When Road Got Grungy, He Chose His Own Path

If you were to map the Seattle rock scene by its commercial impact, you'd have to say that Andy Davenhall came up on the wrong side of the tracks.

Arriving 10 years ago in the grunge mecca-to-be, Davenhall started playing drums in several of the pop-oriented bands that predominated in mid-'80s Seattle. At the time, grunge was still something in the sink to be attacked with steel wool and elbow grease.

That soon changed, and as it turned out, grunge, not the pop-rock that Davenhall played through the late-'80s, proved to be the mother lode for young Northwest prospectors armed with drums and guitars.

Not that Davenhall didn't at least sniff around a mine or two that held a big strike. In 1990, he auditioned for the open drum chair in the pre-"Teen Spirit" Nirvana. Dave Grohl got the job, and Davenhall got the notion that maybe it was time to start a band of his own.

Four years later, the alternative-rock world, if not Davenhall himself, is the richer for that turn of events. Sister Psychic, the band he launched in 1991 and fronts as guitarist, lead singer and main songwriter, has issued two contrasting, many-faceted albums that showcase both a sure, pure-pop touch and an ability to rock with noisy authority.

"Fuel," the band's 1992 debut release for Restless Records, offered such grunge commonplaces as dense, throbbing guitars, brooding anxiety and grainy-voiced singing. But Sister Psychic, like Husker Du in the '80s, was able to achieve melodic liftoff even amid stormy sonic weather.

With its just-released second album, "Surrender, You Freak!" Sister Psychic, which plays tonight at Our House in Costa Mesa, expands from a blasting trio to a nuanced quartet, cleans up most of the extraneous grit and casts its lot with the enthusiasm and wistfulness of pure pop.

Instead of echoing the chesty growls of the late Kurt Cobain or Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, as he did in a few instances on "Fuel," Davenhall paints softer hues with his flexible voice and comes up with a style that has some of the dirty-faced choirboy appeal of the underrated '70s rocker Nils Lofgren.

"I wanted to mature a bit," Davenhall, 30, said over the phone recently from his Seattle home. "It was kind of a jump to go from a three-piece power trio to a quartet. We had to think about arranging the guitars, and we didn't want just two barre- chord machines going. We wanted to think about what we were doing."

The generally dark cast of Sister Psychic's first album may have fit the prevailing emotional tenor of Seattle rock, but Davenhall says fashion had nothing to do with it.

"When I wrote (the songs on) 'Fuel' I was going through some fairly heavy personal stuff that's reflected on the record. I lost a girlfriend to heroin. She's still alive, and she's doing well now, living in Colorado. But it was a fairly miserable time of my life.

"I'm no angel myself, to quote Gregg Allman. We all have our vices, but when they take control of your life and it's a living hell, it's no fun. There seems to be a lot of it going around in Seattle."

Having gotten the songs about that experience out of his system, Davenhall said, "I didn't want to stay dark, because I think I'm fairly complex, and I want to show different sides of me and express them through music. I really don't want to get pigeonholed."

Even on "Fuel," Davenhall made sure to engineer an escape from the album's emotional cave. By the end, Davenhall, bassist Christian Fulghum and original drummer Ryan Vego could be heard straining to rise from the mire in "Mind Over Matter" (the current lineup features a new drummer, Peter Lansdowne, and an additional guitarist, Mark Hoyt).

In the concluding song, "Painting," Davenhall sang a surging, affirmative ode to the sense of control and purpose to be found in creative work.

Find my way a thousand times, painting with my brush. It's my world, do what I say, painting with my brush.

At a time when many rock bands swear by gritty realism, and dismiss all else as sentimental pap, the Sister Psychic of "Blue River" dares to offer dreamy pop escapism in such songs as "Blue River" (not the Eric Andersen folk-pop chestnut of the early '70s). In it, Davenhall sings of an idyll on a river bank, where "Our reflection's dancing on the waves / And we're hoping some day all our dreams come true."

In that line, and many others, Sister Psychic breaks the first commandment of '90s rock, "thou shalt be ironic," and embraces a more innocent ethic.

"A lot of people would want to have dreams come true," said Davenhall, who grew up near Albany, N.Y. "It doesn't necessarily reflect how I feel about the band, 'I hope I make it big, blah-blah-blah.' But it is fairly earnest.

"The whole thing (in 'Blue River') is based on an adolescent acid trip. My friend Jim and I would drop acid about twice a year and sit beside the Hudson River. We'd sit there and look at the stars and the river and trip out. I'm kind of recalling that, diving back into my childhood. It gives me the opportunity to reveal a little about myself without being blatant or pompous."

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Davenhall speaks mildly, in soft, polite, almost soothing tones. But he also self-consciously strews his chat with deliberately ironic, in-joke phrases borrowed from the jargon of the music industry and rock criticism.

During the mid-'80s, he said, pop was the dominant alternative-rock sound in Seattle. Then the grunge movement arrived, nurtured by the independent label Sub Pop.

"I think in the early days there was a bit of friction" between pop and grunge camps (Davenhall's best-known band during the period was Pure Joy, which later spun off Flop as well as Sister Psychic).

"Seattle was just full of pop bands," he said, "then Sub Pop came out and they were just that--the sub, the anti-pop. If anything, we created a backdrop for grunge. I enjoy that music a lot, but I'm not going to limit myself. Why be a lemming?"

To start Sister Psychic, he recruited Fulghum, an old friend, whose father is best-selling author Robert Fulghum ("All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten").

For its first album, Sister Psychic won good reviews but toured little. Now the group has more extensive travel plans, Davenhall says. "For the next couple of years, we intend to be heavy-duty road hogs."

Davenhall says the band was boosted by a recent, well-received set opening for Liz Phair at a record retailers' convention in San Francisco, and he noted that Peter Buck of R.E.M. turned up to jam with Sister Psychic when it played in Seattle on New Year's Eve.

The new album's title was inspired by the long odds facing any emerging band that hopes to make a living playing original music.

"It has to do with the crazy business we're in, and the struggle between trying to make it on your own and surrendering to the norm, to society as we know it," Davenhall said. "It's society yelling at us to 'Surrender, You Freak,' get a real job."'

Paying no attention, he recently quit his day job at a music store.

"I'm just now at the jumping-off stage, and I think I'm going to do this professionally," Davenhall said. "Or I'm going to try to."

* Sister Psychic, Joyride and Sour Mash play tonight at 9 p.m. at Our House, 720 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa. $3. (714) 650-8960.

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