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San Jose band Cartoon Bar Fight Looks at Life and Death with New Album

In Music
Photo by Jessica Shirley-Donnelly.

Photo by Jessica Shirley-Donnelly.

People new to Cartoon Bar Fight might expect—based on the name—a lighthearted or even goofy punk-rock band. The San Jose quintet is actually an eerie, experimental indie-folk outfit with heavy, cerebral lyrics.

The members are well aware of the confusion their name creates; they just like subverting expectations. “When you hear the music, it’s a surprise,” says guitarist and lead vocalist Kendall Sallay. “We like it because it doesn’t match up with the music.”

Sallay describes the band’s recently released debut album, Reincarnate, as a “concept album about death,” so it’s no surprise that they venture in an unexpected direction. Rather than making Reincarnate depressing or macabre, they gave it a more inquisitive bent. The subjects range from death in a very literal sense, as on “Hymn,” to death in the figurative sense—”Fox and Grapes” is about the death of a relationship.

“It’s not negative,” Sallay asserts. “It’s something that everyone can relate to.”

This isn’t to say that there aren’t depressing songs on the album. “Fox and Grapes” adopts the point of view of the person who was dumped in a relationship. But the individual songs vary in topic, perspective and tone. Some, like the title track, take a position that death isn’t altogether a bad thing.

“It’s fascinating, the concept of death as reincarnation—like the transfer of energy from your body when you die,” Sallay muses. “It becomes something else—in the sense you never really die.”

Before Reincarnate, Cartoon Bar Fight released the EP Tell All the Children, which is a more straightforward, mellow indie-folk effort, somewhere between Feist and the Decembrists. Since then, other than founding members Sallay and keyboardist Dirk Milotz, the whole band has changed. About a year ago, Joel Zelaya joined on guitar and Max Rogers joined on bass. Just two months ago, Jerald Bittle joined on drums.

Their music has veered a bit from folk to experimental soundscapes. They also play heavier rock sections than before, while still retaining plenty of softer, quieter moments.

“We were writing music based on the instrumentation that was available to us at the time,” Sallay explains. “The sound was never as full as we wanted. It was more intimate. It’s fun to play an intimate little acoustic place, but we wanted to be able to put on a solid rock show.”

Between the contributions of the new members, and the process of working on all the material for Reincarnate, Sallay and Milotz, who started the band in 2007, believe that they are just now coming into their own.

Even still, they are quick to point out that part of coming into their own also includes the flexibility to change. They already have new ideas for what their next project will be—a concept album about space, covering such topics as solitude and mystery of the unknown. Musically, they’d like it to be more synth-driven and to actually sound like space. “We don’t want to be limited to one thing. It’s ongoing. We just want to play whatever kind of music we like,” Sallay says.

The idea for the space concept album came to them, in part, from the title track from Reincarnate, the last song on the album. It has a more futuristic, synth-driven sound and moves lyrically into the unknown—reincarnation. The song, they hope, will serve as a bridge between the albums.

Their fascination for concept albums didn’t just begin with Reincarnate. The songs on Tell All the Children revolve around the theme of childhood and disillusionment, which gets expressed in ways such as disenchantment with fairy tales and religious beliefs.

“When I listen to an album, I like the feeling that there was a greater vision than the individual tracks,” Sallay says. “I like being able to get inside an artist’s head and think that these thoughts must have been something that was picking their brain for years, so they wrote this whole album,” Sallay says.

The three albums even have a nice flow to them—disillusionment with childhood fantasies, facing the reality of death and then exploring the unknowns of the universe. Only question is: What comes after an album about space?

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