Memory, Morality, and the Wu-Tang Clan
The Dead Science's Mad Villainy
Sam Mickens, lead singer and songwriter for the Dead Science, doesn't look like much of a hiphop head. Tall and slender, with his hair styled into a slick shark-fin pompadour, he favors semiformal attire—on one of the hottest days of the too-brief summer, he was wearing dark slacks, jacket, and dress shoes. He was listening to the new RZA album on his headphones.
Mickens, in spite of appearances, loves hiphop. Especially Wu-Tang Clan. This becomes particularly clear when you're his editor (Mickens has, in the past year, written for The Stranger about Lil Wayne, Nas, Bun B, and has interviewed both RZA and GZA of Wu-Tang Clan). But even if you haven't had the pleasure of working with Mickens, his and his band's affection for hiphop on their new album, Villainaire, is as clear as Warren G's black night and white moon combined.
Which is where a lot of reviews of the album are likely to stop. ("Avant jazz art rockers referencing hiphop? You crazy, Dead Science!") Critics love pop music that converses with other pop music—it's no wonder that Mickens, himself a critic, would make such a record. Critics also love spotting references, so let's indulge: The Dead Science's "Throne of Blood (The Jump Off)" nods to the Wu's "Protect Ya Neck (The Jump Off)" as well as Warren G's "Regulate"; "The Dancing Destroyer" lifts the line "all my purple life" from Prince's "Erotic City"; "Make Mine Marvel" makes its allusion its subject matter—"Dusted with the pollen of 'Triumph'/We bomb atomically/Flex the white gold tarantula/Can you feel it now tell me?"; "Monster Island Czars" refers to one of the Wu's aliases for Staten Island; "Wife You" cops Prince's "Diamonds and Pearls"; "Holliston" flashes a Batsymbol. No doubt there are more such moments bombing subliminally throughout the album.
"I think a lot of my points of reference as a kid are kind of the same as [Wu-Tang Clan's]," Mickens says, over lunch in an empty Thai restaurant. "Things like Marvel Comics were a huge deal for me as a kid. All kinds of mythology was a big deal—Greek mythology, Norse mythology, comic books, Wu-Tang Clan."
But the ambitions of the Dead Science, who include upright bassist Jherek Bischoff and drummer Nick Tamburro, go well beyond mere pop mythological trainspotting. The title's portmanteau of "villain" and "millionaire" suggests some pretty specific moral ideas—if money is the root of all evil, then wealth must be the height of villainy. But Mickens—who grew up in Pasadena, which he describes as starkly divided between rich and poor—balks at a strictly anticapitalist interpretation.
"I am sort of a classist dude," says Mickens. "That's the one prejudice or unhealthy hatred that I've held throughout my life—I have real reflexive problems sometimes with rich people, and in some ways I think that's good. Those ideas are somewhat present on the record. But there's not a lot of content that's like, 'Being rich is evil,' even though I feel like that often may be the case. It's kind of just a beautiful, phonetically pleasing word."
There are images of material wealth on Villainaire—the album's other great neologism, "Ice Grillionaire," as well as those diamonds and pearls on loan from the Purple One—but far more striking are its scenes of poverty and despair. On "Holliston," Mickens describes a boyhood home: "Apartment floor a trash ocean/lamp shades black with flies/and buried in the furniture/animals too weak to survive." On "Black Lane," over a slow- motion cascading guitar that recalls Radiohead's "Street Spirit (Fade Out)," he scores one of the album's most cutting quatrains: "You may not have a car at all/gangster white walls/so you'll walk all the way home/though your body yearns to lie down anywhere." Gangster white walls! You can practically see the blank bedroom, the bare mattress on the beige carpeted floor. "I've tried to liberate myself from these ideas as I've become an adult," says Mickens. "But as a kid, I definitely felt that being poor made you elementally stronger in some way."
"It's the same kind of thing you see on lots of rap records, where dudes are trying to illustrate where they came from, to talk about that kind of poverty," says Mickens. "But the way that they're talking about it is, 'I'm showing you all of this awful horror, but I have emerged from that as this superhero.'"
"Holliston," the site of that destitute apartment, continues, "The filth grew to be my cape and cowl/even after it sunk under my skin." Mickens talks about the album's title referring to "the idea of being rich, rich with not necessarily even evil, but rich with maybe actions that could be considered evil or decadent, and embracing those actions, allowing those energies to become your raiment, your clothes."
Mickens, as mentioned above, knows from raiments. He has, aesthetically, made himself into something of a character—a dapper maestro on the scene, as likely to be backing Daniel Johnston when he comes through town as he is to be hosting hiphop dance parties at Waid's Haitian Cuisine & Lounge in the Central District. He has worked closely with local experimental theater ensemble Implied Violence (of which he considers himself not a member but an "adjunct"), scoring and participating in performances; he and IV codirector Ryan Mitchell form the Villainaire's Academy, responsible for a series of intentionally debauched parties-cum–performance pieces. On Villainaire he expresses a certain fascination with the means by which people transform themselves from humble, even bleak, origins into superheroic figures.
"Wu-Tang Clan have certainly made themselves into superheroes," he continues. "Like Method Man is much more of a character than just his basic human self, just as much as Batman—well, maybe not as much as Batman, but similarly. In comics, those characters are born out of tragedy, and some important turning point makes them what they are. I think if you're a person that has a certain will or mania, then you're going to construct things out of all of those reference points and energies and invest them in yourself and become more than you really are."
But Villainaire is more than a mere love letter to the Wu or a meditation on metamorphosis. Rather, it's a densely layered rumination on morality and the tension between the ecstatic moment, the weight of the past, and the consequences of the future. (Mickens, as part of the Villainaire Festival of Culture, is giving a multimedia lecture on memory and morality.) On the soaring climax of "Make Mine Marvel," Mickens pleads, "Do what you want to do all of the time/shining like gold in the darkest drunk night/the present, forever, until we (die)." Elsewhere, he sings, "Now is the perfect time" "the moment supreme," "no past now—time to go." Throughout Villainaire, this conflict is illustrated in terms of black and white ("a clear black night, a clear white moon"), nightlife and daylight.
"There are a million metaphorical things you can drape on [black and white] beyond good and evil, black and white in the Star Wars sense," says Mickens. "There's the tension between ecstatic abandon—nightlife, being real fucking drunk and dancing at the party—and its aftermath. That's just real basic soul music stuff. Saturday night versus Sunday morning.
"Like, if you're living in the present moment, twisting the night away, then that can be this really powerful place, and maybe you can be there forever. But that's not allowing for all the repercussions of the things that happen in that space. You can't have no future, no past, if you're trying to maintain personal relationships. It's this sense of living in the present versus memory, and how those things affect your ideas about how to conduct yourself morally. Those tensions are on the record for sure, specifically the idea of weird, extreme drunkenness and the actions that result from it."
On "Lamentable," Mickens sings, "I heard I was terrible to you last night/but I must confess I can't remember anything." On "Sword Cane": "Enervated and soft with regret/last night's not fully revealed itself yet." But these blackouts are balanced by scenes of pure abandon. On "Wife You," a woman is "bent back over the railing/hair falling toward the night black water/hairpins falling like harpoons/sharp enough to fell a (white whale)."
Mickens says that in the years leading up to the record, there were "countless incidents" of such drunken extremes in his life and in the lives of those around him. "I lived with the people in Implied Violence, and our personal lives are all very intertwined," he says. "So a lot of stuff on the record was lived communally by these people."
Indeed, the record has something of a communal air, with musician friends of the Dead Science—Past Lives' Morgan Henderson, Shudder to Think's Craig Wedren, and others—dropping in here or there to lend vocals, horns, strings, synthesizers, and the like. (The Villainaire's Academy mixtape, posted on the Dead Science's website in advance of their record's release, features even more guest appearances, as well as an Implied Violence radio play with Foley-style sound effects, and even audio clips from Mickens's interview with RZA.)
But beyond all this good and evil, hiphop and comics, how does Villainaire actually sound? In short, stunning. Mickens, Bischoff, Tamburro, and company are consummate players, adeptly shifting gears from bent rock 'n' roll to anarchic jazz to muted R&B without ever abandoning their own distinctive style. Throughout, there are brilliant little touches—the down-sampled new jack hits of "Clemency," the tense strings and skyward-blooming chorus of "Make Mine Marvel." Most striking of all might be the central passage of "Sword Cane," on which Mickens sings, "drunk and swaying on the overpass," over a cacophony of muffled static bursts, like distant car crashes underneath—the feeling of walking over I-5 at night on Denny or Olive, vertiginous, is unmistakably vivid.
Some will find Mickens's singing voice excessively mannered, just as they might see his aesthetic affectations. And indeed, Mickens's voice—which flickers between whispers, falsettos, and a kind of restrained growl that amps up in inflection without rising in volume—is as carefully styled as his appearance. It's also perfectly able and compelling.
A confession: Villainaire is the first Dead Science record that's made any, let alone such a great, impression on me. They have always seemed like obviously talented and sometimes sonically arresting musicians, but never have they crafted a work as deeply layered and richly rewarding as Villainaire. It is a triumph in the Wu-est sense of the word.
Click here to download the Dead Science's new mixtape School of Villany: The Villianaire Prequel.