I posted earlier about following Morphine in the eighties and nineties. This is the band that I didn’t follow at the time but have now come to via our friends at Numero Group.
I had been aware of the existence of Codeine during their existence from 1989 to 1994. I don’t recall hearing any of their music and was frankly unaware of their demise. I’ve written a blog already about Numero’s wonderful approach to reissues. Initially, it was their soul repertoire that appealed to me. In the summer of 2014, the guys came over for a promotional tour and pop up shop at the Strongroom studios in Shoreditch.
There was only so much vinyl I could buy and more pertinently, there was only so much vinyl I could carry. Therefore when I saw the beautiful but heavyweight box of Codeine’s reissued albums, I thought “one for later.” I then took to listening to Codeine occasionally via youtube links and was interested in what I heard. I’m a fan of Mogwai, and I knew that they were Codeine fans, which seemed like a reasonable endorsement. So when I saw the box set (“When I See The Sun”) on special offer online recently, I indulged.
So what of Codeine?
Well as much as Morphine don’t sound like you would expect a band called Morphine to sound, Codeine sound exactly like a band called Codeine to sound.
Codeine were formed in New York by Stephen Immerwahr (vocal, bass), Chris Brokaw (drums), and John Engle (guitar). The band were contemporaries of Slint, Red House Painters and Low, a genre that has been lumped under the heading “Slowcore.” It would be impossible to deny there is a consistent sound to Codeine’s output. It is slow, glacially so. It features spare instrumentation and the vocals are pretty low key. It’s probably an acquired taste but I’ve acquired it. Output, by the way, is possibly something of an overstatement. They only made two LP’s (“Frigid Stars” and “The White Birch”), one EP (“Barely Real”) and a few singles. The box set covers most of this with B sides, live tracks etc. For me, it’s all the Codeine I’ll ever need.
Codeine appropriately got together very slowly. After playing a single gig that they thought was a one off, Immerwahr continued to work as a sound engineer with Bitch Magnet. Bitch Magnet heard Codeine’s early tracks and Immerwahr agreed to sub them some engineer duties in exchange for name dropping the band. Eventually a demo of “Pea” found its way to the Glitterhouse label in Germany. Glitterhouse had been distributing Sub Pop’s roster in Europe and fancied a stable of their own. Codeine got busy recording in a damp basement and recorded what would become their debut album, “Frigid Star”, the title coming from the Fall’s “Crap Rap 2” (“We are all frigid stars, you cannot fuck us”). At the time, Immerwahr commented that the album represented a different perspective on Neil Young’s “Cortez The Killer.” I must admit I hadn’t recognised it but when you listen to some of the slowed down Crazy Horse live versions of “Cortez”, you can pick up that this is was possibly yet another musical strand that “Shaky” was responsible for.
Codeine linked up with Sub Pop in the States which caused some consternation within the Grunge scene. As their drummer Brokaw said:
People could sometimes be really taken aback by our music. Some of the people at our shows were very dismayed to discover that we did not sound like Mudhoney or Soundgarden. It said on all the flyers “Codeine – from Sub Pop!” as if Sub Pop were some sort of Island of Grunge
Codeine were invited to tour Austria with old college friend John McEntire’s band Bastro, his precursor to the wonderful Tortoise (possibly my favourite gig of 2015). Whilst there, Immerwahr found a post card of the Belvedere which he sent back to his girlfriend Cathy. He never got chance to visit the palace which is now a wonderful art gallery. It’s a shame – we visited a few years ago and the works of Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt are a perfect reflection of Codeine’s music.
The show in Vienna was a real high point for Codeine to a hungry audience of 600. When they headed back home, they went their separate ways working as recording engineers, waiters and food delivery men. They eventually reconvened and started working on the follow up to “Frigid Stars” as a studio on Murray Street, the same street as Sonic Youth’s studio.
Immerwahr wasn’t happy though. He wanted the band to play even more slowly and achieve an accuracy in their performance beyond their earlier work. He was clear that he wanted a perfect legacy. He stated that he only wanted to make three Codeine records as he considered the first three Ramones records perfected their sound. Surprisingly he also said the following:
Influence-wise, I was always a big Dusty Springfield fan and I used to think, if I could only make a record that sounds as good as a Dusty 45 slowed down to 33, that would be great.
It was clear from the sessions that a second LP wasn’t quite happening. Time for plan B then, and the “Barely Real” EP. They recorded the songs and took to the stage. Brokaw was also working in another band, Come. It was clear that he was stretched too thinly and he gave a week’s notice to quit.
The EP was a critical hit and the band headed back to Europe to tour with Josh Madell on the drums. They eventually ended up in the UK and recorded a session for the John Peel show in Maida Vale studios.
Back in New York, they started auditioning permanent replacement drummers. The auditions were hard with nineteen drummers all shell shocked at trying to achieve the slow motion accuracy necessary to anchor the band. They found their man in Douglas Scharin, a new arrival in the Big Apple from Maine.
They headed down to Kentucky to restart work on the follow up LP. Beset by further studio problems, they hit the road again with the Flaming Lips and Mazzy Star to generate some rent money. They found a studio in Connecticut which allowed them to use at least some of the material from Kentucky and cracked on to complete the album.
In the meantime, Sub Pop were celebrating the success of Nirvana’s “Nevermind”. It was clear when they received the album that they weren’t going to have a repeat break out record on their hands.
The band took off to Europe again for another long tour. The repetitive nature of their material was taking its toll on the band and Immerwahr demanded perfection. When they returned to the States, the new drummer quit. New material wasn’t forthcoming.
Immerwahr and Ingle reconvened with a drum machine for one final go and ironically had a crack at Joy Division’s “Atmosphere”, the Manchester band’s final release after the death of Ian Curtis. But it wasn’t to be. The band were done. Immerwahr kept a low profile involved with a few New York bands. Engle quit music in 1994.
The members stayed in touch though and in 2012, they got wind of Numero Group’s plans to reissue their catalogue. The band were impressed with Numero’s plans and reformed for a limited number of dates. Regrettably, I missed them. They played Ally Pally round the corner from where I live but I had limited funds and went to the following night’s reformation of the Afghan Whigs.
And that again appears to be it. It’s all gone quiet on the Codeine front. Immerwahr appears to be working for the New York Department of Health and Public Hygiene. Brokaw has played with the Lemonheads recently and is the most musically active by a long way.
A few examples from their back catalogue then:
First here’s “Realise”, the opening track from the “Barely Real” EP. This is the band at their prettiest and most immediate.
This is a live track from one of their reformed shows in New York in 2012. It’s “Loss Leader” from their final LP and it perfectly captures the dynamics and pace of the band.
And finally, here’s the cover of “Atmosphere”. It’s a lovely version and it really is apposite that it was the curtain call for both bands.