The Heavenly States

The Heavenly States came together in 2002, united by a shared passion for complex and cathartic rock bursting with literate, provocative lyricism. A series of acclaimed albums and a seemingly endless capacity for touring – including a landmark 2005 trek to Egypt and Libya – confirmed their status as one of America’s fearless music outfits, flying the flag for self-determination and intelligent, energetic rock ‘n’ roll. After spending much of 2008 on tour following the release of their critically acclaimed and top-ten album Delayer, the band pondered their next move, wondering how best to follow such an ambitious collection. The inspiration struck to att pt an EP, in the tradition of band favorites like Just Like Heaven, Sonic Youth, Stink, Metal Circus, Nervous Breakdown, Watery Domestic, and oh yes, Magical Mystery Tour. Their latest record, Oui Camera Oui, shows the short form can pack a powerful punch. Lead tracks, “Model Son” and “Berlin Wall,” are getting repeat spins at radio stations from the U.S. to Berlin. With a sound, attitude, and point of view previously likened by reviewers and critics to Pav ent, The Clash, Hüsker Dü, Ted Leo and The Replac ents, Oui Camera Oui, features all of the band’s musical traits: hooks, sing-a-longs, lush string, and keyboard arrangements, well-wrought lyrics, ample melodies, huge drumming, and layers of raucous guitars. Mixed by prior States collaborator John Agnello (The Hold Steady, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr.), Oui also features special guest vocal performances by Britt Daniel (Spoon) and comedian Eugene Mirman (HBO’s Flight of the Conchords). The Heavenly States have been a national act since 2003. The band is fronted by guitar player and songwriter Ted Nesseth who grew up in Owatonna, Minnesota, a small factory and farm community outside of Minneapolis. Mr. Nesseth relocated his band, Fluke Starbucker, to Oakland, California, and was looking to make some changes. He also needed a roommate. He posted an ad, and drummer Jer y Gagon, just arrived from Denton, Texas, answered the call. They bonded over cheap Chinese food and music and Mr. Nesseth invited Mr. Gagon to join the band, initially as an additional percussionist doubling on keys. Mr. Gagon quickly assumed primary duties on drums, and several west coast tours and bay area gigs later, the band sought an instrumentalist to round things out. Mr. Gagon’s sister Genevieve Gagon, a writer, keyboardist, and violinist from New York, ended the search. The three core members’ very differentemperspectives and life experiences combusted and launched the group into a prolific period of songwriting and touring. Under new moniker The Heavenly States, they wrote and recorded two full-length albums, The Heavenly States s/t (2002, 2003) and Black Comet (2005), along with several singles and b-sides. The band toured extensively on those albums for years while developing and performing the material that would become their next records, Delayer (2008) and Oui Camera Oui (2011). Across their repertoire, The Heavenly States has always challenged convention without straying too far from it. Lyrics are an equal partner with the music, creating a straightforward eclecticism and poetic lyricism that has at times found the band outside fashionable trends. The Heavenly States produce songs imbued with otional complexity, driving energy, and plenty of spit and fire. At times earnest and vulnerable, at other times infused with grit and fury, THS songs range from simple SST-inspired grenades to works of layered and symphonic sweep. Some songs recall the folk and cowpunk of THS favorite, the band X, while still others exude the cool r ove of acts like Spoon, Steve Malkmus, or the Talking Heads. Whatever the tone of a particular song, a commitment to melody always shines through, so it was no stretch to see the band sharing a single with Coldplay and The Postal Service in 2003. As for fearlessness and risk outside of songwriting, THS achieved part of its dream to tour the so-called “axis of evil” by performing in Libya in January 2005. The band undertook its quest to perform a series of underground shows in Libya and Egypt in an effort to promote face to face communication among unofficial people at a time when the Iraq war had effectively shut it down. In a pre-Twitter and Facebook era, the band sought to challenge the west’s news blackout in the region and to shed light on unexpected alliances that were forming against the backdrop of an unknown human cost. Nonetheless, States’ member Ms. Gagon casually reported to the SF Chronicle that the most daring thing they accomplished that year was to cover “Rock The Casbah” in London. The Heavenly States are not a heart-on-its-sleeve outfit by any means, as revealed by the tone of a typical interview. No matter how serious the subject at hand, band commentary is often delivered with a punch. Ted Nesseth slips easily from a The Heavenly States gig into the comedic role of judging the international annual Air Guitar Championships. Jer y Gagon amplifies the band’s playful media persona in interviews. Mr. Nesseth and Ms. Gagon are songwriters who are also married, bringing an additional layer of complexity to the group. They are storytellers and filmmakers, having created a documentary film about their experiences in Libya and Egypt, with other film projects on the way. How then, to characterize this band? Perhaps it’s best to leave it at the questions inspired by the band’s name. “Yes, it’s plural,” Ms. Gagon explains for clarification. “We used to have to fix that a lot. The name’s a question. The “s” really opens things up. The “the” and the “s” keep it rooted in the United States and give it a certain authority, but there’s confusion between the one and the many, and the “heavenly” is up for grabs.” The band has since performed live on WXRT’s “Big Beat program” in Chicago, KFOG, Minnesota Public Radio’s “The Current,” and KEXP in Seattle. Veterans of SXSW and Sasquatch music festivals, The Heavenly States have toured America, Australia, the UK, Egypt and were the first and perhaps, but hopefully not, the last American rock band to play Libya.