Friday, January 31, 2014

Square Zeros #6: Mario Viele (Spirit Of Danger, Chandeli'ers, Chuck Of Death)

My buddy Jim used to play bass and guitar with a great group of guys out in St. Louis/Kansas City called The Ottomen. They wrote — and still write, prolifically, with different personnel — terrific, lo-fi indie rock songs. In line with The Ottomen's sound and breadth of catalog, Jim's guitar style was one of simple, catchy hooks. Some time after Jim left the band to move to Brooklyn, Mario Viele wound up on guitar in The Ottomen, before also moving to Brooklyn a few years later. Now, I give you this seemingly tangential history to give you an idea of how criminally unprepared I was the first time I saw Mario play with Spirit of Danger. Naturally, I expected something akin to Jim's clear, hummable guitaring. Imagine my surprise when Mario plugged in and started slashing out lightning-fast punk leads. Brutal leads. Gruesome leads.

All the warning signs were there. Every mention of Mario on the various (hilarious) Ottomen bios talks about his "shredding." He also does studio engineering at Cowboy Techincal Services Recording Rig in Williamsburg, where he's literally surrounded by awesome, top-of-the-line guitar gear all day. But hey — I had heard recordings of his previous band, before he was in it, so… case closed, yeah?

Had I heard some of Mario's earliest material, I might not have whiffed on him so miserably. In fact, he points out in our interview that his high-school metal band Chuck of Death (named after Chuck Schuldiner, frontman of the pioneering death metal band Death) might have more to do with his current sound than anything else he's played since. While Chuck of Death didn't do any original recordings, the two covers he supplied us — "The Fault of Flesh" by Nevermore and "Slaughter of the Soul" by Swedish death metal innovators At the Gates — go a long way toward explaining his shreddy tendencies.

Beneath the lo-fi production, a 16-year-old Mario charges through some pretty gnarly, serpentine riffs on these tracks. It's also telling that the songs are fairly reasonable covers despite the fact that At the Gates and Nevermore had two guitarists, and Chuck of Death only had one. Though Mario laughingly explained to us that both songs fall apart at the end due to Chuck of Death's inability to finish them properly, Spirit of Danger is definitely a killer ending to these recordings. Check out their self-titled debut EP below, and be on the lookout for new material in Spring 2014.

— JM

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Square Zeros #5: Aileen Brophy (The Space Merchants, The Violent Against Themselves And Others)

At some point, just about every musician asks herself, Would the teenage version of me like/appreciate/be interested in what I'm playing now? For Aileen Brophy, the answer's a fairly straightforward "yes." 

When you're a member of The Space Merchants, you've got a lot to be proud of. Aileen plays bass and sings for the Brooklyn-based four-piece, which dropped a series of killer singles in 2013 and brought its dreamy psychedelia to the local circuit. 

What stands out about the band is its ability to achieve a big, lush sound without a lot of production bells and whistles. The songs are carefully crafted, vacillating between sparse bass- and drum-driven verses and Hawkwindian descents into guitar and Farfisa shredding. On top are super tight vocal harmonies that call up early Jefferson Airplane. Almost in spite of all that, the band maintains a distinctly live feel, making maximum use of every voice and instrument. Earlier this week they released a video for their latest single, "1000 Years Of Boredom" (which opens our podcast) — check it out.

Aileen got her start in Boston in the mid-90s during her first year at Harvard. Whatever the bright center of the city's music scene was at the time, she was far from it, and that was fine by her. She was busy beating on a guitar and screaming out vocals in the basement of a freshman dorm with her band, The Violent Against Themselves And Others. They were short-lived and barely played shows, but they left behind some wonderfully unrefined and raucous recordings that remind us of why we all started playing punk rock in the first place.

Aileen shared three tracks from those sessions, the first of which is a sub-2-minute ripper called "Identity Crisis." She says she and the other members bonded over their love of Minor Threat, and you can hear it — sounds right out of the early Dischord playbook.

The second is "Rebel And React," which fits five tempo changes into a minute and a half and features a seriously unhinged Aileen splitting vocal duties. That closing shriek... yes.

She also brought us "Comeuppance," which she describes as a diatribe against an ex-friend who backstabbed her and lied to her about a scholarship. Listen close to the banter at the end — "Did you say 'whore' in that song?"

Big thanks to Aileen for talking with Square Zeros and letting some of her earliest recordings out into the open. (By the way, what was the bright center of the Boston music scene in 1996? We never quite figured that one out.)

The Space Merchants are playing PSYCH OUT! at Coco66 on Friday 1/24 with Black Valleys (two-thirds of White Hills) and Weird Owl. Also, keep an eye out for a new record by The Space Merchants in the coming months. In the meantime, give them a listen here:


Thursday, January 16, 2014

Square Zeros #4: Keenan Houser (Spaghetti Blacc, GNATS, Blacc Ski Weekend Industries, Gods On Safari)

"Cubic centimeters of disgusting sauced-up spaghetti realness." That was Keenan Houser's unrehearsed response when I asked him what Spaghetti Blacc, his nom de guerre, means. If it doesn't make sense right off the bat, drop the needle anywhere on his already large and growing catalogue, listen to some tracks, and I think you'll agree that it might be the best — or at least the most accurate — way to describe the madness that is this dude's music. 

In plainer terms, Spaghetti Blacc is an MC and producer from Kingsbridge who's been on a recording tear since last spring, aiming to release an album a month over the course of a year. I first heard him a few weeks ago through DatPiff and was instantly bitten by his music. A lazy listener might give it the "experimental rap" tag, but it's more complex than that, especially because he's been so prolific. Think jazz-rap cut with all the glitches and data fragments of the .gif age — a choppy, spaced-out sound that draws from the likes of Souls Of Mischief and Kool Keith, but skews darker and more chaotic.

Keenan, 23, has been rapping for several years now, but didn't start laying his stuff down until around 2011. The first track he shared with Square Zeros, "The Rap Sphinx (Flawless Victory)," is a vampy, head-nod number that features some of his earliest sampling and beat making. At the time, he says, he was a lot more comfortable with his writing chops than his production skills. 

The next track, also from 2011, features a similar production style, but you can hear how Spaghetti Blacc's song craft had progressed. The sampling is creative, the mix is smooth, the vocals are confident (calls up a little Del for me). The song's called "Third Rail," and Keenan ended up putting it on a compilation of his best material from that period. 

It's rare to find an artist as lucid about his own music as Keenan, even in a town brimming with talented musicians. As abstract and jagged as his production gets, everything in his family of projects — which include GNATS, Gods On Safari and the Blacc Ski Weekend label, in addition to Spaghetti Blacc — is done with serious intention. Constantly writing and recording has allowed him to get the big ideas out and sharpen his technique, focusing more on the fine details of the weird. He says his approach is partially inspired by Sun Ra, whose free-spirit, cosmic imagery and other-worldly sounds are a clear driver for Spaghetti Blacc.  

"It's just that whole ethos of — it's not really what you play but making sure every note is alive and roaring and just like ferocious," he says. "That just scared such a crazy energy within me."

(Further reading/listening/viewing: Sun Ra's Space Is The Place.)

Y'all can check out the full range of Keenan's work on Bandcamp, Ephem-Aural, and DatPiff. And stay tuned for a string of new albums dropping regularly from Spaghetti Blacc.

This episode begins with "Goulash Colossal G4 Mix," a cut from GNATS/Spaghetti Blacc's 2014 release, the romance of business, and closes with "Sold Out Food" from the same record.


Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Square Zeros #3: Kaleen Reading (Mannequin Pussy, The Amputees)

I first started playing guitar as a fourteen-year-old kid with too much time on his hands. I'd sequester myself in my room for six hours a day just plugging, wrecking my fingers, trying to figure out why nothing sounded right. That's an old and familiar enough story: a boring beginning for a bored kid.

I reached out to Kaleen Reading about an interview for two reasons. One, obviously, is that she's way talented and her bands rip. She plays drums for the noisy post-grunge outfit Low Fat Getting High* and punk rockers The Amputees. But more importantly, her story — learning to play rock and roll as part of a series of bands in the School of Rock program — is a relatively new, comparatively unfamiliar story, one that should become more and more viable with time.

Judging from the quality of the recordings, there's a lot of talent being groomed in this program. We listened with Kaleen to two songs from her band Dyslexicon. "The Sea" (thus named because it was in the key of 'C') hits familiar enough territory: with its shreddy tones, galloping drums, and big guitar harmonies, it's definitely School of Maiden, with a vocal nod to Sabbath. The key difference is, the singer is a little deeper-throated than Ozzy, and thirteen years old. Here's the part where you try feebly to wrap your head around that.

The other Dyslexicon track, "Lorraine's Kitchen," has all the hallmarks of the teenage writing process. It's a ballad about Burger King, with humorously thrown-together lyrics put over the biggest, boldest chord progression available. The dueling solos — wait, is that a steel pick? Is that first dude on some Brian May shit?! — are positively soaring, and the softer harmonic parts that bridge them are everything and the kitchen sink. There's a lot to chuckle about here, and we joked a lot, but here's the thing: the musicianship's there, the production is still sterling, and I'm willing to bet that there are some Black Crowes fans out there who would drink this up like so many "black golds."

We closed with Kaleen's senior year with the doom metal band Destructotoad, while high-school Jon carved "four-syllable concatenated band names 4 lyfe!!" into the top of his desk. In the interview, we compared it to Sleep's legendary sixty-three-minute magnum opus "Dopesmoker," in that it's huge, it's heavy, and it doesn't quit. We dropped in for a few minutes on the eighteen-minute "Shed Sessions" and grabbed this absolutely enormous riff, with Kaleen on bass. You could play this at a show tomorrow night in Brooklyn (or in my apartment right now), and people would go off.

Or, better yet, you can just go see Low Fat Getting High and The Amputees. Or take a class at the School of Rock, where Kaleen now teaches and directs shows. I'm gonna drop in at least long enough to figure out how you tell what key a song is in.

— JM

*As of September 2014, Kaleen informed us that she no longer plays in Low Fat Getting High, but that she now plays in Mannequin Pussy. We've changed the title of this episode to reflect that, but will leave the rest of the post unchanged. — eds.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Square Zeros #2: Stephen Perry (The Planes, Big Quiet, Hearts Bleed Radio, Epinephrine)

It's only fitting that Stephen Perry would be one of the first musicians we'd feature on Square Zeros because the idea to start this blog really originated in an interview he did with our band Sunset Guns for his blog Hearts Bleed Radio. An aside about Derek playing hardcore in high school led to the revelation that it could be really fun to interview adult musicians about their early musical efforts. Six months later, here we are. Thanks, Steve.

I became aware of Steve about a year ago when two of my bands ended up on bills with his band Big Quiet in the length of five days. For those who play music in Brooklyn, you know that our thriving rock and roll scene — envied across the globe — regularly ends up feeling like it's only composed of fifteen bands made up of different configurations of the same twelve people. Case in point, Steve drums for Big Quiet, but plays guitar and sings in The Planes with some guys who play in other bands. It's definitely not surprising to see the same musicians again and again.

Stephen Perry ripping with his high school grunge-punk band, Epinephrine.

What leapt out at me was to find that even within this tight-knit crowd, Steve revealed himself to be something of a hub, a booster. Through Hearts Bleed Radio, he sets up showcases for local and traveling bands with an eye toward support and publicity, which can feel like a miracle in this world of lazy booking. He also routinely interviews the musicians involved, creating the sort of conversations that build community. Thanks again, Steve.

After all that, it seems almost wrong now to dissect the guy's high school band, Epinephrine, but you know, welcome to Square Zeros. The trick is, Epinephrine is actually pretty solid. Despite a few lyrics that had Steve rolling his eyes a decade later and some misinformed production decisions (recording clean, then adding distortion in Cakewalk? Ugh, I really cringe because it hits so close to home), the early 90s loud-quiet-loud songwriting of "Gap Ad" and "Had To Be" still hold, because loud-quiet-loud songwriting is still an awesome and valid thing to do.

That said, listening to The Planes — for whom Steve is the primary songwriter — shows a little continuity and a lot of maturation. Epinephrine is lo-fi and chaotic; The Planes are lo-fi, but immensely hooky and melodic. The youth energy is still there — this music still rocks — but in a song like "Last Night" (off The Planes October 2013 release Echo Forever/Forever Echo), the aggression has given way to the more thoughtful sound of longtime musicians, albeit musicians with clearer avenues to alcohol.

So thanks, Steve, and I'm looking forward to interviewing you again so we can hear Craphead. I think I safely speak for Derek and myself in saying we're absolutely dying to hear Craphead. Sorry, readers, but you're going to have to listen to the interview to parse that one out.

— JM

Monday, January 13, 2014

Square Zeros #1: Stephen Selman

The snotty 16-year-old in me really wants to open this inaugural edition of Square Zeros by ragging relentlessly on the first person who volunteered his head for our guillotine — especially because it's one of our closest friends and fellow musicians. But I'm going to spare Stephen Selman any of that. He's done us a big favor by acting as our guinea pig as we get this thing off the ground, letting us unveil some of his early attempts at songwriting and recording. He even relearned one of his high school hits and gave us an in-studio performance of it (yes, really). Plus, we beat up on each other plenty in the real world.

Selman, unlike a lot of us, is a true pro. He makes a living producing commercial music and teaching guitar lessons here in New York, and he's got his hands in a range of musical projects outside that. This year he put out two rock n roll solo projects — a 12-inch LP called Routine Burlesque and a follow-up EP called All's Well That Bends Well. They've got a clean garage pop kind of feel — most tracks are cut from the same cloth as, say, the Arctic Monkeys — but there's a dark, slinky element on others where the Tom Waits influence is undeniable. All the instrumentation is him except for the drums on All's Well, where he teamed up with Sunset Guns' Sam Sabin.

Beyond that, Selman is playing Farfisa in Hollow Hills, a dark post-punk/surf outfit that toured this fall (I happen to be their drummer). He also did a lot of other engineering and writing throughout 2013 with a pool of local folks, some of which you'll be able to hear early in the new year, if not sooner.

Selman's recording chops have always been ahead of the curve, and that was true even when he was a kid. While the rest of us were sitting in our bedrooms taking half an afternoon to learn an Operation Ivy cover, Selman was busy figuring out how to make it all sound good on tape. His dedication comes through on his first choice, "Road Song," which he recorded with a friend at about 17 and released under the name Bearded Bravados. Say what you will about the bright alt-country guitars and innocent harmonies, but the production is pretty advanced for the age.

Then there's "White," a song from late high school Selman agreed to play at my request. I remember it being comically maudlin and overwrought, almost in a musical theater sort of way. Listening to it now, with all its crazy key changes and throat-warping vocal melodies, I'm not even sure what to compare it to — maybe some naive meeting of Jeff Buckley and West Side Story. He couldn't track down the original recording in time for the interview, so he did it LIVE for the first time in probably a decade. We got it in one take, but it took everything in me not to crack up there in the second verse. Y'all can hear it at about 15:45 in the podcast.

Thanks again to our boy for making this first episode a success. Catch Selman playing Farfisa with Hollow Hills January 25 at The Gutter. And keep an eye out for new solo songs and shows this spring.