When Drew Grow regained consciousness on the side of Interstate 5, his car totaled and his leg bent at an awkward angle, he took it as a sign. Not from above—though he'd grown up in a religious home, he knew God had nothing to do with the semitrailer truck that swerved into his lane—but from within.
"I almost feel like, in a weird way, I was manifesting this stress," says Grow, sitting at Enso Winery in Southeast Portland. "In a subconscious way, I allowed that wreck to happen."
That was in early 2011, a week into recording sessions for a new album by his group, the Pastors' Wives. If Grow did, in fact, will himself into an accident that broke his femur, feet and nose and left him with several thousand dollars in hospital bills, that tells you just how enthused he was about the project. Through three EPs and two full-lengths, the 39-year-old singer-songwriter built a reputation in the Pacific Northwest for writing idiosyncratic folk rock with almost gospel fervor. At the time of the accident, though, Grow felt stuck. He'd grown tired of the band's name, its sound, the approach to songwriting. But he couldn't justify throwing away the previous four years, not with another album cycle already in motion.
Then the crash happened, and everything stopped. It forced Grow to confront what he really wanted to do musically. And what he wanted to do was start over.
Modern Kin is the sound of Grow hitting the reset button. It may not look much different than before—his bandmates, drummer Jeremiah Hayden and bassist Kris Doty, were members of the Pastors' Wives—but it is an entirely new band, with an entirely new working philosophy. In the Pastors' Wives, the mantra was "practice makes boring," the idea being to make the songs simple enough that they could be endlessly reinterpreted live, undiluted by excessive rehearsals. Modern Kin is more complex, but it's also more direct, more visceral, and just plain weirder. On its self-titled debut, out this week, Grow wails like a doomsday preacher over shuddering church organ and roaring rock guitars, sounding something like Arcade Fire's Win Butler doing Nick Cave's big bad wolf routine. He sounds possessed. In truth, he's just re-engaged.
"As a person," Grow says, "I'm interested again."
Getting to that point, though, wasn't easy. There were casualties: Seth Schaper, the Pastors' Wives keyboardist, wanted no part of a sonic makeover. He quit and moved to San Francisco. Entering the studio last summer, the band stopped and started, rearranging songs four or five times. To help guide the album, and the band, into being, Grow brought in his girlfriend, Sleater-Kinney's Janet Weiss, to produce. That hardly made things smoother: Arguments over parts and arrangements blurred into lovers' quarrels, until it was hard to tell which was which. "We're so sensitive as a band together," Grow says. "It's like arguing in front of friends who don't necessarily know it's all going to be OK."
Ultimately, though, working with an extended member of the band's de facto family allowed the group to harness its creative dissonance rather than be torn apart by it. (Weiss and Grow are still together.) The members hadn't necessarily committed to changing the band's name when they began working on the album, but once they realized what they had, it was obvious they couldn't pretend this was the same group.
"There's a scientific element to it, like, who we are as people," Grow says of the Modern Kin moniker. "That was part of the change. Even though calling it the Pastors' Wives was supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, even just having a spiritual overtone to it, I wanted to shift away from it, toward something more genetic, more intrinsic."
Rebranding is tough, though. It calls for sweeping gestures. To celebrate the album's release, Hayden hatched the idea of Modern Kin performing seven times in less than 24 hours, with each show streamed online in a different time zone at 10 pm. The band admits it's a bit of a stunt, along the lines of similar feats of stamina recently perpetrated by the National and the Flaming Lips. But it also poses a question apropos of a band starting over from scratch: Is anybody out there actually listening?
âAnd if they are,â Grow says, âdoes it feel like anything there?â