Let's face it to most people the LA combo Mazzy Star is just another one hit wonder, albeit one of the better ones of recent memory right up there with Portishead. But over the years, "Fade Into You" has slowly seeped into the public consciousness much as the song originally meandered its way up the charts over a year after it was released in 1993-something that almost never happens in the record business. As a DJ I have been playing that track for years as part of my afterhours set because it's a real panty wetter. I was so excited when Richard X paired Jarvis Cocker of Pulp with Mazzy Star ("Into U") on his stylish 2003 mash-up album X-Factor Vol. 1 because I was able to recontextualize at least part of "Fade Into You" into something fresh for a whole new generation of potential Mazzy Star fans. Why? Because they are a band worthy of a second look.
The band proper was formed way back in 1989 but has roots stretching all the way back to the early 1980s as part of the now-legendary Paisley Underground movement where Hollywood bands like Rain Parade, Dream Syndicate, and Green On Red mated darker Sixties influenced rhythm and blues with a modern new wave kick-think the Doors meets Neil Young & Crazy Horse bashing it out at their junked out best on "Sedan Delivery". Okay, we all know those limey pukes the Cult stole that sound on their debut album ("She Sells Sanctuary" especially) but quickly showed their true colors abandoning the jangly guitars in favor of Van Halen style heavy metal. By the time the video for "Fade Into You" got into regular on MTV Mazzy Star was really in the twilight of their career. For me the band's defining moment was from their 1990 debut on Rough Trade She Hangs Brightly entitled "Halah". The song introduced front and center singer Hope Sandoval as a Nico (or Edie?) styled chanteuse that could break your heart and eat for breakfast right in front of you. But with lyrics like:
You begin to realize that this is the band that provides you the soundtrack for all the bad relationships, the violent ones, the stupid ones, the crazy ones; a remedy for all the heartbreak that you have had to endure when it comes to love. The sparse interplay between Sandoval and guitarist David Roback (the band's other founding member) plays out the male/female tension with gusto; Sandoval's gentle and melancholy voice sounds as crystal clear as it ever will during the span of Mazzy Star's career on the track's haunting chorus:
If She Hangs Brightly caught the Mazzy's at their unwilling Velvet Underground cover band best along with their laconic blend of mid 60s folkadelia of the Canyon and Strip crowd of West LA (I am loathe to call them hippies because they really weren't-it's Los Angeles for godsakes-it is NOT allowed) it was certainly anathema with what else was going in Hollywood at the time where hair bands like Guns & Roses dominated the pay-to-play clubs on the Strip and the underground was being infiltrated by its own heavy metal affliction-okay it was weird and arty heavy metal-but let's call a spade a spade here by outting Jane's Addiction and their Lollapaloozer gang for what they were-Cinderella in crusty juggler outfits. The band had cut their teeth in grimier clubs on what I affectionally call the East Hollwood peninsula and had roots stretching back to the legendary indie rock imprint SST Records ("Corporate Rock Sucks" said their infamous t-shirts) and even back to the roots of the Paisley Underground in the early 1980s. Mazzy Star guitarist and founder David Roback and his brother Steve founded Rain Parade- the seminal founders of the neo-psychedelia movement that critics likened to the Byrds at the height of their power (5D) in ways that sounded less phony than Tom Petty despite his gobs of radio airplay. David and Steve both quit RP after their debut album, David formed a band called Clay Allison who promptly signed to the SST label run by Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn and bassist Chuck Dukoski. The band began to gig with the ever expanding roster of artists which at the height of the label's power included almost every credible artist of the mid to late 1980s including Sonic Youth, Husker Du, Meat Puppets, Soundgarden, and an assload more. Clay Allison put out one single in 1984 and changed their name to Opal. With ex-Dream Syndicate bassist Kendra Smith on vocals Roback began hewing a formula of dark imagery associated with the rock n roll poets: Jim Morrison, Lou Reed, and sulty femme vox which Smith provided in abundance. Opal's 1987 full length Happy Nightmare Baby stands tall as one of the finest overlooked albums of the decade and in my book begins the discography of Mazzy Star as well.
For better or worse Kendra Smith was a junkie. For better because it gave a band like Opal the authentic grit to make the music they were making. For worse because Smith quit during the subsequent European Happy Nightmare Baby tour with the Jesus & Mary Chain ending the band. However, her quitting opened the door for Hope Sandoval, who was a friend of Smith's. Sandoval was considerably younger than either Smith or Roback-she was still in high school when she gave Smith a tape of the folk duo she played in with Sylvia Gomez called Going Home). Roback actually produced a still-unreleased single of the duo and when Smith bailed Sandoval was given the nod to sing for Roback's new band Mazzy Star. Roback would write the music and Sandoval would write the songs, the two would work perfectly together until their demise in 1997 while never sharing a romantic connection-a fact that I always found odd. The band struggle to find itself swimming agains the currents of popular music as many other alternative artists were in the B.N. era (Before Nirvana). Having their label Rough Trade fold right after the release of their debut album hurt as well. When the band's second album So Tonight That I Might See finally hit in 1992 it was on Capitol, the label that signed all of RT's orphaned artists in the hopes of cashing in on the alternative craze created by the grunge hysteria there was much critical buzz but oddly not many sales. I still have that promo cassette (yes I come from the era when promos came on cassette- for your car stereo of course) and I played it three times a day for months I was so enthralled by its magic. Why? Because it's dark and psychedelic without being noodly and Jerry-Berry-ed out, Sandoval's lyrics are barely decipherable but you know they are all about things falling apart, and the production is amazing. So Tonight That I Might See adds the Mazzy's to a short list of artists who have contributed to the sounds of Hollywood-a distinctive mix of harmonies and sunshine with tremendous darkness at the corners; right up their with Love, the Beach Boys, X, and the Doors. While it took a year for "Fade Into You" to finally creep up the charts it provided the group its only Top 100 hit it still stunned everyone including the band, who I think never recovered from the wilting exposure of the mainstream media glare. The band's sound began to dominate the Hollywood sound in the mid 1990s (especially in Silver Lake) with bands like the Brian Jonestown Massacre and Lutefisk adding new twists while countless other bands just aped the group's sound in ways more dreadful than you could ever possibly imagine. Even today bands like the Flaming Lips pay homage to the work done on So Tonight That I Might See, much to my delight. The band continued to be a fixture in the neighborhood, regular joes who toured around the world and came home to Hollywood to play amazing gigs for friends and family. Despite the fact that band outwardly portrayed a very dark and mysterious image and did not conduct interviews with the press it had more to do with Sandoval's being uncomfortable with the process. The band seemed more interested in letting their music do the speaking for them. Back home the band was very much the people's band and very much a part of their scene and my time spent with the band was always pleasant and memorable. It is rare that anyone gets to spend time around bands as good as the Mazzy's so I must wonder what it was like to work for say, the Beatles. That goodwill landed them on top of the alternative rock pantheon for most of the 90s though they would never find the success they had with their second album ever again.
The group's 1996 release Among My Swan was mostly a continuation of the second album about two years too late. The band spawned a minor hit with "Flowers In December" and a deep love apparently of Patsy Cline. It made little impact on me because of the long span of time between the second and third album but the recent inclusion of "Happy," "Look on Down from the Bridge," and "All Your Sisters" in the 2005 Ed Norton film Down In The Valley
had me re-examining the album to find some strong songs and excellent mood that deserved closer inspection. The band trademarked their "sound" on the third album and that's the reason for the second look. The Mazzy's have managed to remain relevant in the post-everything age because of amazing textures ala My Bloody Valentine or the Still album by Joy Division, with a focus taken away from the front person and the message placing instead on creating a certain mood along with a rich wash of sounds (dark and murky colors only please with this band). These are the same kinds of criteria that draw folks to electronic music which is why I have been playing "Fade Into You" as a club DJ for years, it just works. But it's more than that, the band rewards it most patient fans who dig deep through the onion skin layers of texture to find hauntingly baroque songs with a slighly gothic flare. It's the aching cello on the band's cover of the classic Arthur Lee ballad "Five String Serenade" and lyrics like this on "Blue Light":
And then I begged you please
I always knew you'd take me back
Certainly not going to find something that simple and yet so telling on a Carrie Underwood or Kelly Clarkson album and yet the Mazzy's made it seem so easy.
It's sad that the band was criminally underrated in the their time but they continue to make in-roads to popular culture and will be future "Where Are They Now?" stars most assuredly. These days Hope, Kendra, and David are all still making music- just not together. The Mazzy's even made an album together in 2000 that has yet to see the light of day meaning there hasn't been a new album since 1997 making anything to come out now by them a decade too late. The the band last played together in 2003 at English folk legend Bert Jansch's 60th birthday, someone whom Hope Sandoval has been collaborating with off and on during this decade along with Colm O' Ciosoig of My Bloody Valentine under the name the Warm Inventions. The material is written by Sandoval and VERY far removed from from her previous work and yet still quite interesting. Roback wrote songs that were performed in the 2004 Maggie Cheung film Clean where she plays a junkie trying to clean up and sing in a band. Sadly, it doesn't look like there will ever be a Mazzy Star reunion however they will remain one of the 90s coolest bands and a group that took dream pop to a whole new level.