Jonathan Bates admits he's the worst kind of songwriter, a perfectionist who enjoys experimentation. Which raises an interesting question: How did he know when each of the 13 songs on Mellowdrone's debut CD, Box, were finished in the studio?
"It's basically when everybody around you goes, "Stop, stop, stop, stop, stop,'" says Bates, laughing, while on the phone from his Los Angeles residence. "But it's so amazing. You can change one little subtle thing, and all of a sudden, it becomes a completely different song, and that's what completely amazes me about songwriting. That's what I'm still getting off on. It's actually like an omnipotent feeling."
Bates is the visionary behind the quartet and the main architect of the diverse Box, which is highlighted by metal-meets-synth moments. While it's still relatively early in his major-label recording career, he has been in the rock scene for years. At one point, he performed as a one-man band under the name Mellowdrone. Johnny Marr, erstwhile guitarist of The Smiths, noticed the experimental aspects to this project, and he brought Bates with him to Europe as an opening act for a solo tour a few years ago.
Bates says Marr dazzled him with one story after another from his illustrious past, the funniest of which involved then-labelmates The Smiths and Van Halen, at a time when both were exploding with popularity.
"One night, Van Halen, at the height of their cocaine debauchery, runs into The Smiths, who are all dressed in black garb and pale white, and they're all trying to give them high-fives," Bates says. "And Eddie Van Halen is trying to ask Johnny Marr, "What do you burn, bro?' And Johnny is like, "I don't have any drugs, I'm sorry.' And Eddie said, "No, what kind of guitar do you play?'"
For Bates, the story is doubly fabulous, considering as a kid he learned to play guitar to Van Halen. (He says Fair Warning was the hardest.) As a teenager, his talents were obvious, earning him a scholarship to Boston's prestigious Berklee College of Music. But a music career was too alluring to postpone, so he packed his bags before graduating and headed to Los Angeles.
While it's been a long road for Bates and Mellowdrone, the road is about to get even longer, with incessant tour dates in support of Box. Bates says he hopes music fans who understand diversity, irony and experimentation will enjoy the band's album and their live show. Through the years, he's learned there's no way to accurately predict how listeners will respond.
"I found as an artist that you say oranges, and everybody hears pineapple," he says. "So you just have to learn to adapt to that."
As for future recordings, he's not sure whether he'll once again approach them with multiple styles and sounds, or just concentrate on one taste.
"I honestly don't know," Bates says. "Stuff changes for me exponentially for some reason, and if I'm lucky enough to make another one, it probably is going to sound very different from this one."
Mellowdrone with Bad Luck City and Lola Ray
hi-dive, 7 S. Broadway, Denver
Thursday, April 27, 9 p.m.
Tickets: $8 at the door; visit hi-dive.com for more info.