When The Mendoza Line called it a day in 2007, the split seemed as irrevocable as a band’s break-up could be. They’d been together for twelve years and had always been a messy tangle of both personal and professional relationships. Some of their very best songs were exacting examinations of just how those relationships were faring under the constant barrage of pressures at work in the band; emotional, financial, artistic, all agitated by liberal applications of cheap alcohol and Lord knows what else. Their music always hinted that the worst was yet to come. When the end finally did arrive, it was even more messy, painful and unsparing than they’d imagined.
You can still sense the scars from those years when communicating with Peter Hoffman, Shannon McArdle, and Tim Bracy, the band’s main songwriters, but that they’re talking about the band at all is worth celebrating. Just a year ago, these conversations wouldn’t have been possible. “There’s been healing about The Mendoza Line and what it was,” says Hoffman.
Though they won’t be hopping back in a van anytime soon, they are beginning to take stock of their time together and what the band meant to them and to their fans. A reissue of their long out-of-print album We’re All In This Alone was released in June by Hoboken’s Bar/None Records, and McArdle, Bracy, and Hoffman are doing press in different permutations to support it. It adds three new tracks that were recorded as part of the album’s sessions, and makes the album available on streaming services for the first time. A vinyl pressing is due in the fall.
The Mendoza Line was formed in the mid-90s in Athens, Georgia by fellow-Replacements fanatics and Northern Virginia transplants Hoffman and Bracy. Athens was already well-established as fertile musical soil, having produced R.E.M., The B-52s, Pylon, and Dreams So Real a decade earlier. The Athens music scene of the 1990s is best-known for the bands of the retro-leaning Elephant Six Collective (Neutral Milk Hotel, of Montreal, and Elf Power, to name just a few) — The Mendoza Line, with its fall-down drunk live shows and adamantly defeatist pose was very much not of that scene. “We were called The Incompetones before we were called The Mendoza Line,” says Hoffman. “It was the most apt name for the shambolic experience of playing live shows as The Mendoza Line in the early days, so we weren’t high on the invite list. Saying it was shambolic is an insult to the word.” The Mendoza Line refers to a .200 batting average in baseball and is assumed to be just about as low as a major league hitter’s average can sink before they’re vulnerable to being demoted to the minors. Baseball players try to stay as far away from that line as they can, while Bracy and Hoffman set their sights on walking it for as long as they could.
We liked bands like the Mekons or Alex Chilton, that kind of vibrated on that strange frequency where you weren’t sure if this was entertaining all of the time, or if the feeling between the band and the audience was more agreeable or adversarial. – Tim Bracy
The band signed to Athens’s Kindercore Records and released two full-lengths and an EP between 1997 and ’99; Poems to a Pawnshop, Like Someone in Love, and I Like You When You’re Not Around. (All three remain out-of-print but were compiled as 2003’s If They Knew This Was The End, adding Hoffman’s song “Jefferson,” an early recording featuring harmonies from The Drive-By Truckers’s Patterson Hood.) These early songs pull you in here and push you away there, with the voices hopelessly fighting for space in the mix with over-driven amplifiers, vocal takes recorded well past closing time, and titles like “(We’ll Never Make) The Final Reel,” “I Never Had A Chance,” and “I Know I Will Not Find The Words.” Throughout, they always managed to find the beauty part of the beautiful loser proposition they laid out for themselves.
McArdle, a University of Georgia graduate who had just begun writing songs and whose influences tracked closely with Bracy and Hoffman’s, joined in 1998.“All of that Stiff Records stuff was a huge influence on us,” says Bracy. “That stuff was really out of fashion, or most of it, when we started Mendoza Line but it was hugely important to us. It was surprising when we met Shannon, because she was totally into that stuff as well. A huge Graham Parker fan. It was almost weird; no one liked that stuff. We were definitely Richard Thompson fans as well, but she really brought the influence to the fore.” She was also in possession of a voice that she could deftly shape to enhance the mood of her songs; she could convey confidence, compassion, seductiveness, and real need in equal measure. She had appeared briefly to sing harmonies on I Like You When You’re Not Around‘s opening song, “The Big Letdown,” and her role in the band as a singer and writer would quickly grow. “Shannon is very lyrical; she’s very smart,” says Hoffman. “She is also a very emotional person. She has the ability to say what she wants to say and doesn’t have any shame about what she’s saying. Those are credible qualities to be a great songwriter.” “I’m not entirely sure I had any real direction composition-wise or lyrically, really,” says McArdle. “I was just trying to put the six chords I learned from my twin brother Philip together in random order. Honestly, both Tim and Pete were so encouraging and so complimentary of my writing that my insecurity with songwriting didn’t arise until significantly later. I remember Tim’s gifting me with a raggedy acoustic. He told me I should write some songs. I did.”
The group members decamped for New York in late 1998, partially because multi-instrumentalists Margaret Maurice and Lori Carrier had been accepted into graduate school there and partially because they wanted to be closer to the Hoboken record label Bar/None, who had expressed interest in signing the band. Bar/None was best known for releasing the 1986 debut album from They Might Be Giants and Yo La’s Tengo’s 1990 album Fakebook, as well as albums from Freedy Johnston, Alex Chilton, and the Replacements’s Chris Mars. Signing with Bar/None provided the band with wider distribution and something of an imprimatur in the New York music scene but the move still came, as McArdle notes now, with “no shortage of trepidation.”
Their first release for the label, We’re All In This Alone, was pieced together from recording sessions in Georgia, North Carolina, and New Jersey. McArdle describes it as a Frankenstein monster of an album. Bracy remembers the band as trying to make something that would be deliberately disorienting. Their previous releases had always been intentional mixes of contrasts, but We’re All In This Alone pushes that concept to the forefront. Bookended by two brief squibs of skipping radio transmission and feedback, its twelve songs are an uneasy amalgamation of acoustic and electric, sweet and dour, male and female, fragility and a scarred tough-heartedness. Maurice’s “Idiot Heart” is a blast of deadpan intonation, fuzz-covered synths, and humming organ. Bracy’s “Yoko’s In The Band” is a Painful-style guitar stomper. These are set against the deliberate power-pop of Hoffman’s “Baby, I Know What You’re Thinking” and McArdle’s “You Singled Me Out,” and again against the heart-stopping beauty of Bracy’s “Williamsburg,” McArdle’s “A Bigger City,” and Hoffman’s “Everything We Used To Be.” It’s not so much the sound of a young band trying to dodge being pigeon-holed as it is of one trying to find its way to a musical world big enough to reconcile Goo with Sweetheart Of The Rodeo with Pour Down Like Silver with Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash.
When it was released, hopes for the band seemed higher than ever. Cooked into the songs, though, was a sense that the end was always close at hand. In retrospect, We’re All In This Alone can be more clearly seen as a demarcation point for the group. It was the last time they would so freewheelingly build an album from such disparate parts. Beginning with 2002’s Lost In Revelry, they crafted a more robust and cohesive sound for their recordings. “In Georgia, we had big houses we could be as loud as we wanted to be in,” says Bracy. “In New York we were, like, shoulder to jowl in these tiny apartments. I also think we were less enthralled with lo-fi as a phenomenon as we went along. There was a lot of that stuff around then. I think we wanted to be musically legible. So whereas a lot of stuff had been recorded on four-track on the previous releases, we were using studios exclusively after We’re All In This Alone.” The band would also never sound quite so young again. Though they were airing hard feelings, the album now comes off as loose and spirited. Inside the band, though, the mood was the exact opposite. “[We’re All In This Alone] is a document of our lives at the time,” says Hoffman. “And honestly, a lot of it is just us saying ‘Fuck you’ to each other on a record.”
Following Lost In Revelry they released Fortune in 2004. While each release seemed to bring more attention to the band, their tours continued to draw unspectacularly. “Tim would always say, ‘We’re a drunken bar band,” or something,” says Hoffman. “But I always thought, ‘Well, if we actually aren’t drunk, and we tuned the guitars and tried to work out the parts a little better, we could actually be really good as a live band. And there were nights when we were.” Hoffman left the band in 2005, the same year Bracy and McArdle were married. The couple released an EP as The Slow Dazzle, followed by another Mendoza Line record, the excellent Full Of Light And Full Of Fire. In 2007 they released the caustic 30 Year Low. That album’s release came with the news that Bracy and McArdle had divorced, and coverage of it in outlets as prominent as Billboard and The Village Voice carried messy details and a slurry of painful emotions. Bracy had originally intended to play live shows to support the release, but ultimately decided not to. It was an ugly ending for a band that produced some of the decade’s best and most under-valued music.
McArdle, Hoffman, and Bracy haven’t seen each other or spoken as a group in over a decade, but the re-release of We’re All In This Alone has them starting to cautiously sort through the band’s past. Of their nine releases, including their 2004 loose-ends compilation Sent Down To AA, fewer than half can be reliably found online. The music is too good to stay packed away in the CD collections of die-hard fans, and Bar/None’s reissue of We’re All In This Alone is almost certainly just the beginning. “We are going to get everything out there eventually,” says Hoffman.
“We’re All In This Alone is where the Mendoza Line really put it all together, and simultaneously started the long road of tearing it apart,” says Scott McCaughey, singer and guitarist with The Young Fresh Fellows, Minus 5, and R.E.M. “I always wanted to be in a band like this — women and men both composing and decomposing in real time, often in the same room. Of course, it couldn’t last. But, along with Lost In Revelry, the songs on We’re All In This Alone made for something magical, that grabbed me, and I still find intensely moving.”
“I think we were always constrained to some extent by our own self-conception and by an innate suspicion of the overtly hip or the openly populist,” says Bracy. “I remember when Arcade Fire came around – and I don’t know them and I’m sure they are lovely people – but I remember they had this whole act where they’d jump around and encourage people to sing along and they’d play their instruments in this really theatrical way and summon what was I guess a cathartic experience for their audience. And I remember them coming along and Pitchfork going batshit and thinking, ‘Well, if this is what people want we are absolutely screwed.’ Because that kind of thing was our idea of hell. We always had this idea that we wanted people to enjoy our shows, but maybe that they should be a little off-putting as well. We liked bands like the Mekons or Alex Chilton, that kind of vibrated on that strange frequency where you weren’t sure if this was entertaining all of the time, or if the feeling between the band and the audience was more agreeable or adversarial. And that just doesn’t scale commercially. We weren’t going to bliss out a festival crowd. We always wanted to occupy that weird liminal space where the political and the personal overlapped in meaningful ways and at our best I think we did that as well as any of our contemporaries. On some fundamental level, I think we understood the mission and we executed it. The mission was never to be the Strokes. That was someone else’s job.” words / J Langmead