have remained in print on Sub Pop over the years and the vinyl has been out of print. So I said let me ask Sub Pop and they said, “Fine, knock yourselves out.” Ken is a really huge fan of the band and kind of a completist. In some ways he wanted to get all of our stuff in one place—compilation tracks, demos and stuff like that—especially unreleased stuff. And there was a huge trove of studio tracks we had scrapped and 4-track demo stuff that Steve had done that was really interesting and different. Ken wanted to take an active role in assembling this stuff. I think the box set is almost entirely complete. We did one song on a Suicide tribute record that we did as a joke, and that didn’t make it on the box set. It’s not absolutely everything, but it’s almost everything and everything we wanted to put together.

Do you remember specific highpoints of the old days?           

CB: Yeah, I think particularly recording the Frigid Stars LP. None of us had made a record before and it was a fun process. We did it in a friend’s basement, not in a studio. The experience was new to us and unusual. When we finally got the records in the mail from Germany we sat around and smoked cigars and listened to our album. That was really exciting. I had never done that before and it was something I had always dreamed of doing.  Some of the shows too. Individual shows like this amazing show in Vienna which was a highpoint for us. Just making the music. The way that John and Steve operate is very different that any of the musicians I’ve worked with. They weren’t really married to their egos as players so the thing was always about what the best way to create Codeine music. Just the whole process of arranging the songs was very new to me.

That being said, was this your first band? Or was this your first recording?

CB: First recording. I had been in other bands in high school and college, but this was the first band to do a real recording.

How old were you when Codeine started?

CB: Let’s see… I was 25.

I’ve seen you probably 100 times [only a slight exaggeration], in many different bands. I was wondering if you can possibly remember every project you’ve been in? Perhaps the first time I saw you play was at the Metro in Sydney, Australia with Evan Dando. Is there any way you can go through the whole list of people you’ve performed and recorded with?

CB: Oh my god! The whole list?! Well there’s Codeine and Come, Consonant, New Year, Pullman, The Empty House Cooperative, Dirtmusic. I’ve done records with Geoff Farina [of Karate] as a duo. I’ve done records backing up Steve Wynn, Evan Dando, Thurston Moore, Christina Rosenvinge, Rhys Chatham, GG Allin…. I know there are more than that, but I can’t recall.

–>Interview with Stephen Immerwahr, one day later<–         

How did you three meet to form Codeine? It’s funny I’ve talked to Chris a little. I actually asked him to name all of the projects he’s been in and I’m pretty sure he missed more than a few.

SI: Yeah, he’s a hometown hero. He’s a player.

How did the band get together? How long had the band known each other?

SI: Well, I went to the same college that Chris did. He was at Oberlin College. But I don’t think I ever talked to him when I was at Oberlin. It was a small school and Chris was really cool and I was actually very shy. So, what happened was, I had graduated and was “couch surfing” and I met John through his older brother when I was staying on a couch at his folk’s place. I knew right away that I wanted to be in a band with him and we would be in a band together. He actually didn’t know it and it took a little bit of time actually to happen. He had a cassette recorder and I would come over and make songs on the cassette recorder. Then a friend from Oberlin College, Sooyoung Park, was in a band called Bitch Magnet at the end of the 1980’s and he said asked if we wanted to open up for Bitch Magnet in Boston. We weren’t totally sure if we had a name at that point, but I described the concept to John. Then we got this offer to do this show in Boston and I didn’t know anyone in Boston, but Sooyoung said, “Chris Brokaw is in Boston and he has a drumkit.” And even though he was mainly a guitar player at that point, we were like ok. Sooyoung gave Chris a copy of the tape and he came down and did a couple rehearsals and then we went to Boston and played that show and that was kind of it. It wasn’t clear that we were going to do anything more, but…

So your first show was officially in Boston?

SI: Yes, our first official show was in Boston at the Middle East Upstairs.

What was your inspiration for your sound and did terms like “slowcore” exist back then when you were starting out?

SI: Um, there weren’t terms out there like “slowcore”. There were some terms out there. People were trying to determine what was out there with “indie” and “alternative” music then. But there wasn’t a “slowcore” or “sadcore” back then. It’s kind of hard to recall, but stuff sounds good slowed down. I don’t know if stuff just sounded good slowed down on John’s recorder—really it wasn’t just tape speed– it was just like an emotional heaviness that was the focus of the band’s sound. It took a while for some sense of how it might work, but I think it was the process of making “Frigid Stars” that we decided how to make the concept of what I had always had.

When you were making the songs initially, did you ever have the feeling that there was something special happening—something that would retain a legacy in 2012 and respark a band that had disappeared?

SI: [Laughs] When you’re in a band, you want it to be the greatest band of all-time. And when we were in a band it wasn’t the greatest band of all-time—which was terrible. But we had to try. But we had a couple of really good songs and we had a stylistic tool that a lot of bands didn’t have…especially in indie rock. And we had more of a coherent and aesthetic sound that we were trying to hone. We kind of got lucky because I think the band name was important too. We wanted to be great. We certainly weren’t great, but we tried. John and Chris would say “oh this band is copying us”, but we copied other bands.

I assume the Sub Pop thing attracted attention to you guys. How did you get recognized by the label?

SI: We were pretty lucky as a band and we got signed to Sub Pop as a band before we had even played 10 shows. A lot of those shows were in Boston. We played Bunratty’s, TT’s and the Middle East. But what happened was I had gone to Europe doing sound for Bitch Magnet and when they were doing interviews and people asked what the happening American bands, I said, “Tell them Codeine”. And it totally worked. This German label that was putting out Bitch Magnet at some point asked, “Is Codeine still unsigned?” and we were like, “Yes, Codeine is still unsigned”. And we sent them a tape. I had recorded songs with John and it was still proto-Codeine. It was slow and heavy and more produced than Codeine records landed up being. They were like, “Oh this is great. We’re going to put this on a compilation and here’s some more money to do two more recordings.” So we recorded the first side of Frigid Stars and they were like, “Oh this is great, here’s some more money for the rest of it.” So this label, Porterhouse, in Germany, was busy putting out the Codeine record there, and they were also the Sub Pop distributors for Sub Pop in Europe.  So Sub Pop was interested, or more likely, curious. So we sent them the cassette. And they didn’t dig it right away. Maybe it wasn’t grunge or have big enough guitars, and they heard the first single and they got the whole aesthetic. They said they would put this thing out, but wanted to see us play first. So they came out at the beginning of 1990 and saw us play at TT’s and they said, “Ok, you guys are alright.” That’s how it happened.

I hadn’t thought about this til now, but when did you guys start vs. Morphine and was there any strange feelings about the likeness in opiate-based names?

SI: Morphine I think was just starting. Morphine is huge. I remember John asking, “Are we bigger than Morphine now,” and Chris goes, “No!  We’re not bigger than Morphine.” We were never bigger than Morphine. There was a little bit of “Oh they’re cramping our style”, but they had their own thing and I don’t think we were the first drug band name, but we were certainly on the front of it. I’m certainly happier to be associated with Codeine than Morphine, myself.

What have you been up to between the then and the now of Codeine?

SI: I went to grad school and I didn’t like it, but I learned statistics and research methods. And basically I’m doing now what I have been for the last 7 years, working for the New York City of Health counting things. The Health Department keeps track of all sorts of things and that’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve been doing that for a while, and I think liking my job is pretty cool. I really didn’t think that I missed being a musician. Even my music listening has changed. I think when I was in a university, my listening was very pragmatic and I though about what I could use… what do I like? I find that I listen to music a little differently now that I’m not a full-time musician.

Do you have some highlights from the old days that stick out?           

SI: Yeah. I will say that when we first got out copies of the Frigid Stars LP, when John and Chris and I first got our red box from the Post Office and I brought it to the rehearsal space. I bought some cigars that I guess were really, really cheap… how would I know. We opened up the box of our first ever vinyl record and smoked these cigars and I guess they were horrible and John and Chris were both sick the next day. But that was one of the greatest moments ever. I think that and headlining CBGB’s for the first time ever was pretty special too. I feel just really lucky. All deaths our hard. And our death was hard. But not only did we lose Chris Brokaw, when we lost Brokaw, we got Doug Scharin. And we played even more shows with Doug than we did with Chris. We were damn lucky.

Does Doug have any bad feelings about Chris being chosen as the reunion drummer over him?

SI: [Laughs] I don’t think there are any bad feelings, but Doug sent something over to Chris over Facebook saying, “Chris, are you sure you don’t want to play guitar?” I think that was really cute actually. It’s all good.

Why did the band call it quits after all?

SI: I think the Muse kind of left. It’s kind of hard to describe it. There weren’t new songs ready to go and Codeine existed to play those other songs. When there weren’t songs coming, that was it. It didn’t seem right for the band to continue… if that makes any sense.

I saw that the reissues were delayed for a bit. When are they expected to hit stores?

SI: I think they’ll be in stores today or tomorrow. A few of my friends got theirs in the mail this weekend. They should be in stores RIGHT NOW! [laughs]. I haven’t seen the finished product yet, but I assume that seeing the re-releases with the liner notes and the booklets will be right up there with the time we first saw the release of Frigid Stars.

http://www.numerogroup.com/

http://www.subpop.com/artists/codeine           

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