A few nights ago at a bar, someone asked me a reasonable but difficult question: what do I want to experience when listening to music? What do I look for in a band? I floundered briefly, rattling off some vague declaration about placing a “good song” above any technical music ability.
“What do you mean, a ‘good’ song?” my interviewer prodded (this person is a reporter by day). “You can’t just say, ‘good’ song; obviously you prefer a ‘good’ song – but what makes a good song to you?”
Touché. I stewed over the question momentarily, thinking of other forms of art I’m drawn to; imagining the display of fleshy imagery covering the wall above my home desk – a collection many houseguests find revolting. Boobs, hairless cats, cadaverous feet, Hans Bellmer’s doll. Nondescript, pink perversions.
I thought about my lifelong gravitation towards objects and subjects of disgust; the numerous occasions my parents would come home from work asking what I was watching.
“Confessions of a Serial Killer: Jeffrey Dahmer,” I would reply, munching a Cheeto. My dad still recommends movies to me by saying, “We just watched this really depressing, fucked up film – you’d love it!” without an ounce of sarcasm. We also have a game in which we text each other when famous people die. First to text wins.
I considered my fondness for bitter, astringent, and blazing flavors; my love of rare and raw meat; my affinity for unsettling (but funny!) books.
Looking back at my inquirer, I delivered the most succinct reply I could muster:
“I just want to be assaulted,” I said.
Sonically assaulted, of course…but what does that mean?
Last year, while still working as a panty designer for a big company called, let’s say, Veronica’s Privacy, I found myself in need of a date night…with me. I scrolled through concert listings in search of something unexpected. If there was one thing I was not in the mood for that evening, it was “good old fashioned rock n’ roll.” I did not want dream pop, nor chill wave, nor beach wave, nor dream wave. I craved something dour and unpleasant, like ya do.
Sifting through gigs by Sunflower Bean and Shark Muffin, I paused on a vaguely familiar name: Glenn Branca. Where had I heard it? Something about the name commanded respect. Though I was mystified as to why, an air of provocation and intrigue hung around those two words. I bought a ticket immediately.
Taking a seat at The Kitchen in Chelsea, I glanced around. The only other solo-goers were middle-aged men who looked like they used to be in bands. Silver hair. Black Sonic Youth t-shirts. Sensible, manly shoes. Leather belts. The low stage was set with a drum kit, a bass, and three guitars. When Branca and Co. sauntered onstage not a word was spoken before they crashed into a belligerent wall of sound. Fumbling for my complimentary earplugs (courtesy of the venue), I felt bathed in distortion – baptized in cacophony. Discomfort. A hail of splinters. Railroad ties and metal siding. It was all being hurled at us – and we loved it. Were my concert mates likeminded gluttons for punishment? Did they too adore unlistenable, violent music at all hours, even in the wee, small, pre-coffee hours? I left The Kitchen feeling like I’d been in a boxing match – no – like I’d gotten the shit beaten out of me by a biker. Boxing is too clean and dignified a sport for how I felt. And yet there was another sensation spread all over me like cream cheese on a bagel: elation. For lack of a less annoying word: transcendence.
There are entire message boards full of people who want to be tied up for fun. Fetishists get shoved into bags, closets, vacuum-sealed plastic. For many, there is pleasure in physical discomfort. Factions of the sex accouterment trade cater to such needs. So what about auditory discomfort? Where be the cottage industry for audio-de-philers? (see what I did there?) Where is the safe space if you’re looking to be cleansed by rage and mayhem and high decibel levels?
I’ve certainly found my fix in Branca and his No Wave ilk – John Zorn, Steve Reich, and John Cage, to name a few. Then there is Girl Band, the Irish foursome I’ve been admiring for the past year. The Dubliners are fresh on my mind as I just saw them live a few nights ago and felt intoxicated after their antagonizing set. Screaming? Odd time signatures? Squealing guitar? Weaponized bass? Yes, please. Makes me all warm and fuzzy inside just thinkin’ about it.
Two nights ago I was speaking with an artist friend of mine. A brilliant photographer, she also curates at the Museum of Sex, and has a keen eye for the odd and outcast. “I’m always looking for art that is standing on the ledge and about to step off of it,” she said, her head bobbing over a goblet of frozen margarita at Dallas BBQ. I nodded in agreement, nursing brain freeze and thinking about why I’m so enamored of grotesque and furious things. Her mention of the “ledge” intrigued me. Is that where the fascination lies? Perhaps music and art that seems “out of control” is in fact the most controlled, as it assures us we can still keep it together while staring at the messiest aspects of humanity.
Girl Band is a prime example of this, in fact. The group’s singer Dara Kiley suffered an intense psychotic episode in the lead up to their debut release, Holding Hands With Jamie. Understandably, much of that record’s lyrical content was inspired by the event. You don’t have to listen closely to realize that Girl Band’s music sounds like a psychotic breakdown – or at least what you would expect one to sound like. If you’re drunk enough, sleep deprived, or maybe just malnourished, giving Holding Hands With Jamie a spin can make you feel like you are going crazy – but you probably aren’t. And maybe that’s the amazing thing – that someone like Dara Kiley can survive psychosomatic hell and then channel his agony into an unconventionally beautiful record with the help of bandmates. Perhaps some artists stand on the ledge, so we don’t have to.