Bob Massey has a problem. He can’t get his head round women. As front man and principal song writer for The Gena Rowlands Band, a Washington D.C. based ensemble of musicians, Massey could’ve taken the high road and explained away his lyrical content in shades of vagary. But he makes no such illusions. He’s an honest song writer; musically, personally, brutally. “I’m always wrangling with women. Trying to understand who they are, where they’re coming from, how they happened. Why I like the way they move, and smile, and smell,” says Massey.
Naturally, Massey’s difficulties in understanding the female psyche is but one of many lyrical formulas spun by The Gena Rowlands Band, though his directness, his ruminations on the bar room quagmires he’s endured; these are not typical of the vexing blend of baroque chamber pop Massey and company have constructed over the past eight years. One might expect the theatrical constructions of The Gena Rowlands Band to be go past the inner workings of the male/female dynamic, but hey, while men are still from Mars and women are still calling Venus home, Bob Massey’s brand of dry-witted, inter-planetary space travel has more than its fair share of merit. “There is a big universe and I didn’t make it and it was here before me and it’ll be here when I’m gone. I’m not very good at dealing with that,” elaborates Massey. Slowly but surely, The Gena Rowlands Band is learning to deal.
The path began in 1999. Massey, based in Arlington, VA at the time, was playing in the bands Telegraph Melts and Tsunami. With no outlet for his own songs that involved lyrics and singing, he started constructing bedroom tapes with no intention of actually doing anything with them. But shortly thereafter, his roommates cajoled him into playing Arlington’s own Galaxy Hut bar. At the time, Massey was reading about the independent filmmaker John Cassavetes, whom was married to the actor Gena Rowlands. “I’d seen her in some of his movies and she kind of blew me away. Sometimes she’s play these characters who were utterly sweet yet totally unhinged. It was almost scary how real those movies seemed. On a whim I called my project The Gena Rowlands Band. It was part joke, part homage,” he says. Shortly afterwards, Massey assembled some musician friends, rehearsed for two days and recorded their first album, ‘La Merde et Les Etoiles,’ at Inner Ear Studios with Chad Clark (Beauty Pill, Smart Went Crazy) producing. Massey described the effort as “Smoky, moody, impressionistic late-night songs,” and the album was released in 2004 by Lujo Records. Eventually he handed off a copy to The Dismemberment Plan’s Travis Morrison, who then invited the inaptly named band on tour. According to Massey, “Things snowballed and then it was too late to choose a more sensible name. I’m okay with the homage, except I have to explain it to just about everyone I mention it to.”
Following the release of ‘La Merde et Les Etoiles,’ Massey and the same collection of friends/musicians became involved in a multimedia opera dubbed ‘The Nitrate Hymnal.’ Joined by keyboardist David Durst and violinist Jean Cook, the three wrote the core of ‘The Nitrate Hymnal,’ which was performed by a 12-piece orchestra made up of veterans from the DC punk scene and the NYC avant chamber music scene. ‘The Nitrate Hymnal’ ran for four sold-out nights. “1200 people showed up in the snow to watch this crazy show that no one had ever seen, based on home movies my grandparents shot from the 1940’s onward,” adds Massey. ‘The Nitrate Hymnal’ was released last year on Lujo Records.
The latest approach, album number three for The Gena Rowlands Band, finds Massey and company more direct and focused. ‘Flesh and Spirits,’ released in April of this year, embraces the power of simplicity. Where once there was darkness, there are now shades of color. Bolstered by a transcontinental move, a misdiagnosed health condition and a healthy serving of grim family dealings, the assembly of songs on ‘Flesh and Spirits’ became, according to Massey, “The kind of record that might help you get out of bed in the morning.” Adding that, “Those kinds of records have saved my ass on many occasions.”
On ‘Flesh and Spirits,’ Massey is joined by a revolving lineup that reads like a Who’s Who of the DC Indie Scene over the past ten years, including Jean Cook (violin, also of Beauty Pill), Eric Axelson (bass, formerly of The Dismemberment Plan and Maritime), Jason Caddell (lead guitar, formerly of The Dismemberment Plan), Vin Novara (drums, formerly of The Crown Hate Ruin and Canyon) and David Durst (keyboards, formerly of Maritime). In the past, The Gena Rowlands Band has culled the likes of Amy Domingues (Garland of Hours), Johanna Claasen (formerly of The Most Secret Method) and Luther Gray (formerly of Tsunami) from the DC school of post punk grads. Speaking on the arbitrary lineup of TGRB, Massey says, “I have been blessed to play with geniuses whom are also my friends.”
Recorded and produced by Chad Clark and TJ Lipple at Silver Sonya Studios, the tracks on ‘Flesh and Spirits’ finds the band harnessing a more linear approach to song writing. Massey constructed demos, played them for the band, then worked alongside them to intuitively arrange the record. The resulting sounds finds The Gena Rowlands Band vividly shading the spaces between Massey’s bouts with self-deprecation and alienation. It’s catchy, theatrical chamber pop that’s more akin to a chaotic musical than anything within the band member’s past musical outputs.
Thematically, ‘Flesh and Spirits’ is Massey’s stab at self-removal from the “mire of my own skull.” He’s not afraid to admit that he’s loved, been loved, and dealt with the repercussions when one or both doesn’t work out successfully. He’s also not afraid to admit that his inherent answer to whatever repercussions he faces might, on occasion, take the form of alcohol, referencing beer, the bar and the consequences of overdoing it several times throughout the album. “When love is broken or denied, you end up at the bar, staring at women and mired in your skull again. Until you’re drunk out of your skull. Because at times, the most important work of my life has been done at the bar. People are honest there. Mysteries are revealed there. In a bar there’s a tension between flesh and spirit that makes people in church uncomfortable,” says Massey on the melancholic but hopeful assortment of songs on ‘Flesh and Spirits.’
But he goes above and beyond this explanation on the track, ‘The Joke I Play on Washington.’ The one-chord simplicity of the track is the first openly confessional song written by Massey. In it, he refutes the assumption that people think he’s gay, calling himself “self aware,” and stating that he wouldn’t care what other people think if it wasn’t so hard to meet women. One bout with confusion later, he’s overdone it on the sauce again, still alone, still wondering where in the hell he’s headed, searching for an easy way out.
Narratively, it becomes the quintessential but confessional battle cry for Bob Massey; and in the end, he’s still alone, still trying to understand women. Speaking on behalf of the paradoxical outcome of his song writing, Massey is quick to respond. “I have to get out and do something to escape my own skull. It doesn’t make me any kind of saint, it just means that maybe I’m a little closer to being an adult instead of a chump.”
In the end, the rationale behind Bob Massey and the body of work he’s created with The Gena Rowlands Band is simple; he’s trying. Trying to be an adult, trying to understand the opposite sex, trying not to be a chump in the process. That’s not a joke he’s playing on Washington, it’s brutal honesty.
There’s a photo link if you click on that at the top of the page, but just in case you’ve made it this far and want to hear GRB, go here.