Codeine talk reunion, unearthed ‘Dessau’ LP, their legacy, black metal & more in new interview
To put my thoughts on the band Codeine into words is difficult, so allow me to list some facts. Codeine were a band started by classmates at Oberlin College in the late 1980s/early 1990s (depending on who you ask). A power trio of bassist and singer Stephen Immerwahr, guitarist John Engle, and drummer Chris Brokaw (later to be replaced by June of 44 and fellow Numero Group labelmates Rex's Doug Scharin), Codeine played exceedingly slow, minimal music. Considered to be some as early practitioners of a style of music called "slowcore," Codeine's music concentrated on glacial paces, big chords, and soft-spoken vocals to express life's hardships, but there was also a glimmer of hope amidst the despair. Having already reunited once in 2012 to commemorate the Numero Group's reissuing of their canonical discography (Frigid Stars LP, Barely Real, and The White Birch), Codeine returned again just a few weeks ago in honor of their now-final release, the shelved Dessau sessions, which were partially reissued as part of the The White Birch double-album. Recorded at Harold Dessau studios in 1992, the Dessau sessions were shelved after dissatisfaction with the recording among the band's ranks. Many of these songs were revisited two years later with Doug Scharin on The White Birch, but Dessau's looser tempos, slower approach, and more cataclysmic atmospheres show a band in flux. Codeine was slowing down, quite literally, and the minimalism which followed with their final full-length proper is a direct result of the Dessau sessions. In a new interview (which you can read below), the original Codeine lineup discusses their legacy, the Dessau sessions, and even black metal.
You just performed live as Codeine for the first time in over a decade. Though this isn't the first time you've taken a lengthy break, what was it like revisiting this older material again?
Chris Brokaw: In some ways it was easier, simply because we all went through the process of revisiting it ten years ago. The process now probably feels less strange or unexpected than in 2012. Recent developments: we're focusing a bit more on Dessau being part of the canon, and I think we're focusing on our cover of "Atmosphere" as an important part of the set (due at least in part to its success via '13 Reasons Why').
John Engle: A family member said something along the lines of, it’s a good thing your music is slow, you won’t have to practice as much to get up to speed, as it were. For the record, maybe it’s not as hard for one person to play slowly. Three people playing slowly is an entirely different matter.
There were just five more show announcements–did you ever see yourselves reuniting as Codeine and touring again? What has the process of re-reuniting been like?
C: Each time we've done it (2012 and now) it's felt limited and very specific, really tied in to the Numero releases. Steve in particular has wanted to keep the shows limited to ten in the US and ten overseas; John and I would probably be happy to do more or keep it more open ended, but we'll see. In general it feels more like a small set of specific events rather than us reuniting and hitting the road.
Stephen Immerwahr: Playing with John and Chris for people that are excited about Codeine’s music is great. But this isn't a return to being an active band. And I’m OK with that.
J: Well, we’re no spring chickens, but it’s good to know we can still lower the slow Codeine hammer on the older fans and on a new generation of listeners.
Did you expect Codeine to have such lasting power when you were first composing the music? How does it feel knowing the band has such a timeless appeal?
C: I knew at the time that we were doing something unusual and specific. I didn't have any expectations or predictions about its longevity (but I don't tend to think that way about anything). I personally love the music and feel like it really stands up. It's definitely nice to see so many young people at the shows who have come to it in recent years.
J: We were actually more orthodox than most bands at that time. If you remove the slowness and the volume they’re just pretty songs about desolation and regret. That will always last.
Though Chris has kept more of a public face with music, John and Stephen maintained an air of mystery surrounding them post-Codeine. John and Stephen: what is returning to the music scene's public eye again like?
S: Back when we were active, I didn’t think about anyone’s enjoyment of the band and I was in fact suspicious of people who did like our music! But doing the shows in 2012 was a revelation to me and put to rest the concerns I had about playing decades-old music to people who may have not been born then when we first made it. Now, instead of questioning people’s motives and wondering why people are listening to old music, I’m grateful our music has meaning to people still.
J: I appreciate the camaraderie. I’ve gone out to fewer and fewer shows, especially over the past few years, and it’s nice to hear other bands and learn about new music firsthand. And as for playing the Numero showcase, it was a lot of catching up with old friends.
Numero Group just reissued the Dessau sessions on standalone vinyl after part of the sessions were released in The White Birch reissue about a decade ago. I understand there was some contention concerning the intended 1992 release of this now-formerly shelved record. Thirty years later, how do you feel about initially putting this one aside, and what is it like to have it out in the world now?
C: It was heartbreaking, for me anyway, when we shelved it. I thought it was the best thing we'd done. I didn't pine over that over the last 30 years, I went on with my life, but, I'm definitely glad to have it out there now. I don't know that it's landed in a way that redefines people's sense of the band, but, simply as something we did, something you can listen to when you want to listen to Codeine, I'm really glad it's there and part of our very small catalog.
S: Back then, I told John that Dessau might be our last record and I didn’t want what we’d recorded at Harold Dessau to be it. So we scrapped it. But now, depending on how you look at it, it is our last record.
Having revisited the Dessau recordings more recently, did you find yourselves influenced by these performances (in which you give the tempos more breathing room) in the rehearsal room?
C: Yeah, for sure. We've done some comparing and contrasting in the rehearsal process. Ideas about tempo move around between the three of us and there's usually someone who thinks something is too fast or too slow (and it's not always who you think it would be).
J: There are the 1992 tempos and then there are the 1994 tempos. 1994 was hard on everyone.
Have you ever entertained the idea of making new music or found yourselves jamming on new ideas during rehearsals? In ideal conditions, what would "new" Codeine sound like?
C: I'm a huge fan of Steve's songwriting, and if he ever brought out a song or songs he wanted to work on I'd be there.
S: To the extent that Codeine has had an influence, then the “new” Codeine sound (if not songs) exists already.
The New York City set featured a performance of your cover of Joy Division's "Atmosphere," which you dedicated to the late Mimi Parker of Low fame. I only got to see this on video, but it was a very beautiful moment. What did Mimi mean to Codeine, and how did it feel to make such a wonderful gesture in her memory?
C: Low and Codeine were on the same Joy Division tribute album in the '90s, and I think had a natural kinship. There's always a sadness and loss when you play a Joy Division song, and Mimi's loss in some ways joins that or deepens it or something. I don't want to belittle her loss by tying it just to music but I hope you understand what I mean. I've played a few shows with Low over the years, and with Alan too, and always had a great respect and appreciation for what they do.
What does Codeine as a band or an idea mean to you now as opposed to when the band was initially active?
C: I think foremost it's my friendship(s) with John and Steve, which have only grown since we were in a band together. All that stuff is more important to me than the band. That said, I can also recognize how important that music was and is, how much it shifted how I do things and look at things. In some ways it's hard to divide where the music did that and where those two guys did that. They're each very unique and have helped me look at things in different ways.
J: Initially, when we played it polarized audiences and we were not always accepted. I used to say being in Codeine is not a lot of fun, but someone’s got to do it. I think 30 years later the band has become accepted and established as the folks that brought slowcore to the scene.
Stephen has consistently worn black metal T-shirts live during these last two reunion tours, and Chris has gone so far as to record a fully acoustic rendition of Vlad Tepes' 12-minute epic "Drink the Poetry of the Celtic Disciple." Was black metal an influence during the original Codeine days?
C: I wasn't into black metal and I don't think Steve was during the time we made Codeine music; I think that came to each of us later on. Steve first. He'd give me recommendations and mostly they fell flat on me. Even once I got into it, our tastes often diverged but there's definitely stuff we both like. // There was an afternoon in the early 2000s when I was mixing a solo album and really losing my mind over the mix, and I talked with Steve and he said: "remember, it doesn't have to sound good to sound good." And I was like, "what are you talking about?" And he said "Darkthrone. 4-track recordings. They sound terrible, and they sound amazing!" I'm not sure it was applicable at the time but that's something I always try to remember. It was good counsel.
S: It's difficult to explain how raw, anti-human black metal fills my heart or why it makes me want to clutch invisible oranges, but it does.
Do you see yourselves continuing or at least announcing a few more dates beyond what's been announced? I'd love to see you in Chicago again!
C: Hopefully Chicago, hopefully the west coast. We're starting to confirm shows in Europe/UK roughly August 30-September 9. (Update: they did.) We've never played Japan and I'd love for us to go there. I'm always glad to do stuff with these guys.
S: I agreed to do shows because Numero Group put out Dessau last fall and we owe them that. And I'm grateful that people want to see the band. But I've got a legit job that I really like (at the NYC Department of Health) and staying in shape to perform is a lot of work! So the shows we play this year will be our last.
Codeine have more upcoming US reunion shows with Barbara Manning, which were rescheduled from April and will now go down in November. The NYC show was moved to Bowery Ballroom and now takes place on November 9, and the band also have upcoming shows in Cambridge, DC, and Philly. All previously purchased tickets will be honored. They also announced that Europe/UK run. All dates are listed below. Tickets here.
11.08.2023 Wed Cambridge MA The Sinclair
11.09.2023 Thu New York NY Bowery Ballroom
11.10.2023 Fri Washington DC Black Cat
11.11.2023 Sat Philadelphia PA Underground Arts
30.08.2023 Dublin (IE), Whelan's
31.08.2023 Hamburg (DE), Knust
01.09.2023 Berlin (DE), Pop-Kultur Festival
02.09.2023 Prague (CZ), Underdogs
03.09.2023 Vienna (AT), Chelsea
05.09.2023 Bologna (IT), Locomotiv
06.09.2023 Lyon (FR), Transbordeur
07.09.2023 Paris (FR), Maroquinerie
08.09.2023 Brussels (BE), Botanique
10.09.2023 London (UK), The Garage