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Don't go there: The Dying Californian visited the Central Valley so you won't have to.

Long Stretch of Lonesome

The Dying Californian, headed for Santa Cruz, examines the desolation of the state's Central Valley.

By Paul Davis

With a population of only 17,000, Coarsegold, Calif., may seem on first inspection to be nothing more than a wide spot on the road to Yosemite. But this unincorporated inland town represents much more than that. Coarsegold may be one of the best illustrations of the blight that has made a wasteland of California's Central Valley.

Named for the coarse lumps of gold prospectors discovered on their fool's errand, the town was the scene of a similar errant gold rush in the 1980s when it was hailed as the new Silicon Valley and drew hopeful techies in droves to work for the area's handful of promising startups. But within a couple of years, all the startups had closed down or been bought out, and Coarsegold reverted to its sleepy roots.

It's this sense of desolation, of the failed dreams of the hopeful and the foolish, that caught the attention of Nathan Dalton of the Dying Californian as he drove through the town on work. Inspired to write about it, Dalton spent months in the Central Valley working and composing the album in his head that would become Coarsegold, the band's concept album about the go-nowhere ennui of the vast, hardscrabble inland valley that lies between California's monied coast and its impregnable Sierras.

"I had a job with PG&E. I would travel from town to town with a team. We would leave on Monday night and not go back until Friday," Dalton says. "One of the towns I worked in for three months was Merced. Going through Coarsegold, the name struck me--it seemed like what the Dying Californian was about, the end of the gold rush. When I was in Merced we would go back to our rooms and it was really lonesome, and in motel rooms I would write songs, lyrics on pads and melodies in my head. Most of the album I wrote with lyrics on the Marriott pad."

Released last year, Coarsegold is a case study in what the Dying Californian does best--ruminative Americana with a punk sensibility, drawing upon the twin pillars of R.E.M. and Neil Young to stunning effect. It's far removed from the work the band did in its previous incarnation. Nuzzle was a charged post-punk group that dominated Santa Cruz's late-'90s college indie-rock scene. It's been years since Dalton and his brother Andrew lived in Santa Cruz, but their influence still looms large over the local community.

"We've always been split between Northern California and Southern California--Santa Cruz was the only time we lived in the same town. It's made it kind of hard, but kind of interesting," Dalton says of the band, which now operates out of both San Francisco and Los Angeles. "I don't know if that had anything to do with our longevity--we're still together after 12, 13 years. Maybe not living together has something to do with our longevity."

Those who loved Nuzzle's melodic yet jarring post-punk skronk-rock might be taken aback by the Dying Californian's shameless melodicism, but for the band, it was a very natural transition. "When we moved to L.A. in 2000, our songs started to get more mellow," Dalton says. "Nuzzle was more riff-oriented, but with Dying Californian it was more about melody. It just sort of happened that we were a new band, so we got a new name. At first it was going to be a side project, but I started playing those songs for the guys and it sort of became a new band."

"It's like I've gone back to the stuff I really loved, like early R.E.M. Maybe part of it is getting older--sometimes in the days of Nuzzle, we would play as hard as we could, and play three songs and then collapse. You can only do that for a couple of years. Sometimes you want to just step up with a guitar and sing."

All the same, Dalton is sometimes as shocked by the transition in his songwriting as Nuzzle die-hards may be. And as much as he draws inspiration from a number of clear touchstones--the music of R.E.M., the desolation of the San Joaquin Valley--Dalton notes that even he can't point to where the inspiration comes from.

"I never know how influenced I am by what I'm listening to or other outside sources," he says. "Some of the songs I write are so weird, almost like nothing I've ever listened to. Sometimes it seems like the songs are just what I write."

THE DYING CALIFORNIAN performs Saturday, April 12, at 8pm at the Crepe Place, 1134 Soquel Dr., Santa Cruz. Hod Hulphers and the Mumlers also appear. Tickets $10 adv/$12 door; 831.429.6994.

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