“Sense of wonder nearing the end. Lonesome world, nowhere to begin” -- (“Inside of You” by London Down)
Kids, jobs, marriage, the deaths of loved ones -- the founding members London Down have experienced 30 years of life’s ups and downs since they last made music together as wide-eyed 20-somethings in San Jose, California.
But the chemistry that propelled this quartet to the upper ranks of the San Francisco Bay Area’s college rock scene of the late 1980s remains unchanged.
No one knew that when the band decided to reunite this past August in Nashville.
After reconnecting through social media over the past few years, the band members talked about reuniting for a one-off show in 2017 to mark the 30th anniversary of their indie album “Strange Places Unknown.” With two members now living in North Carolina and two still in California, they couldn’t make a reunion work.
So they recorded a single long distance, releasing “Carnival” on digital sites in August 2018.
The experience went so well it convinced founding members Chris Carbone, Phil Benjamin and Steve Hartsoe to meet at a mutual friend’s house in Nashville and record an entire album.
With Steve's son Eli replacing his uncle Ken on drums due to the original drummer's unavailability, they met up in Music City for a week in August 2018.
They rehearsed a dozen songs over six hours then recorded them in three days.
“It was like we never quit playing together,” says lead guitarist Phil Benjamin. “We looked at each other from across the room at SIR Rehearsal Studios in Nashville and thought, ‘What just happened?’”
The result of that whirlwind week is “Gnashville,” a 13-song indie album being released Dec. 7 on CD and on digital download sites. Leading up to the release, the band has launched a nationwide college radio campaign and released two singles (“Carnival” on Aug. 3 and “Burning Bridges” on Oct. 26).
On “Gnashville,” the garage-band grit, the sweet, jangly electric folk and the punchy rock grooves remain unchanged from their busy club days when Bush One was president and R.E.M. ruled the airwaves. What has changed, along with some new gray hair, is a depth the band could never have had when playing the Bay Area club circuit and opening for artists including Chris Isaak, Mudhoney and The Tragically Hip.
Threading the 13 tracks on “Gnashville” is the vantage point of a life more than half lived -- a depth of conscience that touches on social discord (“Burning Bridges”), smartphone addiction (“Disease”), the West Coast housing crisis (“You Got Yours”) and the school shooting in Parkland, Florida (“Molly”).
“Childlike wonder lost in thunder, Molly’s on the run/Synapse missing no one’s listening, here we go again,” sings guitarist/lead singer Steve Hartsoe in “Molly,” which closes the album.
“I laugh more around these guys than I do in any other environment,” Steve Hartsoe says. “But I think we share a similar view about things going on around us and in the world, and so much of it is not very pleasant. That comes out in the songs.”
That’s not to say London Down is, well, all downer. In “Every Gig,” the band turns a Motown beat into a garage-band rager about the unstable yet raucous joy of life in an indie band -- most of it straight out of the band’s scrapbook.
“Van broke down in Salinas town one more Econoline for the heap/B.D.’s working college radio from a boat somewhere at sea.” Then comes the chorus that forces the listener to forget the verses about broken bathroom lights, drunk soundmen and crappy stages: “Plug me in and count it off/Gonna do what we do till we die/ It’s the indie life.”
Luke Bryan pedal steel/guitarist Dave Ristrim, a childhood friend of Benjamin and Carbone, produced the album. He also added pedal steel, 12-string electric guitar and baritone guitar on “Gnashville.” Fellow Luke Bryan bandmate, bassist James “Cap’n” Cook, recorded, mixed and mastered the album at his home studio, Studio on the Ridge in Nashville. Cook also handles harmony duties on the album.
“We had not seen each other in more than 20 years, but sharing song ideas and making this album feels like we never stopped,” says Carbone. “The chemistry is still there, and the new songs sound better than we could have imagined. This whole experience has been really special. We look forward to continuing even beyond ‘Gnashville.’”