The Proud Hipster and His Blood Thirsty Interns:
A Scour of the Indie Aesthetic for the Bold Charlatans
and Quiet Sensations
Notes on from the Underground
by Sam Houghton
“Vulture shit is the worst kind of shit.” These are the opening words from the singer of Vulture Shit.
He’s a ramshackle looking fellow wearing Nike shox sneakers with greasy hair and it looks like he’s working on a good beer stomach – not old but not too young either. In broad daylight, if he were to walk down Bedford ave, he would look like Waldo in drag compared to the sea of hipsters. But inside, at Tommy’s Tavern, he is in his element – at the controls. He gives off the impression he was that dude in high school always showing up to gym class a little late, totally blazed out of his dome and wearing hiking boots and wool socks, smiling a strange smile, and who, ignoring the whistle blower in the tight red shorts, would pull whacky pranks and fall into the corners in fits of laughter. Judging by his contorted movements in front of an audience, he is not the most coordinated salsa dancer in the world, and despite the Nikes, not the swiftest fucker on the dodgeball court either. But where he lacks in physical prowess, he makes up for in blues-purging bravado. He is half yodeling, half yelling non-coherent but profound words while the bass and drum duo behind him pound out blistering punk numbers: Total release and aggression.
The crowd forms a half circle in front of the band in the shape of a small crescent where Mr. lead singer kicks and jumps and shouts and flings his body around with reckless energy. He holds the microphone up to the sole source of light, a construction bulb dangling in the center of the room by a thick wire, like the microphone were some sort of important relic.
The first few moments of the show are awkward. Tommy’s is a very intimate space: no stage and no room to hide from the intense vibes. You are forced to look into the eyes of the other artsy locals: girls who have art spaces in their one room communes, building weird modern art sculptures as a cover for their reckless drug habits; girls in short skirts and ramshackle, curly hair and funky spectacles; rad, skinny dudes in leather.
Some of the listeners are intimidated by the sheer shock value and vigor of Vulture Shit. One leathered dude puts on a macho stance to “protect” his girlfriend from the onslaught. He looks like a mean statue, but his labored macho attitude is somewhat off-putting. It is in the second song that one of the artsy girls has worked up her courage and has bounded – arms flailing, legs kicking – to the center of the crescent, knocking into strangers. The cosmic pull from the macho dude must be strong because the girl keeps rocking into him. He looks about ready to get real mad… ready to get “involved.” As Vulture Shit tears through the song, another bespectacled young lady careens into the small dance section and the two, hand in hand, begin a dance much like a Gatsby jig, with big smiles and swooping arm motions, but fueled with a much more exaggerated vigor, bounding into onlookers like bumper cars… all while the man on the mic keeps jumping off speakers and howling lyrics and the drummer keeps crushing and the bass pushing. The show continues in a similar vain throughout with more people joining in on the Gatsby/mosh dancing, laughing as they careen into each other.
Outside the back room at the bar, a blond Polish girl serves beer. She acts like this is a usual Saturday night for her, like she is used to the beast in the backroom… but there seems to be a sense of confusion bordering on panic in her expression.
The sound engineer, a hardened, Irish looking fellow, seemed maybe a little impressed, but reasonably unhinged, like this were an actual casual Saturday night. Even as the lead singer to Vulture Shit climaxed a song by accidentally smashing the construction light a little too hard and leaving the place in total blackness, with much of the crowd now involved in the dance, the engineer smiled and continued with his operation. And this notion is liberating: knowing that on any given night there are places where a crowd of random young freaks and normal folk alike are getting crazed on heavy riffed punk music and screaming and moshes in poorly lit and ambiguous entranced DIY, ramshackle venues across the city.
Is Punk Back?
by Sam Houghton
To answer that question simply: no, punk is not back. In the 21st century, nothing is back. The music scene (that’s worth paying attention to) is simply a hodgepodge of everything, a potpourri of sounds if you will, which for the sensationalists is quite depressing. No national taglines or mass inspired protests or anything exciting like that – long are the days since bands and musical movements captured the vast consciousness of the population. Perhaps Lady Gaga can claim that title, but she’s too high on silicone and day-glo and crack to know that there is even a vast consciousness.
But while punk may not be garnering headlines like the CBGBs or the Sid Vicious days, it has made a quiet come back to the small indie underground. Bands like Fungi Girls and JEFF the Brotherhood and Screaming Females have made lasting impressions beyond the college circuit to a new, burgeoning sub underground.
The distinction between rock and punk is difficult to comprehend on recordings, because punk bands aren’t nearly as punk recorded as they are live. Live is where Punk packs its gritty punch, and the posers get tossed to the sidelines.
At a show at the Mercury Lounge last week, a band called Bass Drum of Death opened for a casual rock band Japandroids, a relatively successful two-man outfit from Canada. Japandroids is not a punk band. They are an over-hyped, pop-rock band. They hide behind enormous walls of amps – huge voltages careening out on the audience with a simple soft swipe of the strings. It is like a chick with too much make up on, hiding instead of revealing the real deal. The show became a perfect metaphor for the comparison between rock and punk. Every time the Japandroids played a song off of their new, unreleased album, there was a total disconnect with the audience. Nothing. And once you got past their overwhelming “wall of sound” there really wasn’t much left. The audience was anxious to get into the show. They were the cargo short, threatening-ankle-tattoo types like a young Henry Rollins ready to join the military and raid around in Humvees but just a wee bit too smart, yearning to get a little taste of the ever revered mosh pit… but waiting, waiting, waiting for the right cue from the main man behind the mic. But the moments were rare, if ever, with nothing much to really let loose or jostle the old joints around. When the lead wasn’t tuning his guitar, he was apologizing for playing new songs. There wasn’t even an encore because they “ran out of time,” and needed to party in NYC. This is not punk. The fans did not get their rocks off, but a couple eyebrows were raised with the sheer shock value of the chords and pounding drums coming from the openers, Bass Drum of Death.
As music becomes free to listen to with streaming and downloading, the live set will begin to reign supreme as a career provider for musicians (a regression through time of sorts). Bass Drum of Death are proud members of an ever increasing punk elite that endlessly tour. When Bass Drum of Death played, they didn’t speak during their entire set, but rattled off sick riff after sick riff, blowing through their repertoire, their surfer hair in their eyes or flying around mid solo. These are true punks, borderline teenage/early 20s freaks with unkempt hair, no direction, a cool band name, and neck-tingling guitar licks alongside hammering, precise drums that push the show as fast and hard as they can. They push the limits of human endurance – for the audience and the musicians. And while in the past, punk music has been mostly about harsh noise, these young jammers have added some melody and some harmonizing to go along with their feverish attack. They hover in the realms of relative obscurity, surviving with the wonders of the internet and blogging junkies, remaining just as obscure as the individuals in the audience. Which is essentially their ethos: as long as the music is coming out fast and hard and the audience is digging it, there’s not much else to worry about.
While much inspiration has been drawn from the past, there is nothing nostalgic about the new foundations for a punk revival. It has dropped the kind of artsy anger that inspired much of the past American scenes. They are not so much into what shade their pictures are taken in or how poetic their lyrics sound. Ironically, however, JEFF the Brotherhood, a leader to this punk wave, were featured in the New York Times fashion week sporting plaid shirts with some barking dogs enshrined within the pattern. It was more goofy than anything. Hilarious really. Amongst the many other “fashionable” and hip bands, JEFF appeared like they had just been yanked off the streets.
The feeling these punk bands give off are in way a continuation of grunge. Where grunge was a feeling of almost pissed off ennui, the new wave is just plain bored with reality. Music, it seems, is not a means for their expression, but a way of life. Many critics, rightfully so, have classified it as “Stoner-Punk.” Along with the dropping of the artsy aspect, there is limited political motivation like we saw in the 70s and 80s. While Johnny Rotten sang “God Save the Queen,” or Ian MacKaye sang “Straight Edge,” Jake Orwell of JEFF sings “Cool Out” and “Bummer.” The new wave of punk suggests that if these dudes weren’t in a band, they would be sipping buds, smoking weed and watching re-runs of Wayne’s World and Beavis and Butthead and eating pepperoni pizzas. And in the current conservative, workaholic world that many of us are a part of, it is no surprise that these bands are beginning to gain an ever-increasing fan base. The feeling of “who gives a shit” is wildly refreshing when you are pressured from a young age to attend college, get good grades and get a job – rebellion at its purest form. To be able to go blow off steam with a couple of regular bums is unexplainable.
At a recent JEFF the Brotherhood show, over in Manhattan at The Santos Party House, the audience and the band seemed to morph together. The audience cresting into a jumping wave as the band went into another one of its steady but intense riffs. The band had the same respect for the audience as the audience for the band. There was none of that: “Please play that song” or apologizing from the band or thank you for your support crap, but just a constant release of hard tempos. It must have been similar to a rave with constant heavy rhythms and heat and intensity. At one point, a fan jumped up on stage and starting jamming on his air guitar with his head down and eyes closed. There was little reaction from anyone in the entire venue – no suggestions that this was abnormal. What happens at a punk show just plains happens and no one questions it.
by Sam Houghton
It is the 21st century, in the heat of the age-old question of simplicity versus complexity. No matrix yet, but damn close. Technology is developing at a ravenous pace. Stage floors are no longer open for strutting, but littered with electrical equipment. Depending on your preference, the pivotal question that may have destroyed the 80s has become more and more relevant: how do we wield our tools without losing the primal, down home feel?
Woods, a four piece from Brooklyn, may indeed have an answer for all those in despair, at least for the listener.
Musicians always get worked up over this discussion… and for good reason (good as in if you believe music transcends mere entertainment, or that entertainment is more than cheep tricks and gimmicks). The question’s origins root beyond music to a basic human dilemma, like something similar to deciding between the country life or life in the big city: do we move out to the sticks and breed bundles of blond-haired children with big bosomed vixens and chop down trees for our houses and raise chickens for our breakfast and build fires that stretch smoke over our vast plots of land; or do we live the rest of our days in this crazed and confused city, doing weird drugs and running amok, competing and showboating our own art like a throng of hungry stock brokers. Essentially, it is an argument between humble versus pretentsious; status quo versus progression; songwriting versus shock value rock.
Woods, live and on their recent full length, Sun and Shade [Woodsist - 2011], somehow sits straddle the middle of the road amongst these oppositions. They are woodsmen with enough swagger to handle even the most eccentric, foaming from the mouth city dweller; city slickers with enough know how to straddle a raging bull and swill the hardest whiskey. They toy with the pretentsious over a simple landscape of acoustic songwriting. They control electric sound waves pulsing out of their gadgets and machines. Calling Brooklyn home, it seems they moved from the sticks with their backwoods sound, while still in the throes of searching for something more and different and challenging.
The most memorable and striking song on the album is “To Have in the Home.” The song is similar to Brian Jonestown Massacre circa the Give it Back years with the Newcomb rolling guitar echoing and diving between the simple but grooving, acoustic-driven rhythm. The song hits home with the heady melody – sung high, almost falsetto in the true Woods fashion – interweaving with the lead guitar over the groove. It blasts a happy and flowing psychedelic feel yet with enough of an enjoyable edge to cut the 60’s nostalgic bullshit. It is a genuine, progressive in the acidity levels, jam.
A couple songs on Sun and Shade does paint Woods as the typical, 60’s stoner band inviting images of smiling suns and acid and ringing guitars harking back to The Byrds and “Tamborine Man.” But as the album plays through, we realize there are deeper, darker mysteries working out. The instrumentals on the album, especially “Sol Y Sombra,” get good and wild, and play with that old Doors, thick and gritty cataclysmic sound (think “The End”). The guitar playing is erratic yet tight and poignant: sort of a surf-y, bone-chillin quality with the bass and African drums keeping it tight and spooky. I could see how some would grow tired of the repetition, the song comes in just under ten minutes, but they are revolutionizing the jam in this tune. I advise you to turn out the lights, gather some supplies and blast this one out: see if you can pass the Woodsist Test.
Addmitingly so, I’ve been out of the loop with these folk and there past albums, but I think this album is up there for top albums of the year, no doubt within Brooklyn… if you’re into that sort of thing. Live, they are inventive and not afraid to the push the limits, often jumping into long jams that hang on one progression. In the height of hip, no one has the balls to pull that off.
by Sam Houghton
There must be some sort of liberating protons in the New Jersey ground water: Makes the bagels sweet and breeds a wild, sweeter strand of frontmen. We’re not talking wild in that sense that Iggy Pop or Mick Jagger were weird and wild and raunchy and threatening, but more to the point that in New Jersey, their hearts are thumping on their sleeves and they desperately need the audience to be right there with them, like a girl in heat, needing to spill the beans… with a whole load of feedback and saxophones and drums pounding behind them.
Perhaps I suffer from over-exposure to the Brooklyn, uber-cool showmen with electrical gadgets spilling out of their pores that has become thankfully cliché, but I think there is something to be said for the resurgence of highly emotional Springsteen inspired bands like Titus Andronicus and The Gaslight Anthem and the swelling number of underground rock bands in New Jersey like The Everymen.
Taking the late night train from Hoboken on the main line up through Passaic County is perhaps the finest glimpse at the origins of this ethos. In a hundred years, it will be installed as some nostalgic exhibit, a cross examination of 21st century culture: Young girls frolicking through the aisles, drunk and high on the hormones and testosterone bouncing off the walls; dudes in tight shirts declaring their brotherly love; conductors throwing fits out of sheer adolescent incompetence. It would show the core ideals of most every rock band from New Jersey with a hard on for Bruce Springsteen: Screaming emotions flowing like the NJT train were the outside hall of some high school prom in the height of a full moon.
My first experience with Jersey rock was from this band called The Roadside Graves. I happened to catch them at their tenth anniversary show, in New Brunswick. Having no frame of reference to the New Jersey scene, I was like a young boy casually waltzing into puberty, unshielded to the horrors (I was there for the opening act, Gunfight!, a great punk band from Brooklyn). As soon as the show began, emotions began flying. Fans would make their way on stage and hug random band members, congratulating them on whatever – a marriage, a baby being born, a fantasy football victory, and god knows what; at one moment the singer broke into tears, and another moment a fight nearly broke out; The guitar solos were epic; teenage girls and middle-aged women were crying: All this from a rock and roll band. It was fantastic.
After the experience, I understood this heavy fascination with Bruce Springsteen. If you understand “Thunder Road” or The River or have seen Springsteen perform, you’ll understand most Jersey rock. The idea, it seems, is to unleash everything: frustration, confusion, guilt, anguish and scorn and whatever else that has been hiding in the deep catacombs until there is absolutely nothing left in the tanks… everything until you’re lying on stage dried up in a pool of your own slobber and vomit. His music is seemingly quite liberating or maybe even therapeutic.
Last Tuesday night at the Mercury Lounge, I caught a Jersey punk band, The Everymen, a revolving cast of underground go-getters. My ideas of Jersey rock were confirmed and solidified. At a crossroads during their set – at the beginnings when the crowd was sober and a nice crescent of open space sat in front of the stage – in true Jersey fashion, frontman Sarin McHugh dove into this heart-felt monologue on how much love was in the room and how happy he is that everyone in the crowd was there and how much love he had for them. The show was a benefit for a friend recently diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis so perhaps there was some extra emotion mixed in there, but all said and done, after the speech, the Mercury Lounge turned into a different animal. The crowd got thick and converged towards the stage; people started dancing and hooting and hollering; the band started playing better and it turned into a real show.
The whole point to this long tangent is that the uptight white dudes in our fine Brooklyn community should probably stop hating on the dirty Jerse and learn some good lessons. Music doesn’t have to be about some dumb popularity contest and how many halfwits you can drag to your show, it can be about getting together and letting the steam blow.
I recently read an article in The Times about some Japanese culture that bragged the greatest life expectancy rate for men. One unique trait that struck the writer was that the men would gather together quite frequently, drink saki and shoot the shit. I can’t remember the name of the saki or the culture, but that’s not the point. Point is, when you get together and let the anguish fly, spill the beans till dawn, you’re living the good life. New Jersey may be a shit hole depending on your loyalties, and maybe New Jersey dudes are just unnaturally reserved, but I believe they are onto something cool.
Track 2 and 3 on this EP are great.
by Sam Houghton
In case you were wondering whether or not the indie movement of Brooklyn has come to a stale, inbred orgy for bootlicking groupies, it has not… not completely. Not yet. But alas, there have been overt gestures made by some folk at threatening this sub-culture, this successful niche carefully carved out in venues like Glasslands and 285 Kent and Monster Island Basement that has been gradually moving on to the wider conscious because of sheer good music (I hear the hip kids in Idaho wear vintage sweaters and listen to the TV on the Radio). Orgy may be to too strong a word - the indie folk are a soft people - and I do not mean to pick out Ducktails as a sole troubadour in the dumbing down of the music (they/he are not the only ones), but Ducktails will work for now.
When one pays 15 bucks for a show, they expect to be whisked off to some higher place, or to at least be entertained. Perhaps Matthew Mondanile from Northern New Jersey (sole performer in the band) had swallowed some bad acid, perhaps his big box of electric equipment and remotes and pedals and buttons, looming at center stage like some foreboding alter, were not properly functioning. Either way, the loud, psychedelic ramblings ricocheting off the walls of the Bowery Ballroom last Saturday evening were without direction and passion and significance – they were merely noises, seemingly thrown together without calculation. At long moments, the drum machines would solo, playing simple beats for excessive periods of time while Mondanile figured out what to do next. There were noticeable gaps in the music, hardly any melody and certainly no harmonizing. As a one-man show, he seemed more like a DJ than an actual band, which was awkward for the Ballroom. These were not dance heavy numbers, but kind of like chill-wave, summer mood anthems: lo-fi to the chore. As a result, the crowd seemed lost as to what to do. Do we chat or wait for something to happen? Do we try to dance? Instead of paying attention, phones were looked at and conversation was heavy – bad cues for good music.
Mr. Mondanile is the leader of a heavily promoted band in the Brooklyn area called Real Estate. They are from New Jersey, part of the Titus Andronicus brigade, and have been signed with the Woodsist label for a few years now (recently signed to Domino to put out a new album in September). Woodsist is a highly regarded label from Brooklyn (at least residing here), created by the guys in the psych-folk group Woods. Much of their work I have much respect for, including their own music and the production of a new band in the area, Widowspeak’s debut album. Even Real Estate is a good band. But Ducktails, signed by Woodsist as well, I cannot get behind. Perhaps the recordings are a different species, but to promote a band this heavily for a live act that lacks this much in inspiration is a borderline abuse of power. It’s reckless. The show at the Ballroom was packed to the gills. The Woodsist label packs an honorable following and to be fair, the rest of the bands (Widowspeak, White Fence, and Woods) were quite good. But the loyal following will not last if they continue to back such bands.
So I warn the indie movement to not fall for bands simply by who signs them or by how big their audiences are. It will only lead to bad music. And bad music will only lead to unhappy times.
This kind of music comes from a very stale decade of rock ‘n’ roll. Kids want something that they claim as their own. There is nothing wrong with that. The 00s were a dry spell and we want to change that. Bands are trying desperately to create something new, and people are also listening to things that maybe should not be listened too, simply because it sounds progressive. We want movements – another CBGBs or Woodstock which is commendable. But only genuine music will do that, not just new.