Swimming Lessons 

Local group learns to take things in stride

Local group learns to take things in stride

About a year ago, the Floating Men almost gave up and started to sink. Undone by the pressures of the road, the local trio decided they couldn’t carry on any further. These days, however, they’re feeling invigorated. They’ve learned that they don’t need to swim as fast, or as far, as they have in the past.

Four years ago, when the group released their second studio album, Invoking Michelangelo, they still saw a glimmer of stars on the horizon. Deeply believing in the possibilities of their music—a literate and compelling blend of sweet harmonies and darkly honest revelations—the group set out to conquer the world one nightclub at a time. Armed with little more than their own resolute determination and a set list of good songs, they trekked across America, earning a following so big that major record companies could no longer ignore them.

After more than 600 shows in three years, they wound up with a legion of rabid fans who consistently packed small clubs in the Midwest and Southeast. They also wound up burned out and road weary—and without any indication that their careers would ever go beyond a beat-up van, dingy diners, roadside motels, and back-alley load-ins.

“We really tried to make a run at creating a stir,” says bassist and harmony vocalist Scot Evans. “We shelled out a lot of money for radio promotion, and we played five nights a week. We tried to go everywhere and do as much as we could. All we did was wear each other out.”

Without saying as much, all three thought for a while that the band was over. “Not because we didn’t like the music,” says Jeff Holmes, the group’s lead singer, songwriter, and guitarist. “Not because we didn’t like each other. Not because of any of the normal reasons bands quit. We [thought] it because we were exhausted.”

They took a few months off, sleeping in their own beds and relaxing in their own yards. Holmes, who has written so eloquently about the toxic allure of the night, began to dwell on the comforts of home and family. Then the songs started coming again.

One of the first was “A Tall Stand of Pines,” the opening number on the Floating Men’s new album, The Song of the Wind. Inspired by Stonewall Jackson’s final words—“Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees”—Holmes wrote of a charming, drunken rake who, as the song puts it, is “having one hell of a time finding my way back to a tall stand of pines.”

Once he finished that song, his muse started to bloom again. “I started writing furiously, and I started to see themes developing,” he says. “In every song, I used the shade of trees as a metaphor for home. Once the concept was there, the ideas just fell into place. Once I got the frame built, the drywall just went in on its own.”

Tall pines and shade trees aren’t the only thematic images. Bloodhounds and horses are used as metaphors for man’s animal lust and his desire to run free, while “Pink Lemonade” and “Pink Champagne” both speak of the foolish pursuits and inane vanities of those who can’t settle down. As the songs continued to come to him, Holmes noticed they were populated by the same characters who popped up in earlier lyrics.

In its way, then, The Song of the Wind completes a trilogy. On the trio’s first album, Tall Shadows, the characters act out all the craziness of youth. Invoking Michelangelo finds the same people wrestling with adulthood. On the new album, the characters find a measure of peace in maturity. “They’ve found a warmth that was missing in all the hormonal chaos of youth,” Holmes says. “They’re looking back at all the mistakes, but they’re glad they went through it.”

On “Gathering Souvenirs,” for example, Holmes asks, “What could we do in a crowd that we can’t do at home?” Asked about the song, he explains: “That’s my life right there.... As you get older, you start to really cherish every moment you can spend with someone you care about. You learn that your family is at home, and that’s where you want to be when you can, especially when you’ve lived the lives that we have and have been away from it so much. When you’re young, the reproductive urge is so strong that you can’t see that. You try and douse it with alcohol or drugs, or with random, casual relationships. You don’t have the time to reflect.”

When Holmes played his new songs for the rest of the band, they also grew excited. They wanted to start playing and recording again. But they decided from the start to keep their attention just on the songs and not on the future. “The main thing was to have fun,” Evans says. “We weren’t going to think about shopping a deal or trying to change the world.”

They also decided to allow themselves to expand beyond a three-piece lineup—at least in the studio. In the past, they wanted to be able to recreate their recordings in a live setting. That wasn’t a concern with The Song of the Wind, so this time, they widened the pool. The new album has horn-driven tunes, honky-tonk, and punk rock—all new additions to the Floating Men repertoire.

“Before we went in, we had an agreement,” says drummer Jeff Bishop. “No matter what anyone came up with, we were going to put it down on tape. It didn’t necessarily all work. But when you have that kind of open atmosphere, you’re not worried about whether the other guys are going to dig the idea or not.”

Having made a record they’re proud of, the Floating Men must now face questions about the future. They still maintain a sizable mailing list, and their Web site (www.floatingmen.com) also helps them reach their wide community of followers. Naturally, supporters suggest that maybe this will be the record that lifts the band to national prominence. The band has signed on with new management, but the three members say they’ll simply take things as they come.

“There’s a lot less pressure than in the past,” Evans says. “We’re in a weird place. We’re all approaching middle age, and it’s hard to be at this point as a band. We’re not sure what to expect. We made what we think is a great record for this band. We want to share it with as many people as we can. We don’t really know what we want beyond that.”

The Floating Men perform Friday at Exit/In.

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