All the Days and Nights: Drew Daniel (Matmos) on Acetone, Then and Now

“The music of Acetone seems to exist outside conventional methods of timekeeping. Off to the side. Suspended and slightly warped,” we wrote in 2017, and the statement continues to hold true. Los Angeles band Acetone has worked on its own time table, seemingly outside the continuity of the music industry in general. That’s made some of their recordings particularly hard to track down—but no more. On November 17th, New West Records releases i’m still waiting, an 11-LP boxset featuring the band’s studio lps, Cindy (1993), If You Only Knew (1995), Acetone (1997), and York Blvd. (2000), all remastered at RCA Studio A, plus unreleased recordings, demos, and liner notes by J Spaceman of Spiritualized and Spaceman 3 and Drew Daniel of Matmos and The Soft Pink Truth. Here, we share an exclusive expert from Daniel’s liner notes.

Acetone’s story is easy to miniaturize: they traded volume for space. The band started loud and brash and ended stately and poised. Re-wiring country and Hawaiian music, surf rock and hillbilly twang, their music achieves a curiously polychronic depth. The trio’s collected records turn a Los Angeles pool house practice space into a hall of mirrors in which decades of American music reflect back upon themselves, growing rich and strange. In writing about them now, I am speaking as an amphibian, both a fan and a friend. I saw the band play live many times, and listened to the albums, and observed the band’s dynamic from a distance, catching concerts in San Francisco and Los Angeles and rehearsals in New York and visiting the band in the studio during the York Blvd. sessions. Like any aficionado, I benefit from the prodigious gift of Sam Sweet’s book Hadley Lee Lightcap, which mines extensive interviews with the band and its circle of producers, friends, collaborators, and fans for a carefully executed and highly detailed account of the band’s trajectory and the lives of its members, slaloming from the tender and humorous to the harrowing and bittersweet. I can’t possibly achieve the same density in the generous but still smaller space provided here, so I will simply direct any fans of the band to read Sweet’s book if they have not already done so. I’m going to explain the developmental arc of this music and reflect on its meaning, time, and place in American culture, but I can’t disclose the thing that can’t be said at all: the secret of how the whole emerges from the parts.

Everybody has something they need to get out of their system. Acetone molted out of a hell-raising and sarcastic previous incarnation called Spinout. Chance meetings, loose overlaps, and a lightly worn school spirit brought people together. Growing up in Orange County in the ’80s, Richie Lee and Steve Hadley rubbed shoulders at Pier Records in Balboa and knew each other socially. Richie met Tom Henry III and Mark Lightcap on campus in Valencia at Cal Arts, where Mark, a transplant from Philadelphia, was playing tuba and gamelan and absorbing the compositional avant garde. Various permutations of the foursome did time in art school ensembles and party bands before turning a corner towards a savvy take on boneheaded primal rock music. Named after an Elvis movie, Spinout recast its members accordingly: frontman Tom Henry III sang as “Ronnie Joe Brown,” Richie Lee played bass as “Scooter,” “Geezer M. Lightcap” played guitar, and Steve Hadley played the drums under the alias “Izzy Cane.” Spinout were loud and funny, with the right amount of post-hardcore obnoxiousness and irony signaling to work with art school cliques, and enough volume and squealing solos to appeal to anybody who just wanted to party. Delicious Vinyl took notice and put out a self-titled LP in 1990 studded with jams like “Lawbreaker” and “Hot Rods to Hell.” The mood is campy but the riffs are not kidding around. Seen in hindsight, the passage from Spinout to Acetone was a process of minimalist reduction and inversion, preserving the core elements of the thing that it also supersedes. Hegel has a ten-dollar word for this process (sublation), but it boils down to a regime change: the band fired its lead singer and with that single decision, space was left open for a radical moodswing in the tone of the music, and a subtler gearshift in its dynamics and energy levels.

The loudest peaks of Acetone were every bit as volatile and lethal as Spinout’s loudest moments, but the band gained the capacity to take things way, way down. This was also a consequence of the musical influences that surfaced as Richie Lee and Mark Lightcap began to sing together: soft, quiet, and vulnerable harmony singing that patterned itself on ballad-level purrs and coos rather than rock and roll frontman snarls. The guitars could be forceful but the voices didn’t have to be, and this core dynamic generated something arrestingly distinct from ready-to-hand materials: a band that was hard and soft, loud and quiet, hot and cold.

Free to rethink itself, the band wrote new songs together in their practice space in the pool house where Steve Hadley lived (the space is depicted on the cover of the Light in the Attic Records retrospective). Dropping the macho posturing that had made Spinout what it was, a delicate, introspective, meandering music emerged in its place, a music staked upon mood and presence and emotional risk. A kind of alchemical transformation occurred as one song took shape, and then another, and then another, and the still nameless trio knew that something distinct was now happening. Lightcap proposed the name Acetone, cadged from a Kurt Vonnegut image in the novel Cat’s Cradle describing the aromatic aftermath of a rum punch cocktail. The word prompts a cloud of suggestion: it’s a potentially deadly chemical, an artistic tool of creative erasure (a solvent used to clean up paint), and, visually, suggests a latent pun on the ACE TONE of the music itself. It is everyday, even drab, and of a piece with an era in which records by Helium, Medicine, Codeine, and Lithium were on record shelves. Yet it is also weirdly loaded. There was something prophetic about the name. In time, its mingled connotations of beautiful craft and poisonous risk would eventually play out.

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