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Shedding Skin

What do you get when you put together a band whose guitar and bass players either don't play their instruments or are just learning them? While a lot of noise may seem like the obvious answer, it afforded the members of Rainer Maria an opportunity to follow their own instincts...
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What do you get when you put together a band whose guitar and bass players either don't play their instruments or are just learning them? While a lot of noise may seem like the obvious answer, it afforded the members of Rainer Maria an opportunity to follow their own instincts and play with no expectations. After eight years and four full-length albums under its belt, the Madison, Wisconsin, trio reinforces the notion that following one's musical instincts can yield raw, emotive gems like this year's Long Knives Drawn, a collection of sweet, jingly pop hooks with workmanlike, Craftsman garage chords that sound vital and untarnished.

Long Knives Drawn is full of tracks like "The Double Life," with its angular guitars and steadfast bass line mixing into a dissonant energy that drifts and reappears. Elsewhere, there's the polished pop of "The Awful Truth of Loving," where vocalist Caithlin De Marrais drops such plaintive nuggets as "The peach is perfect when it falls from the tree/And bruised by the time it gets to me." In contrast to that inverted moment is the punk-laced gusto of "Mystery and Misery" and "Ears Ring," in which De Marrais unveils a more vocally aggressive side. Throughout, Long Knives Drawn is clearly focused on De Marrais' voice and words.

"I don't think the new songs called for two personalities to deliver the message," guitarist Kyle Fischer says, noting how he and De Marrais had shared lead vocals on past albums. "The last albums were more about relationships, or couples rock." Not coincidentally, Fischer adds, "This is the first record that I didn't have to walk away from and come back to it after a while. Normally I'm into an album for a couple of weeks, but then I put it down. I've been able to listen to this record since we recorded it, and that really says something."

Rainer Maria is built around De Marrais and Fischer's long-term relationship, a love affair that first blossomed while both were attending a poetry workshop at the University of Wisconsin in the summer of 1995. Fischer and De Marrais started dating, and eventually, pillow talk turned to talk of starting a band. Never mind that De Marrais had never played bass and that Fischer had just started playing guitar after a stint drumming for Ezra Pound; instead, they brought in fellow Ezra Pound alum William Kuehn to take Fischer's place at the drums. "A lot of people are constricted by the six years they spent sitting in their bedrooms trying to figure out heavy-metal riffs," Fischer says. "It's hard to unlearn a lot of those early habits. For us, we were able to approach the instruments with a relatively fresh take. I think that served us well." Fischer and De Marrais started writing songs together, going through their notebooks of poetry for potential lyrics. Six months later, they released their first demo, taking their band name from the late German poet Rainer Maria Rilke.

After a couple of seven-inch releases and a self-titled EP, the band released its 1997 debut, Past Worn Searching. Rainer Maria's next album, 1999's Look Now Look Again, did much better, effectively launching the band's career and earning it glowing reviews in the New York Times, CMJ, and Spin, the latter naming the album one of the year's top 20 releases. "That was a totally new experience to us, and it was a big surprise," Fischer remembers. "But I believe the music had merit, so in that sense, it's not that surprising, if I may be that..."

Modest? Sure, why not?

That same year, the band released Atlantic, a three-song EP recorded at famed Nirvana producer Butch Vig's Pachyderm studio. But realizing that Cheesehead country wasn't the place to prosper as a band, the trio moved from Wisconsin to the Big Apple toward the end of 2000. "I think moving to New York City really lights a fire under your ass," Fischer says. "You roll out of bed every day and you say to yourself that you need to get some work done. You have this colossal rent alone that needs to get paid. You want to keep moving forward." Their next album, 2001's A Better Version of Me, did just that, furthering their career and landing them in the number-one spot on the CMJ music charts.

While the band's physical surroundings have changed, Rainer Maria has remained loyal to Polyvinyl over the years, even though Fischer says there has never been a written contract between the two parties: The original, informal agreement was for three records. (The label just released the band's fourth LP.) "They were the very first people to approach us about anything, and we managed to grow with them step by step," says Fischer, who released an acoustic solo album, Open Ground, on the label in 2001 and plans to return to the studio for a follow-up later this year. While some musicians find it difficult separating their solo and band identities, Fischer has a simple guideline: "Anything that I write from start to finish on my own is a solo album cut, and anything that's written collaboratively with Rainer Maria is a Rainer Maria song."

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