Mineral's First Song In 20 Years, 'Aurora,' Feels Like A New Dawn
Mineral was the emo band you discovered too late. At least that's how it felt in the '90s, when friends or zines would recommend a pair of albums — The Power of Failing and EndSerenading — after you'd already gotten into Sunny Day Real Estate, Rainer Maria or Jimmy Eat World. After falling in love with Chris Simpson's fervent wails about romantic hopes and spiritual anxiety, his wild-hair guitar interplay with Scott McCarver, and the simultaneously crashing and tender punk rhythm section of bassist Jeremy Gomez and drummer Gabe Wiley, you'd soon find out that Mineral had already broken up in 1997 while making its second (and final) album.
"I've heard that story so many times," Simpson tells NPR Music, chuckling.
He's indulging me, another fan who missed Mineral by a year. But when the Austin band got back together in 2014 for a series of shows in the U.S., Europe, Japan and Australia, it was not only an opportunity for those who didn't get to see Mineral the first time around, but also the first time anyone got to experience the more elegiac songs from EndSerenading live.
Well, now there's another surprise. To celebrate the band's upcoming 25th anniversary in 2019, Mineral is going on tour once again and releasing One Day When We Are Young, a 56 page-book featuring rare photographs, handwritten lyrics and interviews with other luminaries of the music scene. Oh, and not to mention a 10-inch record with the first Mineral songs in 20 years: "Aurora" (premiering here) and "Your Body Is the World."
"Aurora" meanders and waltzes through familiar fields, building on arpeggios with spindly riffs and sudden explosions of distortion. That frenzied warmth is Mineral's signature sound, so much so that it's easy to get lost in its eight-minute run time, the longest in the band's discography.
"When we play together, it's almost like we can't not sound like Mineral," Chris Simpson says in an interview that explores the seeking nature of the band, as well as what it means to make new music as Mineral again. But Simpson also indulges a little bit of nostalgia on my part.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Lars Gotrich: How did you find out about new bands in the '90s?
Chris Simpson: Word of mouth, mostly. MTV was still somewhat influential, like Alternative Nation, 120 Minutes and all that stuff. I definitely remember getting into Jane's Addiction through that, and Smashing Pumpkins. But once Mineral was touring, it was word of mouth.
I was in high school in the late '90s, and the way I often discovered new music was through reading liner notes. If a band I liked thanked another band in its liner notes, nine times out of ten I would go track down their music. So I had this memory recently that the reason I first knew about Mineral was because you were thanked in the liner notes to the Phantasmic and Fluffy split album.
That's hilarious. Yeah, one of our early Mineral tours — the first time I went east was because Tess [Wiley] from Phantasmic is Gabe's sister; Gabe played drums in Mineral. She had a tour booked and was looking to put a band together. She really wanted Jeremy [Gomez] and Gabe to go out as her backing band, and we were kind of bummed because we had some plans to be potentially touring at the time, so we decided to do a tour together.
Tess was dating Chris Colbert at the time, who is the guy behind Fluffy. I played bass and he played drums, and Tess played guitar in Fluffy. In fact, that Fluffy thing we did — the main goal of doing shows was to play Cornerstone. So that was my first and only time playing Cornerstone.
What year would that have been?
I'm guessing '96.
The Mineral record was already out, and I met a ton of people there who were into the Mineral record and excited that that was happening. It was fun to get to go play those shows, but I really missed Mineral. I remember driving all the way back from Illinois for a little show at Emo's here — I was so excited to get back to Mineral.
Let's talk about your voice. When I saw Mineral on the 2014 reunion tour, I wondered how you would sing these old songs, especially given how loose and rollicking your Zookeeper album, which came out in 2014, would turn out to be. You've talked a lot in previous interviews about making peace with your youthful lyrics, but what did it take to return to that youthful wail?
It came real naturally when I was singing the old Mineral stuff, you know. It didn't feel like there was any different way to sing it. We talked about it as a band and definitely decided early on that we don't want in any way to reinterpret our material on these tours. We really want — to whatever degree we're capable — to play the songs as they were. I mean, most people who know Mineral at that point and even now know Mineral because of the records, and that's kind of what they want to hear.
I mean, I think it means the same thing. At the time, we were in our early 20s and really had nothing better to do and no desire to do anything other than hang out and play music together every day. There's just more labor involved in doing it now. We realized kind of early on in the process that we're going to have to actually come up with some more fully formed ideas to start. But it means the same thing. At its core, it's the same passion to make music and express ourselves.
"Aurora" does a little bit of looking back and looking forward, both musically and thematically. Where did this song come from?
It's like having a writing prompt, which almost makes writing easier, at least at the beginning of the process. I'm not just trying to write a song; I'm trying to write a Mineral song.
In Mineral, I had a few different tunings I would use, which aren't drastically weird tunings, but different than The Gloria Record and Zookeeper, where I'm just in standard tuning. So I started playing the guitar in those tunings, thinking that would be a way to find my way into similar-sounding material.
We recorded these in September. Probably 85 percent of that time was spent working on arranging "Aurora." I think it was just the most difficult to get through, because it was the first one and we were really just getting back on the horse. Once the four of us start playing together, everyone just kind of has a style to their playing. But when we play together, it's almost like we can't not sound like Mineral.
At the center of the song, you sing, "Aurora, Aurora, a child, a babe / A blue yawning glow upon flowers of the alleyway." It feels very much like it could have been an old Mineral lyric. Is "Aurora" about anyone specifically?
The theme of the song, to me, is about dawn — a new beginning for a new day. In one of the earlier versions of the lyrics, I had that line as "Hosanna, Hosanna, a child, a babe." For whatever reason, I just didn't love how that sounded or felt, but I had a melody and rhythm established, so I tried to put random names or words in there. To me, it didn't need to be something super specific.
When I struck upon Aurora, I immediately looked up the name. Basically, it means "dawn," and all of a sudden I was like, "Well that's what the song is about!" I like songs that sound like they're about a name, like "Gloria," but aren't necessarily about a specific person.
I'm curious about the word "Hosanna." I know that you've said in past interviews that you battled with some of the spiritual themes of your earlier music, and felt maybe a little bit hesitant coming back to them. But you've embraced that on a more general level. Is that the approach that you've taken with "Aurora," as well?
I have no qualms about being a seeker, as it were. But as I have grown into myself, I've realized that I'm definitely not a Christian, which is where I felt like I was in the Mineral era. That doesn't feel authentic to me anymore.
But you're still drawn to the seeking aspect of spirituality.
Yes. I feel very spiritual still and always have, which is not to say that I'm like constantly trying out something new, like, "Oh, crystals this week" or something. But I'm very interested in the bigger questions that underlie spiritual seeking.
When you came to "Aurora," this idea of a new dawn, was it inspired by any events? Or were you just doing what you have always done with Mineral — using an idea as a way to seek something perhaps bigger or newer for yourself?
Yeah, that feels accurate. With Mineral, those songs were always more of a feeling I had or wanted them to have. That was the path to writing the song — this seeking, an expression of this feeling. I feel like oftentimes that happens most effectively through symbolism or more poetic language than really knowing exactly what you want to say. When it goes well, it feels more like something that's happening through you as opposed to something you're doing. It almost seems like a wavelength that you're tapping into or channeling.
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