Dub Thompson

There’s a moment in record-store-nerd-meets-girl classic High Fidelity when John Cusack’s character, Rob Gordon, catches a couple of skatepunks stealing records from his shop. The punks give back the shoplifted goods when their decks are held ransom, and Cusack’s character looks at their haul in disbelief. “Ryuichi Sakamoto, Sigue Sigue Sputnik, breakbeats, Serge Gainsborg… What, are you guys slam dancing to Joni Mitchell now?”

The pink-haired punk retorts, “Man, you’re so bigoted. You look at us and think you know what we listen to.” When they part with the last of the stolen merchandise, it’s a wrinkled copy of a guide to home recording; it foreshadows the end of the film in which Rob ends up producing their band’s debut single as The Kinky Wizards, titled “I Sold My Mom’s Wheelchair” (the actual track used in the movie is “The Inside Game” by Royal Trux).

This scene came rushing back to me when I first heard “No Time” by Dub Thompson. The quirky, static-laden piano ditty that introduces the track soon morphs into dubby beats and slinky organs, the sparse vocals layered with gritty reverb. It sounds like a sample of some weird reggae-punk record unearthed from a dusty crate, but in reality it’s the brainchild of two California teenagers named Matt Pulos and Evan Laffer. “We actually met in middle school,” explained Laffer in a phone interview with AudioFemme. “It wasn’t until high school that we started making music together. And then it wasn’t until after we made the record and found out that there was some interest in it that we both kind of signed on to the idea of really working on it in more ways.”

Laffer describes himself as the “non-musician” of the group, saying that “Matt is much more trained in certain respects. He knows how to play guitar much better than I do, and keys, and just has sort of a history of being in bands. But I was always really interested in music and would try to make little songs and stuff…

[which] made it possible for some more oddball ideas to take shape. We each surprised each other with things that neither of us could or would think of, and then built on that.” They met with Foxygen’s Jonathan Rado in Bloomington to pull together ideas and material for 9 Songs, the duo’s debut on Dead Oceans.

“We went into the studio with Rado just with a collection of songs and that was it. It was not immediately obvious to us that it was going to be put together as a record exactly, let alone sold as a record. The songs were written in this crazy span from like three and a half years ago right up to a week before we recorded – it was just kind of an outburst of energy. A lot of the stuff just happened from Matt and I kind of fooling around, writing stuff by ourselves, writing stuff with each other in mind, in a sense. But by the end, especially with Rado’s production style, the whole thing kind of developed this unifying aesthetic.”

What resulted is a cheeky little romp through eight tracks (despite the album’s title) that borrow from all manner of prolific noise rock acts with an explosive energy. The snarky worldview the record presents belies the incredibly intelligent choices Laffer and Pulos make in terms of rhythms, change-ups, textural elements, and moods; it’s not only hard to place the record squarely into any one genre, it proves difficult at times to nail down even a single track. But that’s not a bad thing, just indicative of their exuberance, and maybe of some mild ADHD. Laffer explains, “There were things we did when we finally recorded it where like, five minutes before we did the take we would just decide… let’s have this one have a so-and-so feel, like, theme this song a certain way that we haven’t thought of before. It ended up being sort of like a tour of different styles or something throughout. We just threw out all these songs that we had written in hopes that some of them stuck together. Eight of them did, eventually.”

Listening to 9 Songs truly does feel like a tour through any vinyl junkie’s shelves. There’s a well-curated eccentricity there that tempers whatever irreverence crops up from time to time. There are, of course, many critics ready to dismiss that sort of impudence. “A lot of critics have been like, ‘Well, I hate to just burst their bubble cause they’re just kids, they’re nineteen… let ‘em have their fun,’” Laffer says, adopting the snobby tone of the band’s detractors. “We are a bit more serious about it than just that, but the humor is part of it and it wouldn’t be the same, it wouldn’t have as much character if the humor didn’t balance our some of the more moody elements or whatever… even if it might come across as kind of sophomoric, or even childish, as some people put it.”

Though he’s gained quite a few accolades in recent years, similar things were initially said about Ariel Pink, whose early home recordings were met with more than a touch of scorn and disbelief. Through all of the crass charm of those first releases, there were ideas brewing and very wise aesthetic choices being made. Even without that kind of context, it seems dismissive to write off Dub Thompson as nineteen-year-olds who are “screwing around,” but that’s more of a discredit to incredulous reviewers than it is to the band. “Perhaps,” Laffer agrees, “But… I would also add that to their credit, we are literally nineteen. We’re at an energetic time in our creative process right now. So when things fly out that might be perceived as off-color or even stupid, that’s just kind of how it’s rolling right now. And why dampen the energy of it, you know? We wouldn’t want to like, put a gag on it just for the sake of making something more sophisticated.”

Dub Thompson Baby's All Right

Dub Thompson on stage at Baby’s All Right in Brooklyn.

With the addition of Madeline McCormick on bass and Andrew Nathan Berg on synths, Pulos and Laffer have expanded their touring lineup to a quartet and are finishing up the last dates of an outing with Montreal’s Ought, a band equally enigmatic and bombastic, though with a slightly different approach. “It’s the first real tour we’ve done aside from just a few weekend gigs,” Laffer says. “We did a few in New York about two months ago. But this is essentially a month of no-breaks touring and shows.” They’re excited, he says, not only to visit cities where there’s substantial interest in what Dub Thompson is doing, but also relieved not to have to drive so far between stops. When they pulled through New York late last week, the Ought-curious crowd at Baby’s All Right thinned way down before Dub Thompson launched into a caustic set that made 9 Songs somehow even more vivid, so it was kind of a shame that not many stuck around. Pulos’ confrontational yelp was blunted only by reverb; Laffer attacked his kit with similar ferocity. There wasn’t a ton of banter, but then, most of the duo’s lyrics come off somewhat conversational, if inflected with shards of detached ambivalence.

The affect on 9 Songs – a sort of production quality that’s the antithesis of sounding produced – thankfully did not unravel on stage. If at times the songs seem a sort of cut-and-pasted melange of styles, the live set exhibited a carefully orchestrated flow. But delivered with haphazard, youthful gusto, it came off as just-unpolished-enough, and the set wasn’t limited to the tracks we’ve already heard from the band. In fact, there’s another record already in the works. “It’s got a little bit more of a hip-hop intent,” admits Laffer, “but it’s not necessarily hip-hop.” With such a cornucopia of styles at work on 9 Songs, the next album could be a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure of sorts. “Overall,” says Laffer, “I think I’ve noticed a lot of younger kids – kids who are still in high school – really dig it. Some of our relatives, our dads, they’ll usually just be like ‘Oh, the production is kind of noisy’ or something but still support it. Mostly, the thing we’ve gotten is ‘Oh, I can’t wait, I have no idea what they’ll do next.’”