A romantic split marks the end of the Mendoza Line, whose bookish folk rock and bittersweet pop was the sound of a band made to be heartbroken. By Phil Sheridan
What Socrates failed to mention when he pronounced the unexamined life as not worth living is that the alternative is no day at the Acropolis, either. The examined life is hard, and the overexamined life can be a real sonofabitch. It’s also the source for most of the great literature, music and drama human beings create.
If the Mendoza Line was about any one thing, it was people examining life—their own and others’—and taking careful notes on the flaws, failures and idiosyncrasies that define us as human. It’s often said of realist writers that they see life, warts and all. Well, the Mendoza Line discovered the most profound beauty in the warts and conveyed it with some of the finest, catchiest pop and roots music of the last decade. When Timothy Bracy sings, “It’s our limitations that make us what we are,” it’s more than an observation. It’s a credo, a universal truth, a shard of hard-won wisdom.
It’s also a tough worldview to have, and remain true to, if you’re going to become a commercially successful rock ’n’ roll band. The Mendoza Line didn’t set out to be that, which raises an interesting question: If your ambition is to fail and you succeed, are you a success or a failure? It all depends on who’s doing the judging. With the recent release of the band’s final recorded work, 30 Year Low, and the end of the marriage between Bracy and co-vocalist/co-songwriter Shannon McArdle, the evidence is in. It’s the end of the Line, which all but demands a look back at the beginning and middle.
In 1993, Timothy Bracy moved from his home near Washington, D.C., to that other Athens, ostensibly to attend the University of Georgia but really to be in one of indie rock’s epicenters and to work at the school’s legendary radio station, WUOG. He was joined by high-school friends and bandmates Peter Hoffman and Paul Deppler; after playing briefly as the Incompetones, they settled on the name the Mendoza Line. The band was conceived as an informal, ever-changing collective, similar to Athens-based Elephant 6 outfits Neutral Milk Hotel and Olivia Tremor Control. But where Elephant 6 groups mostly chased Brian Wilson’s musical ghost, Bracy, Hoffman and Deppler were more interested in the dyspeptic malcontent perspective handed down from the Kinks and the Faces through Big Star to the Replacements.
“We set out to continue in the tradition of the Replacements, American Music Club and other very good bands that people either loved, hated or didn’t understand,” says Hoffman. “Those are the bands we really loved growing up, and somehow their lovable-loser personae entered our DNA. We wanted to be an answer to the Beach Boys obsession that seemed to be influencing everything in Athens.”
For his part, Bracy knows precisely when his musical DNA was imprinted. He was 15 when his college-age brother took him to see the Replacements in D.C.
“I didn’t know who the Replacements were and didn’t care to know who the Replacements were,” says Bracy. “It had to be one of the nights they were really transcendent, and I don’t think, for a day in my life after that, that I was going to do anything other than what I’ve done. What had never occurred to me was that a band could go up there and be sort of bad, and that you had this special access. You could see the gears turning, and when it came together, it seemed so special. It seemed like you were in on something.”
Guitarists Bracy and Hoffman began cranking out catchy, hyperliterate pop tunes, and the Mendoza Line issued its debut, Poems To A Pawnshop, in 1997. The band’s first three releases were recorded while the band lived in Athens, but by 1998, with its members graduating (or realizing they wouldn’t), change was in the air. The entire outfit moved to New York City, where singer Margaret Maurice (then Bracy’s girlfriend) was planning to attend graduate school. The move not only formalized the lineup—Bracy, Hoffman, Deppler, Maurice, steel guitarist John Troutman and drummer Sean Fogarty—it also prompted Bracy to give an old guitar to Shannon McArdle, an occasional Mendoza Line singer from Southern Georgia.
“When the two of us first met, it was on the basis of our mutual deep devotion to Elvis Costello and Graham Parker,” says Bracy. “That was sort of the astonishment of our attraction.”
“I’d never picked up a guitar before or thought about writing,” says McArdle. “I was always under the impression that you had to play an instrument really well, that I didn’t have what it took to write. When I got this guitar from Tim, I went to my twin brother Philip, who is a terrific guitar player, and asked him to show me some chords. He showed me six chords, and I think they’re still the only six chords I know. The same day I picked up the guitar to learn the chords, I wrote my first song.”
After finishing her English/Spanish degree, McArdle moved to New York to join the band full-time. Imagine Aimee Mann joining the Replacements around the time of Let It Be and you get a sense of the impact McArdle had.
“I wasn’t very happy about it when Shannon joined,” says Hoffman. “But it was obvious that she was an asset musically to the band. So I got over it pretty quickly.”
“Pete and Tim were best friends,” says McArdle. “They go way back to being 12 years old or something, and they worked so well together as a team. Then I came along, and having three singers and songwriters was maybe a little much. I think it annoyed Pete sometimes, but then Pete’s a big fan of mine, too, and I love Pete.”
From his view at the center of it all, Bracy saw McArdle’s addition as a major shift in the band’s direction.
“She had so much energy,” says Bracy. “It went immediately from being something Pete and I made a hobby out of to this person who added a sort of organizing principle of quality. She just arrived out of the blue with such force on our little casual band that it re-ordered everything, kind of by accident. We were sort of astonished. It’s impossible for me to imagine what I consider to be the bulk of our significant work without her having done that.”
For a few stellar albums, the Mendoza Line made the three-songwriter lineup work. 2002’s Lost In Revelry found the band examining its new life in New York City, while 2004’s Fortune was an engaging combination of Bracy’s wry humor and intricate wordplay, Hoffman’s hooky pop gems and McArdle’s evocative story-songs, with the band shifting seamlessly from crunchy guitars to ethereal pedal steel. But these early fault lines were beginning to widen into serious cracks.
“It always felt like three different bands regardless of the lineup,” says Hoffman. “I don’t think the three songwriters’ music ever blended well together, even though there was a lot of decent music being written. There was always a lot of talk about Pete’s songs, Tim’s songs and Shannon’s songs—never anything about the band’s songs.”
It was also becoming apparent that the Mendoza Line wasn’t going to become a real moneymaking operation.
“We basically did everything in our power not to succeed,” says Hoffman. “It’s actually kind of laughable when I think about it now. The songs were too different. The live show was a total unmitigated disaster. People were crying onstage, getting way too drunk, drinking other bands’ beer. But also, I think no one was ever going to make the sacrifices necessary for the band to be more successful. I certainly was not. I wasn’t going to quit my job and go on the road for a band I ultimately didn’t believe in.”
“Alcohol was consumed,” says Bracy. “Personal problems were aired onstage. Mistakes were made. In every instance, the higher the stakes, the more we would fuck up.”
There was the 2003 South By Southwest showcase in front of an audience of industry big shots in which McArdle and Bracy, by now a couple, got into a liquidy pre-set argument. McArdle spent the entire set at the back of the stage, weeping loudly, while the band tried to play. Peter Jenner, who’s managed the likes of the Clash and Billy Bragg, approached Bracy after the show. “He had come to see us and was just ashen,” says Bracy. “He was like, ‘You people should quit music. I’m worried about you.’ Others were similarly aghast and appalled. That was one incident of many along those lines.”
Self-inflicted or not, the band’s commercial limitations created tension as its members grew older and started thinking about where their lives were headed.
“There was almost an expectation on my part, and I kind of regret this, that there would be a ceiling to how big our audience could be, owing to who had been our inspirations,” says Bracy. “I don’t really see it that way anymore. I wish more people had heard our music, but I know why I thought that way. Knowing about the Faces or Big Star or even the Velvet Underground, it seemed at some level that you’re consigned to obscurity if you’re trying hard. There are friends of ours and contemporaries of ours who have had bigger audiences, and it was not at all obvious to [Hoffman] how we could be on the same record label in Europe as Ryan Adams and sell literally a hundredth of the records.”
“At least for the last couple years, with every new album, we thought, ‘Well, this could be the one,’” says McArdle. “The songwriting is strong, people know who we are more, and we’re getting slightly bigger audiences. You feel good about it. Then you go to some small club in Philadelphia or somewhere and there are 20 people at the show. That’s really sad after all these years of work. It’s hard not to get discouraged, so I completely understand why Pete decided it was time to pack it in.”
Bracy and McArdle were not ready to pack it in, however, and 2005 proved to be an eventful year for them. That summer, under the name Slow Dazzle, they released The View From The Floor. The eight-song CD was a Mazzy Star-ish affair, with more keyboards and slower tempos than a Mendoza Line album. The autumn, Bracy and McArdle were married.
“There was definitely discussion about whether we wanted to do another Mendoza Line album,” says Bracy. “Pete was one foot in, one foot out, but more than in. Shannon and I had songs and themes in mind. Ultimately, we decided it was something we wanted to do.”
“I never understood why Tim and Shannon wanted to continue the Mendoza Line after I left,” says Hoffman. “They had Slow Dazzle starting up, and there is no way that any incarnation of the Mendoza Line was ever going to succeed. But I wasn’t going to make a stink about it.”
2005’s Full Of Light And Full Of Fire missed Hoffman but is a fine record nonetheless, at its best answering the question of what a band led by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Flannery O’ Connor would’ve sounded like. Bracy’s “Catch A Collapsing Star” could serve as the manifesto for the bands’ entire career, while McArdle wrote heartfelt stories from the perspective of fictional women in difficult circumstances.
Says, McArdle, “I was tired of my songs repeating themselves over and over: ‘Oh, I’m so depressed. Oh, this person screwed me over, blah blah blah, and I’m sad and I’m pathetic.’ I really wanted to write about things outside of myself that might be interesting to other people or inspiring in some way. I could look outside myself and be a character in this song. I’m going to be an abused woman in Saudi Arabia or a woman with post-partum depression. It was fun for me, even though it’s still my way to choose very dismal and upsetting things. But,it was fiction.”
That’s important to remember because of what came next. To Bracy, Full Of Light represented the end of the Mendoza Line.
“I was very happy with it,” he says. “It also felt, in a sense that had never been there before, that we had now completed the mission.”
One piece of unfinished business remained: an agreement to deliver an EP to Seattle-based Glurp Records. Bracy and McArdle wrote and recorded songs, but it wasn’t just the band that was coming to an end. Earlier this year, the couple separated, setting up an all-too-easy storyline for the very difficult material on 30 Year Low.
“Certainly, none of the lyrics on the record should be interpreted as being reportage on our personal life, ” says Bracy. “These are acts of imagination, absolutely acts of imagination.
No wonder. McArdle’s vicious takedown, “31 Candles,” could leave a permanent mark on anyone: “Come on over, honey grab your pants and get your shit/She’s drawing blueprints, laying marble, build a shrine around your dick.” Her devastated “Stepping On My Heels” reflects on the sacrifices a touring rocker must make, admitting she’s “solid green at those baby machines” with settled-down lives and toddlers on their hips.”Aspect Of An Old Maid,” meanwhile, is a duet between McArdle and Okkervil River’s Will Sheff.
“The songs were mostly written, not when Tim and I were necessarily in a good place, but certainly before he left, before we separated,” says McArdle. “A lot of them are written in character. I know [’31 Candles’] is going to read as though he screwed me over and cheated on me, but that song isn’t about Tim. It’s about getting older. For me to write a rock song, I have to be angry, so I thought, ‘Well, what makes people angry? It’s when they get screwed over. “Stepping On My Heels’ is about what it sounds like. It’s about when Tim and I were getting along better and had a conversation about doing fewer shows and maybe doing things that make money or that were good for our careers. So I started thinking I was ready to have a baby. Tim wasn’t as ready as I was, and that’s probably part of the reason we’re no longer together. A big part of me would like to settle down and have a family, and of course, I wanted to do that with Tim.
“That’s part of my discomfort with the way the album is being packaged as sort of our divorce album. That really wasn’t something that I wanted to do. It’s inevitable that people are going to listen to my songs and to Tim’s songs and say, ‘Well, this is about him doing this bad thing or her doing that awful thing.'”
Their separation wasn’t precipitated by any one awful thing, according to both Bracy and McArdle. It was more a result of the toll taken by the high emotional pitch of the overexamined life and the low financial rewards of honest creativity.
“An absolutely huge amount of energy and effort went into trying to carve out a space where our work together and our personal and private ambitions could somehow co-exist,” says Bracy. “It just got to a point where it was … totally unfeasible. The things that broke us up accord very much [with] other friends of mine who have been divorced. It’s amazing how often it’s the same things: money problems, family problems, lingering hurt feelings, she wants kids, I maybe don’t ever. Same old story in a lot of respects.”
There’s certainly a lot of emotional truth on 30 Year Low, but Bracy and McArdle are both too talented as writers for a listener to assume the songs are literal. That said, the EP and its accompanying disc of odds and ends—several live performances, stray tracks that didn’t make it onto albums, telling covers of Bob Dylan and Richard Thompson songs—makes for some tough-yet-rewarding listening. These are gifted people going through hard times and letting you make sense of it all. Each song is a revelation. It’s also the final at-bat for the Mendoza Line, a band named for the roughly .200 batting average that marks the absolute lowest acceptable number a major-league baseball player can get by with.
So what’s next? Bracy will continue, under a new name, to make music with the capable lineup of Troutman, guitarist Clint Newman, keyboardist Beth Nelson and drummer Adam Gold.
“I am not going to do the Medonza Line without Shannon,” says Bracy. “The Mendoza Line will be on the shelf, in mothballs, not to be extricated. I will not say never, but certainly not without Shannon.”
The newly married Hoffman has a good public-relations job and has done some recording with a band called Iran. For him, the Mendoza Line is in the past. “My life has improved 100 percent since I quit the band,” says Hoffman. “Playing in front of 10 people in Little Rock on a Saturday night is probably the most demoralizing thing a human can do. I’m glad I never had to do that again.”
McArdle is in the toughest spot. She lost her marriage and her gig in one shot, and Bracy got custody of the band. It’s difficult to believe someone with her ability won’t keep writing and singing, but her situation is complicated. She’s recording a half-dozen new songs to accompany a children’s book she’s written about an adventurous car. While she looks for a publisher, she’s working two jobs teaching English as a second language.
“On my best days … when I get out of bed, I think this is what I was meant to do and get excited about making a solo record,” says McArdle. “Since February, when time left, I thought, ‘Well, now I have all this fodder for great songwriting.’ I’ve never been so miserable in my life. But I can’t write a song to save my life. I think I’m just still in shock about the band being over, about my marriage being over. It’s very hard to feel inspired and also to have the confidence to do it. I know I’ll get it back. I really hope I’m able to put out a record in the next year or so and do something good with all of this bad that’s come about.”
The heartbreak in her voice is pure honesty, the same as the best of the Mendoza Line’s songs. Even with the band gone, its member are beholden to the credo. It’s their limitations that make them what they are. It’s why they were so good and also why so few people know it.
“I think we succeeded in failing like many of our heroes,” concludes Hoffman, “but obviously on a much smaller scale.”