I don’t really like live music.
My relationship with live music is tainted by a select number of personality flaws: impatience, constant tiredness (and the desire to sit down most of the time), the inability to eat in a routine fashion (resulting in weakness at the most inopportune times), and anxiety towards fitting into crowds. At the risk of of aggressively name-dropping shows I’ve seen, eating only one meal the day I saw cult heroes Neutral Milk Hotel almost ruined the occasion; I had to sit down for most of the show, and God only knows how much worse it could have been provided the general admission to the venue didn’t have seating. Death Grips at the Catalyst was a claustrophobic, rowdy nightmare for which I might have been too sober to live through. I’ve bought tickets to see Noodles, Titus Andronicus, and Little Dragon, and stayed home instead.
I digress. Seeing shows, even as someone who should avidly consume music like a college radio snob should, is too much of a chore, and this admission has drawn some strange looks from friends and associates.
I was haunted by these flaws while waiting in King St. Station in Seattle, Washington. I was armed with 4 baozi to last me until God knows when, and I was scared my two bags of luggage would draw me strange looks if I took them into the Uwajimaya across the street. As I bit into my second bao, an old Chinese lady handed me what is probably anti-communist literature. I couldn’t tell, but the glossy image of someone being beat down under the portrait of Chairman Mao was unpromising. My stomach grumbled. Was the train from Vancouver to Bellingham, and bus from there to Seattle, mixed with the cost of an Airbnb, worth it? Or was I just giving myself an endless hassle for little comeback? The time was 3:30pm, and I would have only two more bao to eat until the show ended at 11. Maybe this was an expensive mistake on my end to see Teen Suicide, one of my favorite bands on the planet.
I boarded the bus that would take me to an Airbnb in Belltown, located smack-dab between Pike Place Market and Lower Queen Anne. Once there, I quickly mooched from my host a tortilla, almond butter, and a banana to make a desperate man’s peanut butter and banana sandwich, and rushed out. The Vera Project lies in Lower Queen Anne, next to Seattle landmarks like KEXP Studios, the Space Needle, and Key Arena. It’s a local all-ages venue and community resource run by volunteers that also hosts free classes on music journalism, screen-printing, and other impressive things that the youth are very hip to these days. Getting to the general area took around 20 minutes, but an additional 20 was needed to find it, as the entrance is tucked away from lousy tourists like me. I was getting dizzy.
Along the entrance, a long line of fashionable teens was strung out, jittering with excitement; nearby, some skate punks did some middling tricks, maybe to impress some girls. I would later see them that night playing in the strongly chlorinated reflecting pool outside. In the presence of all these high schoolers, I felt like a damn dad, dorky, underdressed, and with too much respect for public property. Once inside, I immediately sat on a bench between a group of Tall Adults and someone who had a bit too much to drink beforehand; the Vera didn’t serve alcoholic beverages.
For $12, you would see 4 groups of musicians: Aeon Fux, Nicole Dollanganger, Teen Suicide, and Elvis Depressedly closing. The first is an alum of the Evergreen State College who sang in a symphonic metal band before moving into more Soundcloud-friendly bleepy bloopy doomsoul solo-route. (I am at a loss for words at describing what genres she blends together, but a VICE article about her includes the tag “big epic lesbian space opera.”) It’s very strange, but also makes complete sense considering the artist’s background. Her set involved playing her instrumentals from her laptop, and a range of vocal delivery from masterful neo-soul to aggressive rapping in Spanish. It was a solid opener, and her novel sound managed to move the growing crowd of teens, swaying along to the afro-futurist space succubus’s songs. If she couldn’t make these internet kids move around, no one could, as no one of the other coming bands had deeper links to dance, pop, or club music.
Aeon Fux is a personal friend to the much more popular and prominent Nicole Dollanganger, who sounds much different. I’m no an expert on Dollanganger, so I won’t extrapolate beyond my immediate prior experience with her:
I downloaded Curdled Milk from her Bandcamp while curating a show on KZSC focused on bedroom pop: homemade music circulated through the internet that occasionally gets the likes of Sky Ferreira or Will Toledo launched onto a serious music label. It seemed promising, given it had drawn the most listeners on Dollanganger’s last.fm. Here are some choice lyrics from the first song on the album, ‘Coma Baby’:
coma baby, with your sick head,
the doctors saved you, but you’re still dead,
through your scalp i would like to reach in
so i could pull out the monster you’ve been
but you would do anything to destroy the body that they rescued,
your sick little head, so brain damaged, lying in that hospital bed
To successfully listen, one must revel in discomfort. It’s jarring, creepy, unsettling, but more than anything else, it’s piercing in how well written it is. Her craft in writing lyrics alone is much more than an edgy young teen trying to shock, it skates just along the edge of discomfort without falling off into corniness like a boy who’s read too much Chuck Palahniuk and is unfortunately inspired to write. This bare, gothic, acoustic bedroom pop is not for me yet, but I can see why so many people I know enjoy this. (As a side note, if you are looking for music recorded in a bathroom that will make you sad but not uncomfortable, February Tape by the Antlers was recorded in Peter Silberman’s bathtub.)
Indeed, Dollanganger has opened for Grimes, another talented Canadian weirdo musician who sings with a baby voice. Grimes has since set up a vanity label/imprint/collective solely to give Nicole a platform to release her 2015 album Natural Born Losers. I suspect she’s yet to leave her signature uncomfortable themes, given said album cover is a faded photo of someone’s head covered in an S&M mask.
Her live set would have been worth the $12 alone. Dollanganger had recently recovered from a bout of laryngitis that threatened to cancel her tour; thankfully for us, she sounded like a million bucks out there, hitting all the delicate notes a voice could, although less like a baby than her recorded music would suggest. Her live set is not just the quiet guitar I’ve expected from Curdled Milk, but includes an over-enthusiastic bassist who ended up busting his bass in the middle of the set, and a drummer who did not destroy his instrument. Kudos to him, whose name I think is Dan.
More surprising was how much energy could be added to her somber music without divorcing it from the tone. The energy I spared by sitting down was spent hooting and hollering for her and the band in between songs, even/especially when they decided to cover ‘Helena’ by My Chemical Romance. In spite of how upsetting listening to the lyrics is, the whole of her set was superb, one I’d throw many dollars at if I knew better.
Given my lack of knowledge of her discography, I can only guesstimate that the majority of the set was made of songs from Natural Born Losers, including ‘You’re So Cool’, or ‘Angels of Porn’. Sounding excellent through the mix at all times (credit just as much to the volunteer sound dude), I began to regain my faith in live music, and intend on braving my way through her most recent EP and album soon.
Teen Suicide is up next. I was very excited.
Teen Suicide is the awful child of Baltimore musician & songwriter Sam Ray. At their peak, they were recording with up to two microphones (luxurious, if not excessive) at a time into GarageBand, singing songs about drugs, and generally being mean to other people. In 2012, they put out three masterful EPs, a phenomenal 20 minute album brimming with ideas (and Simpsons references), and sort of exploded by the end of the year. The band’s history is mythologized by heavy casual drug use and Sam’s tendency to goof around when interviewed, not telling the whole truth; pinpointing where things went sour is difficult, but the most likely explanation involves the mutual anxiety everyone had over how sustainable members’ relationships were, given Sam would likely spend hundreds of dollars per week on heroin.
How much of their material is sincere, and how much of it is making fun of the people around them? Are they frankly talking about heroin and other hard drugs as if it’s no big deal, or is it humor & sarcasm? If Sam Ray sings, “Depression is a construct,” is he suggesting that depression is fake, or is he parroting the thoughts of those who underestimate and misunderstand mental illness? We can’t discount the possibility that the band could be in the wrong, given a well-documented public history of being strong jerks to others in the year of our Lord 2012, transphobia, and oh God, their name! Even recently in 2016 at a show in Boston, the band continued to catch flak when Sam’s casualness in mentioning how he or other heroin users have died to get their hands on the stuff (A personal friend who attended claims it’s been overblown, and Sam was talking about how he would chance death for heroin in a manner that seemed less serious than expected). It would be so hard to love them if they weren’t so talented at crafting noisy downer-pop that dances at times between pop-punk, emo, or indie (whatever that means). They’re rascals, rogues, snarky to the bitter end, and for a little bit, they were thankfully dead.
Through 2013, Sam got clean, made some mixtapes, and began working on becoming a better person. Music-wise, two projects emerged: Julia Brown was born out of the ashes of Teen Suicide, focused on more honest, sincere music, and Starry Cat was twee-as-can-be, whose album sales funded medical bills for close friend Caroline White. (Caroline also makes music under the name Infinity Crush.)
By the end of 2013, the name secretly reunited to open for the beginning of Elvis Depressedly’s 2014 tour. Sam would front, with John “J2” Toohey also playing guitar, Alec “Torts” Simke on bass, and interim drummer Brian Summer. Sam decided that playing as Teen Suicide was fun, and worthwhile. So, they went on tour through some of 2014.
Boston indie label Run For Cover Records ended up signing them months later (as they have with other Orchid Tapes alums), re-mastering DC Snuff Film and Waste Yrself as a double EP, along with I Will Be My Own Hell Because There Is A Devil Inside My Body with bonus tracks. RFC released their most recent/comeback album It’s The Big Joyous Celebration, Let’s Stir The Honeypot. There’s a picture floating around of Sam Ray holding a novelty check for $100,000 from the “Mat Cothran Memorial Fund” (Really just RFC). The rest is history.
Teen Suicide re-emerged like a phoenix from the ashes, with more concern for others, and a shipping container full of money. Humongous mistakes are somehow forgiven (understandably not by all). A few months ago, Sam married the rapper/singer formerly known as Kitty Pryde; the two had gotten acquainted with each other via Sam cyber-bullying Kitty. The universe works in strange ways.
I’m excited about Teen Suicide all the time like hippies are excited about Jerry Garcia & his merry band of those Grateful Dead. The traditional anxiety and inertia that keeps me home was lifted as Teen Suicide assembled on the stage. I stood up from the Bench of Grown-Ass Adults and joined the teens with punk denim vests and hair dyed pastel. Occasionally I was pushed into the area where the Volunteer Sound Dude works. I don’t think he noticed.
Teen Suicide ended up restoring my faith in live music that night. After a sound check, they gently moved first into ‘Its Just A Pop Song’, a song that I’ve been told supposedly catchy, but the style it was recorded in for Honeypot I couldn’t help but find grating. However, the song managed to come out of its recording into its own live.
I must diverge from what I’m writing to recall something Phil Elverum of The Microphones & Mount Eerie said about the results and ethos of recording music. To him, songs exist freely as ideas, not restricted a physical referent or singular document. We capture a shallow snapshot of a song by recording it, but we only capture one possibility the song can old. Likewise, a photo of an object only captures a two-dimensional image, whereas the object has 3 dimensions a single photo cannot capture. In this, you can look through the discography of the Microphones or Mount Eerie, and see songs develop over time, being recorded, re-recorded, reworked, evolving and regressing with parts being replaced and returned. One version of a song will bounce around from place to place, microphone to microphone, gentler than a remix, taking on a life of its own. Phil took some of his studio songs and rebuilt them using only the built-in instruments in GarageBand, releasing an album of such as a novelty. There’s a Mount Eerie live bootleg of a show of Phil reduced to guitar with Allyson Foster and Ashley Eriksson harmonizing in the background, recontextualizing these living songs.
Through the set, and the entire show for that matter, each group’s songs were shown to be living things, gaining new personality within a live context. The thrill of novelty is flanked by the comfort of familiarity. Songs are sung differently, new parts are added in the middle, solos included, transitions meant only for live sets are included. The end of ‘Pop Song’ slid into Pavement-knockoff ‘Long Way Down’, now more noisy and unpolished than ever. Following that was ‘We Found Two Dead Swans And Filled Their Bodies With Flowers’, of which the full-band studio recording is a rarity, and so on. ‘Lonely Boy Goes To A Rave’ included a coda with a guitar solo that would feel very fun to play on Guitar Hero, likewise with a few other songs. Current drummer and recording magician Sean Mercer harmonized with Sam during some bits, even while drumming, an impressive feat for both Sean and Volunteer Sound Dude to make clear.
In between songs, Sam would do most of the talking, appearing humble and somewhat shy, but cracking a few subtle jokes. He mentioned of his guitars is a bootleg Telecaster he got in Seattle, and the high E string was undone in the middle of the set. Apparently Sean Mercer, drummer and close friend, has spent too much time re-stringing those guitars. He drew heavy laughter from the audience when teasing indie rock’s Joyce Manor, but justifying it because he actually “likes that album of theirs that they hate,” and it’s okay to “punch up” because they’re a bigger band. Waste Yrself cut ‘Lonely Boy’ was referred to as a deliberate Wavves rip-off from when “Wavves were good.” The set ended with a cut from I Will Be My Own Hell.., ‘The Same Thing Happening To Me All The Time, Even In My Dreams’, a beautiful work of fuzzy emo that might mockingly sing about someone afraid of disappointing their friends and anxiety, but I don’t want to believe that. I want to believe there’s some nugget of sincerity in
i wish that i’d never met a lot of the people that i’ve met
not because i don’t like them but because i only let them down
when you disappoint everyone all the time it’s hard not to want to die
constantly i feel this weird and shameful feeling
like im being watched by a thousand glowing, vengeful eyes
behind one way mirrors in public bathrooms and in metro cars
and everywhere i go i know i’m not welcome
There are many more thoughts I want to include about author’s intent fading away in these songs, and the injection of meaning by the people who love them, but I’ll save them for later. But, like these songs, I’d like to believe Teen Suicide is still evolving towards sincerity and bigger, more ambitious music. The band, and especially Sam, understands how their past actions have hurt people, and are educating themselves on how to do better. Earlier bootlegs of shows found on YouTube show an immature band not quite cut out for live events, playing at house shows for a handful of people; their infamy propelled them into circulation in discussions on 4chan and Tumblr after their death, where much of their current fanbase lives. Now it appears as if they’re in their prime; their live performance is compelling, professional, and honestly fun to be there for, they released an ambitious, sprawling, and enjoyable (final?) album on April Fool’s 2016, and they’ve finished a tour opening for third wave emo icons Say Anything. They’re developing as people, and exploring sounds beyond gritty indie punk. At the very least, they’re putting their god-awful name to rest soon, hopefully replacing it with the Hot Sloppy Joe Boys. (Legitimately serious considerations include be “The World’s Greatest” or “Porkchop.”)
Teen Suicide left the stage after a mediocre cheer from the audience. They hit all the notes, played most of the hits, used all their pedals, and Elvis Depressedly would close off the show with some good old fashioned goofing around.
Elvis Depressedly is a bummer-pop Orchid Tapes alum composed of leading man Matthew Lee Cothran, Delaney Mills, who plays keyboards and drums if necessary, and whoever else they need. For the night, John Toohey from Teen Suicide would play bass, spinning around like a child who just got a lightsaber for the first time. I don’t know who was playing drums, but I think their name is Derrick, their twitter is @don_frusciante, and they were wearing a Kanye West t-shirt emblazoned with the message “We On An Ultra Light Beam; This Is A God Dream”. He might also play with Infinity Crush.
Here’s our very special boy.
Mat was wearing a Cam Newton jersey, Delaney was wearing a shirt promoting ‘Fear of God II’ by Pusha T, and John was wearing a shirt with stripes, regular and unnoteworthy. Clearly these were people who understand the importance of feeling comfortable and wearing good shirts.
Most songs were from the polished New Alhambra, or fuzzy Holo Pleasures/California Dreamin’, but would avoid either the polish or overt fuzz in exchange for the benefit of sounding loud as hell through concert monitors. The phase shifter Mat’s vocals are usually shoved into was absent, making the music feel less alien and more inviting. The conversational volume of the studio lyrics was traded for yelping that added to the excitement of it all. Elvis Depressedly played loosely, but well, a casualness you’d forgive a band that’s likely exhausted from non-stop touring. At one point they were stalled by the fact that Mat slightly forgot where the capo went for one song, adding to the casual experience that made me feel like we were friends of friends of friends, and mistakes from them or us were forgivable. Occasionally, Mat would shriek into the microphone, making Sound Dude jump out of his seat to make sure a monitor didn’t blow, and even out the vocals. During ‘Rock N’ Roll’, the already goofy song (“There’s no such thing as rock and roll; bless my reptilian soul”) would include Mat asking various rhetorical questions about if something relates to rock & roll, followed up by violently screaming “There’s no such thing as rock and roll!” returning to the beginning of the lyrics. The sound man is accordingly freaked out.
More humorous is the ironic tirade Mat yelled into the mic about how the next song he would play was just a cover song, how every time he sings this song he is sued by the original writer, but he would continue to play even if they took away his band, his guitar, and sent him to prison; he would just keep singing it a capella.
This turned out to be ‘Satan Made A Mansion’, which he wrote under the name Coma Cinema. This comically bitter prologue made the delivery of the song so much sweeter, something I hope the rest of the audience got. Mat, don’t ever stop goofing around. It felt good to get excited about a familiar song I’ve listened to absentmindedly, or to discover something new I wouldn’t have otherwise; choice songs they knock out live include ‘U Angel U’ from from Mickey’s Dead or Hotter Sadness’s ‘Visiting Sadness’.
Upon closer inspection, these songs are way better live, having more energy breathed into them, extending their brevity via singing lyrics from the top, letting the crowd develop familiarity with the music. I regret that the crowd didn’t sing along with the music at all during the show, but maybe that’s too much to ask for.
That night, I went back to my Airbnb with two overpriced band shirts under my arm, and an equally overpriced cup of instant ramen I bought while lost at a gas station, and my faith in live music was restored. I had remembered how the live context transforms music for better or worse, but better in this case. Now that I recall, seeing Sufjan Stevens over at the Fox Theater in Oakland provided a similar experience, as he played the entirety of Carrie & Lowell with a full band, much more oriented towards an electronic sound than the acoustic folk of the album, providing a totally different experience. Not all shows will be as scary or draining as Death Grips was for me, and I look forward to giving the Catalyst Club a bunch of my money to see how people sound different live. Many thanks to the good folks at the Vera Project for showing me live music isn’t a huge chore. Festivals are a whole different story, but this will be the year I go out to see some more shows more often.
If you have the opportunity to see Nicole Dollanganger, Teen Suicide (or whatever name they change to), Elvis Depressedly, or Aeon Fux, go spend that money. They’re gems, all of them.
This review was written by KZSC DJ Just Visiting. Here’s his Spinitron, a log of all the music he’s played for us here at KZSC 88.1 FM.