If your songwriting partner were also your significant other and the two of you had a nasty breakup after nearly eight years, nobody would be surprised if you dissolved the band you'd been playing in together. In the summer of 2003, Joseph Costa and Lindsay Anderson, the core of L'altra, had been split up for more than three years without either one quitting the group--but their infighting had decimated the rest of the lineup and cost the band its relationship with longtime label Aesthetics. The future looked bleak.
Having beaten the odds, though, L'altra is putting out its third album, Different Days (Hefty), on Tuesday and celebrating the release with a flurry of local shows, starting Sunday, January 30, at the Empty Bottle. As on the band's other full-lengths, it's easy to read the record's charged, sometimes cryptic lyrics as veiled communiques between Anderson and Costa, still trying to lay the past to rest. That friction is at the heart of the band's music--the emotional storm beneath its placid surface. "It seems pretty strange that we're still playing together," admits Costa. "We do have a long, weird history."
Anderson and Costa met on their first day at Cleveland's John Carroll University in 1992 and soon started dat-ing. Shortly after they arrived in Chicago in 1997, Costa answered a flyer posted by bassist Ken Dyber, who was getting his Aesthetics label off the ground and looking to join a band. Dyber introduced the couple to drummer Eben English of Del Rey, and the new quartet--with Costa on guitar, Anderson on keyboards, and both on vocals--played its first show in summer 1998.
Within a year L'altra had finished a self-titled EP for Aesthetics, but by the time it was released the band had evolved beyond those modest, hesitant songs, jelling into a powerful outfit that drew equally on the melancholy slowcore of Low and the somber chamber-pop experiments of the Rachel's. Shaped by Costa's affection for moody shoegazer rock and by Anderson's classical training as a choral singer and pianist, the music was a potent cocktail of baroque pop and bruised romanticism, with the couple's sad, sweet vocals playing out the drama in their lyrics.
Late in 1999, three days before the sessions for L'altra's first full-length, Music of a Sinking Occasion, Anderson broke up with Costa. "Dumped me just as we were recording the first fucking record," he says, laughing. "That was really cool." In an effort not to upset the group's delicate balance, the couple kept the split secret from their bandmates; Dyber and English didn't find out until weeks later, when an engineer let the news slip.
A month after the album's release in July 2000, Dutch radio broadcaster VPRO flew the band in for a concert and a live recording session for the popular program De Avonden, and a German booking agent offered to arrange a European tour for the fall. Those trips helped L'altra establish a following overseas, and all told their debut sold about 5,000 copies. But by the time they re-turned to Chicago, Anderson and Costa's careful truce had completely collapsed. "We just fought the whole time," recalls Anderson. "We each had new boyfriends and girlfriends and it was like a madhouse. There were things being thrown at each other, just really bad stuff."
"Practices had become completely futile. It was ridiculous," says Dyber. He was in a doubly difficult position--as head of the band's label, he stood to lose an investment no other member had had to make. Pulseprogramming's Marc Hellner, who'd been contributing songs to the band and guesting on guitar since the beginning, became an official member in 2001 but promptly quit amid the tension.
Dyber was further frustrated by what he thought was a hurried and compromised mix on L'altra's second album, In the Afternoon. He quit the band in April 2002 and moved to Portland that fall. English bowed out a couple months later, and L'altra forged on briefly with Bosco & Jorge bassist Bill Lowman and drummer Kevin Duneman of the Race filling in. By the end of the year Costa was spending most of his time in Santiago, Chile, with his new girlfriend, and Anderson was busy as a singer for hire, touring with Will Oldham and appearing on albums by Slicker and Telefon Tel Aviv. "Basically, we were both talking about doing our own solo records for a while," says Costa. It looked like L'altra was history.
While in South America, a homesick Costa began working on material of his own. "But as I was writing I found myself thinking about what Lindsay would be doing in the songs. I would hear parts that she would do," he says. "Finally, I came back to Chicago to visit, and I played her some of my stuff, she played me some of hers, and we ended up demoing a bunch of things, a whole album worth of songs. And I admitted to her that I really wanted to work with her again, and eventually she said the same thing."
Costa came back to Chicago in August 2003, and he and Anderson began work on a new L'altra album with Joshua Eustis of Telefon Tel Aviv producing. Eustis gave the music a bigger, cleaner sound and expanded the group's palette considerably: Different Days leans more heavily on atmospheric digital processing and programmed percussion, including beats by TTA's Charles Cooper, and features horn arrangements by Bright Eyes trumpeter Nate Walcott, bass clarinet from Zelienople's Brian Harding, and cello from Fred Lonberg-Holm. (Hellner and English also came back aboard for a few songs.) "In the past Joe and I have struggled with each other and our ideas of what the music should be," says Anderson. "But this time, Josh was able to act as mediator."
"Believe it, man," says Eustis. "I didn't know that I was signing on to be a boxing referee. There were no musical arguments, but there was a lot of personal emotionally charged stuff going on. . . . It was a hard time and it definitely comes through on the record." During the sessions Anderson announced that she and her new boyfriend, sometime L'altra bassist Bill Lowman, were going to have a baby. "I think it was a shock for everyone," she admits. She gave birth to a son, Ellison, in July.
Different Days was finished in early 2004, but to release it the band had to find a new label--in September 2003 Dyber had severed the relationship between Aesthetics and L'altra, despite the fact that the group was (and is) his biggest seller. "There was no reason for me to want to work with them further other than purely financial reasons, and that's not how I run Aesthetics," says Dyber.
Anderson's work with TTA and Slicker, both on John Hughes III's Hefty label, helped pave the way for a deal, and Hefty is giving L'altra a big push in America, hoping to raise the band's stateside profile. Anderson acknowledges that her infant son will complicate tour arrangements, but L'altra anticipates a full road schedule, with an onstage lineup augmented by a variable cast of collaborators, including Eustis, Duneman, and Hellner.
Costa and Anderson seem to have reached a denouement in their tumultuous relationship, which is certainly good news for the band. Costa adds that they've started working on new L'altra songs, and that there will definitely be another album--maybe. "I think that's part of the chemistry between us--I never have any idea what Lindsay is thinking as far as what she wants to do. Which is good and bad. It's bad for my sanity, but it's good for the music."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jesse Chehak.