If you saw the name “Remy Zero” in the title and immediately place it between Cary Brothers’s “Blue Eyes” and Nick Drake’s “One of These Things First,” that makes sense: their song “Fair” was on the Garden State soundtrack, in the middle of one of the most evocative soundtracks of the era (one which, Natalie Portman’s character famously says in the movie, “will change your life”). If you thought of Superman, that makes sense, too: the breakout 2001 hit, “Save Me,” was the theme song for Smallville and temporarily hypnotized both DJs and listeners.
For me, though, Remy Zero is a photo album, and all three records— Remy Zero, Villa Elaine, and The Golden Hum— have specific places in the fabric of my life. But one thing I’ve found through the years is, especially since the band was famous before the age of camera phones, it’s almost impossible to describe what was so special about them. I’ve tried to describe them, and the best I can come up with is if you put Radiohead, Counting Crows, and Jeff Buckley in a blender. They are melodic, but know when to move off syncopation. The lyrics are abstract until suddenly they burst through, usually, with an uncomfortably true moment you didn’t know was seconds away. Lead singer and writer August Cinjun Tate has a remarkable ability to sing in a comforting low range and then jump, seemingly effortlessly, into a wailing high range, something between a ghost and a train in the distance (because when he sings something, everybody knows it’s true).
Let’s just say, for the sake of building the photo album, the first snapshot of your time with a band would be a Polaroid of you on your bedroom floor, fuzzy sweater and rope belt, glitter all over your face, waiting through the four minutes of silence at the end of The Golden Hum to get to “Sub Balloon”? The CD changer whirs with the silence and the anticipation is almost as good as the song finally starting, you turning the song all the way up so you can feel the percussive sounds in your back through the speaker, singing:
With a word
The world is moved from us
Damaged deep inside
Cause everything I gave to you
Everything you hide
With a star the light
The heat your car
Simply falls away
Cause I know how you need to be
This is not that place
But then you sing as Tate’s vocals slowly drown on the outro, “It goes on and on and on and on…” and for just a second, in the middle of the high pressure cooker of being “gifted” and choosing a busy, artistic life, there is peace and light, even in pain. Even when you are in the wrong place. Hell, the first verse ends, “Forever I’m your shame.” But it’s a comfort: it is. Because who hasn’t felt like a liability? But the letting go in “Sub Balloon”— and this is just a hidden track, remember, you have already listened to a whole record— this letting go is the only reason you can breathe. You might be too young to understand panic attacks now, in 2001, but honey, you have no idea what’s coming for you.
But what if, in the next picture, you’re standing with Cinjun Tate, and you’ve obviously be crying, and you don’t know what to do with your hands or how to explain to people that the world has just changed, that a voice you lost track of is back, like a miracle, almost literally from the dead? How can you possibly
You know what, let’s focus on how we got there, first. It was our first Underwater Sunshine Fest and everyone who was helping put the show on was headed to the Bowery Electric to make sure we were set up. All day, every day, we record sessions at my friend Adam’s house, and as I left with my husband and dear friend Charlie for the club, Adam said, “Katie, you’re not going to stay to see my friend Cinjun?”
Unfortunately, you can find this whole story on the Underwater Sunshine podcast, because I’m somewhat exuberant in my unabashed love of music and my dorkery usually makes for a good story. I said, “I’d love to, Adam, but we have to get the club set up.”
“That’s too bad,” he said. “You’d love him. I’ve got a bunch of his band’s old records around here. Remind me to give them to you.” Suddenly the name “Cinjun Tate” was familiar, but I still couldn’t place it.
“His old band?”
I threw whatever was in my hand (lanyards? Posters? Shirts?) to Charlie and yelled, “You’re Katie until I get there” before darting back into the living room (the Garden) to sit cross-legged in front of Cinjun Tate. Here I am, on the floor again, ready to listen to one of the voices that helped guide me into who I wanted to be. And he looks… just slightly uncomfortable. I think I sat way too close, and I was a complete stranger. But Adam vouched for me (this goes a long way at the Fest) and Cinjun played several songs I’d never heard (including “Thank You”) and then, by request, an old song I hadn’t heard in years: “Life in Rain.”
I heard Adam whisper, “This song inspired ‘All My Friends,’” and I heard Cinjun’s “I once had marigolds for eyes” completely differently: I’d known the song since it came out, but now I heard the companion opening in one of Adam’s songs: “All my friends have flowers in their eyes/ But I’ve got none this season.” The inspiration, the artistry, the back-and-forth: this is what Laurel Canyon was, right? The art, the response to art, the response to response, sharing and coming together. All the sudden everything just felt so heavy and so right. And I cried. Not just because I had a basically private audience with Cinjun Tate— but because a year or so before, I’d recovered from a stroke, and when he talked to his son about recovering and battling cancer in “Thank You,” I heard what I wish I’d been able to voice to my husband Andy and stepdaughter, Grace:
If there is a piece of me left after this disease
It’s yours to do as you see fit
If it’s supposed to be, then I guess it’s supposed to be
But I’m not ready to quit yet
Today, all I really want to say is thank you
Thank you for everything that you do
If there’s a God above, keeping secrets from the rest of us
I pray He tells them all to you one day
If it’s supposed to be, well, another child or just you and me
And our boy he says, “Daddy, is that OK?”
Yeah, it’s OK: Today all I really want to say is thank you
Thank you… for everything that you say and every single day
That picture? It’s one of the worst pictures ever taken of me. Because I was trying to find a way to repeat back to him exactly what he’d just said to me: thank you. Thank you for this. Thank you for letting me sit on the floor. Thank you for letting me be a part of this moment. Thank you for being vulnerable and saying the only good thing about being sick. He had to move quickly to do an interview with the podcast and I had to go to the club so Charlie didn’t have to be both of us anymore, and once I got there, I was swamped. I wanted nothing more than to talk to Cinjun again when he came, but he’s light on his feet: he’s there and then he’s not. Is it haunting if you want it, if the presence is loving and full of brightness?
For months, I tried to figure out how to reach him, and what I’d say if I did. Clearly, he’d done my speaking for me through his lyrics sometimes. And that’s when I realized—
I couldn’t find other people to obsess with; I had to track people down, one by one. I can’t tell you how many times I said, “I swear, you know it,” and tried to hit that soaring high note in “Save Me.” The Internet was letting me down. I couldn’t find fans, I couldn’t find message boards— I couldn’t find Cinjun. The Golden Hum had come out just a little too late for there to be a ton of YouTube videos of the concerts. There were a lot of TV show appearances (one guess what song they played). There’s a beautiful video of Cinjun playing “Fair” on the piano right after Garden State came out. That’s what I showed my class the day before I flew out for our second festival. I knew Cinjun wasn’t booked, but I was hoping he’d be at the Garden Sessions, even for a minute.
That made it particularly strange when he sat in front of me, again, and sang “Fair” a few days later. I’d actually taken a picture of my class watching the video, on the off chance he’d show up. I loved the next picture because it wasn’t just me with an idol: he’d been looking for me, too, for some reason. I’ve never quite understood what about me resonated with Cinjun, but I knew from the first moment of being around him that there was no reason for pretense. He’s open about his journey through cancer (that, frankly, shouldn’t have been survivable: but after deciding not to fight his fate, he found out his wife was pregnant, and he underwent a Herculean fight to stick around for his son). There are a lot of pictures of me from this era, but there aren’t many with my braces (shoulder and fingers!) or cane. I hadn’t made peace with what it meant for me to be as independent as I wanted to be. It didn’t really matter with Cinjun, though. He never notices things like that. He uses words differently, like everything is a firework of some kind— “peppermint,” “magic.” You never know the way a compliment will come out formed. But it’s easy to see why songs like “Fair” were so immediately resonant:
Hey, are you lonely?
Has summer gone so slowly?
We found the ground
And that damage was done
It’s cold as you fade into the sun
Where’d you go? To me?
But you’re alive!
Well, it’s only
Fallen frames, they told me
You stand out, it’s so loud
And so what if it is?
It’s cold as you face into the wind
Where’d it go? (Tonight the sun shall see its light)
Tate knows the words that grab people, but it’s from an inner core of light: he wants to fill the cracks in our human selves with something healing. And because of that, he finds the words that scare us most— “lonely”— and immediately tries to make that state something less scary, more communal. Even as I type this, I’m just realizing I am still writing the story of not only Remy Zero (which matters: they opened for Radiohead. They inspired so many bands with soaring guitars and imagistic lyrics. They make sense for fans of R.E.M. or Matchbox 20 or U2 in equal measure. I want you all to know Remy Zero, and I don’t want to have to sing “Save Me” every time I mention them), but I’m explaining the story of how I found a friend— first as a ‘kid’ who helped decide who she wanted to be through these songs, and second as an adult, who really needed a friend who “got” it— and Cinjun gets things. I’m currently working on an essay collection that starts with the words “My friend Cinjun.”
By the third festival, being with Cinjun was an instinct. If he was in the room, I gravitated toward him and his family. People are weird when you’ve been “Big Sick”— they want to hear how much better you’re doing and how blessed you are for surviving at all. And truly, sometimes I feel that way, and sometimes I’m tired, and Cinjun never makes me be one or the other. My friend Barbara caught this picture of him walking in the door, and while I should share, instead, a picture of him onstage, blowing the audience away— because this time, he played at the Rockwood Music Hall with a full band for us— or maybe even me introducing him in my old Remy Zero shirt (which, unfortunately, you can’t see in this picture, but I am wearing!)— but this, to me, is the core of Cinjun’s spirit. Time between seeing each other doesn’t exist, and doesn’t matter. He doesn’t waste time with small talk, so an afternoon with Cinjun is more productive than a week with most people. And the music… his new music is as good as his old music. I don’t know a lot of musicians who really don’t have a valley in their work, but when I listen to Remy Zero, or his project Spartan Fidelity with his brother Shelby (founding member of Remy Zero), or his new music— songs like “Underwater” and “Suit Yourself” along with “Thank You”— I’m filled with the same peace that used to quiet my head when I was first learning to control my impulses and anxieties. I’m a writer. You’ve probably figured out there’s some neuroses behind that. But Remy Zero always talked me out of it, calmly. Or helped me boldly walk into something I was afraid of (“Temenos (Here Come the Shakes)” and “Out/In” are always first day of school songs, still).
Now Cinjun helps me in completely different ways. I’ve never walked away from a conversation with him that didn’t echo. And he’s not just an incredible writer and a sensitive friend: he’s an artist. He and his wife both paint, and their visual art is striking and stunning and— deeply, deeply human. So with as far away as he lives, the last photo in my Remy Zero album— for now— is this: the lyrics to, the aptly named, “Perfect Memory.”