When music is slowed down and the space between notes is stretched out, it stands to reason our brains are more efficient at interpreting the soundwaves that our ears then process into electrical activity. Our relationship with the individual notes, the words and the rhythms, can become something more profound. That’s one theory anyway, and Codeine’s music goes a long way towards proving the hypothesis.
The group began somewhere between New York City and Oberlin, Ohio, in the late 1980s, arriving fully formed into an independent music landscape that had been sculpted by hardcore. Although closely associated with the Louisville scene that birthed Slint, it could be argued that Codeine have more in common with their adopted home of New York City; albeit the New York of No Wave, The Velvet Underground and La Monte Young. From the get-go, they were a group unshackled from the restraints of commercial ambition. This was cerebral, ambitious music, blessed with Stephen Immerwahr’s beautifully restrained melodies.
Codeine and the bands that emerged bearing their influence would go on to be labelled ‘slowcore’; like many hastily imagined labels, it’s admirably succinct but ultimately reductive. For one, drummer Chris Brokaw is dismissive about the influence of hardcore on Codeine: “We had experience listening to and playing some hardcore in earlier bands, but I don’t think hardcore has a lot of bearing on Codeine.” But perhaps it’s fair to say that without the DIY culture that arose around hardcore, and the elevation of ideas over virtuosity, then innovative bands such as Lungfish, Tortoise and Codeine couldn’t have existed. Either way, Immerwahr, John Engle and Brokaw have always seemed comfortable with their legacy, secure in the knowledge they have more in common with the expansive ambition of My Bloody Valentine or even Talk Talk than the dreary imagery that ‘slowcore’ or ‘sadcore’ conjure up.
Earlier this year Codeine announced shows in support of their lost album Dessau, which they recorded in 1992 but released just last year via Numero Group. The shows will also be preceded by these three reissues, Frigid Stars, “Barely Real” (EP), and The White Birch, the first time the records will be available on single vinyl since they were originally released.
Codeine’s output over the course of their career was remarkably consistent, and so Frigid Stars, their debut for Germany’s Glitterhouse label, is the blueprint for everything that followed. It’s a wonderfully accomplished debut and a slow-burning classic, categorised by jarring silences, impossibly dense noise and expansive grandeur. The tempos border on glacial, but this has the effect of opening up the music to the point where the particles are visible. Stephen Immerwahr’s lyrics have a deadpan humour and the phrasing has a composure more associated with jazz. These feel like torch songs, and yet “D” is as melodically engaging as anything their more commercially viable contemporaries were releasing.
In 1991, amid glowing reviews for the initial run of Frigid Stars, Codeine signed to Sub Pop and, with inflated expectations, accepted an invite from David Grubbs (then of Gastr Del Sol) and fellow Oberlin College alumni John McEntire (Tortoise) to open for their band, Bastro.
Travelling extensively for the first time and gaining momentum as a live group, the band returned to the US ready to record a follow-up to Frigid Stars. Over the course of a few months and several slightly fragmented recording sessions later, a lack of cohesiveness to the songs led to a decision to turn them into an EP (Dessau also began life here). The “Barely Real” EP, their first release on Sub Pop, bore all the hallmarks of Frigid Stars but elaborated on several different directions which all could have been pursued. Codeine’s unique signature – the considered phrasing, the long silences and the melodic intricacy – was there but it pointed towards several influences and similarities that perhaps weren’t immediately apparent on Frigid Stars; namely PiL, The Fall and Erik Satie.
In the spring 1993 issue of New York City’s The Village Voice, you could have found this advert: “DRUMMER NEEDED. CODEINE seeks drummer for slow, taut, melodic music. Steadiness more important than fills.” In the wake of successful tours of the US and Europe, they had found themselves without their spine when drummer Chris Brokaw chose to depart to tour with his band Come and focus on writing the Matador band’s follow-up to their debut, Eleven. Auditions for Codeine were apparently painful, with as many as 20 percussionists coming and going, most of whom struggled to find the patience and composure required to play as slow as Immerwahr and John Engle required. The last drummer to audition was Doug Scharin. Engle, frustrated with the long, drawn-out audition process, describes Scharin’s arrival as a revelation: “I couldn’t believe how powerfully he was playing the drums. Not heavy handed, but just the gravitas he brought to it, how much he physically put into the drums. Two songs in, I thought the kit was going to explode.”
Revitalised, Immerwahr, Engle and Scharin relocated to Louisville to rehearse the new album. For the first time, Codeine was a full-time occupation for the three members, and after two successful tours opening for The Flaming Lips and Mazzy Star, the band were on the crest of a wave. If Frigid Stars was the blueprint, then The White Birch is the finished masterpiece. Any tentativeness that could’ve been levelled at the band previously had been worked through, resulting in a soundscape that was both more idiosyncratic yet expansive. The same economy was present; the frozen pauses, the monolithic chords and the magic approach to dynamics, but they were filtered through a very laconic sense of confidence.
Immerwahr’s lyrics, always blessed with a romantic nihilism, were now something even more meaningful, and confidently walked a tightrope of melancholy. “What does the word vacancy mean, when you don’t expect anything?” he sings on “Sea”. “It’s not necessarily depressed,” says Immerwahr, “but it certainly is a little bit resigned. In terms of themes of what the lyrics were – yes, it was anger. But one way to deal with anger is to turn the thermometer down so you’re freezing it, containing it by turning down everything else – whether that’s emotions, edges or tempos.”
It seems fitting that Codeine have quietly become one of the most influential bands of the ’90s. These reissues come at a time when many of the bands they directly influenced or performed with, such as Duster and Mazzy Star, are having a resurgence via the digital word-of-mouth avenue of TikTok. A new generation of teenagers seem to be finding solace in the cold cinematic soundscapes and melancholic romanticism. Codeine, forever content to carve their own path, have always seemed refreshingly immune to hype or trends, and it’s that quiet confidence and courage in their convictions that colour every second of these records.