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Music : Just met a band called Maria 

Brainy, literate former schoolmates Rainer Maria are named for a German poet, but that doesn’t mean they can’t rock your face off

Majoring in liberal arts may not be the typical path to fame and fortune, but with the right courses and a little luck, it can lead to unexpected success. College was the catalyst that brought together the respective members of Galaxie 500, the Pixies, Pavement, and Rainer Maria — though only the last band flaunts its literary influences. Now pay attention, class.

Two guys and a girl in a coma: Rainer Maria are going to wake up and rock The White Rabbit on July 19.

Rainer Maria Rilke was a German poet, now known most widely for his prosaic and accurately titled Letters to a Young Poet. But Rainer Maria (sans “Rilke”) was identified as “emo” back when it first formed in 1995, when that term had some kind of meaning: emotive, thoughtful, indie music — though perhaps the emo tag applied only to their laden-with-feeling lyrics, not the entire Rainer Maria experience. Anyone who has heard the live 2004 release Anyone in Love with You (Already Knows) and watched the accompanying DVD of a recorded live show in Chapel Hill, can attest that Rainer Maria rocks hard. Putting on a good show is just as important to the band as is relaying deep sentiments.

But back to the beginning of the band: At the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Caithlin De Marrais and Kyle Fisher were in a poetry workshop together. They bonded when they realized that they were more serious about poetry than the other class participants. Fisher and William Kuehn had already been in a band together called Ezra Pound. It seemed inevitable that the trio would make music together.

With De Marrais on bass, Fisher on guitar, and Kuehn on drums, they quickly became Rainer Maria and cut their teeth on the mid-‘90s college-circuit scene. It was the kind of environment that made it possible for a band such as Sleater-Kinney to perform on campus and stay in somebody’s basement.

But college has to come to an end, and the trio relocated to Brooklyn after they finished school. That’s where De Marrais was available to answer some questions by phone, a few weeks before the band begins a tour headlined by The Format and including Street to Nowhere and Anathallo. Rainer Maria will fly to Arizona, where The Format will host a barbecue for the four bands, to start to the tour off right.

Rainer Maria
The Format,
Street to Nowhere,

July 19 at 7 pm

The White Rabbit
2410 N. St. Mary’s
(210) 737-2221

De Marrais says she’s excited to see what happens on tour: “This tour especially has all the hallmarks of being a really good one because we’re going to be with the same three bands for a while. So it is a little bit like summer camp in a way — getting to know people and having adventures. Like literally pulling off to the side of the road to run up the side of a hill. That has been known to happen.”

The bands haven’t played together before, which is probably a good thing since they’ll be spending so much time together. De Marrais insists that sharing the bill with three other bands night after night is a lot of fun. “It’s great when you’re on tour, seeing the same bands over and over again,” she says. “It’s a fantastic way to get to know music because you really start to listen and you learn so much seeing the same band over and over again.”

And Rainer Maria tries to make every tour memorable. “Touring is really work and you don’t have much time, but we try and squeeze in at least one fantastic experience,” De Marrais says, “like drifting down a natural spring in Florida on inner tubes for a couple hours. Or we went to `Fallingwater` in Pennsylvania to see the Frank Lloyd Wright house. Just that kind of thing can break up a tour and inspire you to get out of your tour cocoon.”

The band is emerging from bigger changes. Rainer Maria has a fresh label and worked with new producers for their latest release, Catastrophe Keeps Us Together, a playful nod to the Joy Division song “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” They’ve been playing all of the latest songs this spring, but they still look forward to taking them on the road. “All of these songs are a learning process. One of the most exciting shows we’ve had recently was when our producer Malcolm `Burn` played back up for us at SXSW,” says De Marrais. She also credits Burn, who splits producer credit with Peter Katis, with bringing out a heavier side of Rainer Maria.

But after six CDs, the lyrics are the most consistent feature of the band. The emotional terrain of Rainer Maria songs has broadened and matured; the words have been consistently sensitive and smart. De Marrais says writing lyrics is the best part of being in the band, because she considers herself a writer first. As an English major with a minor in dance, she hadn’t expected to be a musician — even though she has always played piano.

Finally, a burning question: All these years later, does the band ever regret the name? De Marrais says without hesitation, “No. The only time it’s tricky is when I say it. For instance, someone thought I said Rhino Maria.” She says it’s important for the band to be challenged and challenge other people. “Maybe, for example, someone hasn’t heard of the poet before, so the next time they see the name, they might be interested in reading the poems. I’m glad we have that opportunity.”

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