INTERVIEW: L’Rain, Spellling, and Boy Harsher to Embrace the Experimental at Basilica SoundScape 2018

Just a short ride on Amtrak from Penn Station, Hudson – with its quaint brick buildings, historic architecture, and riverside views – has become an enclave for New York City’s artistic expats. One of its architectural centerpieces rises from the city’s industrial past: Basilica Hudson, a sprawling 1800s foundry reborn in 2010 as a concert hall and community space, thanks in part to its somehow stunning acoustics. The waterfront land it sits on, just South of the tracks, is bucolic enough that camping visitors are offered tips on tick safety, and they’ll need it this weekend, when a few hundred noiseniks, metalheads, vinyl nerds, and lovers of the avant-garde descend on Hudson for the seventh annual Basilica SoundScape, taking place September 14th and 15th.

It’s a festival that bucks festival tradition, booking acts whose oeuvre often falls far outside of mainstream tastes for intimate performances in the Basilica’s dramatic main hall. Organized by Brandon Stosuy and Basilica Hudson co-founders Melissa Auf der Maur and Tony Stone, SoundScape kicked off its inaugural year in 2012 with noise artists and their “machines” and a dance party hosted by queer Satanists, Rainbow in the Dark (the collective returns this year to soundtrack SoundScape’s Saturday afterparty; the other, on Friday, is hosted by AudioFemme). Musical performances are augmented by readings, psychedelic art installations, a flea market, record fair, and local eats. It is, as Auf der Maur describes it, an “immersive pilgrimage” for those with dark tastes and open minds.

But beyond engaging its attendees with an uncommon experience, Basilica SoundScape offers experimental musicians something invaluable – a forum in which to try out new sounds and connect with fans and peers alike. For artists like Spellling (who plays Friday) and L’Rain (who plays Saturday), two very personal projects that defy genre classification, events like SoundScape are a rare and perfect fit. Both acts have found themselves on the bill at a wide range of events, from metal shows to R&B-focused events to jazz-centric salons; both say the fluidity of their styles allows them an opportunity to connect with vastly different audiences – as long as the crowd is open and receptive. And at Basillica SoundScape, that’s the crux of the whole program – to bring together disparate styles under the umbrella of experimentalism and offer them to listeners frothing at the mouth for outré encounters.

“In my live show I try to make people feel maybe a little bit uncomfortable. Not like I’m doing anything that weird, but I like to reorient them in the space and [make them] more aware of themselves than me,” says Taja Cheek, whose project L’Rain debuted last year with a widely praised self-titled LP built on fragmentary arrangements that drift between shoegaze, sound collage, and soul. Though it started as solo work aided by producer Andrew Lappin, Cheek’s live performances now feature improvisatory musicians Buz Donald on drums, Devin Starks on bass, and Ben Katz on synths and brass. “We’re on the cusp of a lot of different styles and genres so we’ve done lots of different sorts of bills, which has highlighted different parts of our performance,” she says.

Taja Cheek, a.k.a L’Rain: “I still feel like I’m learning a lot about what this project is and what it can be.”

For Tia Cabral, the Bay Area-based musician behind Spellling, SoundScape “feels like an ideal sort of coming together – so much intersectionality and multiplicity.” Like L’Rain, Spellling began as a solo endeavor with roots in multiple genres, culminating in 2017 debut Pantheon of Me and encompassing a sound that Cabral herself struggles to define. “One of the most exciting things is the various types of people that come together for music; [it] feels like the closest thing to spirituality and relationship building in this generation. It’s very satisfying to walk into a room and feel unsure if your sound will reach folks and if they’ll have an open heart to it, and watching that happen, or not happen. It’s always humbling and exciting and strange at times.”

Tia Cabral, a.k.a. Spellling: “I let myself be surprised by the process and return to that place of innocence and playfulness that exists in the sound I’m making.”

Cabral was inspired to create music in part by walking into those same spaces, observing and absorbing the ways various Bay Area musicians would create sonic tapestries built from loops and noise. “I feel like a lot of artists will be prepared to bring something special and new to [SoundScape] because of how unique it is,” she says, noting that she’ll likely debut some new tracks she’s been working on, too. “I’m still absorbing a lot about music – and my music – in a live context. A lot of festivals are more about the crowd than about the artist sometimes – this seems like such a good balance between the artist being able to give more of their energy and time in an exchange.”

Like Cabral, Jae Matthews of Boy Harsher – an electronic post-punk duo from Northampton by way of Savannah – says that stumbling into the noise scene and witnessing first hand the innovations there allowed her to see a place for herself in its ranks. Originally a film graduate student, Matthews met partner Gus Muller in a repurposed storefront church where he was throwing experimental shows; soon enough the two had opened up their own space in former gallery but needed a local band with a minimalist bent to fill out bills, and so Boy Harsher was born. After completing a grueling tour with The Soft Moon last spring, Boy Harsher have been flying out to experimental electronic festivals in Berlin, Hungary, Lithuania, and Detroit, but Matthews says she’s particular excited about SoundScape because “it’s a community based festival – no one overlaps, you get the opportunity to see everyone, and it’s a mixture of performance, music, and readings.” Matthews approaches lyric-writing from a literary standpoint (she’s also at work on a book project) but says performing live is all about the give-and-take between herself and the audience.

Boy Harsher’s Jae Matthews: “I was very fascinated with underground performance artists and it was really special to go to a basement and see someone rip a wild set.”

“When I’m performing I’ll use the audience response as a mechanism how to respond,” she says. “If I can tell it’s a crowd that wants to be more aggressive, and really wants to feel it and have that type of smacking visceral connection then yeah, I’ll go deep.” She remembers playing a show at local Hudson bar The Half Moon years ago attended by a sparse, but “devoted” crowd. After their SoundScape set, Boy Harsher DJs AudioFemme’s afterparty at The Half Moon, along with Eartheater and Becka Diamond. DJing, she says, “takes a different level of understand and concentration – just like knowledge of music and what you have and what it means to other people.” She admits she’s something of a novice in that realm but says her DJ sets gravitate toward “some weirder picks that maybe are more ostracizing and strange… or maybe super invigorating for whoever’s there.”

If there’s any place where oddities can be truly embraced, it’s certainly Basilica SoundScape. Cheek, Matthews, and Cabral are also looking forward to becoming spectators – during sets from Grouper, FlucT, Miho Hatori, Lightning Bolt, Photay, and others – yet another way in which the festival blurs the line between artist and audience. Whether that encompasses L’Rain’s ability to “disrupt people’s expectations” as she puts it, or Spellling’s stated intention to encompass the “fluidity and boundlessness that can exist in the dreaming mind,” or Boy Harsher’s filmic energy, which Matthews hopes will “transport [the audience] somewhere else,” it all comes together under the soaring, vaulted beams of that former foundry for one fevered weekend in September.

Single day and weekend passes are still available for Basilica SoundScape 2018 – more info here.

NEWS ROUNDUP: VMAs, Nicki Minaj Tour Rescheduled & More

2018 VMAs

The VMAs aired Monday night, with Camila Cabello taking home the video for the year for “Havana (feat. Young Thug).” This year had the most high profile celebrity no shows, including Beyonce and Jay-Z, Drake, Childish Gambino, Bruno Mars and Ed Sheeran, and Halsey who stated she didn’t come because she wasn’t nominated for any VMAs despite directing all her own videos this year and MTV #wcw-ing her to death. Only J Balvin and Gambino weren’t present to accept their awards. Other notable moments included Madonna’s awkward tribute to Aretha Franklin and Cardi B making her first post-baby appearance by winning the Best New Artist. VMA viewership is unfortunately at an all time low, even after switching the ceremony to a Monday night to avoid competition from other shows.

Nicki Minaj Reschedules Tour

Nicki Minaj rescheduled the North American leg of her co-headlining tour with FUTURE, claiming she doesn’t have time to rehearse after pushing back the release of her fourth album Queen by two months (though some say the changes are due to low ticket sales). This week she also blasted Travis Scott and streaming services for her album not debuting at number one on the Billboard charts despite being number one in 86 countries. 

The New New

New indie singer-songwriter supergroup group Boygenius – consisting of Julien Baker, Lucy Dacus and Pheobe Bridgers – released three new songs this week which will appear on their self-titled debut EP, out November 9th via Matador. 

Yoko Ono released “Woman Power,” a track that originally appeared on the 1973 album Feeling the Space. The feminist anthem will be on her new album Warzone, due out on October 19th. 

J Mascis announced new album Elastic Day, and shared the new song “See You At the Movies” out November 9th via Sub Pop.

End Notes

  • A tribute to Courtney Love has been announced for Basilica Hudson’s biennial Pioneering People fundraiser in Hudson, New York, on October 27th, put together by her former bandmate Melissa Auf der Maur along with artist Joe Mama-Nitzberg. It includes a star-studded cast of hosts including Michael Stipe, Chloë Sevigny, the National’s Aaron Dessner, Ryan McGinley, Yelena Yemchuk, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Brandon Stosuy, and others.
  • Snoop Dogg will  be releasing his first cookbook, From Crook to Cook, published by Chronicle Books in October. Better stock up on those special herbs now.

AF 2017 IN REVIEW: The Best Live Shows of 2017

Austra @Warsaw

This was my first show of 2017, unless you count sets by Janelle Monae, Alicia Keys, and Indigo Girls that dotted the Women’s March on Washington days prior. I may have been late to the game regarding Austra, a beloved Toronto band already two albums into their career, and it wasn’t even their music that first grabbed my attention. It was the striking artwork for their third record, Future Politics. On its cover, a woman leads a handsome mare, cloaked in Austra’s signature shade of red. As it turned out, the album was as slick and strong as its imagery.

I sought out this strength one night at Greenpoint’s Warsaw, where Austra moved the whole room to dance with abandon. Lead singer Katie Stelmanis was captivating, her soaring voice sounding miraculously better than on the record. If it weren’t for her obvious talents as a pop star, Stelmanis would have an easy time making it as a stage actor or Broadway diva. The band plowed through the new album’s heavy hitters like “We Were Alive,” “Future Politics” and “Utopia,” sprinkling older favorites throughout the set.

Just days after Donald Trump had been sworn in as the 45th President of the United States, Austra made the Warsaw crowd believe that if we sweat hard enough, we could construct our own utopia right there on the dance floor.

Girl Band @Saint Vitus

Girl Band, Dublin’s all-boy noise foursome, rarely leave the stage without first inciting a small riot. They’re one of the few bands I’ve seen that can touch something primal in audiences, waking them from their New York, no-dance comas. This spring show at Saint Vitus was no different. The crowd was a little rigid initially, but once Girl Band slammed into “Paul” off of 2015’s Holding Hands With Jamie we all went wild. Daniel Fox’s warbled bass line whipped us into a swirling frenzy. We attempted to scream along with lead singer Dara Kiley, but our sweat and thrashing limbs did most of the talking.

Perfume Genius @Brooklyn Steel

This gig was without a doubt my favorite live performance of the year – and I almost didn’t go. Audiofemme’s own Lindsey Rhoades, who could not make it that evening, asked if I would go in her absence. “Sure,” I said, having no clue of the treat in store. I’d listened to the record, and was of course proud of the Seattle band’s success being from Washington myself, but the sheer magnetism of PG mastermind Mike Hadreas blew me away. He slinked and slithered through each song, howling like a hellhound one minute and whispering like seraph the next. In those moments onstage, Hadreas seemed to be Bowie’s heir apparent. He certainly had a Ziggy Stardust-worthy outfit.

Blanck Mass @RBMA/Sacred Bones

It didn’t hurt that as Blanck Mass’ Benjamin John Power was whipping up beats, Björk was head banging by the PA system… in a hot pink clown suit. But even without Our Lady of Iceland publicly endorsing the set, Power’s gut rattling music had me enraptured. Power always performs in total darkness, giving shape and weight to his intense soundscapes. You can almost feel his songs wrap around you like a python beginning to squeeze. When he cued up “Please” – my #2 favorite song of 2017 – I suddenly understood what it’s supposed to feel like when you get the good MDMA. I’d only ever had the bad shit.

Aldous Harding @Park Church Co-op/Baby’s All Right

I saw Aldous Harding twice within a week at 2017’s Northside Festival. The first time was at Park Church Co-op in Greenpoint. Harding wore an all-white suit, conjuring the combined spirits of Tom Wolfe, David Byrne, and Jerry Hall. She was otherworldly, contorting her voice to reach the vaulted ceiling, then summoning it down low, to rattle the wooden pews we sat on.

The second time was at Baby’s All Right, a far less romantic locale. Still, Harding bewitched me with her strange posturing and mythological voice. As she sunk into the lovelorn depths of “Horizon,” I was near tears. I closed my eyes. I mouthed the words, “Here is your princess/And here is the horizon.” And then a sharp splat cut through the room. The crowd parted like the red sea, and there at the center was not Moses, but a 60-year-old, portly man, barfing all down his t-shirt. After a period of bug-eyed shock, Harding laughed and returned to her set. I went outside to breathe better air.

Bing & Ruth @Basilica Soundscape

There was so much to see at Basilica Soundscape this summer, and yet the first band that played on the festival’s opening night is what stuck with me the most. Bing & Ruth’s David Moore seemed to be painting with his piano keys, while the accompanying cellist and clarinet player extracted color from their own instruments. They invoked a staggering beauty that went unmatched for the remainder of the weekend, in my opinion. Bing & Ruth make music that’s incredibly difficult to describe, but I feel lucky I was able to hear and feel it in person.

Sean Nicholas Savage and Dinner @Baby’s All Right

This was not my first Sean Nicholas Savage rodeo, but it was by far the finest, largely due to opening act Dinner’s inspiring performance. Danish singer/songwriter Anders Rhedin knows how to work a crowd, and does so with a divine combination of goofball and deadpan tactics. He had us sitting on the ground like school children, clapping like a gospel choir, and dancing like disco wildcats. It was a nice round of cardio before Sean Nicholas Savage began his vocal calisthenics. We swayed for Dinner, but we swooned for Savage.

Diamanda Galás @Murmrr Theater

I couldn’t have imagined a better Halloween. After walking a mile through Fort Greene, squeezing past trails of children in Halloween costumes, candy spilling from their cloth sacks, I approached Prospect Heights’ Murmrr Theatre. The stage and pews were cloaked in red light, and the baby grand piano was the requisite black. It was a fitting atmosphere for Diamanda Galás, the singer, composer, and pianist I recently crowned as the Queen of Halloween.

Galás was bewitching. Her piano seemed to awaken the ghost of Thelonious Monk and Satan himself, while her voice was alight with several spirits; some crooning, some growling, some downright shrieking. Galás is a medium above all else, and this last Halloween, she seemed to communicate with other worlds.

Swans @Warsaw

This was another show I almost didn’t attend. I’d already seen these noise dinosaurs two summers ago, and didn’t plan on showing up for their goodbye gig at Warsaw last month. But when a good friend got the flu and offered up his ticket gratis, how could I pass? I got to the venue in time for a plate of pierogis and kielbasa, and through some fortunate twist of fate, had a pair of earplugs in my purse. This was a very good thing considering Swans were playing at decibel levels strong enough for sonic warfare. As Thor smashed his gong, I felt like I was inside of a tank as it unloaded ammunition. Even my feet were vibrating.

Animal Collective @Knockdown Center

Nothing could’ve prepared me for how mesmerizing Animal Collective’s set at Knockdown Center was a couple of weeks ago. The evening’s objective was for Avey Tare and Panda Bear to perform 2004’s Sung Tongs in full. I entered Queens’ Knockdown Center full of skepticism; how exactly, were they going to summon that wall of sound with just two dudes?

I still don’t know the exact answer to that question, but the task was accomplished. After ample fiddling by roadies (one of whom sported a biker jacket and looked like he was named Butch) the stage was set, and the travel-sized version of Animal Collective settled into their chairs. What transpired over the next hour plus was a village of sound supplied by two men, four microphones, and some expert pedal work. Whatever their process was, it blew me away. I was wrapped in surround sound, every blip, crack, and whir massaging my body with the tiniest pulses.

LIVE REVIEW: Basilica Soundscape 2017

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Blanck Mass at Basilica Soundscape 2017. Photo by Samantha Marble/The Creative Independent

Day 1:

I knew this would happen. My one-person tent is sagging like ruined soufflé. Its support beams are in all the wrong holes, and the whole thing is yet to be staked in the ground. The bus for Basilica Soundscape leaves in one minute. At 5:59 in Meadowgreens Campground in Ghent, New York, I relinquish a losing battle with said tent, leaving it in a frightening half-mast tangle, and board the shuttle flushed with defeat. This row would have to be settled later. In the dark.

For a moment I feared that this tent dilemma would prevent me from enjoying myself at all. What if I kept dismembering and reconstructing the tent in my head all night, and missed all of the music surrounding me? It could happen. These obsessive thoughts ceased however, the moment I entered Basilica Hudson. The 18,000 square feet factory building was built in the 1880s, and has produced everything from railroad car wheels to glue, but these days its main export is art. In 2010, musician Melissa Auf der Maur and filmmaker Tony Stone acquired the building, transforming the space into a sanctuary for music, film, and visual art.

Basilica Soundscape offers all of these mediums at their finest. Often described as “the antifestival,” Basilica Soundscape is exactly that – the weekend of music, poetry, and visual art feeling far more intimate than the word “festival” suggests. In fact, Soundscape seems more akin to a house party hosted by wealthy eccentrics, or a wedding held in a medieval hamlet. Within minutes of surveying the grounds, it appeared as though all the romanticism and utopia promised by other festivals was actually here all along, from the rainbow arching across the sky to the flayed chickens sizzling on an open grill.

At 6:30 everyone funneled into the Main Hall, where openers Bing & Ruth plunged into a dizzying set that I can only describe as sounding like the ocean. Pianist David Moore’s technique was both dense and delicate, evoking a sense of moving through water. The blue light enrobing the musicians and the whale songs sung by cello and clarinet added to the seascape of sound. Even the stage decorations seemed marine in nature; plumes of pink silk hung from the ceiling, dissolving into tendrils of rope and swaying like jellyfish. It was only after Bing & Ruth left the stage that I realized they were hand-dyed parachutes and not aquatic invertebrates.

On the other end of the decibel spectrum, Philadelphia’s Moor Mother (aka Camae Ayewa) annihilated all previous serenity with her serrated poetry and beats. Ayewa stabbed through her set, entangling herself in the parachute ropes and assaulting the crowd with glass-shattering backing tracks and car crash raps. Ayewa’s brand of hyper-politicized poetry utilizes the distortion of punk and the rage of metal to potent effect. Her command of the crowd was immense; when Moor Mother demands that you “hug your motherfucking neighbor!” and “slow dance!” you’d be wise to do so. And we did.

The next best display of aggression was black metal band Thou, who filled Basilica’s smaller North Hall with bowel-shuddering screams and swampy instrumentation. Next, Tunisian artist Emel Mathlouthi had everyone looking upwards, as she performed from the building’s rafters, her colossal voice bellowing from above. For one last dose of drama, Baltimore’s Serpentwithfeet charmed us with his occult gospel. Singer and musician Josiah Wise – the snake in question – is always mesmerizing live, as he summons the spirits of Nina Simone, Josephine Baker, and Aleister Crowley. He is a poised and diverse performer, able to traverse songs about mourning with his operatic pipes, and then whip the audience into fits of laughter with his wry wit.

A far less verbal artist, Indiana’s JLIN closed out Friday night with her hard-driving electronic collages, often splicing horror movie screams with chopper-like drum beats. JLIN’s set was weaponized and dense, but that didn’t stop a pack of men from breaking into arrhythmic dance moves in the audience, convulsing like electrocuted lab rats under the strobe lights. I hoped to harness their energy for later…I still had a tent to set up.

Day 2:

Basilica’s second day was filled with far more fury than its first. Notable early sets from Yellow Eyes and Yvette got our blood pumping right off the bat. The former filled the North Hall with unrelenting drums and ear-piercing screams. Fog hung around the black metal trio, while two wrought iron candelabras added a solemnity to their set, which was dedicated to a late friend of the band.

Brooklyn’s noise duo Yvette played a wealth of new material on the main stage, opening with the older, hard-hitting “Radiation” before treating us to new songs. Rumor has it the pair are currently recording another album, and their Basilica set was a delightful preview. The energy harnessed by lead singer/guitarist Noah Kardos-Fein and drummer Dale Elsinger was strategically focused on Saturday, only improving their intensity as performers. If Yvette were previously men of chaos, they now appear to be mad scientists, fiddling with knobs and emitting blips and whirrs amidst controlled fury.

There was unfortunately some overlap during sets by Priests and Protomartyr, but I was able to catch a bit of both. Priests commanded the large stage expertly, lead singer Katie Alice Greer stalking the stage in a spangled mini dress like The Runaways’ Cherie Currie. On the other side of the building, Protomartyr channeled FEAR and The Fall with a one-two punch of distilled punk rock.

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Priests at Basilica Soundscape 2017. Photo by Samantha Marble/The Creative Independent

We looked to the rafters one last time for readings by Morgan Parker, Darcie Wilder, and Hole drummer Patty Schemel, who read excerpts from her new memoir Hit So Hard. Schemel’s tales of Kurt, Courtney, and rock n’ roll abounded before Blanck Mass’s Benjamin John Power mounted the smoke-cloaked main stage. The technical headliner for 2017’s Basilica Soundscape was Zola Jesus, but for me, it was Blanck Mass, whose diabolical wall of sound is more a physical experience than a purely sonic one. Power ripped through tracks off his latest LP World Eater, churning out frenzied tapestries like “John Doe’s Carnival of Error” and slow grinding dance cuts like “Please.” Power is obscured during most of his sets, dressed in black and barely visible within the fog and flashes of light. In this sense, he becomes more entity than man – more furious gospel than mere entertainment.

So what was my takeaway from Basilica Soundscape 2017? Go every summer, bring ear plugs, try the chicken, and definitely get to know your tent before next year.