By Sean Moeller
Tonight might not have happened for Bloomington, Indiana's Impossible Shapes. Jeff Tweedy, John Stirratt and Glenn Kotche would still be at the Indiana University Auditorium playing "Jesus, Etc." and "A Shot in the Arm," but Chris Barth, Aaron Deer and Mark Rice sure as all hell wouldn't be sharing a Coors with them or engaging them in a friendly game of gin rummy or whatever it is they might think of doing backstage with Wilco - casting spells together or trading stories.
"I'm not exactly sure how this happened," Barth said Friday from his home. "Someone at our label sent our records to someone in Wilco. I guess there are some loose ties to the drummer (Kotche). They must have liked us. I just got an e-mail. It was two sentences. It said something like, 'Hello. Wilco would like to offer the Impossible Shapes the opening slot for the show at the IU Auditorium. Please respond ASAP.' It showed up in the junk folder in my mailbox. I might never have seen it. I kind of didn't believe it for a while. It's this big auditorium. We'll be playing in front of more people than we ever have in our lives. It's the place where Bright Eyes played. I saw Bob Dylan there about four or five years ago. It was the only thing I've ever seen there. Aaron and I both went. It will be great to grace the same stage as Dylan did."
The Shapes have been on a break from touring in support of their new album, "Tum," as Rice has been off playing dates with Magnolia Electric Co., Deer has been out with his side project Horns of Happiness and Barth has been working on recording his latest Normanoak record, interrupting the dinners of strangers with survey questions about their telephone service, teaching pre-schoolers and setting up a weird clothing sale.
"It was at the student union at IU and it was intended to get sorority girls to buy brand-name clothing cheaper," he said. "I basically spent six hours setting it up and six hours taking it all down.
"I'm alright with the breaks we have to take. We're taking the next two months off from touring because I'm going to take off to hang out in California. I think I do wish we could tour a little bit more. It is kind of hampered by all the side projects. We've toured a lot, but it's been kind of spread out. A month is about the upper-limit of how long we can go out. I wish it was more because that's kind of how I like to live the best - being on the road. I like to not have to worry about the day-to-day things that you have to worry about when you're settled in a town somewhere. I think I'm still really into the idea of being in a different city every day. When you do that, something weird happens. When I'm on the road, I have a better grasp of the impermanence of things. At home, you just sort of naturally get into the same patterns and ruts. I'm a big fan of breaking those patterns. I like to see different friends in different places and I can get a lot done in the van. I do a lot of writing, drawing and reading. Some people can't read in the van. Aaron's like that. He and Mark end up doing a lot of the driving on tour. It's a good time to be creative for me."
The ideas and philosophies that Barth tangles with in the back seat of the tour van could most accurately be characterized as heady. It's stuff with some gravity to it, stuff that makes migraines and ice cream headaches feel about as serious and hurt just the same as a hiccup. The songs on the band's last two recordings have been engorged with lyrics pertaining to the lives, loves and lies of the ancient gods and goddesses of Egyptian and Greek mythology. The 25-year-old Barth puts together a world that encompasses all of the various states and appearances that the cosmos and its innumerous inhabitants assume so fickly, so easily and so closely - depending on the day and the tilt of the stars in the sky, or their reflections in a puddle. He's come to assess the world on terms that he's established through his undergraduate work at Indiana University - in English literature and religious studies - and in his own observations, not just of others as a voyeur or emotional scavenger, but of himself. He uses a scalpel to get the closest possible look inside, under the sheets, and it enriches the songs on "Tum" to a point where they become transcendent and logically puzzling at the same time. Each line has four meanings and each verse kidnaps you into an unfamiliar dimension that challenges you to keep looking around.
His way of standardized thinking was completely overhauled when he got to Bloomington, from his childhood home of Indianapolis, seven years ago.
"I can definitely point to maybe a couple different experiences where I started seeing things in a different way," he said. "I think the first one was probably music - Nirvana, the band. It sounds really cheesy, but rock and roll gave me a different way to look at the world in high school. I could just write songs. That changed my whole world. And I started reading a lot of religious texts from out East. It was probably through some band that I heard about it. At first, it was Buddhism, but I'm not really into that anymore.
"There was this one writer named Alan Watts (an autodidact/philosopher who died in 1973 and wrote on such subjects as personal identity, the true nature of reality and the consciousness and pursuit of happiness) that I really got into. He wrote a lot about religion and spirituality and all these other things, like metaphysics. He started the Academy of Asian studies in California and in his later years, he'd have lectures on house boats. His books probably had the most profound impact on my life. His basic premise is that you can never really know who you are. He wrote this book called, 'The Book - On The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are,' that said, who you think you are isn't real. It's a conglomeration of what people say you are. He used the equator as an example. The equator isn't really there, it's just a commonly used form of measurement. The ego is the same thing. There is no little guy inside running us. We're really the whole she-bang. We're a part of the whole thing - the galaxy and the stars. We think it's us, but we don't circulate our own blood and we don't make cells. We have no idea how to do that."
Those ideas were not anything that Watts had a monopoly on and he most definitely didn't originate them, but when Barth came upon them, it guaranteed that his songs would never get fluffy. He'd never catch himself wasting his time on tour thinking about the pros and cons of Katie Couric's jumping ship to a new job or wonder how Katie Holmes would like her forthcoming silent birth. He'd never write ode to the 80s, Bowling For Soup lyrics or go panty-baiting sappy as Daniel Powter. When we're thinking about what inanimate object a cloud seems to be forming - the extent of our wistful creativity, Barth, Deer and Rice (all water signs) are thinking about songs that deal with how those clouds are actually our cousins, consisting partially from their evaporated tears and the shower water that they bathed in a month ago and has now been released into the wild. Who knows. It's a possibility they're thinking things like that.
"These kinds of ideas…people have been exposed to those ideas for a long time," Barth said, still thinking about Watts. "I don't think there's anything particularly special about Alan Watts. Other people that I've had read that book of his, have just said, 'So what? I was thinking about that when I was 13.' But a lot of the people I know here in Bloomington grew up here and they had hippie parents. I came from a more conservative, traditional family so I was just finding this.
"I think when I started reading that, I would write songs expressing those ideas. Now, I look at a song as its own thing. I won't write a song about a flower blooming. I'll write a song that is the flower. It kind of has its own life. I kind of look at songs as their own entities."