Ezra Furman was all over CMJ this year. I was lucky enough to see him twice-once at a matinee showcase for Brooklyn Vegan, and again at a headlining spot at The Knitting Factory. I’ve always felt like seeing a band more than once in a short span of time is like hearing a the same joke back to back-you get to see if it really holds up, or whether it was never all that funny to begin with.
To stick with the simile: Ezra Furman is a fantastic joke.
Both of his sets were almost entirely different. I only heard one or two repeat songs and even those were performed with little idiosyncratic tweaks in delivery or time signature. One thing that did stay constant was the quality of the gigs. Much like Furman seems incapable of writing a bad song, he also can’t manage to play a boring show. I guess there are things it’s good to be bad at after all.
Ezra Furman is often labeled a new act, but he’s already got a decent sized catalogue to pull from while performing. Several albums deep in his career, he still plays from many of them, which is both convenient and wonderful because, well, they’re all great records.
His latest release Perpetual Motion People however, seems to be the one that’s finally getting him noticed internationally (including by the godfather of punk himself, Iggy Pop.) I first heard the record on BBC 6 Music and knew Furman was something special straight away. PMP zips from folk to punk, doo-wop to soul, and is never scant on infectious pop licks. It’s not an easy sound to define, but neither is Furman the man – and I’m starting to think he likes it that way. Many of his lyrical themes involve sexuality and gender identity, or as he put it last Wednesday night before introducing “Body Was Made” at Knitting Factory, being “body positive.”
Despite Furman’s flamboyant appearance – he’s rarely without his pearls and red lipstick – he is an endearingly shy performer. As a fan shouted, “I love your shoes!” he coyly looked down and whispered, “thank you” off mic. At the Brooklyn Vegan showcase he fawned: “Aw look at all you, standing there, you’re all so cute just standing there. Look, I’m infantilizing you for personal gain because – well, I’m really uncomfortable.”
Yes, Ezra Furman certainly is a strange one. And we wouldn’t have him any other way.
I’ve often been called an anglophile. When it comes to my favorite books, movies, music – even people – an alarming amount hail from the U.K. I can’t help it. So imagine my delight upon arriving at The Living Room last Tuesday and seeing the many Union Jack-emblazoned posters hung around the room reading:
Music is Great
Britain and Northern Ireland
The snippets of conversations overheard around me only confirmed: I had accidentally landed at CMJ’s British showcase, hosted by Brit clothier Ben Sherman no less. I wonder how all those Brits felt, caged in by tiny ensigns dotting the stage as if it were a sports arena. It must be strange to feel an average amount of apathy towards your country on a daily basis, and then to be wrapped in the flag and delivered to an American audience. Could you imagine U.S. bands rolling up to London all Stars and Stripes? Somehow we don’t evoke novelty the same way.
Each act performing the showcase dealt with the patriotic décor in their own manner. Soul-folk singer Jake Isaac was a characteristically self-deprecating Englishman, professing that he wasn’t “as rock n’ roll as the last guy.” That’s a cuppa’ tea after sipping from a Styrofoam cup. But regardless of his degree of “rock n’ roll,” Isaac certainly didn’t fall short with his ability to work a room. Early on in his set Isaac unplugged his acoustic, stepped away from his kick drum and into the crowd where onlookers instinctively formed a circle around him as he sang. Isaac’s voice is at once booming and sweet, with just the right amount of rasp; a true soul vocal that sounds so natural it’s as if it’s falling out of his mouth.
CMJ exists largely to introduce and bolster emerging talent, so it’s rare to see a fairly unknown musician have this much charisma and pull with an audience. By the end of his set, Isaac had everyone clapping along and singing call-and-response style, a move I typically find cheesy, but his charm assuaged that reaction. He even made me (momentarily) like a track I otherwise abhor by weaving bits of Bob Marley’s “Don’t Worry About a Thing” into his own song.
I wouldn’t be surprised to hear about Jake Isaac doing big things in a few years time. He’s already got a handful of EPs under his belt (his latest being 2015’s Where We Belong on Rocket Music Records) and clearly knows how to sway an audience. I’d say he’s fit for proper stardom, and deserving of it too.
Hooton Tennis Club, the Liverpool foursome (no, not that Liverpool foursome) were chipper despite being horribly jet lagged. “We got in 36 hours ago, and we still haven’t slept,” quipped lead singer/guitarist Ryan Murphy. The lot of them looked like a pack of scruffy teens that wound up here by accident while cutting gym. But this slack attitude is part and parcel for Hooton. Their sound is effortless and often a product of improvisation-yielding pop songs that are just the right portions catchy and scrappy. But this ease is a good thing. No one ever said that the best songs sound forced-quite the opposite in fact.
Their first record The Highest Point in Cliff Town is an impressive debut in that it asserts a cohesive sound immediately. This must have been something Heavenly Recordings picked up on, considering they signed them after only three gigs. The record is heavily rooted in the nineties, and they admit to looking at bands like Deerhunter as massively influential. There is a shabby professionalism to Hooton-sounding alive while looking exhausted and smothering honeyed pop melodies with lo-fi distortion; a sort of sonic rendering of a pretty boy dressed in dirty clothes.
Mid-way through their set bassist Callum McFadden plucked up a tiny Union Jack, stuck it’s tooth-pick-like pole through the strings in his headstock, and shimmied left to right, making it wave like a naval flag. Whether the gesture was out of patriotism or sarcasm I don’t know-but what would be more British than being sarcastic?
“We went overseas for about two years and became a really good band, and now we can do whatever we want.” Ezra Furman, the eccentric Chicago native who sold out Rough Trade on Wednesday strikes me as someone who’s always done whatever he wanted. He can do such things as wear red lipstick, a striped boat neck shirt, and tiny shiny gym shorts with oxford shoes and still look sexy, for instance.
Furman has just released his third full-length record Perpetual Motion Peopleon the acclaimed Bella Union label, and it’s a true gem. Tossing together rock n’ roll, folk, and delicious sax licks; PMP rests in a unique niche of contemporary music in that it doesn’t sound quite like anything else. I suspect one of the best compliments you can pay a musician is that their sound is truly their own, and true to that: Ezra Furman doesn’t sound like Mac Demarco, or Sunflower Bean, or Foals. Ezra Furman sounds like Ezra Furman.
Lyrically the album is brilliant. Furman not only possesses a knack for writing pop songs, but for equipping them with profound wit, wisdom, and heartache that stretches far beyond his 28 years. A personal favorite comes from the ennui-charged “Ordinary Life”: “way back in our mothers’ wombs, folded like notebooks, we had no idea of all the tote bags and the meathooks waiting out in the world.” A grim remark rendered cheeky when you realize it’s coming from someone who’s endured severe depression and mental illness, as Furman has. In a beautiful letter printed on the album’s lyric sheet Furman confesses that for the majority of his life he was gripped by a fear that he would die at 17. It’s no wonder his songs strike so deep.
Yet there was no shred of a tortured soul on Wednesday evening. Opening for Furman was Emily Einhorn and fellow Chicagoans J. Fernandez. Ezra could be spotted at the back of the crowd, politely chatting with fans and cheering on his supporting bands. You gotta love a headliner who watches the early sets with the sweaty rest of us. When Furman and his band (The Boyfriends) took to the stage the floor was packed out with admirers. They opened with “Day of the Dog” a track off of 2013’s album of the same name. “Well, this is interesting. This isn’t how I remember New York. I remember five people in the crowd at Arlene’s Grocery in 2007.” Clearly absence has made the heart grow wholly fond.
I could gush about Ezra for paragraphs, but his band demands some serious fawning. Not one of them is assigned a solitary task; Ben Joseph swapped between keyboards, guitar, whistling and singing, as did bassist Jorgen Jorgensen. Though he didn’t have a mic, drummer Sam Durkes insisted on mouthing the lyrics and whistling between beats. But the most dazzling to watch was sax-man Tim Sandusky, who produced, engineered, mixed and mastered Perpetual Motion People. He flailed around the stage filling out each song with defining woodwind phrases that congeal Furman’s sound.
Ezra played the majority of Perpetual Motion People as well as Day of the Dog, and the crowd ceased to dance throughout. During “Wobbly” Furman shelved his guitar for a shimmy break. He twisted around the stage with a strange mixture of girlish flirtation and proper sex appeal, though a clumsier side emerged while dancing by the drum kit and accidentally knocking the crash cymbal to the floor.
It was a show no one wanted to end. And though it had to, Ezra Furman was kind enough to gift us not one, but two encores, the latter of which being a smashing rendition of Jackie Wilson’s “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher.” Higher and higher indeed, Ezra.
While last year’s 4Knots was downtown and gratis, the updated version boasts an impressive list of food vendors, top notch sound quality, and a killer lineup. And though you have to shell out a lot more than nothing this time ‘round, rest assured that all proceeds go to benefit Hudson River Park itself.
As you can see from our interview with the Grand Rapids trio, these boys are straightforward and approachable as human beings as well as musicians. They play psych rock straight up. Their set was incredibly tight and focused. It’s always interesting for a band’s sound to be so raucous and raw and their composure so stoic and professional. Guitarist/vocalist Andrew Tamlyn, drummer Joshua Korf, and bassist/vocalist Nolan Kreb all look like they could be in three different bands, but they sure as hell sound like one. Despite a little pestilence from a “Free Bird!” shouting audience member, the crowd loved them, and so did I.
In my opinion the most surprising act of the evening, Los Angeles-based Meatbodies kicked ass. It’s a pedestrian description, but an accurate one. They’re a shambolic bunch whose stage banter is far from sophisticated and all the better for it. “We’re sorry we’re sick. We ate too much cheese last night. We’re sick on cheeeeeeeeeese!!!!!” they shout out phlegmy throats. Lead man Chad Ubovich is freakishly talented, and when you consider his resume it makes sense; he was long the lead guitarist for Mikal Cronin and currently plays bass in Fuzz. Each Meat Body has palpable chops, but Ubovich is a real showman and potentially a savant; his solos are wild and wailing, seeming at once impossible and effortless. As his guitar squeals his eyes roll back in his head and his mouth twitches in unembarrassed focus. The lot of them come off like your shithead little brother – that all your friends would rather hang out with.
You may have noticed by now that we’re a bit hung up on Happyness, and that won’t be changing anytime soon. They play a familiar set-at least to someone who’s seen them three times in the past couple of months-but it never grows stale. The thing that continues to surprise and delight me about these boys is that despite their all-too-clever lyrics and flippant interview responses, they perform with an intense and joyous sincerity. Drummer Ash Cooper, though only in his early twenties, comes off like a seasoned jazz session man, mouthing each brush on the high hat, squinting and smiling in a surely unconscious way. Benji Compston and Jonny Allan do all the talking to the crowd, but as a trio they seem to be speaking to each other with a ease and professionalism that typically marks bands who’ve been together much longer than they.
I’ve been looking for Stephen Malkmus all night. Was he in the crow’s nest? Aboard the artists’ lounge? Catching some shade under that enormous prop Deep Eddy Vodka bottle tethered to the bow of the boat? He’d managed to escape my searching eyes until the moment he stepped out from behind the stage (I’m convinced I was the first person to see him). “Hello photographer people” he mutters and leans over the photo pit a bit self-consciously. The Jicks are on the edge of their first song when a resounding ferry horn honks. “Even ships fart,” Malkmus quips, proving he’s still the easily humored dude he’s always been. The band played the bulk of 2014’s Wig Out at Jagbags but no Pavement managed to creep into their set. (I can dream, can’t I?) A particular show high-point peaked during “Freeze The Saints” when Malkmus sauntered over to guitarist/keyboardist Mike Clark to join him on the keys. They plunked away side by side until Malkmus turned to Clark, stating dryly: “You’re stepping on me, bro.”
It’s only fitting that the Super Furries would headline, seeing as they’ve been on hiatus for half a decade. I know that the stage set up won’t be demure (knowing them, and how long it takes for them to come onstage) but I have read the yeti costumes are destroyed, and will therefore not make an appearance this tour. They too find amusement in the ferry horns, pausing after the first and maniacally shouting back at it. SFA fans are not fainthearted, and there is a flock of them. They play all the favorites, mine being “Juxtaposed With You” simply for how much it stands away from their catalog. Their set is long and solid, but of course they deliver a generous encore. And despite all the talk, they play it in yeti suits after all.
It’s surprising to think that after all these years, the above still gets shouted at rock bands who are just trying to finish their set. I personally stopped finding the line funny around age 14, but the same cannot be said for the sad twenty-somethings behind me whose idea of high art is probably the Fast and the Furious franchise.
I digress. The real victims of this sloppy heckle are not my ears, but rather the members of Heaters, a band who has come all the way from Grand Rapids, Michigan to play the annual Village Voice 4Knots Festival. Fortunately the vast majority of the crowd are brimming with enthusiasm for the group, who sound as tight live as they do on their recordings. They’ve recently released their Mean Green 7” on Beyond Beyond is Beyond records and will have a full length come September. Having played SXSW, and the Austin Psych Festival in the past couple of months, the band is still in a perpetual state of momentum. Fortunately for us at AudioFemme, they slowed down ever so slightly to give us an exclusive interview and chatted about the Grand Rapids music scene, playing bass on acid, and stealing other bands’ drummers.
AudioFemme: Welcome to New York!
Heaters: Thank you.
AF: Did you guys just get in this morning?
Nolan Krebs: (bass/vocals) We got in yesterday actually, we had the day off yesterday so we went out to the Rockaways and had a nice ass day.
AF: Are you in town for long?
NK: ‘Til Monday and then we play Boston.
AF: Do you have anything fun planned for the rest of the stay?
Andrew Tamlyn (guitar/vocals): We’re gonna go to Coney Island I think tomorrow.
NK: Yeah, we’ve never been.
AF: I love Coney Island. The Side Show is worth it if they still run it.
NK: Oh I’d be so down.
AF: It’s really good. Don’t go on the Cyclone.
NK: I feel like I would throw up. Is it intense?
AF: It’s not so much the motion sickness, it’s just that it’s made out of wood and it gives you whiplash. Every time you go around it feels like someone’s punching you in the back. So if you’re into that, go on it. So 4Knots! Your set was amazing, I really enjoyed it.
All: Thank you!
AF: Did you hear that guy yelling “play ‘Free Bird’” by any chance?
NK: Yeah, what a tacky, unoriginal thing to say.
AF: Do people still think that’s funny?
AT: I don’t know. It’s kind of like a “your mom” joke, you know?
AF: Who were you most excited to see at 4Knots?
AT: Meat Bodies.
AF: They’re great! I was just kinda like, oh, another band. But then they started playing and I immediately ran to the stage. Their guitarist is fantastic – so animated. I was very impressed by their set.
AT: Most of these bands I haven’t heard of, but I’m excited to see Happyness.
NK: We met them at South by this year and they’re total sweethearts.
AF: Yeah I saw them in April and interviewed them in a tiny bathroom in a venue in Brooklyn, and they’re just adorable. They’re the sweetest guys. So, you guys are from Grand Rapids Michigan; what’s the music scene like over there?
AT: It’s weird, it’s kind of all over the place. There’s lots of metal and folk.
Joshua Korf (drums): There’s a lot of pop punk.
NK: They’re trying though. It’s a cool city and we moved there because we knew there would be places to play. Andrew and I were friends in high school and we kind of split up during college and shit, and then afterwards knew we wanted to try and do something with music so that is the best place in Michigan to try and start something. It’s young and looking for a foothold but it’s trying.
AF: Yeah I was going to ask why you were drawn to that city as opposed to other music hubs like New York…the big ones.
JK: It’s a cheap place to live.
NK: Yeah I feel like we had a little bit of space to breathe there and figure out what we wanted to do and what kind of music we wanted to make. Chicago isn’t very far away and we play there about once a month so sometimes we kind of feel like we’re a Chicago band.
AF: Well I think midwestern bands kind of get slumped into that one category a bit…Chicago and Minneapolis and such.
AF: I feel like you guys have recorded quite a lot in the small time that you’ve been a band. I know that the Mean Green 7” just came out in April- are you guys already working on anything new?
NK: We have our first full length coming out in September on Beyond Beyond is Beyond, which is a Brooklyn-based label. Our Mean Green record came out through them as well. When September rolls around we’ll be-we’re on a two month tour right now-but by then we’ll have some space to breathe and probably start working on something else.
AF: How far into the tour are you?
AT: Just like a week.
AF: You guys did another pretty long tour in March?
NK: Yeah, March through May we went down to Texas for South By Southwest and Austin Psych Fest so it was kind of like back and forth driving to and from Texas.
AF: Anything ridiculous happen? Any good tour stories?
(Josh starts laughing hysterically)
AF: Oh, something happened.
NK: I took acid way too late in the night before we played at Austin Psych Fest because we were watching Tame Impala and someone politely asked if we wanted LSD, so I said yes and didn’t end up sleeping that night, which sucks. I had a great time but didn’t sleep before our set…
AF: Did you play while you were high?
NK: Um, I wasn’t really high by the time we played but I remember looking at my bass guitar and thinking, “this feels weird. Something’s weird.”
AF: I can’t imagine performing while on acid. That sounds terrifying.
NK: Yeah, some bands can totally pull it off but personally I get confused.
AF: So you two (Andrew and Nolan) moved to Grand Rapids together, and Josh, you were their next-door neighbor. How did that courtship work? Did you just see a drum kit in a window and bring him a Jell-O mold, or?
AT: Actually, he was playing in another band and after his set we were like, “dude, we really like you! Come play with us!” So we stole him and then we all moved in together and just started hammerin’ out tunes.
AF: So now all three of you live together?
NK: Yep. We’ve lived together for like two years.
JK: It’s really convenient for stuff like rehearsing and practicing and recording in general. Instead of having to go to a practice space we can all wake up in the morning, have coffee and go to the basement and play together.
AT: We’re all brothers.
AF: Yeah, it’s impressive. The dynamics must work so well for you to not get sick of each other.
NK: It’s weird because I actually hate them both, so…..
AF: I can tell. I can sense the steely reserve emanating from you.
AF: I was reading an interview with you guys recently and I believe Andrew you said that a lot of new music consists of people doing a kind of karaoke vocal track over prerecorded music.
AT: In certain genres, yeah.
AF: Do you feel semi out-of-touch with contemporary music?
AT: I’d say so, yeah. I feel like we’re a little out of touch with most radio/contemporary music, but I mean when it comes to just playing with other rock n’ roll bands, not at all.
NK: Contemporary music is kind of funny for us to listen to as engineers of our own music. We listen to it and we’re like “oh my god, this is so different from what we try to do in our basement.” But, to each his own.
A: I still respect it all. I’m not hating on anything.
AF: Hate on some things.
(All shake heads)
AF: No? All right. Speaking of contemporary music, what are you listening to right now?
All: The Fat White Family, Vocaloid.
NK: They’re a Chilean Psych band.
AT: On Sacred Bones Records.
NK: Amen Dunes, Mystic Braves…honestly the bands we’ve toured with have come to be our favorite bands. Mystery Lights. Wand.
AF: So your contemporaries.
AF: What are your goals as a band currently? Are there festivals you’re dying to play, or venues you’re trying to get into or radio stations you want to be on?
AT: I think it’d be cool to play the Fillmore in San Francisco. That’s pretty iconic.
JK: My dream was always to play Psych Fest.
AF: You did it!
JK: Yeah, when we got that email it was so surreal.
AF: It sounds like such a blast.
JK: Yeah, it’s the perfect festival in my mind, because everyone that’s there is there to see music. There’s a hang-out-and-do-drugs thing, but I’ve been to so many other festivals where it’s just about how fucked up you can get and it’s not about the music, and everyone I talked to and encountered at that festival was there to see good music.
NK: It was like, record nerds.
AF: Your people.
NK: Yep, our people.
AF: So my last question is kind of a silly one: do you have any music that you love which is a guilty pleasure? And what is it? But un-ironically, like you truly love the band.
JK: The Strokes (who are currently playing on the boat)
AF: They’re playing this for you!
AT: Grizzly Bear????
AF: Oh, come on.
NK: They make beautiful music.
AF: That’s bullshit. They’re a hip band.
NK: I don’t feel bad about any music…
AF: Not bad but embarrassed. Mine’s The Wallflowers if that helps anyone.
NK: Oh, ok.
JK: Guns N’Roses.
NK: Andrew and I listened to a lot of hardcore music when we were teenagers, so now listening back to that it will make me blush.
AF: Like Alkaline Trio or something?
NK: Yeah that sort of bullshit, but whatever, that got us into a lot of guitar music so…
AF: Oh no, you don’t have to defend it.
NK: haha, thank you.
AF: The blushing part is what I mean. The fact that it makes you blush makes it that category.
Be sure to check out the title track off of Mean Green below:
An unlikely lineup at the last night of Brooklyn’s seventh annual Northside Festival, one angsty crooner Shilpa Ray opening for the sparkly and jubilant Sun Ra Arkestra. In a way it was the perfect bill, not only due to the heightened quality of the musicians on it, but that their disparity satisfies every longing you would ever have. To feel deep pain and anger out the mouth of Shilpa Ray, and then to have it lifted and kicked into the cosmos by Sun Ra…what more could you want?
If you haven’t heard of Shilpa Ray, I am so sorry. Now you have. There was a time when I too had not. I saw her by chance at an Eric Garner benefit gig at Shea Stadium, and was instantly bowled over. She was center stage playing a harmonium with an angry sensuality, and had voice like Patti Smith wrapped in Bette Midler. Her performance was gritty and passionate, and quite frankly left me stunned. Where had this woman been all my life????
Her impact was no less intense last Sunday at Rough Trade. Her backing band, or, her Rayettes as she calls them (“aren’t they sexy???”) includes guitarist Alistair Paxton, the energetic drumming of Russ Lemkin, and Jon Catfish DeLorme on a wailing pedal steel. Ray puts out a mixture of arrogance and sweetness-she’s one of those performers you can’t quite explain…there’s no quantifiable measurement of her charisma, she’s just got it. “This song’s called “Shilpa Ray’s Got a Heart Full of Dirt.” One time a journalist asked me why I put my name in my song titles, and I told her, ‘because I’m a narcissist.’” It’s the kind of remark that rubs you in two different directions, but you can’t begrudge Ray for the honesty. In some ways that’s shorthand for how her music makes you feel, like a cat being pet backwards.
If Shilpa Ray brushes your fur the wrong way (in the best manner possible, of course) then Sun Ra Arkestra will no doubt have you purring. Though the original Sun Ra died over twenty years ago, his Afrofuturistic, psychcosmic funk deities keep the son of Saturn’s soul very alive. The Arkestra’s set up is incredible. No fewer than a dozen men in their seventies playing some of the most searing avant-garde jazz you’ve ever heard-all while wearing sparkly capes and hats. Fronted by saxophonist Marshall Allen, the group is an indefinable tour de force of soul, jazz, funk, and experimental jams. Occasionally punctuated with the vocals of Tara Middleton, the sound was predominantly instrumental, even if some of the instruments were sublime and unrecognizable.
The crowd was fully entranced by the performance-how could you not be? Even if the deepest thought you could muster was: “Will I ever be half as cool as these geriatrics?” (no) there was no resisting sheer enjoyment. By the tail end of the set, three quarters of the band trailed off of the stage, blowing their horns in the air and shimmying through the audience in a slack conga line. We encircled the musicians and danced first around and them with them. It was as if, for a moment, that barrier between performer and observer had been completely dissolved. Just like Sun Ra believed he belonged to the cosmos, so we believed we belonged to Sun Ra.
“There’s not enough songs about Squash.” Are there not? Not according to Australian singer/songwriter Darren Hanlon. On paper, Hanlon wouldn’t entice me all that much. Solo artist. Acoustic guitar. Singer/songwriter. Cheeky and cheerful folk numbers. Australian. With those keywords I’d fear a Southern Hemisphere Jack Johnson. But, there are exceptions to everything, and it doesn’t hurt that Hanlon is impossibly charming. Even better, his style of songwriting is truly original, merging jaunty folk melodies with lyrics of the most heightened wit and whimsy. In a blurb Hanlon calls to mind Billy Bragg (if he’d never been angry).
Having just released his fifth studio album, Hanlon is doing well for himself, opening for Courtney Barnett on her streak of sold-out shows at Bowery Ballroom. If charisma has any hand in success, Hanlon should be well on his way to it. His banter is enviably candid and hilarious, his lyrics no less of either. “If I had a dollar for every time I should have been paid…then I would have been paid.”
Next up were Seattle all-girl group Chastity Belt, who’ve just released their second full length Time to Go Home on Sub Pop subsidiary Hardly Art Records. Their set was tight and inspired, with just an appropriate dose of nonchalance and snark. There wasn’t much banter to be had-it is difficult to follow up Hanlon’s act in that department-but the gals were focused, fun, and very badass. Lead singer Julia Shapiro bobbed her frizzled mane around while rattling off shouts in her blasé, slightly grungy tone. Guitarist Lydia Lund was on point with tangy, Johnny Marr-ish surf licks while bassist Annie Truscott bopped around the stage in rhythm with her own thumping strings.
Before Courtney Barnett could even take the stage, the crowd had filled out to maximum capacity. With only one full-length album and merely 26 years on this earth, Barnett seems to be doing very well for herself in the realm of music (and not having to suffer a day job). Her debut Sometimes I sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit has garnered rave reviews from the likes of KEXP, Pitchfork, and BBC 6 Music alike. It’s a simple record, but one that is overflowing with neat little hooks and ripe with witty lyrics. Barnett’s peculiar phrasing could be likened to Jonathan Richman of the Modern Lovers-at once of kilter and oddly relatable.
Live Barnett fronts a three piece, which creates much more volume than the eye would suspect. Though her demeanor is no match for her wailing guitar riffs-she is surprisingly short of words on stage. Less coy was the audience, who were bawdy and excited, shouting lyrics, requests, and compliments to a shy and deflecting Barnett. She played a sizable chunk of her latest release, as well as covers of The Breeders’ “Cannonball” and “Being Around” by The Lemonheads.
With a first record and big US tour going this well, it’s hard to imagine Courtney Barnett will be slowing down any time soon. Well, at least we hope she doesn’t.
It takes a lot of nerve to wear your white hair long like that: straight, thin, and skimming the neck of your skinny white tie, worn over a tight black t-shirt, matchstick jeans, and elf-point boots. But how else would you dress for your 20th wedding anniversary? You have to applaud a middle-aged couple that celebrates such an occasion by going to an industrial noise gig in Brooklyn. And on a Thursday no less!
Headlining the evening’s two-band bill is Brooklyn duo Eaters, but if I’m being honest I really came to see Brooklyn duo Yvette. Yvette used to be made up of Noah Karos-Fein and Rick Daniel, who released their debut LP Process in October of 2013. The record is a carefully constructed post punk assault-yet it somehow retains a melodic sensibility along with its steel aggression. The record came at a time when cold and militant industrial music was a breath of fresh air amongst the slew of jangly local bands. Anger was back in. Finally.
Listening to Process is a damn fine experience, but it doesn’t really set you up for what Yvette brings to the stage. No longer the original line up, Yvette is still fronted by Karos-Fein on vocals, guitar, and effects, but Dale Elsinger now backs up Noah on the drums. I never saw Yvette while Rick Daniel was still a member, so I can’t speak for his abilities as a live performer. But what I can say is that Elsinger is a welcome replacement. Quite easily one of the most fascinating drummers I’ve seen live-and I don’t get too excited about drummers all that often-it’s almost impossible to look away while he’s playing.
Perhaps it’s merely the democratic stage set-up the band always employs (Noah at the center and Dale to his left) that creates the allure. Maybe if drummers weren’t always banished to the back of the stage we’d find them mesmerizing more often, but something tells me it’s more that just his coordinates that make Elsinger such an intriguing performer. He gives it his all. Watching him smash his kit is exhausting, so I can’t imagine how winded he must feel, but the fact that he’s dripping in sweat by minute two gives me a good idea. Elsinger’s parts are forceful but not fussy, and so directly to-the-point that I’m tempted to call him a purist. He does he always drum barefoot after all.
Yvette’s sets are never long, but always tidy and packed full of energy. There’s no banter, no fluff, just some very talented, straightforward musicians presenting their thesis and then leaving quietly – though what they play is the antithesis of polite and quiet. It’s loud and full of guts and grit.
Eaters is made up of multi-instrumentalist Bob Jones and recording engineer Jonathan Schenke. Their sound is rooted in the dark rubble of post punk debris, so they are a fitting band to share a bill with Yvette. Though while Yvette’s tracks stay consistently hostile, Eaters sometimes float to the softer side of the ‘80s, sounding more Brian Eno than Suicide.
There is certainly a fuller crowd for Eaters, and their presence is more elaborate; the lights turned down almost all the way to emphasize a sphere of light rotating on a hydraulic circular track. It’s a curious and useless prop, but is a fun badge of nerdiness nonetheless.
Eaters finished off sans encore, making way for the late show to follow at Baby’s. Listening to both Eaters and Yvette you’d suspect a late into the early morning set, but I was home and in bed by midnight, which is good, because some people had anniversaries to celebrate.
How did I get here? I’m sitting on a trash bin in the backstage bathroom of Baby’s All Right. Across me, or rather, encircling me, are the three young gentlemen who make up Happyness, arguably one of England’s best new bands. They’ve just released their debut LP Weird Little Birthday, played South by Southwest, and are shaking the last leg of their first American tour. What better way to commemorate it than with a powwow in the john?
To my right, vocalist/keyboardist/guitarist Benji Compston is perched on the toilet. Bassist/vocalist Jonny Allan is cross-legged on the floor in front of me, and drummer Ash Cooper is leaning on the sink. It feels more like I’m cutting gym to smoke cigs with my middle school buddies than it does a professional interview, but I’m instantly at ease. It’s nice meeting other people who feel as at home on a bathroom floor as I do.
I could never have guessed that this was where we’d chat. The evening started as many do, neurotically watching the clock until the exact minute the interview was actually scheduled. Of course, this is never when they occur. Sat at the bar, I witnessed a man fully costumed as a taco run past me into the green room. No explanations, just some very fast food. I finally saw Benji and abruptly sprung at him from my stool, explaining the meet-up we had scheduled.
“Oh, ok, cool-do you mind if I go for a cigarette first? Do you want to come? Do you want one?”
Outside I met Jonny, Ash, and their tour manager, Mark. They told me of the deli sandwiches they’d eaten, and that they were due to order more. I urged them to order a chopped cheese. They didn’t. We entertained the idea of doing the interview in their van, but the boys warned me it was far too messy and musty. (If they only knew…)
To the tiny lavatory then.
Jonny Allan: We could do it [/fusion_builder_column][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][the interview] in the mirror!
Madison Bloom for Audiofemme: Yeah, take a long look at yourself while you answer these very basic questions. No one’s sitting on the toilet, which is a little disappointing
JA: Sit on the toilet, Benji.
Benji Compston: What?
JA: Sit on the toilet.
(Compston slowly settles sideways on the lidless throne.)
JA: That was so dainty! Look at you!
MB: I like what you did there. You’re doing sidesaddle on the toilet.
BC: This is how I always sit. Is this not how you’re meant to?
JA: No, that’s exactly how you’re meant to.
MB: So, this is you’re first U.S. tour…how’s it been?! Do you have any crazy stories of anything that happened?
BC: We got in a hot tub when it was raining and people outside the hotel window stared at us and laughed at us because traditionally people don’t go in hot tubs in quite cold weather in Dallas in March.
Ash Cooper: There’s more hot tubs in America so we were just excited to get in.
BC: Yeah just the idea of having a hotel with a hot tub was like, “Oh my god, we’ve arrived.”
MB: Not a lot of hot tubs in England?
AC: Less pools.
JA: I don’t know, it’s kind of an item of luxury I guess, and I had not seen a hot tub in a while, so, being in a hotel with a hot tub was the BEST thing ever, and so we all went out there, smoked cigarettes and were pale, and people looked at us, it was kinda fun.
MB: So the craziest thing you guys did was get in a hot tub?
JA: Oh yeah then we met a Neo-Nazi Texan man who forced us to hold his loaded gun at ourselves, but….
MB: That’s somehow not surprising to me, like yeah, that’s America. And Texas. What’s been the funnest city to play? Or just to be in? You seemed to have a lot of fun in Portland; you went to Voodoo Doughnut!
JA: Oh they came to us. They delivered a box.
BC: Cleveland. We had a very fun time in Cleveland.
MB: What happened in Cleveland?
BC: (expectant pause) We…played a fun show….
JA: Hung out at America’s Best Value Inn.
MB: Wow, you guys are CRAZY! Hot tubs and…
JA: We fuckin’, we were like running around the hotel and someone set off an alarm…
AC: Yeah we were playing Sardines.
JA: Do you know the game Sardines?
JA: Sardines is basically hide and seek but instead of everyone hiding, one person hides and you go and you try and find them, and if you find them you just hide with them…
AC: Until there’s one guy left wandering around…
JA: …going like: “Has everyone else just left me?”
BC: We hid in a water closet thing.
JA: We hid in a laundry closet thing. A water closet’s a toilet.
BC: Oh is it? Sorry, I thought that was a waste closet.
MB: That’s also fitting.
BC: We stayed in a Motel 6 in Salt Lake City, and, I watched Ash-I thought Ash was getting violently assaulted and I watched out the hotel window and was just kinda like: “Ah, ok, let’s just see what happens next and then deal with it afterwards.”
AC: Story of my life really. Leave Ash outside and see what happens.
BC: Well I thought out of all of us you’d probably deal with it best. I thought you’d probably come back from it kind of.
AC: This isn’t the first time this has happened to me.
BC: Because if I was assaulted in a Motel in Salt Lake City I think I’d just, you know, I think I’d just give up.
MB: What was actually happening? You weren’t being assaulted…
JA: The Mormons were taking over.
MB: You guys played in Seattle, I was actually in Seattle when you guys played but I couldn’t make it.
JA: Ooh, that was a fun show.
AC: Actually I think Seattle was my favorite city.
MB: Really?! I’m from Washington so, a bit of pride there. I was emailing with Cheryl Waters from KEXP and she wanted me to tell you guys hi because she had a really good time.
JA: Yeah, we really liked Cheryl! She was really cool.
AC: We got a lovely photo with her.
BC: Yeah she’s awesome, that session was really fun.
MB: Well I’m glad you guys liked Seattle, just had to kind of rep it and tell you guys hi for Cheryl. You guys did SXSW too, how was that
BC: It was all quite intense.
JA: It was kind of hectic.
All: We didn’t have much time to do anything.
AC: It’s so hectic that you don’t see Austin. It wasn’t until the day after, when we did like a hangover show, that we actually realized that there was a city behind South By.
MB: Yeah I’ve heard a lot of mixed things from musicians, but it’s like a thing that’s really honorable to do.
JA: Yeah it’s nice to be asked to do it.
AC: It’s nice to have the wristband.
MB: Yeah? You gonna frame it? You’ve kept them?
BC: The CMJ one we could wear as like a lanyard, but the South By one was constantly on our wrists and we started to kind of look like fourteen year old festival goers because we just had wrist bands going all up our arms.
JA: Do you know what it does to a person having a shower with the same thing on your wrist every morning? It’s very stressful.
MB: It’s gets very smelly too.
JA: Well, I made a point of shifting…
MB: So it didn’t get the gross watch smell.
JA: Yeah, I didn’t have the kind of, arm decay, because, ‘aint nobody got time for that.
MB: I read an interview that said that while you guys were writing and recording your first EP and album you were working during the day. What were your day jobs?
BC: Um, I worked at a restaurant in South London, which I quite promptly got fired from.
JA: You painted canvases white!
BC: Oh, I was an artist’s assistant in London, and then after that I worked in a restaurant as a waiter and I was probably the worst waiter they’ve ever had.
JA: He got fired because he didn’t know what was in the risotto bowls.
BC: I’d just make stuff up, people would be like, “oh, what’s this?” and I’d kind of go (glances sideways, mumbling) “oh, ch-ch-ri-chorizo, with a bit of…rice and cheese and cream and paprika…..” and then I kind of would say things like: “oh, they put paprika in everything here.” Which they did.
JA: Make that the tagline!
BC: There were some complaints about me…and I’d forget things and a woman once asked for cheese on the side because she was lactose intolerant-
AC: Why would she still get cheese on the side?
BC: And then I grated loads of Parmesan on top of it-
JA: At the table!
BC: Yeah, I put it down and was like (makes grating motion) and she was like: “What the fuck are you doing?” and I was like: “Parmesan! On your risotto!”
JA: I just worked at a pub. I basically served these guys. I would just kind of like hang out there all day and nobody else would come in and they’d come in and be like: “Can I have one of the soups?” and I’d be like: “Yeah.” I got to wear a nice shirt though.
JA: It was short-sleeved, and it was kind of maroon-y
AC: I visited you and you looked very fetching in that shirt.
JA: I did. Yeah, I did, I looked nice. I looked like a nice boy.
MB: Ash, what about you?
AC: Um, I draw baths for children.
MB: I don’t believe you.
JA: No, he does, it’s true.
MB: I’m sorry, you what?
AC: I draw baths for children.
BC: Please explain a little bit.
MB: Yeah, can you, um, that sounds, just, creepy.
AC: I’m a glorified manny.
JA: What’s worse is there like, 14.
AC: These kids can’t fend for themselves.
MB: But that’s all you did? You didn’t like, feed them, or take them to the park? You just bathed-well, you didn’t bathe them…
AC: No, I took them to the park
BC: You took them to the fish restaurant and made a fuss.
AC: I took them to the fish restaurant, well, that wasn’t me that made the fuss – I took them on a run in the park, I took them to the drum shop because we had a free day, I took them to the, eh, oh, what’s that bike race called that goes through Paris?
All: The Tour de France?
AC: I took them to the Tour de France because it came through London and we had a day out, it was great. But yeah, glorified manny. Put glorified manny.
MB: Ok, so, glorified manny, bartender, and shitty waiter. No offense.
BC: Oh, no, it’s fine.
MB: So I’ve read that there’s kind of a movie concept thread running through the new album, but what was the inspiration for the lyrical scalping of Win Butler?
BC: I was walking with Jonny like years ago and I just kind of said the lyric to Jonny and was like…that’s a thing.
JA: We used to talk about Win Butler’s hair. We used to be very, uh, we used to dress kind of, wonderfully in a just appalling way.
MB: Like in suits?
JA: No, we were part of the whole London teenage thing where everyone would wear very tight jeans and really fluorescent shoes.
MB: I don’t know that movement.
JA: Oh, it was a real thing. It was the underage scene in London and we used to really like Win Butler’s hair.
MB: So you don’t actually dislike Win Butler, in fact, you loved him.
JA: Yeah, we loved him.
BC: I just thought one day it would be quite funny, because Win Butler at that point had a hair cut, and it was the haircut and it was part of his thing, and I thought it would be quite funny to cut off part of his head, and wear it.
MB: So in interviews you guys are often pretty self-deprecating of your own music-I’m guessing that’s mostly an act? Or do guys actually kind of feel like: “How the fuck did we get to this place? How are we successful?”
JA: Are we successful? That’s news to us!
AC: We’re doing an interview in a toilet.
BC: So you’re asking, are we actually surprised? Yeah, I think we probably are.
MB: Ok, because I figured, oh, they’re self-deprecating, they’re just British, whatever.
AC: Yeah, it’s partially the British thing I guess…
BC: But lastly, when you leave, we’ll all stand in this mirror and go: “We’re very famous. We’re very famous.”
AC: There’s a story in there somewhere.
MB: So, I’m not going to ask you guys about the “Y” in the spelling of your name because I know you guys get asked that all the time-
JA: The Beatles is the answer to that question.
MB: No! That’s not the question! It’s an announcement actually, because I know you guys mentioned that there’s a band in Finland (Happiness), the hardcore band that is spelled normally, but-
AC: Are you going to start the lawsuit? Is that what you’re announcing?
MB: I will, but I need to start two lawsuits because there’s another band in Rhode Island that’s called Happiness, normal spelling, and it’s three guys from Deer Tick…
JA: Fuck. Them. When did they start that?
MB: I don’t know, but they’re just in Rhode Island, so if you guys wanna just take a car like, a bit north, you can kill them while you’re here.
AC: But wait, now we can start the lawsuit!
JA: It would be very hypocritical of us to start the lawsuit.
BC: That’s very interesting you told us that.
MB: I just felt like I needed to tell you; I didn’t want to start any drama but-
JA: The drama is RIFE.
BC: I think we may have started before them.
JA: I really hope. Cuz like, if you just google the word ‘Happyness’ band
MB: Well, which spelling?
JA: Oh, that’s a good point… Well, they must have found the Finnish heavy metal band…so they’re fucking assholes.
BC: I’m going to pretend this conversation never happened.
MB: I’m still going to put it in…
BC: You’re like God.
MB: Are you from London proper, or are you just based there?
All: No, we’re from London.
MB: Well, you never know, you could be from…
JA: My Mum and Dad live in Devon!
MB: I hear it’s very nice.
JA: It is nice!
MB: Do you find that that’s a big part of your identity? Like I feel like there are bands that really identify as an American band or “We are a British band. That is intrinsic to our identity.” Or do you just happen to be from there.
JA: We just kind of happen to be from there. The amount of people who when we started were like: “Oh! The scene in London is so great right now!” We were kinda like “uhhhhhhhhh…..”
BC: There were a few people who were really trying to make the South London thing happen, and were like “South London band Happyness, from South London!” It was like…ok.
MB: I’ll just put “general English band.”
JA: (chuckles) Yeah, “Non-descript English…”
BC: “Non-descript, trans-Atlantic band.”
MB: I had a question about your song-I listen to BBC6 like, everyday when I’m at work, and Marc Riley’s my favorite, but I never hear him play “Marc Riley in a Karesansui” and I’m always really pissed off! Like, “why won’t you play this?!”
BC: He never has! Can we speak to him about this because-
MB: I want it to be his new intro song!!!
BC: I think he might have not found it very funny….
MB: But he takes the piss out of himself all the time!
BC: The session we did with him was actually really fun, and we actually did really well.
MB: He just seems like such a sweet dude…
BC: No he was really sweet, he bought us some beers and chocolate, which was really nice.
JA: I think it was too long for the radio, but they asked us to make a jingle, and we did it, and that’s why we did it, and then they never put it on the show, so we were just like…
MB: Wait, so you actually made it for them?!
JA: Yeah! And then they never put it on the show.
MB: I’m gonna have a word; I mean, not like we know each other, but maybe….
JA: Email him! Say: “Marc, big fan. Where’s that song?”
MB: Ok. I’ll do it. I’m glad you guys were worried about that, because I was. If you guys had some kind of freak accident and could not play music, what would be your fallback plan, aside from waiting tables?
BC: I’d probably quite like to run a small delicatessen somewhere?
AC: City farm.
JA: Like a petting zoo.
MB: We need those.
BC: Actually, my deli could be part of the city farm.
MB: You could slaughter the animals and use them as the deli meat!
JA: That’s the only reason we’d be growing them in the first place.
BC: Ooh yeah, and we could name it, we could say (puts out hand as if to serve a sandwich) “this is Persephone the pig…”
JA: Angelo, the camel.
BC: Peter, the boa constrictor.
JA: Hey, I’ve got a penny from the floor of the toilet!
MB: Oh! That’s good luck.
JA: Yeah that’s good, urine-y luck.
MB: Do find there’s a big difference between the audiences you play to at home and here?
JA: People make more fun of our accents, which we like, in a kind of masochistic way.
MB: You’ve been on tour for weeks and weeks now; what have you guys been eating mostly?
JA: Bad stuff. Sonic.
BC: Can you tell???
MB: No, no, I just like asking this question because you’re on tour and basically on wheels for a month.
BC: Here’s (NYC) been the best food we’ve had on tour.
BC: Yeah, the food here’s been unbelievably good. Really good.
JA: I had pork belly eggs benedict.
BC: We’d mainly been eating, like, really processed fast food.
JA: We went to a Sheets.
MB: A what?
JA: A Sheets. It’s like a gas station where you order on the-Mark knows about Sheets, he showed us.
MB: Sheets? I don’t know about Sheets.
Mark Miller (Tour Manager): It’s the coolest truck stop. They have a bunch of different food and you order on a screen and then they hand it to you, rather than like, going into a truck stop and eating like, a hot dog on a roller. You can get wraps.
JA: I have a confession to make about Sheets, now remembering: very impersonal.
MB: So that’s a full statement?
JA: Yeah, that’s right.
MB: What are you guys most excited to do while you’re in New York?!
BC: I’ve got a friend, several friends, who live in Central Park Zoo, and, we’re going to go see them.
MB: They live in the zoo?
BC: They live there. They’re sea lions.
JA: We’re going to go see them; we didn’t see them last time.
BC: We didn’t see them last time, we didn’t have time, but we know them quite well.
MB: I’ve actually never been there, I’ve lived here seven years and I’ve never been there.
BC: You should come!
JA: Do you want to come? Monday.
BC: Peter, Andrew, Angela and Nigel. My friends from Central Park Zoo.
JA: They smell worse than our van.
For all their jest and cheeky remarks, these three get very serious on stage. Of course there’s a level of welcome banter and rambunctiousness, but their focus is admirable. The brief set at Baby’s was fun and full of messing around. Allan and Compston smooched each other’s cheeks en route to switch instruments, and finished off their final song with a good tumble on the ground, tangled with their guitar cables and dodging the inevitably sloshed beer.
I can’t say I’ve ever met a pack of musicians as kind or as clever as this lot-they’re as laid back as they are hilarious. As long as you don’t ask them why they spell their name with a “Y,” you should miss the snarl. Seriously. It’s like asking a crust punk if he knows he’s got holes in his jeans.
I hope to hear news of many more albums and American tours to come. And I hope that one day I can talk Happyness into ordering a chopped cheese.