Anyone who’s ever spent time in a rock band knows that it’s a lot like a marriage. It requires patience, diplomacy and being a master of the art of compromise. Another thing that’s a lot like a marriage is... marriage.
For guitarist-singer Steven Denekas and his lovely wife, keyboardist Tamar Berk, their highly combustible garage band Paradise serves as a creative pressure cooker that heats to a boil all aspects of their waking lives—work, play, love, frustration and, most importantly for their mutual sanity, the need to create something meaningful—something that will stand the test of time. And in this case, that’s the second Paradise album: Soldiers of the Modern Age.
Denekas and Berk met more than a dozen years ago in Chicago where they played separately and together in a number of bands, including the likes of Starball, The Countdown and Submarine Races. A mutual respect for each other’s talents gave way to love and eventually matrimony. “I went out on tour with a band called Champagne Kiss,” Denekas recalls, “and it sucked. So I came back to Chicago and asked her to marry me.”
The couple both work in the field of advertising, and when Denekas got hired by Portland big shots Wieden+Kennedy in 2008, they traded the Windy City for the Rose City and settled down to concentrate on their grown-up careers and raising their daughter, Tuesday. But rock and roll proved to be a compulsion that couldn’t be given up cold turkey.
“I was working all the time, and I wasn’t in a band, and I got super crabby,” Denekas says. “So I started playing with some friends and we named it Paradise—and then one of the guys quit after not even playing any shows.”
This case of rockus interruptus led to more crabbiness and Denekas was ready to throw in the towel. “He had a meltdown,” Berk says. “He was like, ‘I’m quitting music! I hate everything about it! I’m not inspired.’ And I told him, ‘If you can look me in the eyes and honestly say that you would be happy not playing music again, then I’ll believe you—but I don’t believe you.’”
Berk joined the fledgling band and encouraged her unhappy hubby to write songs and really focus on the sound. “Just throw away everything you’ve done before and start with the basics,” she instructed. “Go back, back, back—to rock and roll.” And thus, Paradise was born anew, as evidenced on its 2011 debut album Diary of an Old Soul.
Around the same time, Berk was also teaming up with local punk legend Sean Croghan (Crackerbash, Jr. High—to name a few bands) and members of longtime surf instrumental group Satan’s Pilgrims to form The Pynnacles, a raucous sextet of pedigreed garage rock devotees. Joining a second band gave her the opportunity to indulge her passion for the Farfisa organ—a vintage keyboard known for its trademark psychedelic and soulful sound, a sound she brought with her to Paradise and the recording of their first record.
While Diary of an Old Soul is an invigorating collection of rough-and-ready rock, its inspired follow-up, Soldiers of the Modern Age, is a marvel: raw yet thoughtful, painfully honest, cohesive, and most importantly, it rocks like Gibraltar. “Every song on the album is about something in my life or a story my [parents] told me,” Denekas states emphatically.
The album opens with a cute doodle on the recorder and segues into “Born and Bound,” a full-tilt ripper about growing up in a small town and being made to follow small-town rules where Denekas yelps, “All these kids are gonna push unless you fight.” From there, the young protagonist learns hard lessons about love, trust and picking his battles, while standing up to the forces of conformity and routine.
Indeed, Soldiers of the Modern Age reads like a coming-of-age novel accompanied by a pummeling rock soundtrack, as Berk, bassist Dominic Orlando and drummer Thom Sullivan (also of The Pynnacles) flesh out each song like a more pop-savvy Question Mark and the Mysterians. Far from mere retro idolatry, it’s as immediate and urgent as any punk record, and one that should be savored and treasured—plus, it’s worth every bit of sweat and toil that went into it. And according to the couple, there was plenty.
“We were fighting a lot,” Berk admits. “I was obsessive compulsive about the mixing.”
“It wasn’t healthy,” Denekas clarifies.
Berk and Denekas took over the mastering of the album after recording with Jeff Saltzman—whom Berk calls “a genius motherfucker”—in an effort to make the music as genuine and “in the moment” as possible, with a bare minimum of sound sweetening. Production sleight of hand and concessions to make the album sound more polished were quickly jettisoned.
Berk explains that they wanted the record to sound like a really amazing demo. “Like you’re in the room with us, a part of the experience. We didn’t want it to be a passive experience for the listener.
“This album is the most approximate representation of that moment when we made it,” she continues. “And if that mirrors the moment when someone hears it and it inspires them to take control of their life and do something with it, so much the better.”
“There’s this overarching theme within everything in the world, which says that your ultimate goal is to be rich and famous and sell millions of records,” Denekas adds. “This isn’t like that.”
“We would rather give the album away and have people say, “That’s a great fucking band and that was a great fucking show,” Berk concludes. “Paradise is a real band!”
Prediction: No one is going to argue that point even after a cursory listen to Soldiers of the Modern Age. Book it.
Paradise's second record drops today via Teen Sound Records, but you can celebrate with the band in the flesh on Saturday, May 3 at the Doug Fir Lounge when they share the stage with The Upsidedown and The Suicide Notes.