Late last April, punk label Bridge Nine Records publicly announced it had signed sensitive indie pop duo Lemuria. And when Punknews.org picked up the story, reader responses ranged from slightly puzzled to deeply confused: "April Fools?," "This is strange," and "Can anyone name a weirder band and label combination than this?"
The bewilderment was justified. Bridge Nine's roster predominantly consists of hardcore and punk bands that are rough, seething, and threatening; Lemuria exhibits none of those qualities. And the more time you spend thinking about it, the stranger the pairing seems.
Even Lemuria's drummer-vocalist Alex Kerns was shocked when the deal happened. "Honestly, we would have never thought to pursue them if we didn't hear that they were into the band," he says. "I was even surprised when they responded and said, 'Yeah, we'd love to do it,' because I thought maybe it'd be like, 'We love your band. But really, you just don't fit in with our roster.' "
"If anything, [the signing] was something for people to talk about — almost like unexpected press," Kerns continues. "A few people said some negative things. [But] for the most part, the common response was, 'That's really weird, but cool.' "
The initial connection with B9 was the result of a fairly random chain of events. In winter 2008, Lemuria played an underpopulated house show in Nashville, and Paramore singer Hayley Williams happened to be one of the twenty or so people in attendance. (The vocalist of the glossy pop-punk band is an avowed Lemuria fan, even if Kerns had no idea who she was.) That night, Williams bought a T-shirt and put the band in touch with her boyfriend and New Found Glory guitarist Chad Gilbert, who was interested in producing Lemuria's next album.
Ultimately, the studio session with Gilbert didn't work out. But he did mention that B9 — a record company he'd worked with before — kept Get Better, Lemuria's 2008 debut, in frequent rotation. And as a result, the band pursued the unlikely punk label when looking for a new home.
The Bridge Nine signing, though, isn't the first time Lemuria made some friends from entirely different sonic circles. In fact, the band has spent most of its career playing alongside pop-punk and, to a lesser extent, hardcore groups. The threesome has performed at grindcore fests too. And Asian Man Records, Lemuria's pre-B9 home, is most renowned for its ties to ska-punk.
According to Kerns, the last time his crew toured with a bona fide indie rock band was back in 2006. Yet none of Lemuria's out-there associations stem from a purposeful effort to chase after unorthodox audiences. "It just seems to happen," he laughs.
Still, despite the band's crossover moments, Lemuria's most legitimate stylistic companions rose out of the early and mid-'90s indie scene. Most of the alternative rock bands from that period wrote songs coated with a certain kind of earnest, ramshackle warmth that Lemuria handsomely echoes. It's easy to imagine Kerns and company opening for Built to Spill or Pavement. And the outfit's listening habits reinforce this observation: Spend just a half-hour in the Lemuria tour van and you'll most likely hear music by bands such as Dinosaur Jr., Sebadoh, the Lemonheads, and Archers of Loaf.
Pebble, the band's sophomore record and B9 debut, doesn't deviate from that aesthetic alignment. Lyrically, Kerns says this effort is darker than most of the band's other material, even if he remains elusive when it comes to actual elaboration on what that darkness means. "A lot of [Pebble] brings up some childhood issues and things that we weren't really comfortable writing about on our first album," he says. "[It's about] how we were raised and parental [choices] — a lot of things that created who we are now and our sexual behaviors and everything like that."
Love and loneliness have always been prominent themes in Lemuria's world, and now Pebble piles on the guilt. For the song "Different Girls," Kerns sings: "Every night on tour/I sleep with different girls/And we laugh about you/While you are at home/I am the worst." He employs a muted, plainspoken vocal style he's held onto for years. "Every night I am drunk/And you wonder why I don't get drunk for you," he continues. "Why don't I get drunk for you?/While you are at home, everything hurts."
Meanwhile, vocalist-guitarist Sheena Ozzella alternates between a whimsical whisper and a semi-feisty shout. She's always had the habit of keeping her verses coy, setting the scene with a handful of details, and then repeating a line or two like she desperately wants to establish it as truth. (In "Pleaser," she chants, over and over: "I am hinting hard/I am a hard hinter.")
In recent interviews, Kerns has described Pebble as the band's most high-energy effort to date. And that's true. But to be a little more specific: This record is urgent by Lemuria standards, which means the album is swift but never all-out frenetic. It's restrained in a way that's tied to Kerns's personal distaste for working the crowd. "It's just something I can't do myself," he explains. "I'm never the guy who is going to tell people to throw their hands in the air or scream, 'Come on, Miami!' I'm probably just going to talk in the same tone I talk and sing in."
He continues: "I just don't have it in me to really put on that kind of show. I think that's turned some people off, because it's kind of awkward for some people. They're used to having the crowd revved up. At the same time, a lot of people like it because it seems a little more real and honest."
In keeping with that typically indie modesty, Kerns speaks optimistically about Lemuria's future without casting his long-term ambitions too wide. "We're just going to see how it goes," he ruminates, evoking the careful restraint that's become integral to his music. "I don't ever really want to see it die. I just always want to be able to have this as an outlet."