Left to right: Benjamin Johnson, Cory Stier, Gabe Rodriguez, Chelsea Hernandez and Josh Cass. Photo by Ryan Tharp.
The Che Cafe looks like luxury compared with Seattle's Black Lodge, a hole-in-the-wall venue that doesn't have a sign out front—or heating inside. But it does have scuzzy sofas, a makeshift stage and arcane art covering every inch of wall space. Gabe Rodriguez, who fronts the San Diego-based Boomsnake, is happy.
“Yeah, this is what I like,” he smiles. “We play a lot of house shows and art galleries. The size of band we are, there's no point in playing at a bar with a stage. It's awkward.”
He and his bandmates have just returned from a beer run after unloading their gear. It's January and it's cold out—a Pacific Northwest cold that bypasses your skin and goes straight for your bones. The San Diego boys are bundled up. I'm not, though I moved here five months ago and should know better. As we settle into a couch by the open door, Rodriguez seems concerned.
“You look like you're freezing,” he says, offering his coat. I decline, but his dark eyes are flecked with worry. “Are you sure? You could put it over your legs. Are you sure?”
The chill doesn't bother Rodriguez. Perhaps it's because the 24-year-old Solana Beach native lived in Portland for a spell and currently splits his time between San Diego, Portland and New York, where he crashes with friends.
“As much as I love the weather in San Diego,” he says, “it just doesn't speak to me on other levels.”
Growing up in North County, he adds, was tough for a music fan. He listened to Drive Like Jehu and Three Mile Pilot, among other locals, and his parents had a solid collection. “But I felt really excluded. There were a few underage venues, but they were mostly silly shows.”
Boomsnake first took shape in New York. Rodriguez, a former touring member of SoCal's Say Anything and Weatherbox, was playing in another band at the time. But he was obsessed with songwriting, and, in 2007, when he moved to Portland, his burgeoning band became official.
Rodriguez put out his debut full-length, Give and Take, on vinyl in 2008. Boomsnake's sound is easiest summed up as experimental pop, atmospheric textures playing backdrop to evocative loops, finger-plucked riffs and vocals that sound a little Thom Yorke, a little '60s standards.
However, Boomsnake in the studio is a different entity than Boomsnake on stage, says Rodriguez.
“Since the band started, it's always been about recording an extensive amount of music and then going through the procedure of making a live show—in the sense that we never know who's going to play what or how long they'll be around. We've had a rotating cast of members.”
However, he adds thoughtfully, “that's not to discredit anyone. [The band members] develop their parts. I wouldn't be anywhere without them.”
To celebrate this ever-changing creative lineup—Rodriguez met his current bass player less than two weeks before this West Coast tour—the band's latest release, a 7-inch called Re/Visions, features new takes on old songs. (It's available for free download at boomsnakemusic.com.)
But Boomsnake, at its core, is Rodriguez, who seems about as ego-free as a musician can get. He doesn't once mention that he's the man behind the band's artwork. His scribbly, slightly anxious, mystical-leaning line drawings match the music's mood perfectly. (Rodriguez's mother is an abstract expressionist painter, which accounts for his artistic bent.)
Everything about the band reflects Rodriguez's interests, including its name.
“It comes from Boo M. Snake,” he explains. “It's a folklore legend. He was one of the first witch doctors to be brought over in the slave trade. He tried to practice his indigenous rituals, and he was tarred and feathered for it.”
Rodriguez was drawn to the mystic martyr's “stand for his beliefs.” While he considers himself a spiritual fellow, he adds that it's in an unspecific sense. “I believe that there's something more than what we tend to perceive every single day.”
Rodriguez doesn't glean all his notions from such far-flung sources—some are simply handed-down advice.
“None of us are allowed to use a pick,” he admits. “Just fingernails. Someone once said that a pick is like a condom to a guitar, and I took that to heart.”
Rodriguez hopes to record a new full-length this summer but first will have to choose from some 30 tracks in pre-production.
“I've had most of these songs for eight or nine months. Some were supposed to be on the first record. I have four or five versions of every song. I think George Harrison said if you're going to write a song, write it in a day, then come back to mess around with it.”
Just about the only thing Rodriguez doesn't do is drive the van. He leaves that to his bandmates.
“I sleep a lot,” he laughs. “The guys who drive are the kind of people who need to be in control, so it's OK. I like to be just a leaf floating down the river most days. Not in an apathetic way, but in an accepting way.” Boomsnake plays with The Thermals and Thao & The Get Down Stay Down on Sunday, Feb. 7, at the Belly Up. They also play on Thursday, Feb. 11, at Whistle Stop Bar.