Making Records and Mudpies With Vårmakon

On Saturday night, half of New York City filed into Grand Prospect Hall for DFA Records’ twelve-year annivesary party, hosted by the aural, modern day equivalent of Jay Gatsby – Red Bull Music Academy, who have been throwing insanely well curated parties, shows and talks in far-flung venues all over the city over the past month or so.  Tickets were hard to come by, released in bunches only to sell out immediately.  So if you couldn’t get one, or if, say, you don’t prefer the glossy synths and throbbing beats of Yacht, James Murphy, or Planningtorock so much as you do Pharmakon’s heart-rending shrieks or Vår’s punishing electronic wave of noise, then you did what around a hundred or so people did instead and crammed yourself into pop-up DIY venue The Rink.

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At the former (possibly current?) photo studio, there were no laser beams.  Just a built-out loft with a sweep in one corner, covered in white plastic, Anthony Naples DJing remixes of the theme from Twin Peaks, a metal tub filled with water, and a pile of dirt.  That was, until Pharmakon and Vår took the stage, together (billed cleverly as Vårmakon), just after 11PM.  They wore matching white shirts and black pants that vaguely gave them the appearance of cater-waiters, but instead of rattling off the nightly specials with the skill of a Marlow & Sons pro, they hunched morbidly over a table of gear illuminated by red spotlights and took turns playing each others songs, each seamlessly blended into the next.

The event was hosted by Pitchfork and Sacred Bones Records, the latter of which just released Abandon (Pharmakon’s debut) and No One Dances Quite Like My Brothers (Vår’s first full-length).  As such, it was meant to serve as a release party, but toward the end of the set it turned into something a little more like Spa Castle; each member of Vår doused themselves in water and rubbed dirt all over their clean white shirts, faces, arms, each other.  When Margaret Chardiet finished performing “Crawling On Bruised Knees” (her quintessential set closer) she joined the boys in literally soiling themselves, then the group played one last song as a filthy whole.

varmakon1I’ll admit that antics like this make my job as a music writer and observer of musical happenings way, way easier.  It also makes Instagrammers blow up Twitter with pictures of Elias Rønnenfelt wearing a blindfold.  And that’s probably the goal Pitchfork and Sacred Bones had in mind when staging the whole thing.  It’s not that I wasn’t expecting something slightly controversial to occur during the performance after witnessing Vår’s onstage makeouts last summer.  But honestly, it would have been better if Vår had just played their record, which is phenomenally beautiful and heavy but has these very strange, ultra-gorgeous pop inflections.

And Pharmakon?  This woman does not need gimmicks.  Her voice, and her vision as an artist, have made my pulse quicken every single time I’ve had the pleasure of catching her riveting performances.  I liked the idea of the two entities collaborating, but I had imagined Chardiet’s signature shrieks over Vår’s dark, atmospheric washes, something new created by the act of playing collaboratively.  I almost heard in my head her voice blending with Loke Rahbek’s, or with Rønnenfelt’s, or the three of them singing (or screaming, or whatever) together.

Instead, I was reminded of Johnny Ray Rucker III, a goofball kid I went to art school with.  We referred to his girlfriend as Art Boobs because he hung all these naked pictures of her covered in fake blood up in the dorm hallway (it was with her consent; she was a bit unhinged as well).  I know art school is a magnet for weirdos, but even among weirdos this kid stood out as weirder then the rest.  Once, he announced a noise show he’d be performing by himself in the fluorescently-lit student center.  During it, he screamed, he writhed around on the ground, he mauled a perfectly innocent sandwich, and doused himself in chocolate syrup.  This is what Pitchfork has reduced Pharmakon and Vår to in my mind, and both are way, way better than that.varmakon4

So what’s behind the shenanigans?   Is social media to blame?  Are record labels and blogs and booking agents so desperate to generate buzz that they’ll encourage bands to forgo any emphasis on their music and turn its live iteration into a circus?  Should we veteran show-goers be glad that someone is giving us something to comment on, whether those comments are snarky or awed or some mix of both?  It’s hard to know for sure, and that’s one of the reasons it’s a weird and wonderful time to be in thick of it.  I might have found Vårmakon’s performance piece slightly trite, but I certainly enjoyed scrolling through my friends’ Vine feeds of the lasers over at Grand Prospect Hall.

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