The Dying Californian begins to live
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Lay up nearer, brother, nearer
For my limbs are growing cold
— "The Dying Californian"
A man's last testimony to his brother before perishing at sea, "The Dying Californian" is a mid-19th-century tune that documents the dark side of the Gold Rush. The early 21st-century group the Dying Californian takes its name from the song, which brothers and bandmates Nathan and Andrew Dalton first heard when their sister played an arrangement of it for their family.
"My brother and I were raised listening to the same music and singing together," Nathan Dalton says, as a candle casts a flickering light across his face while we drink beers in a booth at the back of the Attic on 24th Street. "We somehow know who is going to do the harmony and who is going to do the melody."
It's twilight. The Impressions mourn an ex who loves somebody else and Maxine Brown cries out "Oh No, Not My Baby" as Dalton breaks down the basics of his kin's musical background: piano and guitar lessons, a father into George Jones and Merle Haggard, an older sister with three degrees in music, and a shared love of family acts ranging from the Carter Family ("Sara Carter isn't putting on some diva act") to the Carpenters. "They get a bad rap," he says of the latter. "You really have to listen to [Karen's] voice."
Listen to Dalton's voice on the Dying Californian's 2003 album for Turn Records, We Are the Birds That Stay, and especially on an upcoming 12-song follow-up for the same label, and you'll conclude that Karen Carpenter–lover Mark Eitzel has a worthy heir apparent. Not since American Music Club released California in 1988 has a band tapped so potently into a type of sound that tastes good with liquor but can also make you drunk with melancholy even if you're on the straight and narrow.
"On the new record," says Dalton, "I'd changed the lyrics of 'Blur Just the Same,’ but Liam [Nelson, the group's producer and extra guitarist] stopped the recording and told me the old lyrics resonated with him so much." Dalton switched back to his original words, and the result is a great yet understated lament — one with a bridge that takes the type of blurred-photo imagery that horror movies use for jolts and instead makes the ghostliness tearfully sad. It's one of more than a few moments on the record with a spiritual underpinning — the Dalton brothers know their share of hymns.
"The first band that blew me away and made me feel like 'That's what I want to do' is early R.E.M.," Dalton says as the bar grows darker. "There's something spooky about Murmur and Reckoning and Chronic Town. I've always been attracted to haunting music like that.” The brothers have flipped roles somewhat since their years with the punk-inflected Troubleman Unlimited band Nuzzle. Nathan plays guitar and sings melody on the Dying Californian's recordings, while brother Andrew plays keyboards and harmonizes. They're joined by Nelson, bassist Simon Fabela, and drummer Ricardo Reano. While they excel at ballads, the new, as-yet-untitled, record's "Second Shadow" proves the group can also unleash a cage-shaking rave-up.
Framed by the Dalton brothers' "oh-oh" harmonies, the Dying Californian's upcoming collection builds upon the rustic handsomeness of We Are the Birds That Stay, which features cover art by filmmakers José Luis Rodríguez and Cathy Begien. Over the past few years, the Dying Californian's music has been a fixture of the movies Begien shows at the Edinburgh Castle's Film Night. "God bless Cathy," says Dalton. "We've been friends since our college days. It was strange seeing the video she made for our song ‘Madrugada’ [at the Edinburgh]. My voice was booming and I was sitting in the audience watching their reaction. That movie she made about her family [Relative Distance] must be so tough to watch with a crowd — she's gutsy."
Dalton moved from soundtracking Begien's movies to also starring in one, Separated by Death. He played — surprise, surprise — a ghost. "I know [Cathy's] work, know her, and know what she likes," says Dalton. "She can convey this feeling to me that I put into music.... She wants to do a whole [feature-length] musical. We can do it."
Dalton has lived in California most of his life, long enough — and far and wide enough — to know that "most people in Northern California have definite opinions about LA, and people in LA are just kind of oblivious." I tell him that a friend of mine once made this observation to me after a stereotypical Mission hipster threw attitude at him upon hearing he was moving back to LA. "That's why LA wins," Dalton agrees with a laugh. "It says, ‘What? You hate us!?’”
The Dying Californian's leader can also break down the individual qualities of the state's major cities — the isolation of Santa Cruz, where most of his friends have moved from, or the quiet darkness of Berkeley, where he lives now with his wife and 16-month-old son. That domesticity and Dalton's new surroundings spurred the recording of a meditative acoustic solo album, Byss and Abyss, released on the fledgling label Sap Moon. "Maybe it has something to do with desperation," he says as we look at Byss and Abyss's cover and insert artwork, which was inspired by a book about alchemy and mysticism. "People can fool themselves into thinking an ordinary object is gold."
Of course, music has an alchemical quality as well, and if it results in fool's gold, at least it's a foolish pleasure. "The best art can seem better than gold," Dalton agrees. "Sometimes I feel like one of these guys who made all the symbols or a tinkerer, but with my four-track." SFBG
THE DYING CALIFORNIAN
With Lady Hawk
and Magnolia Electric Company
Fri/4, 10 p.m.
Bottom of the Hill
1233 17th St., SF