For their big Debacle Fest matinee performance at the Highline on May 4, Seattle duo MTNS are barefoot and wearing silk slips like it's no big deal. Slender Austin Hund ignites a bass dirge that ripples pant legs. Burly Daniel Enders coaxes crackles from a light theremin, then grabs his drumsticks and stands on his stool in order to beat on the venue's ceiling pipes. Eventually he sits down at his kit and attacks it with feral grace, his face distorted into a demonic grimace.
MTNS then launch into a wild, methodical growl and stomp. The twosome's portentous noise rock unexpectedly accelerates with mad energy, revealing roots in speed metal and no-wave. Enders drops a stick twice in 10 seconds, but no matter. The apocalyptic tone's been established.
As the set progresses, Hund makes his bass corkscrew and spasm in strange contortions and squeal like a pig (see: Deliverance), with a predilection for ratcheting up the tension to infernal degrees. But MTNS are about more than just speed and power. Their last song of the set—and the finale of their excellent new album, All Songs Are Spells—"Hut on a High Peak," shows that they're capable of writing a moving, majestic melody. Marked by an ascending recorder motif, it's one of the best songs by a Seattle band this year.
"I've had that melody in my head for like two years," Hund says in an interview at Enders's temporary dwelling in the Central District. "It was the song I would sing when I lived out in Bellingham, drunk and walking home. So it's very dear to me. I figured it out on the bass and recorded it on a recorder and tricked everybody into thinking I can actually play a flute."
MTNS first kaboomed into my consciousness outside of Vermillion gallery during last year's Capitol Hill Block Party—they had set up, guerrilla-style, on 11th Avenue, and they soon attracted a sizable crowd of hardcore fans and curious passersby. Wild-haired, unkempt-bearded Enders wore only gray briefs and a cat mask, his moobs trembling with each bludgeoning drum-slap. People dug the music hard.
"Playing in the street is something I always wanted to do," Enders says. "We thought we were going to be arrested, but it turned out we drew a crowd. At one point in a video somebody shot, there's a cop nodding his head to the music. The security guards came out and took photos. It was totally unexpected. I thought we were going to piss a bunch of people off. "
Once again, Capitol Hill Block Party has passed on MTNS, but they will be playing the Comet Tavern's annual Cock Block Party (sponsored by local label Good to Die) on the Sunday of the fest.
Playing out is a habit MTNS can't break. They live—and almost die—for the stage. Their recent 45-day national tour included lots of weird encounters with police in South Carolina, New York City, and Arizona. In the latter case, after a tense, confusing situation during which the band and crew had to eat 15 grams of hash to avoid getting busted, a cop posted something creepily cheerful on the band's Facebook page. "We charmed them, and they had no idea how stoned we were," says Enders. On top of these things were some serious aches and pains, as well as plenty of asses rocked and minds blown.
"I was hurt a lot on this tour," Enders says. "Every night we were playing, I was like, 'OW, OW.' But I found it within myself to keep on going. I already want to go back out and do it again."
Hund played with an abscess on his index finger, after stabbing himself with a utility knife while dealing with a faulty cord in Georgia. "I didn't keep [my finger] clean. It got really big and turned into an abscess. I played on it for two weeks afterward. We were in Kentucky, and I called my dad. 'I don't have insurance, and my finger's really big and swollen. Now it's getting red and spreading down my finger.' He said, 'Go to the emergency room!' 'Damn it, I knew you were going to say that. Okay, Pa.' I didn't want to Django Reinhardt myself, so..."
Enders counters, "That would've been cool. You could've gotten a new sound."
The drummer elaborates further on the toll the tour took. "I had extreme pain in my elbow; I could barely bend it. Something happened to my toe. My feet were all bruised on the heel... Austin dislocated my knee when he dove on me in Detroit, but it popped right back in. Maybe this is a bad thing, but I always feel the most content when I leave the stage bloody."
That attitude typifies MTNS' hell-bent approach to music. It also reflects their reckless disregard for decorum and convention in sound and appearance. But as extreme and punishing as MTNS' music is, they're incredibly nice, cheerful guys. "We do have to apologize a lot of the time for being so loud," Hund says. "We've gotten a little quieter. We try to be gentle lovers when we can. But sometimes things can get rough."
MTNS' tumultuous sound has origins in Hund's upbringing: His parents met in college at jazz choir in Soundsation, an Edmonds Community College group. Hund played in concert band at Snohomish High because that was the only way a student could get into jazz band. He played guitar in that setting and then got into punk, combining punk's anarchic attitude with fluent jazz chops. Snohomish classmate Enders was also a punk kid, but he had his horizons expanded by a skateboarding video in which he heard the Locust, which led him to discover other molten speed-freak noisicians like Melt-Banana and Lightning Bolt. "It was the best feeling I ever had, the first time I saw Shoplifting," Enders recalls. "It blew me away. Then I got to see Lightning Bolt and a bunch of other bands. I just decided, 'I want to play music like this.' "
With All Songs Are Spells and an eventful cross-country tour behind them, MTNS plan to engage in more frequent collaborations. In mid-May they'll be playing a 45-minute experimental set along with Monogamy Party in the streets of Pioneer Square, based on a piece written by Saint Genet's Ryan Mitchell. Also on the agenda for MTNS are improv pieces with bass clarinetist Arrington de Dionyso, works for installations, and incorporating more visuals, costumes, and performative aspects into their own shows.
But no matter what, the bond that Enders and Hund have forged will remain their focus. They're addicted to the high-energy combustibility that only results when they get together.
"We're really into the idea of experimenting," Enders says. "We're starting to work on a new record, so we're trying to cut back on playing out. But it's so hard because our favorite thing to do is play a live show. The new stuff we're writing is going to be more and more cohesive and concise, but staying just as intense and noisy. Our band is like a marriage, but nobody's fighting anyone."