JAMES MARTIN IS something of a visionary; that is, he has a vision. Never content to do anything the easy way, his most recent band, Pathos. Martin is the band's primary songwriter, and also sings and plays guitar. James Tiscione sits in on keys and vocals, along with Bob Thomas (bass and vocals) and Andy Bell (drums and vocals). But Martin keeps pushing the envelope for himself and his bandmates (not to mention his audience) by collaborating with a variety of unlikely musicians to create what can only be called live-music theatre. Past Pathos projects have included a 37-piece orchestra accompanying them for a performance a couple years back at the UA Spring Fling carnival; a noteworthy performance in black, hooded capes and whiteface at this year's TAMMIES Awards ceremony (at which they took readers' poll honors for Best Up-and-Coming Artists); and they once surprised the audience at a Rhino Pub gig by shaving their heads into mohawks. "There was a guy in the audience who must have taken it the wrong way, because he got really violent," says Martin. "But if you know us...I mean, our friends thought it was hilarious."
Martin has a history of doing the unexpected. As a member of local punk heroes Malignus Youth, confined to a genre which often turns up its nose at complexity, Martin and company once wrote and performed a "punk-rock mass in five parts." Ironically, that ambitious project led to a resurrection of sorts for Malignus Youth.
The band, which started in 1987 when Martin was a mere 15-year-old, continued until 1994 even though Martin had moved to Texas to attend college in 1992. "We kept the band going during my breaks from school, summers and vacations," he explains. After Youth disbanded, and Martin had graduated from Texas A&M in pre-med, he worked for a veterinarian in Texas before eventually moving back to Tucson and taking a job at the UA Cancer Center. But his heart wasn't in it.
"Those people are amazing, who can work 18-hour days there. But I just didn't feel passionate enough about it. I was passionate about music, and I realized that was something I could put in 18-hour days doing."
During that time, Martin was in a huge transition period in his life. Moving back to his old stomping grounds, where he'd been a virtual Downtown Performance Center punk-rock poster boy, he somehow felt dissociated from the scene he'd once helped nurture. "You move back and suddenly realize you don't really know anyone anymore," he muses. And though the DPC had recently been shut down (this was 1995), its founder and operator, Steve Eye, was still in town running his new art gallery.
Martin went to visit him and mentioned that he was getting the musical itch again. "He suggested that I meet James (Tiscione)." The two played together a few times before losing touch, but a year later Martin decided to go back to school at the UA, this time to study his first love, music. "We (Tiscione and I) had all of the same classes together." In the words of Bob Dylan, they took what they could gather from coincidence, and Pathos was born.
Oddly enough, once Martin reemerged in the spotlight with Pathos, interest in his old band also grew. "A lot of people were contacting me, saying that they wanted to see us play live again and get a hold of some of the music we'd never released" -- like the punk-rock mass in five parts, which was played live on KXCI once. The resulting pirate copies of the show garnered a following, but lost something in recording quality with each sub-generation dub. When someone offered to help fund a reunion show, the band agreed.
They still play about two "reunion" shows a year ("to add a little spice"), and when they do, they nearly sell out the Rialto Theatre. Whereas the band used to draw about 500 fans to their DPC shows, their recent shows have attracted crowds up to 800. And as for those long-lost Malignus Youth recordings, they're now available on Youth Inc. Records, the label Martin launched in the spring of last year to release the first Pathos CD, Still Life.
The label's newest release is a new full-length from Pathos, entitled Pax, which the band will celebrate with a release party this weekend at the Mat Bevel Institute. And where Malignus Youth was ambitious for a melodic punk rock band, Pax is simply (or more accurately, not so simply) ambitious.
The album veers abruptly from the quirky new wave-meets-Tool opener "Infrastructure," to "40 Hour Life," a charmingly jaunty pop tune about the perils of hating your job: "Why do I do it then?/I've got car payments/I've got mouths to feed." Next up is the fiddle-enhanced, country-flavored "In My Time." And that's just the first three songs. The album also manages to work in punk riffage, a bundle of truly heartfelt ballads (often augmented by string and horn sections), angelic harmonies, reggae chucka-chucka, a song ("Peace of Mind") which could be a Crowded House out-take, and a Pink Floyd cover. Oh, and the whole thing ends with a religious song, "Apples," about the second coming of Christ. Perhaps most amazing about the album (second only to a piano that sounds incongruously at home) is the fact that, unlike some bands who try really hard to be eclectic, Pathos' music never sounds forced.
Martin explains, "I think that comes from the fact that we all listen to a lot of different stuff. I've been really into Beethoven's string quartets lately, but I love old punk-rock like the Subhumans and Minor Threat, too." He also professes his love for Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Pink Floyd, the Velvet Underground, Mozart, Stravinsky, and a smattering of obscure contemporary classical composers.
So what kind of music does Pathos play? "That's a tough question," is the predictable answer. "I know it sounds like dumb, but I'd have to say music from the heart. It's kind of a reflection of things that are going on in my life at that point. They're like diary songs, journal songs. When I listen to an old song, it sparks memories of a certain point in my life better than I could ever do with just words.
"I think a lot of (the inspiration) comes from the landscape here, too. No matter what direction you look, it's something different. And the sunsets are different every night, too." So after all is said and done, Pathos is really a desert rock band? "Yeah," he laughs. "We're desert rock."