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Reconsidering Codeine, a ’90s band frozen in time

A lot has changed since Codeine broke up in 1994, not long after the release of its second full-length, The White Birch. Similar groups like Low, Red House Painters, Bedhead, and Seam helped popularize an indie-rock subgenre dubbed “slowcore,” though none of them embraced the term. Codeine didn’t embrace it, either. Then again, Codeine barely even embraced itself. Singer-bassist Stephen Immerwahr and guitarist John Engle have had little to say about the trio’s legacy, and they haven’t made any notable music since. The group’s two drummers have had the most enduring musical careers after leaving Codeine: Chris Brokaw in Come and the Codeine-influenced, ex-Bedhead outfit The New Year; Doug Scharin in the pioneering math-rock group June Of 44, among others.

In spite of all that, Codeine has been coaxed out of retirement. Like a hibernating mammoth, the group will emerge from the depths of its own legacy—or perhaps just middle-aged peace and quiet—to play All Tomorrow’s Parties in London over Memorial Day weekend. And Codeine’s catalog, most of which originally appeared on Sub Pop, is being given the deluxe, expanded-reissue treatment.

Perhaps it isn’t that surprising; just about every band of the ’90s is being rediscovered, exhumed, and hyperbolized. Still, indie rock has all but ignored the group’s tense, distended sound since the ’90s ended. Even Low gave up writing those kinds of songs a long time ago. It’s as if Codeine’s aloof, isolated, polarizing music was a self-fulfilling prophecy: It is now a band frozen in time. And therein lies much of Codeine’s uncompromising anti-charm.

“I hate music,” Paul Westerberg screamed in The Replacements’ song of the same name. Why? “It’s got too many notes.” That was in 1981. Music, like everything, was accelerating. There were too many notes, too many movies, too many products, too many songs—too many notes—for any single human to sanely navigate. And that acceleration was just beginning. Punk bands like The Replacements were merely symptoms of that frantic race for escape velocity. A decade after Westerberg’s freakout, Codeine hit the brakes. Frigid Stars, the group’s stark, haunting debut album, was released in 1990 and reissued in early ’91 by Sub Pop, just as grunge maximalism was hitting its peak. Like its meatier Sub Pop brethren, Codeine made music loosely rooted in punk, the same movement that hurled Westerberg and his contemporaries against a brick well. Frigid Stars didn’t go against that flow. It didn’t seek to reroute or subvert it. It simply suspended it.

Bands had played slow music before, even within the branches of Codeine’s family tree. The group’s obvious influences included Joy Division and Suicide—two bleak, dirge-like bands Codeine faithfully covered—as well as the disparate approaches to space and sloth practiced by Codeine’s closest contemporaries, Slint and Galaxie 500. What set Codeine so strikingly apart was the austerity, severity, and unbroken expanse of its slowness.

“We had a few decidedly non-Codeine songs in our first show. We thought we’d have them in to break the monotony, but we came to the conclusion that we shouldn’t provide a respite from ourselves,” Engle says in the liner notes of When I See The Sun, a new box set collecting the band’s major releases (Frigid Stars, 1992’s Barely Real, and 1994’s The White Birch), plus singles, demos, compilation tracks, and other bonus material. That unyielding, monolithic enormity in the guise of quietness marked Codeine. Engle and Immerwahr formed Codeine with Brokaw in 1989, as an outgrowth of the Oberlin-based hardcore band Pay The Man. Brokaw, who was also starting the soon-to-be Sub Pop group Come at the time, had recently played drums for the notorious punk wildman G.G. Allin.

Compared to that, playing in Codeine must have felt like an ice bath. Frigid Stars—its artwork swiped from an astronomy book, surely inspired by the iconic, similarly sourced cover of Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures—lets chords shiver, notes crystallize, and rhythms hemorrhage tension in vapor trails. The liner notes of When I See The Sun try to downplay the common assessment that Frigid Stars, as its title suggests, sounds overwhelmingly cold and distant. But that denial detracts from one of Codeine’s biggest strengths. From its name to its artwork to its music, the band wanted to draw listeners by first alienating them. In fact, Immerwahr and crew were fanatically single-minded about it. “Sure,” admits Sub Pop co-founder Jonathan Poneman, “all their songs sound the same—like it’s all one song—but it’s a great song.”

That song stretched. And stretched. The six-song EP Barely Real was released partly to fill space while Codeine’s long-delayed second album, The White Birch, was finished. Already, the band had begun to erode under the weight of its own aesthetic. “A good friend is hard to find,” Immerwahr deadpans at the start of Barely Real’s “Hard To Find.” Low—whose members were, coincidentally, Minnesotans like Westerberg—soon appropriated the song’s sparseness and plainspoken melancholy, riding it to great success later in the decade. Circa 1992, though, it was still too harsh for most to process, Brokaw included. He left Codeine after recording Barely Real, and focused on Come, an intense band that nonetheless never touched Codeine’s crystalline majesty.

The White Birch finally materialized in 1994. New drummer Scharin was more than an able replacement for Brokaw, even as he wisely sought to build on Brokaw’s elephantine style rather than overhaul it. Not that Immerwahr and Engle left much room for Scharin to innovate or interpret. Codeine’s single, distended, career-spanning song was again being elongated. Excruciatingly so.

“Sea,” The White Birch’s opening track, is its greatest statement, the apotheosis of everything Codeine was. And yet its icy immensity has begun to thaw and drift apart. “A white ship sails on a black sea / Takes my love from me / And it takes so long,” Immerwahr sings, and the way he emphasizes each word in the last line turns his loneliness inside out, baring its intestines. He follows that with the refrain, “But then I understand,” holding the syllables longer and longer each time around, until it’s clear he doesn’t understand at all. If you put too much space in something—a love, a song, a band—it will inevitably disintegrate.

If, as Westerberg raged 30 years ago, music has too many notes, all those accumulated particles are probably clogging up the atmosphere by now, eating away at the ozone layer and contributing to global warming. The few bands today that dare to venture into Codeine’s desolate, disorienting territory—be they metal, post-rock, or some permutation thereof—are faced with an even more jarring disconnect, a grinding of gears between glacial minimalism and post-millennial overdrive. It isn’t any easier for the listeners. Maybe that’s exactly why Codeine’s slow, sleepy insurgency is needed today. Or if not needed, at least comfortingly numbing.