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Eight and Out

Engine Down brings its intricate 'guitarchitecture' to Tucson one final time

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A few days ago, the guys in the rock band Engine Down were in a Denny's somewhere on the road in Florida, musing nostalgically about the eight years the quartet has been playing together.

"We've had a pretty rich history," guitarist and singer Jonathan Fuller said on his cell phone. "We put out four full-length albums and an EP. We've been to Japan; we've been to Europe four times, and we've toured the United States I don't even remember how many times.

"We have been doing it for a long time, and we're super proud of what we have been able to do with it. We are four best friends who still really love each other, but we are terrified of burning out, of staying together to the point that we don't really care about each other or the music anymore."

It's not hard to guess that Engine Down has decided to call it quits. "But I don't think you can use any word other than amicable to describe (the breakup)," Fuller said.

The Richmond, Va., band's final tour will bring it to Tucson for a gig Friday night, Aug. 12, at Solar Culture Gallery. The show also will feature the bands Bella Lea and Des_Ark.

Bella Lea features singer Maura Davis. She's the sister of Engine Down singer and guitarist Keeley Davis. The Davises and Fuller constituted 75 percent of the excellent but now-defunct indie rock band Denali. Like Engine Down, Denali played in Tucson on several occasions.

And as did Denali, Engine Down will have soon run its course.

"It sort of came up on the last tour," Fuller said. The group had just released what would become its final album, 2004's Engine Down, on the Berkeley-based punk bastion Lookout! Records.

"We said to each other: What do you guys think about doing one more U.S. tour and stopping? And there was no objection. It just seemed like the natural thing to do."

Not surprisingly, Fuller said the thing he would miss most about Engine Down is the one hour he gets to play each night.

"When we're on stage for that one hour, it is really this amazing phenomenon where you're really connecting with each other, and you're really connecting with the audience. It just takes you out of this world, and you stop thinking about worldly things. It's this transcendent moment."

Then there are the other 23 hours in the day. "It's mostly sitting around waiting, driving somewhere, then sitting around and waiting some more."

At least this tour has been comparatively sedate. The last, in late 2004, found the band apparently exorcising some accumulated bad karma. Something seemed to go wrong every day, said Keeley Davis, taking over on the phone.

Little things such as lost keys, sprained ankles and chipped teeth seemed to constantly bedevil the band as it moved from town to town. Which made the big things hit that much harder.

"Four days into that tour, the van and equipment trailer were stolen. We lost everything, all our instruments, all our laptops with years of photos and archives on them. ... Then there was the hurricane that came through and wiped out my car and condemned my apartment with my fiancée still in it."

The group even went so far as to create a souvenir T-shirt proclaiming that jaunt the "Shit Happens" tour. On the shirt, each tour date is identified by the unfortunate event that accompanied it.

This time around is vastly different, Davis said.

"We're so excited. We're enjoying ourselves and playing really well. We can play shows now, and we don't have to worry about the future. It's all in the moment."

The Engine Down sound has always been stirring. Driven by the wrenching, cathartic first-person songs of Davis, the group may tread familiar pop-punk ground, but they make up their own steps.

The band's music is most effective when the members are alternately erecting and tearing down intricate guitarchitecture, allowing the pieces of their sound to swirl together in an intoxicating, syncopated maelstrom.

Davis admitted that the band's propulsive and hypnotic rhythms result in part from the fact that until playing with Engine Down, he was a bassist. "The bands that have always inspired me have had amazing rhythm sections," he said.

In that spirit, the songwriting process for Engine Down involved intense collaborations between Davis and drummer Cornbread Compton.

"For this last record, I'd have the basic idea for a song, maybe the lyrics and just the chords, or even just some of the structure and a little bit of the melody. Then I would work with Cornbread--just me and him, working together to create some really interesting rhythms--and that's where the syncopated guitar sound comes from.

"Of course, after all that messing around, the other guys would come in, and sometimes, we would do like a complete 180."

After their swan-song tour, most of the band members are looking forward to being home more often and spending time with family in the Richmond area. Only Compton is leaving the band's home base. He's heading to Los Angeles, where a couple of other bands have already expressed interest in him.

Davis and Compton also have recorded nearly a full album's worth of material together, Davis said. "We'll probably release that sometime in the future."

And the others?

"I can't speak for everybody," Fuller said. "But I know we are all definitely going to continue to do music, whether it's in other bands, or playing on each other's solo records, or just trying to learn how to play the banjo on our front porch. We'll be playing music until we're old and gray."

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