Down With Blue Jeans: Tim Sendra talks bubblegum pop and the effort to preserve his brother's legacy
Sometimes you're just too close to a situation to write a clever lede.
Blue Jeans features the married couple Tim Sendra (guitar) and Heather Phares (bass) with David Serra (drums). The Ann Arbor indie-rock trio's second album, Adult Hits, was produced by Fred Thomas and released on his cassette via his Life Like label.
Down MF featured Scott Sendra, Tim's brother, and a cast of friends and family members who helped the late guitarist and singer bringing his singular vision of strong-song-based noise-rock to hiss-filled vinyl. Last year, Thomas assisted Tim in bringing together Down's 7-inch singles for a compilation LP, Critically Acclaimed, released on the Loch Alpine label, named after the Dexter subdivision where the Sendras grew up. (Read an interview about Down's history here.)
I've known the Sendra brothers for 33 years, performed in bands with both of them in the early '90s -- I played bass on the first two Down singles and was in Veronica Lake with Tim -- and have recorded with everybody named in the preceding paragraphs aside from Serra (though it seems inevitable). I grieved intensely when Scott died of brain cancer in 2017. I was deeply thankful for Tim and Fred's efforts to honor Scott's sui generis talent by compiling Critically Acclaimed. There is no journalistic distance between me and these humans. I love them and their art -- and you should, too. That's it.
Blue Jeans rarely perform live, but the group will shake off the rust on Saturday, March 30 at Ziggy's in Ypsilanti to celebrate the release of Adult Hits, which is also coming out on vinyl via the Spanish label Bobo Integral. I talked to Tim Sendra about Blue Jeans' sound, Down MF, and the future of his Loch Alpine label.
Q: Tell me the backstory on recording the album. It's been done for a while, correct? Was the album recorded in multiple studios / sessions? The general vibe is minimal and low-fi-ish but within that context, the production -- and especially drum and vocal sounds -- seem to change a bit from song to song. Was this variation an intentional aesthetic? Happy accident?
A: The record has been done for at least two years but life stuff and the working on the down reissue kind of moved it to the side burner. We're super stoked that Fred was into the record enough -- even after hearing each song a million times while we recorded and mixed them -- to want to release it on his label.
We did all of it at the late, lamented Backseat Studio over about a year, stealing time when we could. That might account for some of the differences in sound, but a lot of it was conscious decision to make each song sound like a single. Unless you're The Ramones, it gets tiring if every song has the exact same drum sound or guitar effects. Better to tailor the sound to the idea the song is trying to get across. We also decided to bring in some acoustic guitars this time and downplay the synths, just to change things up from the first album.
Q: Blue Jeans is pretty distinct from Madison Electric and Veronica Lake not just because of the musical personnel and production choices, but your songwriting has changed into something that feels less modern indie rock and more akin to 1950s and 1960s rock. There are hints of rockabilly, the pop side of Brit Invasion, bubblegum, etc. How much of this was a conscious decision to write this way versus a natural evolution?
A: The idea for Blue Jeans is T. Rex played by The Archies with the passion of Comet Gain and the archness of The Go-Betweens. We probably come off like a pale imitation of those bands, but that's the goal. I don't want to write songs with too many ideas or feelings involved. I like to focus on one thought, emotion, or moment, try to nail it down as best as I can, then move on.
Q: Still no cymbals on the new album, right? Or did I miss a crash? It sounds like David's snare drum often has a loose, rattling sound that helps fill in the sonic space where the cymbals might go.
A: Only one song has cymbals: "Ricola Horns" has some Moe Tucker oceanic swells, but that's it. I don't love cymbals -- they usually just get in the way. Or maybe it's because the ringing in my ears makes them extraneous. Anyway, David has a knack for coming up with parts that don't need any hissing or crashing filler, just a floor tom and a snare and he's good to go. He's always got a strong sense of just what each song needs and the skills to make it work. Heather does, too. Quite a few of the songs for the album sounded kind of weak when I wrote them, but by the time those two were finished, they sounded pretty great.
Q: Aren't you part way through recording your third album?
A: We started work a while ago on a third album, recorded three songs with Fred at Backseat right before it closed. The idea is to get back to it very soon and maybe in a couple years, people will be able to ignore our third album. In the meantime, we're relearning the songs from Adult Hits for our show at Ziggy's. Some big news is that there's a label in Spain called Bobo Integral putting out Adult Hits on vinyl soon.
Q: You spent a lot of time in 2018 putting together the Down compilation, Critically Acclaimed, and formed your own record label to release it. What was it like to go through your brother's archives?
A: It was really hard, obviously, but ultimately worth it. It was good to remember that he was an amazing songwriter and that he always put 100% into everything he did. As someone who usually tops out around 75% on a good day, it gave me a goal to aim for.
I'm really glad that the songs are out there for people to revisit or rediscover -- I think they still hold up.
Q: Do you have any other Down or Loch Alpine releases planned?
A: Thinking about more Down related things. Possibly having artists/bands cover down songs for some kind of EP release. Definitely want to get the two Down albums -- Will Failure Spoil Down MF? and The Law of Diminishing Returns -- remastered and up on Bandcamp. Maybe a cassette of live songs and stray tracks. It's a priority to make sure all the best Down music is out there for people to hear if they want to. Apart from that, probably nothing else on the label. I realized partway through the process that having a label is a lot of work and costs a bunch of money, so I'll just let other suckers take care of that angle for me. Though if I won the lottery I'd reissue NIce Strong Arm's Reality Bath, Salem 66's A Ripping Spin, and the unreleased Comet Gain album they made for Beggars Banquet.
Christopher Porter is a library technician and the editor of Pulp.
Blue Jeans, Don't, and Anya Baghina perform at Ziggy's, 206 W. Michigan Ave., Ypsilanti, on Saturday, March 30 at 8 pm. Free but donations suggested. You can order the vinyl version of "Adult Hits" from Bobo Integral or the cassette version from Life Like. The vinyl version of Down MF's Critically Acclaimed is available via Loch Alpine Records or at Encore Recordings in Ann Arbor. For a long interview about the history of Down MF, check out "The toast of the town- the history of Down/Down MF" [Dagger Zine].