From left: Joshua Zimmerman, Justin Buchanan, Ian Kesterson, Timothy Graves, Chad Lee and Jeremiah Zimmerman. Photo by Rebecca Joelson.
“I wish everyone wore suits on a daily basis. I do my own little part.”
Josh Zimmerman's not kidding. It's a sunny day in Golden Hill, and the temperature's rising fast on the coffeehouse veranda, but he's dressed to the nines—from the derby hat down.
It's a visual aesthetic that has come to define his band, The Silent Comedy, every bit as much as their explosive folk-rock sound. It's also an aesthetic that's easy to write off as a gimmick at first glance, a critique with which the band is all too familiar.
“We got a lot of crap for it for at least the first year-and-a-half from other bands,” says Jeremiah Zimmerman, the band's co-founder and Josh's older brother.
Yet, the men delight in the fact that their retro style is catching on and that hat sales are up. Citing silent films as a creative launching pad for the band, Jeremiah sees it as only fitting that its members should dress the part. Even so, there's a dramatic flair that comes with the cultivation—a sincere interest in putting on a show, giving the crowd something to see as well as hear. It's hardly surprising, considering the performances the brothers grew up witnessing daily.
The sons of a preacher, Joshua and Jeremiah were born into the fervor of the 1970s Pentecostal movement and raised on charismatic sermons and four-hour, music-filled services. When the boys were teenagers, their parents sold off the family's belongings for a two-year journey of teaching and discovery throughout Europe, India and Nepal before finally putting down roots in Imperial Beach. It's the kind of childhood that leaves a deep impression.
“In Nepal, I feel like people were much more involved in music,” Jeremiah says, conjuring cheerful images of communal drum circles and sing-alongs. “Here, people view music like a soundtrack. You put it on in your car or in your house, and it's something that's over there. You do it while you're doing something else.” The brothers have taken those concepts of community togetherness to heart—they've assembled a loose circle of collaborators outside of the band's current six-man lineup.
The brothers' lyrics, meanwhile, echo much darker memories of their time abroad—recollections of living amid poverty and a desperation that, while never addressed by name, is pervasive throughout their new record, Common Faults.
“Almost all the things that Jeremiah and I write deal with these kind-of-dark subjects,” Josh says. “Even if it sounds like a love song, it's about something darker. That, I think, is the biggest thing that we took from our travels—that we saw incredibly horrific things for when you're young.”
Though the band began as a small recording-only project and an outlet for a newly emerging folk-inspired side to the Zimmermans' songwriting, they accidentally booked themselves as a band. And while they performed some tentative acoustic jams at first, their desire to be showmen won out.
“For me,” Josh says, “even in the old band, the need to move around and get crazy was just a natural thing; eventually, everyone started getting on that page. It took a couple years, but because it happened slowly it was pretty natural—almost against our will.”
These days, The Silent Comedy's live act is loud and manic, peppered with heated vocals and audience calls-and-responses; their shows feel like an old-fashioned tent revival. Though churches have been traded for bars and nightclubs, the same knack for engaging a crowd still applies. It's something Josh attributes to their father's fiery sermons.
“That's what we got most from him, I think. He could work a crowd like nobody's business.”
While that quality is difficult to replicate in the studio, Common Faults comes about as close as you can get. The brothers share lead vocal duties, Jeremiah's soft warmth a counterpoint to Josh's smoky rasp, both telling vivid tales of loneliness, alcohol and sinful nights. Around them, powerful driving beats anchor a swirling chaos of dirty guitars, bright strings and mandolins, harmonicas and church organs, and an emphatic choir of handclaps, hollers and hallelujahs.
Can it physically transport listeners to a seedy bar full of restless dreamers? Perhaps not, but it paints an awfully convincing picture.
Even with the new album finished, they're already working on new songs, reflecting new sounds, new instruments and more creative input from other band members. Still, one thing remains the same—their lyrics haven't gotten any lighter.
“No matter how hard we try,” says Josh, “we almost can't write happy songs.”
“Which is fine,” he adds after some thought. “There are a lot of happy songs in the world.”
The Silent Comedy will hold a release party for their new album at El Dorado on Thursday, April 29. They also play the Royal Dive in Oceanside on Saturday, April 24. www.myspace.com/thesilentcomedy.