Written by Annar Verold. Photo by Shelley Neuman.
“Luck,” Steve Bidwell says in a dry, unwavering voice.
“Luck,” Chris Patin follows in the same tone.
Luck. The word finds itself suspended in a brief, yet lingering silence. It’s the word the two original members of The Calm Blue Sea use to describe the band’s return from an 18-month hiatus.
“Certain stars aligned,” Bidwell explains. A series of seemingly cosmic events triggered the return of the celestial post-rockers, beginning with their signing to Modern Outsider, an ambitious new record label and management company with a small but promising roster of indie rock up-and-comers.
Personnel issues, new opportunities, financial struggles and a disconnect in priorities were all catalysts for a hiatus that began at the conclusion of a national tour in the summer of 2009.
“There was a lot of pressure in trying to figure out several weeks on the road, and trying to figure out how to finance recordings and how to finance physical pressings of albums,” said Patin, the instrumental quartet’s long-time guitarist. “That took its toll, not only on everyone’s relationships within the band, but it also takes a toll on you with your job and where your priorities are.”
It’s a common but little-talked-about conundrum for working class musicians: how to pursue a creative though rarely lucrative passion at night while keeping food on the table and maintaining stable relationships by day. “It’s hard to just drop everything and be in a band when you have to pay the bills and be in relationships and all of that stuff,” Patin continued. “It was just at a time where—sure, we may have been at our peak of recognition—but we were pretty burnt out and everybody just needed to step back and make money and focus on their lives and figure that part out before we could put ourselves entirely into being a band again.”
The break allowed the members of The Calm Blue Sea to venture into new experiences—collaborating with other artists, exploring career opportunities and romantic relationships. Bidwell explored his funky side, drumming for Hard Proof Afrobeat. Living in New York, Patin recorded with Brooklyn’s Pet Ghost Project. Bassist Kyle Robarge did two records and a bunch of shows with roots rockers Frank Smith. Robarge also joined a band called The Couch, which is where The Calm Blue Sea found its newest member in guitarist Taylor Wilkins.
Eighteen months passed with The Calm Blue Sea performing a handful of shows here and there, with nine months being the longest period in between shows. But despite the remaining band members living in different cities, having different lives and doing separate projects, some of the members still contributed pieces of themselves to the band.
“We each individually would come up with ideas for The Calm Blue Sea, but we never really collaborated on them,” Patin said. “Picturing that time to a certain extent, each of us were compiling ideas that we could come back to. None of us were willing to accept that we weren’t going to play and write together again.”
From then on, Bidwell and Patin claimed two things, that “the stars aligned” and “luck” played a role. Patin found a job opportunity that brought him back to Austin, and the band naturally fell into place. In November 2010, they began to rehearse for their official South by Southwest 2011 comeback show, all while the band made the conscious decision to commit to creating and performing again. Signing with Modern Outsider Records and achieving recognition from National Public Radio certainly helped. Stephen Thompson, a writer for NPR Music, included The Calm Blue Sea on NPR’s list of “100 bands you have to see during South by Southwest.”
“Somewhere these poor bastards went through all 6,000 artists or whatever,” Bidwell said. “Somebody in there said to him ‘Hey, check this out,’ and he dug it and has been a nice, vocal fan of ours. He mentioned us on a blog on Esquire too.”
After a 7 a.m. rehearsal, the members of the band discovered in the midst of exhaustion and grogginess that they were featured on NPR Music the day before their comeback performance. NPR Music offered the band a feature as Song of The Day during the week of SXSW.
“That felt like a turning point,” Patin said. “We had worked really hard to pull this together and to find band members to fulfill the whole thing and try to get all of us to play again and get us all to write again and ready to just be in this band.”
This month Modern Outsider, the band’s new record label, gave The Calm Blue Sea’s 2008 self-released debut the star treatment by remastering it and adding bonus tracks and new artwork for a CD and vinyl reissue.
In the heat of all the chaos and momentum, The Calm Blue Sea is also contemplating the proper release of their unheralded second offering, a film score written in 2009 for Fritz Lang’s silent film Siegfried, which they performed live at the Alamo Drafthouse.
“That was in some way our second record, but in some way, it wasn’t,” Patin said. “It was an hour-and-a-half piece of music that we wrote to go along with Siegfried. We felt like it was definitely an important piece of who we were, but we never officially released it with the film. We only released the music. There’s talk of maybe releasing that with the film.”
In addition to reissues, the band is keeping busy contemplating the next album, with no intention of slowing down. “We hope to get the latest record written by the end of the year so that we can think about recording it in the winter. There’s ambition, and then there’s reality on that,” said Bidwell.
“And we’ll meet somewhere in between,” Patin added. “So it might feel like we’re not totally here, but we are here.”