Hair of the Pop That Bit You
"Ninety-nine percent of the songs are born here," says 24-year-old Jeff Rollason, mastermind of the whimsical pop collective known as the Curious Hair. He lifts and drops his arms to indicate the organized chaos that pervades his bedroom in his parents' sprawling Mediterranean-style home on a quiet street off Old Cutler Road. A collection of snow globes stands in rows on top of his television set. Toys ranging from boxed Clueless dolls to inch-tall Japanese-made Martians fill spots in his stereo cabinet.
Leaning against the walls are some of the paraphernalia that defines the Curious Hair's sound. A Korg ES-50 and Casiotone keyboard are stacked on one of four amps, and about fifteen stringed instruments (a Sixties-era twelve-string electric Bellzoukie, an eight-inch-tall plastic "Micro Jammer," a 40-year-old Kay banjo) lean in whatever space the amps allow.
Sitting cross-legged on his bed, a thick, fuzzy beard clinging to the end of his chin and dark blond hair hanging around his bespectacled face, Rollason reaches over to his stereo and flicks on a demo of his next project. As the new songs play, Rollason smiles, occasionally throwing his head back with laughter. He excuses himself and explains: "I find my music funny."
Rollason's new songs bounce along with a poppy flair. Every so often his reedy voice seeps into falsetto ooos or la-la-las. Though the moodiness of his earlier repertoire is still apparent, Rollason calls his new work "a concept album of love songs. I've made some big changes."
Rollason has been in a state of creative evolution since the dissolution of his previous band, Mr. Tasty and the Breadhealers. The Tasty sound showcased layers of guitars that droned along with nods to the then-current grunge trend, as well as to classic blues stylings. The band won a loyal local following, released the cassette Freshly Baked, and began recording a follow-up CD. "There were people coming out to the shows, and we sold a lot of tapes," Rollason says. "We had gone into the studio and started recording stuff, but there was something in me that knew our work was going to be wasted."
His premonition proved accurate. In the fall of 1995, drummer Andre Lorenz left the band to return to school; then, after a couple of quiet weeks, Rollason met with the remaining members at his house to announce that he wanted out. "I couldn't play the stuff I wanted to play," Rollason says, summing up his days as frontman and lyricist of the Breadhealers. "Instead, I was playing a lot of the same songs over and over again that I didn't want to play any more."
The split spurred an immediate creative breakthrough. "After the rest of the guys left, I literally walked into my bedroom and finished a couple of songs I hadn't been able to finish," Rollason recalls. "By the next week I had written tons of new songs."
Rollason's solo work is at once tuneful and unorthodox. Far more sophisticated than your standard rock anthems and lost-love dirges, his songs have a haunted quality. He fills lilting song lines with dreamy guitars and surging Beatle-esque melodies, and writes lyrics that manage to convey vulnerability through glancing, impressionistic details. "Martian Girl," a brooding, ethereal homage to actress Lisa Marie's role in Mars Attacks, came to Rollason after he watched her slink across the big screen. "Fun" sets his lazy croon over a collage of countrified guitar licks, while "She Floats on a Beam" leaps from a syncopated verse to a joyous thumping chorus in a single drumbeat, before giving way to a jazzy trumpet outro.
In keeping with the inimitable spirit of the music, Rollason is reluctant to categorize his songwriting, or to analyze his lyrics. "I'm not doing it to express anything to anybody," he says. "Whatever the lyrics mean to me, I don't expect them to mean the same thing to anybody else, but it's really cool when they do hit people personally. It's sort of like the words have some power that don't have anything to do with me."
Despite penning a steady stream of new songs, Rollason didn't begin thinking about forming a new band until he spent a few months as an acoustic solo artist, opening for local bands and playing at local music festivals. "Playing out, playing in a club or whatever, isn't something I enjoy," he says. "When I go somewhere and play, I like to bring other musicians just because it's more fun for me. If I play by myself, then it just becomes me, at this place, where I don't want to be."
But the prospect of recruiting a band -- of having to explain his musical ideas to half-interested musicians -- didn't hold much appeal to Rollason. So he decided to mass-produce a self-recorded cassette titled The Curious Hair Is Not a Band, on which he played all the instruments, accompanied by a drum machine. He listed his phone number on the inlay card with a simple statement: "So, you're a musician looking for a band? The Curious Hair wants to hear from you!" The tape became an audio want ad for musicians.
A year later Rollason is still searching for a permanent lineup. His collaborators are acquaintances who are available to play on particular nights. The band's only regular member besides Rollason is former Breadhealer bassist/drummer Mitch Gurdjian, who reunited with Rollason to help him refine his musical ideas, as well as to play bass and drums. The duo has performed recent shows at Tobacco Road and Rose's, with Gurdjian whacking a beat-up toy snare drum or electric bass and Rollason playing either an acoustic guitar or a plastic Italian guitar called a Macaferri. On other occasions the Curious Hair's lineup consists of any combination of the following: local sitar hero Stephan Mikes on lap steel, Rey "Conga" Diaz on congas and percussion, Gus Mayorga on trumpet, Timothy Clo on drums, and Michella Maiorana on cello. Rollason says he'd like to have a steady lineup someday, but for the moment he seems content with the ad hoc approach.
During the release extravaganza for the Curious Hair's Phaser this past July at Tobacco Road, the musicians connected as if fused at the soul. The set was filled with surprises and epiphanies. Rollason stood straight as a stalk throughout most of the night, singing in his dreamy tenor and alternating between acoustic and electric guitars. Opening "Blue Sky Fool," the rhythm section provided a hushed backdrop for the chemistry of Mikes's weeping lap steel and Maiorana's lamenting cello, resulting in a ballad of graceful power, at once sad and beautiful. For the finale, an eerie version of "Martian Girl," Rollason set up a theremin on-stage. The small, boxlike instrument reacts with a range of tones when the electric field that it generates is interrupted. As the song drew to a close, with his band pounding out a lush refrain, Rollason began dipping the neck of his electric guitar into the theremin's field while soloing, resulting in a surreal duel of quavering notes.
Conga player Diaz says Rollason's freeform conception of the band creates a unique, improvisational vibe: "The thing I like best about the work that I do with Jeff, on the tape and live, is that he gives me the freedom to actually express myself on the congas. A lot of times, on the other projects that I do, I sit there and I go through the motions. I'm basically doing it to be on the album or to get paid. With Jeff there's none of that."
Creativity is not limited to the Curious Hair's music. Rollason also takes pride in the packaging of his cassettes. For the release party, which featured a toy raffle and a blue cake with silver icing, Rollason introduced the "Limited Edition Deluxe Gift Box" version of Phaser. Priced at eight bucks, the ingenious package was adorned with a sparking plastic gun, a two-inch-tall plastic moon man, a sticker, a lyric sheet, and contained two cassettes (Phaser and a companion tape of demos and experiments titled A Little Jeff for Ya, which was recorded in one night). The gift box sold out in less than a week.
Rollason says he prefers to work with cassettes because he thinks they are the cheapest and most practical way to get his music to people. He records at Gurdjian's house in southwest Dade, on an eight-track reel to reel, utilizing an eight-track mixing board with a DAT recorder.
Before they began the recording for Phaser, Rollason lent Gurdjian some records, which included such lo-fi standouts as the Flaming Lips, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and Sparklehorse. "There are no technical skills involved in my being in the band," Gurdjian says, "just a little bit of listening skills, and playing bass. Jeff writes the songs on guitar, brings them over, and then we decide what I should do. I write the bass line, play the drums, and sometimes play a little guitar and some type of percussion."
Rollason doesn't see his devotion to cassette releases as a handicap. He's happy simply to have the resources to record. "The only reason I would want to establish myself at all is so I can make records," he says. "Well, I can already do that."
Rollason does, however, harbor an interest in signing with one label in particular: New York-based Matador Records, home of Liz Phair, Yo La Tengo, and Guided by Voices. "I didn't send Phaser to any other label, but they're cool," he says. "It's not like I'm seriously looking to work with any label right now. It's just that [Matador] has got a lot of cool bands, and the bands put out records a lot and tour a lot. Consistently."
Steve "The Beast" Alvin, who cohosts the Saturday night Beast and Baker Show with Greg Baker on WAXY-AM (790), has had Rollason on the show more than any other local artist and believes Rollason could some day be a contender for a major-label contract. "Jeff understands development," Alvin notes. "You have to be patient, and you have to develop the songs real well, and that's what he's doing. A lot of these artists, they release a CD and milk it for a year, or two or three. But Jeff goes by the premise that the songs are there, in his mind, and he creates them, and the band plays them, and he records them continuously. He's got the attitude, and he's all about the music. That's the most important thing."
Rollason's main priority now is writing and refining his music; campaigning for a major-label record deal would be a distraction. Progress, for him, means finishing his next record. "Recording Phaser and the Little Jeff tape, planning the whole release party and sort of making an event of it, that's what it's about." For now, he's in no hurry to chase fame. He'd much prefer to live in the present, where his strange and affecting songs take shape.
Jeff Rollason will appear with other local songwriters tonight (Thursday), September 11, at Tobacco Road, 626 S Miami Ave, 374-1198, as a part of a songwriters' showcase. On Thursday, September 25, the Curious Hair will play at Tobacco Road. Both shows start at 10:00 p.m.; cover charge is $5.
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