If Tim and Susan Bauer Lee had included a memoriam list on the liner notes to their new album, “Terminal Everything,” it more closely would resemble an accordion than a traditional vinyl record.
Dot Lee. Falstaff. Fred Bauer. James Patterson. Eric Sublett. Scooter. More recently, there’s Kristi Larkin Havens, Jeff Walls, Sara Romweber … so much loss. So many friends and family members — human and the four-legged variety — crossing the threshold of this earthly plane to whatever comes next. Sometimes, in the case of Susan’s father, it’s expected. Others, in the case of Dot Lee — Tim’s mother — it’s a sudden vanishing, as if a black hole opens up in the world and leaves a vacuum where a loved one once lived.
The Lees, who perform as the power duo Bark, lost a lot of folks between song cycles for 2017’s “Year of the Dog” and their new album, “Terminal Everything,” which they’ll celebrate with a release show on Friday at The Pilot Light in Knoxville’s Old City. And while rock ‘n’ roll always has been good medicine, going back to the early 1980s when Tim made his bones as part of the power-pop ensemble The Windbreakers, this time around, it seemed more was required, he told me this week.
“I don’t ever try to consciously write anything, but I kind of knew that a lot of this had to be dealt with,” he said. “‘Year of the Dog’ came out right after we had that crazy August, where we both lost a parent within 10 days of each other. It came out, and we immediately went out playing and doing stuff with that, so immediately, we were really busy, which kind of kept us occupied. After that slowed down some, going into 2018, we still hadn’t done a lot in the way of writing new songs, because we were just so preoccupied.
“For myself, I just made the conscious decision to not filter it, to turn it over to the muse and let it happen. When you lose somebody as big of a personality in your life as my mom was, it leads to a lot of self-examination. I realized that I had been writing songs for 40 years or whatever, and I could do it in my sleep if I wanted to — and I had been doing that, to some extent. I’d been writing some pretty good songs, but I hadn’t been putting myself into them at all, or at least not much, and if I did, it was buried under metaphor. So I made a conscious decision that my point of view was going to be personal.”
“Terminal Everything” isn’t a mopey record. I don’t think the Lees could make one if they tried. Well, they probably could; after all, they’ve been making music for a long time, and for those with only passing knowledge of the couple, know this: You may not have heard of The Windbreakers, but you’re probably familiar with R.E.M., which came along around the same time and managed to get the big breaks that their contemporaries never did. The Windbreakers are still remembered fondly by fans of the college rock/jangle pop era, however, and the group’s catalog was heralded in those days by publications like Rolling Stone, Creem magazine and The New York Times, among others.
Tim and Susan moved to Knoxville in 2001; picking up the guitar again after a period of inactivity, Tim quickly established himself as a stalwart of the local scene. Susan learned to play bass, and for several years, they played around town as the Tim Lee 3. For Bark, they stripped down to a duo, with Susan taking over drumming duties and Tim carrying both the rhythm and the groove on a Fender Bass VI, which is an octave lower than a standard six-string electric.
Given that configuration, the music made by Bark draws more on the Mississippi hill country blues that’s part of their geographic DNA (they hail from the Magnolia State) than that of a standard folk duo dynamic. Tim’s a punk rock kid at heart, so any time he can send power chords boomeranging off the exposed beams of a dive bar while Susan pounds the skins behind him, he’s in his element. The darkest song on “Terminal Everything,” in fact, is a bluesy dirge called “Home.” It’s not an easy listen, especially when Tim talks about how, during the first Christmas without his mom, the red-and-green tree lights seemed to turn blue. In fact, it’s one the pair haven’t played, and he’s not sure if they will.
“I don’t know if I could, and I don’t know if we’ll try it or not,” he said.
On the flip side is the first song they’ve released off the record — “Big Ol’ Party,” a shuffling slab of deep-fried blues featuring slide guitar by friend and fellow musician Josh Wright. If “Home” is the couple allowing themselves to grieve, then “Party” is a mouthful of warm beer spat directly into the Grim Reaper’s eyes.
“It was the last song written for the record, the morning we found out our friend James Patterson had passed after a fairly quick, ugly battle with cancer,” Tim said. “We were getting ready to go to a wake for another friend, Eric Sublett, and it was two days after we lost Scooter (their beloved Bassett hound). It was kind of the breaking point where you go, ‘I can’t do another sad song.’ There just wasn’t any other direction.”
On the back side of the writing and the composition is where the sadness began to dissipate. Making records always has been Tim’s wheelhouse, and gathering with friends in the studio of other friends to put some meat on the bones of these songs was a joyful process, he added. As for Susan’s contributions beyond the drums, vocals and songwriting, she threw herself into the other part of the “Terminal Everything” package — literally. A graphic designer, she’s always had a hand in the artwork for the band’s records, but this time called for something more. And it was her way of processing the loss of so many loved ones in her own way, she said.
“This is the most intensive artwork we’ve ever done in Tim’s entire history,” she said. “Back in the ’80s when Tim recorded and I did some of his covers — just the photography back then — it was always just so easy to send everything off. It would disappear and come back completely finished. But this was the first time it’s been a hands-on operation from the moment of concept in your brain until you’re holding an entire piece of art in front of you, audio and visual.”
The two have worked with Striped Light, a combination letterpress and record company, in the past; it’s a business cofounded by Jason Boardman, who established The Pilot Light — the couple’s favorite Knoxville venue, where they’ll celebrate the release of “Terminal Everything” on Friday night — as an Old City institution. With Boardman’s Striped Light partners, Bryan Baker and Sarah Shebaro, Susan found the encouragement and the knowledge needed to hand cut a linoleum print, set the type and lovingly craft an album cover that’s worthy of such intimately personal content.
“You always hear people say, when they see some words strung together, ‘Oh, that would be a great album title!,’ or, ‘That would be a great band name!’” Susan said. “I’ve had ‘Terminal Everything’ in my head for several years, but the right album had not come along to go with it until this album. All of the songs are really a whole lot more reflective of losing Tim’s mom than my dad, but I think in working through this artwork and stuff, it became reflective of my response to the feeling of losing so much — parents and friends and dogs. It just seemed to fit the whole thing.”
And now, it’s time to share it all with the world. It’s a full-circle journey in that respect, the couple say — because in doing what they love most, they’re ensuring that the losses of those they loved so dear aren’t in vain or lost to the annals of time.
“It’s a way of celebrating these lives while doing something that brings joy to us,” Tim said. “There’s joy and gratification in going out and playing these songs, especially when people relate to them.”