With Blue Medicine, Joe Reyes and Erik Sanden’s debut as Demitasse, patience has paid off. It’s been more than 11 years since Reyes and Sanden began playing together in the SA quartet Buttercup, but the pair feels like they’ve reached new heights in songwriting and performance. “Joe and I just rounded a corner in our ability to sing together,” said Sanden in a recent bar-side conversation. “We’re sounding more like one voice. To me, it feels like a breakthrough.”
Reyes and Sanden began their musical partnership back in 2003, when Sanden’s day gig, the lowbrow art rockers Buttercup, needed a new guitarist. Reyes won the part on the merits of a game of “aesthetic pool,” described by Sanden as a game based on “beauty and interesting-ness, not on any rules of normal billiards.” Since then, Reyes and Sanden have been the left and right brain of Buttercup, operating in concert as one of SA’s most prolific 21st century acts. When the rhythm section of Buttercup was unavailable, Joe and Erik simply stripped the project down to Demitasse, half a cup.
Informed by recent loss and delicate joys in their personal lives, Blue Medicine, which drops April 15, represents the songwriting pair’s most exposed, emotionally spry and career-topping effort. The album’s 10 tracks take listeners through a passage of injury and cleansing, laid bare in Blue Medicine’s minimal recording style.
Written in the fall of 2009 and spring of 2010, Blue Medicine documents Reyes and Sanden’s simultaneous loss of their fathers. “We sat on the record for about a year,” said Reyes. “It was a little too painful to work with right away.” Though Blue Medicine acted as a creative channel for grieving, the deaths rarely come up point-blank on the album. Like the ghost of the father visible only to Hamlet, as listeners we can’t actually experience the parental loss, only the cathartic work. “The songs that were purely about our fathers’ impending deaths were cut off the record,” Sanden said. “The songs that made it on Blue Medicine aren’t about what was actually happening, but they’re informed by the feeling because we were both dealing in loss.”
This elliptical treatment allowed Reyes and Sanden to explore a wide emotional field, from the conversational struggles of “Couples Therapy” to feeling trapped in your body in “Comfy Coffins.” On opener “The Blues or Die,” Demitasse comes closest to the grief process, begging for the truth in a rising crescendo, singing, “Lay it all out on me / I can take it.”
As songwriters, Reyes and Sanden lay it all out on Blue Medicine. “The songwriting circumstances were a little different,” Sanden said. “All the songs were in the exploratory phase, writing lyrics in the car outside Joe’s house. We were writing those pieces on the spot so there wasn’t too much time to overthink. It comes out very unconscious.”
Under Reyes’ direction as a producer, the duo kept their hands off Blue Medicine, editing and augmenting only when necessary. “We’d run it through twice and then press ‘record,’” Reyes said. “Erik would say, ‘We need to fix that part,’ but I was very strict about what we would leave in there.” Described by Sanden as a “snapshot version of recording,” Blue Medicine is a defiant stance against perfectionism. Still, Reyes’ occasional garnish, like the life-affirming handclaps and driving bass on “Comfy Coffins,” adds some color to the dominantly acoustic record.
Because of its intimacy, Sanden calls Blue Medicine their “strongest recording, but it might not be palatable to people used to well-executed, edited music.” Unguarded by the touches of reverb and delay, the vocals on Blue Medicine are as bare as the record’s language. Without makeup, it’s still a beautiful piece of work. “There are Maximizers and there are Satisfizers.” Sanden theorized. “We were Satisfizers on this. Our motto was, ‘Good enough.’”
It might be Sanden and Reyes’ most serious output to date, but immaturity still reigns supreme for the pair. On the sex-stifling “I Remove My Penis,” Reyes said, “[I] was excited about that song because I got to sing a harmony on the word ‘penis’.” One evening at their month-long Liberty Bar residency in February, rather than play “Comfy Coffins,” Demitasse spun an early vinyl pressing, miming the images for the audience. Expect similar behavioral issues at the various album release concerts occuring this week and next.
With Blue Medicine’s material weighing heavily, Reyes and Sanden still relish their opportunities to dick around. “This new music is mature, but we’re willing to do completely goofy stuff and commit fully to it,” Sanden said. “There’s something about music, being playful, that’ll keep you young.”
Though Demitasse began as a necessity, the name suits the pair’s intentions quite well. “It means half a cup,” Joe said. “It’s half the band. The cup might be half empty, even with a hole in the bottom. But we’re willing to share it.” With a hole at the base of the cup, Demitasse becomes a koan, a Buddhist paradox and Zen reflection. With Blue Medicine, Reyes and Sanden share loss and love, maturity and hot air, pulled always in opposite directions.