A Positive Day of Summer

by william a. huffman, conway daily sun, 08.13.04

Mitch Alden, lead singer/songwriter for the Portland, Maine-based Now is Now, is a different kind of musician. He turned away from major recording label interest, scorned a move to Los Angeles, sought solace in the White Mountains, and relies heavily on books for inspiration — personal and musical.

Songwriters are inspired by a myriad of means. Life experience, learned knowledge, political views, traveling, love, love lost, and religion/spirituality lead the way. Occasionally one may find literary reference in songs, notably cult and poetry, such as Edgar Allan Poe, Aldous Huxley, Hunter S. Thompson, and such.

With a strong lean toward authors contemporary and classic — Stephen King, Tom Robbins, John Steinbeck, and Anne Rice — Alden derives song content and a philosophical view of the world. Most importantly, he embarked on a Thoreau, "Walden"-esque journey to reestablish his musical desires. Along with reading the teachings of Ram Das, Alden entered a frame of mind that is based on being in the present, not dwelling on the past or future. Hence, now is now.

Saturday, he and his band return to Up Country Saloon in North Conway. They played here July 10, a mere two weeks after their official CD release shows, for the new album "Days of Summer," in Portland and New York City.

Stressing positive messages within his songs, Alden shares his views of the world within strong narratives, images and words. Sometimes, his overall theme is not apparent. Similar to reading a book, it can take more than just listening, but rather a cerebral reading of the lyrics, paying attention to each word and the overriding meaning. "It's a great starting point," said Alden in a phone interview. "To put yourself in the first person as the narrator of these great characters. People end up taking the lyrical content of the song as their own story, what it means to them. I tell them it's about Anne Frank ("Right Here") and they say 'Whoa!'."

It's this literary and philosophically positive view that steered him away from major labels. Alden had been a part of the music machine, the biz, the way corporations can remove the personality of music, in turn churning out cookie-cutter hit songs. It was that dread that led him to Maine, away from the chasm of the industry.

Alden was in a band in Colorado in the early 1990s. When the band broke up, he took a 58-hour bus ride to Boston for an audition for a band of which he'd been told. It worked well, he bussed back to Boulder and packed his belongings. According to Alden, the band, 7 Acres, was pretty happening and had connections. By 1998, labels were courting the group and the responsibilities and hoop-jumping became many. "The singer I was partners with," said Alden, "didn't deal well with stress. There was legal counsel, management, label politics. So it started to fail."

They were being asked to dress and perform a certain way, even to write songs a specific way. "The integrity was not there in the music, particularly the direction we were being pushed. I had friends in the industry, a back door way. When I saw that I was being modeled as a 'bottle of shampoo of the week', I wanted to get out of there.

"The singer moved to L.A.," Alden continued. "And he figured he could get the band in the clubs and stuff and work the L.A. scene to make things happen. I made a quality-of-life decision and chose not to go to L.A. I love the mountains, the snow."

It resulted in an excursion to the Maine woods to rediscover himself. "I heard about things like that and I found time to do so at a very pivotal time in my life," Alden reflected. "It was my journal, my dog, my tent and a water purifier. About three days and it really helped me open my eyes about what I wanted to do. I left the band, left Massachusetts. I had to take my own life by the horns and make the right decisions with it."

The only food he brought with him was for his dog. He agreed there was a Thoreau-like journey. "Four and a half years ago," Alden said. "Speckled Mountain Trail, Evans Notch area of the Whites. I walked about two miles in and said 'this looks like a good spot,' bushwhacked about a quarter-mile and made camp by a creek. I knew no one was going to be around me." He also brought one book. "Ram Das, 'Be Here Now,' that's where I got the name Now is Now from. He was a part of the LSD movement in the '60s and was one of the professors who 'dropped in' with Timothy Leary. He went to India to see what's going on. 'If I can achieve this with drugs and people over there can achieve this without drugs, I must go over there.' "'Stranger in a Strange Land' by Robert Heinlein had the same kind of thing," Alden continued, "finding your strength and happiness in the moment. People worry too much about the past or the future. 'Be Here Now' is a really empowering book, in the surroundings I was in." Spirituality lends to his positive outlook.

"I was born a New York Jew," Alden said, "but I'm not really any religion. I can't say I can put a label on the higher power. I just know there is a higher power, but I don't choose to label it." He reinforces a distinction between religion and spirituality; Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code" being a recent favorite read. Literature has been the leading contributor to Alden's songwriting, and it started before he left 7 Acres.

"From a writing perspective," said Alden, "it gives a huge writing advantage. You get tired of writing about adolescent angst. I feel better singing these words. It's pretty much one of the things, that I'd try to write these kind of words when I was in 7 Acres and the management and labels had no interest in that cause, it wasn't cookie-cutter." On a superficial level, there is a dark tone displayed in some of his songs. However, Alden always reveals a silver lining. Though there's diametric opposition, they are united.

"Sometimes it does happen on purpose. It comes from, say, a book and the characters rise up against the odds. That aspect is inspiring." For example, "Better Day," from the band's new CD "Days of Summer," has a lost feeling with a foreboding overcast. However, it is a prelude. It is how all the words combined conjure a sense of optimism and how friendship can pull away the loneliness. "There was a little anger in my head," said Alden, "that I needed to get out. instead of being ugly, I brought in a more optimistic chorus, a way to look at it. The first chorus I wrote was negative, sounded good, but I was like, 'What am I doing?' Rather than take that path, I said 'make a positive spin.'

"I know negative angst has its spot, but there aren't many positive songs out there, except maybe reggae. It's hard to write happy songs without being cheesy." Optimism is obviously a factor toward the band's growing fan base. Stephen King references haven't hurt either. A search of the Web for Alden uncovers a number of fan sites for the popular Maine author, which include reference to the couple songs Alden based on King's Dark Tower series — even a Russian Web site devoted to King.

King's rabid following has increased Now is Now's presence. "There's a different kind of fan base," Alden said. "When I wrote 'Other Worlds,' MP3.com was just starting to kick in. After I released that record, there's got to be some King fans talking to each other, within three months I had 14,000 downloads and sold a boatload of CDs." There is a King fan conference in Bangor every year, Alden has performed it. "Even though there are no Stephen King songs on the new record, they still like it," Alden laughs.

He's certain the author himself has heard the recordings, though he's never met or spoken with him. He said King's secretary has confirmed the author's listening. Some fans, Alden said, have gotten extra CDs and sent them to King. "So I know he has them, hopefully he listens to them. He owns a classic rock station in Bangor and I've gone on there and played a couple acoustic sets. Lot of fun."

Now is Now also consists of drummer Neil Carroll and bassist Drew Wyman. Carroll has been a band member since 1991. Wyman recently joined this spring, replacing Dan Paul. "For the first two years I was in Maine," said Alden, "I was using lots of different players and didn't want to lock myself in with people who may not work well. Neil and Dan were among the first two who were in this rotation. [Originally] it brought spontaneity to the stage and it was great, but as the songs developed it needed the continuity." Paul split from the group after recording the new CD, but they knew it was coming. They planned for it. "We knew when we went into the studio," said Alden. "We phased Dan out and phased Drew in in late April or early May. Music is about fun, putting out a great vibe. Last thing you want to do is have unhappy musicians. It affects the vibe. With my songs, any negativity doesn't work well. Music is super important thing to me and my drummer. We didn't want someone who didn't have his heart in it."

He relates the amicable breakup ("we're still good friends") to when drummer Bill Bruford left the progressive rock band Yes after the group recorded "Close to the Edge." Alden said Bruford was asked why he left at the band's peak to join King Crimson and Bruford said that he would never record another "Close to the Edge." Wyman took a few years off from the music business to focus on family. He had been in the New Hampshire band Thanks to Gravity in the '90s that had released an album on Capitol Records. After Wyman left Gravity, he joined another NH-based rocker, Starch, before removing himself from the business for a respite.

Despite the positive, now-based philosophy, Alden still looks to the future a little. "I certainly have to set goals for myself. Once I set a goal, I try to plan accordingly. I don't obsess on it. One of the reasons I left 7 Acres — 'I can't wait for this,' and 'who's in the crowd?' Now I set short-term goals that are easy to obtain, toward a bigger goal. Some people are destination junkies."

Sure, he wants lines out the door at every place they play or to get played regularly on local radio stations, but ultimately they just want to enjoy playing, be it their original songs or covering the Ramones, Prince, The Who or Seal.

"Come on down and enjoy the fun," said Alden. "We're not about egos. We'll do one-third covers; it's all about fun." And Alden has loved coming to North Conway for the near-dozen gigs. "Big stage, great people," he said. "Lots of friends in the forest service [Alden's wife has been a N.H. Forest Ranger], so they all come down and the tourist crowd loves us. And it's the last smoking club in North Conway, which is cool. I'm not a smoker, but there's something about the smoke and beer and music."

william a. huffman is a staff writer for the conway daily sun.