Not long after I met with Nato Bardeen, the front guy for local band The Drowning Men, my phone vibrated with a text message, paraphrased (and punctuated) here:
If you write about me saying that it's everybody's band, but one person's baby, can you please not make me look like a prick? I just don't want it to be read weird by my fellow bandmates.
Everybody's band, one person's baby. Bardeen, who dreams up the music and lyrics for The Drowning Men, had stated those words very carefully over coffee at Golden Hill's Krakatoa on a recent Sunday morning. His tone was earnest, like that of a proud and doting papa.
“There's no chain of command and none of it could be done without the other people,” he added, looking a little nervous. “I don't have LSD—Lead Singer's Disease—I swear. We work well together.”
For the record, Bardeen's hardly a Bono, eclipsing his bandmates with his epic frontman ego. But, since he's the one whose TLC takes the band's music from a note to full-fledged arrangements, the baby analogy stands.
“I'll find a riff that I like, then the melodic voice, then I'll think about instrumentation,” he says. “Whatever mood the music puts me in, that's what I'm going to sing about.”
Bardeen grew up in Oceanside, where he met two of his longtime friends and fellow Drowning Men, bassist Todd Eisenkerch and keyboardist Rory Dolan. They'd played in various bands already, and in 2006 they recruited James Smith, a friend of a friend, and Ryan Morgan, who was Bardeen's bank teller at Wells Fargo.
The Drowning Men's multi-instrument setup, Bardeen explains, is a reaction to the scene's status quo. “I'm tired of seeing the traditional two guitars, a bass and a drum. I like seeing stuff other than straight rock 'n' roll.”
In other words, cue the banjo and bazuki. Bardeen obsesses over instruments like those and the theremin, which he added to the repertoire for Beheading of the Songbird, the band's first proper full-length (following their debut EP, Kill the Matador). The album also includes a guest appearance on musical saw by The Black Heart Procession's Pall Jenkins, who produced Beheading at SDRL, his recording studio.
Bardeen, who would startle an old lady with his armfuls of tattoos before delighting her with his good manners, says the harsh title relates to an ongoing rant of his.
“It's the death of music,” he says. “I just think there's so much filth out there: American Idol, the same old commercial crap. At the same time, there's so much good music out there, too. I don't understand why people just accept what they're given on MTV. That's why I like folk music so much, and bluegrass. It's pure.”
Bardeen says one of his idols is Shane McGowan, the salty Irish singer of The Pogues. “Most people wouldn't think he had a great voice, but it's real and beautiful. All of my favorite singers are known for not having great voices: Tom Waits, Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen.”
That shortlist is also known for its dark-tinged tendencies. “I love creepy stuff,” Bardeen says. “I find stuff in the shadows. I haven't written a positive song yet.”
Working with Jenkins, he adds, was a no-brainer after opening for Black Heart at the Troubadour in Hollywood. “We didn't need to look at anyone else. Pall let us do what we do. He was great at zoning out on the details; he would tweak one little thing for an hour! He let us be who we are.”
The Drowning Men—their name seemingly a nod to the same sort of yearning melancholy that fueled Morrissey / The Smiths (“poppy but lyrically so dark,” Bardeen sighs)—play music not unlike Black Heart's: moody, textured and surprisingly catchy.
Bardeen, in his early 30s, sets tile by day, a job he's had for a decade. “I do it to make money,” he says. “It doesn't classify who I am. I leave work and then I pay attention to everything else outside of that, like music.”
The Oceanside native has been a musician for 15 years, including a stint as the banjo player for The Scotch Greens.
“Sometimes, I feel like when I hit a note, it just keeps going up and never stops,” he says, explaining that he can figure out when that feeling is equally pure for other people. “When you watch a band playing music, you can see what they're doing it for. You can see it in their faces.”
As for Bardeen's on-stage expression? “Oh, I get real bad anxiety in front of two or 200. I close my eyes a lot.”
And then there's the tunnel vision he says he suffered while wrapping up the album.
So, what's next for The Drowning Men?
“We're definitely going to promote the album and play shows,” he says, shrugging and smiling sweetly. “We're not pop. We're never going to make money. Is it worth the gamble? I'm not a gambling man. Then again, if I'm in a local band for the rest of my life, I'll be OK. I just love playing music.”The Drowning Men play an album-release show at Hensley's Flying Elephant on Saturday, Aug. 1. www.myspace.com/drowningmen.