"When we started the band, it was more alternative, more grungy. Not grungy, actually -- alternative." So says drummer Neil Mason of the Nashville-based band Llama, a preppy, peppy trio that just expanded to five pieces following the release of its debut album, Close to the Silence. Mason's reluctance to slip even the band's old sound in the Pacific Northwest vertical file isn't unusual. But the fact that the median age of Llama's members is nineteen is indicative of the way a generation has responded to Kurt Cobain's insistence on burning out rather than fading away: a wholesale retreat to the Dave Matthews Band and Phish, groups that aren't opposed to suicide as much as they object to kiboshing a solo long enough to pull the trigger.
Mason and his cofounder, guitarist and songwriter Ben Morton, cite The Beatles and Nirvana as influences, but traces of neither are discernible among the crisply professional Silence's many notes. Nirvana, then, has become as easily referenced a totem as the Fab Four when it comes to staking out potential listeners. That's not a surprise when you remember that when Mason and Morton heard about Cobain's death, they probably were on a school bus heading home from sixth or seventh grade; the loss affected them more profoundly than the artist did, even if the boys were, as music fans, ahead of their class.
"We played Little League together," Mason says of Llama's birth, first as Ore, then as the Dahlia Llamas. "I was beating on my legs at practice, and Ben asked if I drummed. We made a bunch of shitty noise after that." At fourteen, the pair played its first show, having written enough material in a year that it could afford to not play some of it. Within a tender year, the damply green group had ditched grunge and aimed for Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, attracting the attention of MCA guru Tony Brown, who apparently had nothing better to do than hang out at Nashville's place for pizza and pimples, Guido's.
"In the process of that first year, our sound changed a whole lot," Mason says. "We started listening to the Pumpkins and Dave Matthews Band. Bela Fleck and the Flecktones was one of the first bands I saw live. Their musicianship is amazing. They've always been inspirational for us. Our jamming was influenced by Phish too."
Mason's drum sound shows the mark left by Carter Buford of the Dave Matthews Band, an admitted favorite. "He was the first person who blew me out of the water, but you can only go so far liking one guy." Mason laughs and says, "I probably learn more from playing with some of my drummer friends now."
Mason and Llama still live in Nashville, an unlikely mecca for fledgling jam-pop bands. But Mason theorizes that the children of Nashville's more recognizable denizens -- its country musicians -- are fomenting a credible rock scene based on nothing more than the rejection of their parents' twang.
"I think that some of the best music that's happening right now is the rock bands from Nashville," Mason says. "It's so diverse. These young kids, musicians' kids, kids of studio players, who grew up around studios and instruments but aren't drawn to that sound -- it's amazing the way they're pooling their talents."
Whether it's a gene or talent pool Llama climbed out of, the band shows signs of being a formidable presence on dorm-room shelves: Most of its members can read music, they've aligned themselves with seasoned producers (Kenny Greenberg and Matt Rollings, who share writing credits on several songs) who are able to corral Bela Fleck for a cameo on the album, and they've already sacked a bass player. "We were at the point where we felt like we were starting to go places where maybe our old bass player didn't want to go," Mason says. No bass player is included on the album's list of band members; the fine print says, "All bass played by Matthew Stewart except Track 4."
"We knew the live sound wasn't what the album needed to be because it wasn't developed enough," Mason says. "Next time, our live sound will have developed past the level of the album. We stretch out a lot live. We accentuate certain parts of the songs. One of the challenges recently has been finding the time to rehearse. But we don't spend our time in the van just staring at each other. We use the time to work out parts and write charts. We get to a hotel or a friend's house and start playing."
Llama is an ambitious collective, capitalizing on getting signed when its founders were just fifteen. Mason cut classes and missed a final in high school to lay down tracks for Silence that wouldn't see the light of day for another year and a half. "It was a good process," Mason says of the extended period between the deal and the disc. "We needed to develop, to grow up in some ways." Physically, for instance. "In the future, we're planning to experiment a bit more," he adds.
On June 6, the band played its album release party five minutes away from Guido's to what Mason says was a packed house. "It was phenomenal to have this gathering of four or five years' worth of friends and people who had done so much for the band," Mason says. Concentrating first on the album in its entirety, Llama indulged its followers with a second set full of songs yet to be recorded. Its earnestly embraced influences notwithstanding, Llama has a friendly, innocuous sound -- tricky time signatures and dressed-to-impress guitar runs coupled with a hands-in-Abercrombie-jeans-pockets sensitivity in Morton's singing -- that will need more even support to survive. Younger than 'N Sync in years but too old to smell like teen spirit and too nice to court a rock audience, Llama faces a limbo that would have been dreaded in 1994 if anyone could have predicted it.