Photograph by Sara Sanger
Let it Bleed: The New Trust from top left, clockwise: Julia Lancer, Matthew Izen, Sara Sanger, Josh Staples.
By Gabe Meline
On a Sunday afternoon last July, as wind rustled through the tall trees and crows alighted on brick walls, dozens of musicians and fans gathered at one of Santa Rosa's oldest and most beloved mansions for a photo shoot. The enormous palatial house, whose façade served in the filming of Pollyanna, was eerily bare inside. In one of the mansion's elegant sitting rooms, photographer and New Trust guitarist Sara Sanger gazed down into an antique Hasselblad camera, sizing up her assorted black-clad, tattooed subjects on the opposite wall. Once the shot seemed good, she grabbed a gigantic machete and joined the motley tableau.
"OK, here's the deal," announced her assistant. "The zombies have attacked. The zombies have eaten everyone we know and love, and laid everything to waste. We're all hiding away in this house, preparing for our retaliation." Getting into character, a few of the subjects thrust their heads back to look more assured. "And remember," the assistant emphasized, just before the camera shutter clicked, "all we have is each other."
The New Trust are certainly a band of togetherness; all four of the members live under the same roof in a large Victorian house. Rock bands traditionally fight nonstop, but the New Trust are strangely functional. They often cook for or clean up after each other at home, and they've also toured together multiple times, covering the United States and Europe. And yet the band are poised to release a new album in which the perils of disconnect take center stage.
Dark Is the Path Which Lies Before Us, due Jan. 23 on Slowdance Records, is a collection of tight, well-crafted songs with a recurring, ominous undercurrent of personal, political and global betrayal. This is a grandiose maneuver for a band whose debut EP (2003's We Are Fast Moving Motherfuckers, We Are Women and Men of Action) clocked in at 18 minutes of short, sharp shock. They've now come up with something that reads like a screenplay as much as it sounds like a fantastically fresh rock 'n' roll record.
As a clean calendar presented itself, New Trust frontman Josh Staples walked off a New Year's Day hangover among the dead at the city graveyard, explaining his latest songwriting approach. "In the '80s, 30 years after the dawn of rock music, there was something called 'modern rock.' Now, 30 years after the dawn of punk music, why not have 'modern punk'?" Sitting on an unkempt concrete crypt, he explains. "Punk rock that's a little more nuanced and interesting--that's how I see this band."
Surely, the 1980s infect Dark Is the Path in subtle ways. Of the tracks, "Holy Wars" is a melodic transmutation of Billy Idol; "You've Got to Be Fucking Shitting Me" cites Kate Bush; and "The Life of the Infidel Comes Crashing Down" directly quotes one-hit wonder Jermaine Stewart's "We Don't Have to Take Our Clothes Off." But while the New Trust's music is more complex than the Dead Kennedys--interloping guitar lines from Sanger and Matthew Izen weave fluidly over Staples' contrapuntal bass lines and Julia Lancer's rock-solid drumming--the gut of a 1980s punk song remains the same. In fact, the album's targets are the very institutions that punk bands have been screaming about for the last three decades.
"I think I've always written songs in that way," Staples says, "but I wrote lyrics in other bands before that were so specific and clear that it came off as being very trite and stupid and childish." Instead, Dark Is the Path uses inventive images in a lyrical landscape full of strange lacerations, tidal waves and shooting flames as its toppling tools. "The stuff I like is difficult to get your head around," he explains, "conceptual horror stuff that, because it's so abstract and because it comes out of left field, makes it a little scarier and a lot more effective."
Even the album's love songs hinge on this element, where the sweet touch of lips is akin to a blood-draining bite on the neck. ("It seems like it should be a very positive thing--affection between two people should be great, right?" asks Staples, who has been married to Sanger for five years. "But I know that it takes very little to make a big mistake, and it can be very horrible.") But the song that most listeners will inevitably latch on to is "When the Dead Start Rising," the story of a full-scale zombie attack and the inspiration for last summer's photo shoot.
Not unlike an armed group of renegades cloistered together in a grand deserted palace, the song evokes a mixture of refined classicism and vigilante defiance with a call for friends and comrades. "That song, and the whole album, really," clarifies Staples, "has more to do with who we're picking to take with us on our side. Like, when shit goes down, who do you have at hand that's going to go with you?"
For the New Trust, togetherness may well be the best antidote to their own apocalyptic visions of the rising undead. It's also proven a catalyst for the hardworking band that adheres to a 10-year plan, including more touring this year and a new metal-tinged record already in the works. Staples recently left the highly acclaimed indie-rock trio the Velvet Teen in order to focus on these goals, and his creative impulse has clearly been rekindled by focusing on his own material.
"It's almost always a money-losing venture, and it's almost always tough on relationships and it's almost always a struggle," he shrugs as the New Years' dwindling sun casts long shadows across the graveyard. "But if you have that artist's mental disorder where you think your shit is the best shit out there, and if you're that excited and inspired about something, and if you believe in it," he says, "then that's the best thing about making music or art: you created it, and it's your favorite thing ever."
The New Trust celebrate their record release on Tuesday, Jan. 23, by playing a free show with Polar Bears at the Last Record Store, 1899-A Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa. 6pm. 707.525.1963.