biography - page 5

iv. dead air

It was while he was at Hampshire that Elliott met and befriended Neil Gust. Neil's was the face you saw when you groped through racks of CDs and finally found a copy of Roman Candle; his picture appears on the cover of the disc. Neil and Elliott shared an offbeat way of surfing the post-punk proto-grunge musical sludge of late Eighties New England indie clubs, and found themselves interspersing their own songs with covers by Ringo Starr and Elvis Costello. Neil and Elliott also shared a certain way of viewing American society and culture from an outsider's point of view; in Neil's case this included writing some gay-themed songs which earned their eventual musical collaboration a spot in "queercore" (aka "homocore") pop history.

The two friends formed the band Heatmiser. This was to become the crucible for the next phase of Elliott's evolution as a musician and composer. Neil and Elliott first performed in Northampton. After graduation the two moved back to Portland, and added drummer Tony Lash (who had been in a band with Neil in high school), along with the group's original bassist, Brandt Peterson. Their first known public performance was on Valentine's Day, 1992. In the years to come they performed as an opening act many nights in Portland's legendary La Luna. Their first record, Dead Air, was released on the Frontier label in 1993. Though Elliott has described his singing on the album as an "embarrassment," and not even commented upon the songs, their lyrics offer insights into Elliott's dreams and nightmares at this time in his life. "Stray" has the narrator waking up screaming from a dream that he's back in "the Lone Star State." In "Blackout," a man rejected by his lover lacerates himself about "letting you down." It opens with the rasping complaint: "Asking, permission denied, to self-medicate this way once in a while." In the title track (the last on the record), "dead air" hangs between the speaker and someone who may be a lover or a friend. "Don't let it be spoken, a record's spoken, skipping to the words that hang in this dead air ..." It builds to a rant that recapitulates some of the bitterness of "Last Call," ratcheted up to a more feverish pitch:

I've been suffocating all night
Too much of nothing made me get uptight
You're in a rut with your hard-on
It took guts to be the dumb one
To go around brooding and tight
when you got no reason for brooding
You've become completely sick,
You don't give a shit
You just wanna forget
Dead air
Don't let it be spoken
A record's broken ...

It wasn't until 1994, with the band's EP Yellow No. 5 and their second album, Cop and Speeder, that they began to attract some national attention.

The early Heatmiser years were a period of struggle for Elliott. He ran through a string of day jobs: baker, chimney-sweeper, ditch-digger, before eventually deciding to train as a firefighter. In a Summer 1998 interview, he explained: "I wanted to be a fireman. I came around to fireman by the process of elimination, looking for something that was actually, definitely worthwhile to do. I wanted to be free to do what I wanted to do, which meant if it had to be a straight job, it had to be one with a lot of free time, because I was going to play music regardless."

As time wore on, however, he found the experience of being in the band artistically frustrating. The song Idler on Yellow No. 5 shows where his heart was really at during this time; it's a sad but toughly-phrased portrait of a loner who dreams of his own "independence day" and his release from servitude. Cop and Speeder included the song Collect to NYC which Elliott had composed at age 20 when he was a Hampshire student. The song etches a portrait of alienation in silhouette that clearly was as relevant to Elliott's life in 1994 as it had been in 1989: "You're a silence on the phone, you're a song with just one fucking note... so here's my trick: when I hear your 'hello' I know I'm listening to alcohol, oh, I'm drunk on a call. I heard you found some other guy, some high note you thought I couldn't hit, but I never tried, no I never did."

Elliott's comments about the experience of being in Heatmiser tend to focus upon the conflicts the band brought to bear between the kind of music the band was playing and the very subtle songs Elliott himself was writing. "All my ... songs went through the mill of the band and ended up unrecognizable as loud rock songs with no dyamic," he commented to Guy Capecelatro III in 1996. In an April 1997 interview in the zine Rocket, Elliott emphasized his inability to be true to his own nature in his Heatmiser performances: "I was being a total actor, acting out a role I didn't even like. I couldn't come out and show where I was coming from. I was always disguised in this loud rock band. .... [In the beginning] we all got together, everyone wanted to play in a band and it was fun, then after a couple of years we realized that none of us really liked this kind of music, and that we didn't have to play this way. You didn't have to turn all these songs you wrote into these loud ... things." He continued: "It was kinda weird-people that came to our shows, a majority of them were people I couldn't relate to at all. Why aren't there more people like me coming to our shows? Well, it's because I'm not even playing the kind of music that I really like."