Ordinary Thieves pursue music with reckless abandon

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Imagine balancing your normal day: classes, papers, projects, clubs, a social life.Now try to do all of that while traveling to San Francisco every weekend to practice and record your music.

This is the norm for Alyssa Wendzel, a second-year Anthropology student at UC Berkeley, who comprises one half of the bare-bones acoustic duo Ordinary Thieves. Backed by guitarist Jeff Perlstein, the two have woven a series of melancholy melodies into their debut EP Abandon.

The EP has already garnered the attention of CBS, which will be using a clip of the duo’s track “Numb” on tomorrow night’s episode of “NCIS.” Before their music’s television debut, the duo sat down with The Daily Californian to discuss the mixology of school and music, mannequins and how somber themes don’t always relate to negative feelings.

The Daily Californian: How did you two meet?

Alyssa Wendzel: Fall of my first year here, I signed up for this website called Bandmix. I initially came into Berkeley as an MCB major, before I switched to anthropology. I wasn’t having a good time doing MCB, so I wanted to try doing music.

Jeff Perlstein: I was looking to record a new album, and I wanted a singer to work with. I went to Bandmix randomly and came across Alyssa, and immediately, I wanted to work with her. Our first practice we whipped together three songs. It was rough stuff, but it was working.

AW: Our styles work really well together. We’ve been working for about a year now.

DC: What would you say your styles are?

JP: Besides Britney Spears? (laughs)

AW: For me, Nirvana, Foo Fighters and Ben Haggerty have been big influences on me. I love Kurt Cobain, and I love Ben Haggerty’s lyrics.

JP: So, this won’t make any sense, but the first two bands that inspired everything musically for me was Rush and Depeche Mode. Right off the bat, there was this dissonance between the two styles, but I loved both of them and what they were doing. Over time, though, the biggest form of inspiration to me was Mike Doughty from Soul Coughing. His solo effort was a super rhythmic style of guitar, which really informed my style of what I started to play.

DC: Alyssa, how does the dynamic of the band work, given that you’re a student?

JP: Well, I just tell Alyssa what to do all the time. I’m totally kidding.

AW: (laughs) Pretty much every weekend I go to his place, and we just jam and record. It’s a long week, but the music is always what I look forward to.

JP: There’s so many reasons to quit, especially if you’re giving up your entire weekend for it. But when you get something that just feels great, there’s nothing better than that.

DC: So how do you balance school and music?

AW: It’s difficult and stressful, but I enjoy it. If anything, music has been a great release, so it helps me deal with everything, since Berkeley is stressful. I don’t think either one hinders the other, though, since from school I’ve learned things that have influenced the album. For example, the artwork of the album was influenced from what I study.

DC: How has being an anthropology major influenced the album art, or your music in general?

AW: I’m really into archeology, and we were having this conversation over summer about how I like abandoned buildings and things, and that’s where we got the album name, Abandon, from. We chose the mannequins because they usually end up abandoned. It’s a somber tone, but it’s also happy.

DC: There are a lot of somber themes in your music. Could you elaborate on them?

AW: For me, the lyrics are inspired by events that have happened in my life or emotions that I’ve had, but they’re inspired by Jeff’s guitar as well. The music would be dramatically different if the guitar wasn’t so strong in the song. My lyrics tend to be pretty sad and somber, but his guitar tends to bring a more triumphant, booming tone to it that it makes it seem not so much as sad, but powerful.

JP: The music that I loved was from the ’90s like Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana. That vibe of music had a lot of angst and genuine emotion to it. They wrote the lyrics, and they meant what they were saying, and that kind of music connects to me more. Alyssa and I are different in a lot of ways, but we’re the same in that we both love music with a genuine meaning to it. You can interpret our music as a being left behind, “woe is me” kind of deal, but there’s another side of it, which is getting rid of things that aren’t good for you in your life. It’s about getting rid of the bad and keeping it positive.

Ian Birnam covers music. Contact him at [email protected].