Weapons of Mass Distortion
Comets On Fire and Wolf Eyes Crack a Maglite on Sub Pop's Dark Underbelly
With indie pop superstars like the Shins, Postal Service, and Iron & Wine on the label--along with recent signees Sleater-Kinney--Sub Pop has several quality dough-rakers on its roster. But Sub Pop's current financial status is only interesting in that it allows the label to continue to diversify. In the past decade, grunge's Ground Zero has offered everything from folk pop to glam punk to eccentric metal and cosmic country (not all of it great, of course), and it's continued taking risks, cultivating a darker side to its current pop glow.
An alternate universe of outsider, obscure, and offbeat bands is forming under label head Jonathan Poneman and staffers like retail head Andy Kotowicz, publicist Jed Maheu, and direct sales head Dean Whitmore, all of whom help scout out new acts. They're giving the label the fuckall tweaking it needs to stay sharp.
Starting with the 2003 reissue of '60s psychedelic rocker Michael Yonkers' Microminiature Love, Sub Pop has began to embrace more aberrant artists. The label recently signed local art punks A Frames and atmospheric Italian folk duo Jennifer Gentle, and assists Kinksi with their astral experimentations. And then there is free-rock expeditionists Comets on Fire's Blue Cathedral and noise destroyers Wolf Eyes' Burned Mind, two of the most deafening new signings to the label. Wolf Eyes have the blessing of both Thurston Moore and Andrew W. K., and Comets on Fire have been championed by ex-Teardrop Explodes frontman Julian Cope on his lysergic-rock-focused website, www.headheritage.co.uk. Both Sub Pop acts will play the UK fest All Tomorrow's Parties festival in December.
"I think we've surprised people quite a bit," says Kotowicz, "whether they've been disarmed by an Iron & Wine record or had their head blown off by Comets or Wolf Eyes." Adds Whitmore, "Those [latter two] bands are challenging; they make you question how you make your conceptions and how you listen to and see music."
Kotowicz agrees, noting, "15 years ago, it really wouldn't have been so strange for one of the major independent record labels to work with bands like Wolf Eyes or Comets. Back in the late '80s, the sound of indie rock was Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., Pussy Galore, even Mudhoney and Nirvana. It was loud, experimental, and uncompromising. I remember what it felt like to take that leap upon first hearing Dinosaur or Sonic Youth and bands like Comets and Wolf Eyes kinda bring it all back home for me."
With the results of the recent election bringing back the migraines of the '80s as well, feral forces like Comets and Wolf Eyes wield powerful methods of mass distortion--where instead of sticking your head in an oven because the country's too conservative, you can stick your ears inside their nuclear warheads and press the red button to blast off. They may not end up on Hollywood movie soundtracks like the Shins, but Comets and Wolf Eyes offer Sub Pop a different type of royalty--a chance to reign in vibrant new blood.
AGE OF ATOMIC AQUARIUS: COMETS ON FIRE
To understand Comets on Fire, you must first understand Northern California. Specifically Eureka (where members of Comets grew up) and Santa Cruz (where they started playing music together), which are shielded from the rest of the world under redwood canopies. There's something especially unreal about
Santa Cruz, a beachfront town that's a magnet for crispy fried hippies, peroxide surfers, and drug-dabbling university kids. It's the kind of place where your most poignant memories might involve ogling nature's optical illusions at the Mystery Spot, cramming into punk shows in grimy Victorian basements, or, once upon a time, spending 4:20 p.m. Fridays getting stoned outside the college chancellor's office, all of which could be cornerstones in some imaginary history of Comets' aesthetic.
Santa Cruz's incubatory cultural oasis is, as Comets singer/guitarist Ethan Miller puts it, "where the vibes are really complex." And it's the crucial nexus for the equally complicated Comets, whose members metastasized there from a "psychedelic ZZ Top" outfit into a psychedelic free jazz acid folk classic rock noise explosion over the past five years, moving to the Bay Area as a scramble of Pink Floyd, MC5, Sun Ra, Blue Cheer, and CCR thrown into a centrifuge and left spinning for eternity. Says Sub Pop's Poneman, "They hearken to a lot of stuff not only that people have heard on Sub Pop before [elements of bands like Zen Guerrilla or Mudhoney], but the bands that influenced bands on Sub Pop. There's a certain Hawkwindish element and there's a Stooges quality--the usual name-checky stuff--but there's so much compositional exploration and vigor it is really vital and of the moment. They're very expansive and there's a lot of places that band can go."
Expansive is an apt description for a band whose central instrument is an echoplex--or, as Miller corrects me, Noel Harmonson's improvised laboratory of "fucking tangled chords plugged into a bunch of fucking electronics through shitty amplified speakers." Miller further explains, "Noel recently asked not to talk about his rig in terms of echoplex anymore. It is an echoplex he's playing and there's an oscillator and a ring modulator and different bleeps and blips and chords and bullshits and I think he calls the whole event 'echo electronics.'"
With this contraption, Harmonson frees the band from the constraints of linear sound projection. "Noel is rearranging time and bringing things back to the future," says Miller. "He has a moveable tape head and the echoplex is like a seven-minute tape loop that's recording everything that goes into my microphone--and then it's played back from that box out into the speakers, so essentially he can move that tape head around and jump from here to there and go back into the past and replay it."
On Comets' 2002 release, Field Recordings from the Sun (Ba Da Bing), Harmonson is the whirling dervish through Miller's guitar and vocals, Ben Flashman's bass, Six Organs of Admittance's Ben Chasny's guitar, Tim Daly's saxophone skronk, and Utrillo Belcher's drums. After a small clattering of wind chimes and bells, the album blasts off like twin MC5s playing against each other, a sonic ambush boldly and blindly monochromatic in approach. As with all Comets albums, Field Recordings was written mostly in the studio. "My favorite records were made in studios, reacting against that fucking weird sterile environment," Miller says. "You're playing for machines that are trying to eat your music and you're trying to give them the best fucking meal they can have, so they can spit it back out in machine language to ya. We just have the backbone of the songs [going in] and [I'll] envision a big fucking mess of a psychedelic brain-ripping orchestra or wall of sound [and hope] it'll be great."
Comets' new CD on Sub Pop, Blue Cathedral, adds strokes of color and depth to that bombastic palette, courtesy of both Chasny's acid-folk influence and Belcher's affinity for proggy piano jams. With Harmonson, Miller says, "There is no fucking hangover, no fucking flu that isn't an appropriate time to put in the most brain-frying free-jazz record and listen to it all day long." Whereas Belcher, who adds piano melodies to parts of the record, has a "real connection with '70s singer/songwriter piano player dudes." Musically fusing those extreme personalities--and adding in Chasny's signature acoustic work--only helps Comets become increasingly more dynamic, a push-pull out into the galaxies of space rock and deep into the soil jams that prevent the band from remaining stationary in one sound for too long. "If you're going to make something that's one overbearing texture or one overbearing light, you don't want to do that again," says Miller. "[You don't create] a musical holocaust again [unless] you're saying that you fucked up the first time." He explains that overall, "We're working-class folks. We just want to throw on some Credence. There's an essential love for those earthy good-time jams. So we try to incorporate that joyful pop feeling and something unexpected and brain-blistering as well." JENNIFER MAERZ
GROSS IRRATIONAL PRODUCT: WOLF EYES
There's an appealing symmetry to the fact that Wolf Eyes work their demonic DIY magic in Ypsilanti, Michigan, dingy childhood home of the Stooges' Iggy Pop. Because Wolf Eyes essentially consist of three Iggy Pops. And like Iggy, Wolf Eyes shoot revolutionary, ribald energy through rock's moribund carcass. They're carrying the Stooges' torch into the 21st century--and inflaming your mind with it in less structured, but no less convulsive ways.
Wolf Eyes' massive canon is how rock sounds after it's suffered a genetic catastrophe, its Grand Guignol mutations spasming with macabre intensity. Their new album, Burned Mind, manages to be the trio's most ornery and their most accessible music yet. Wolf Eyes at their best tap into a primal power source and saturate the air with fight-or-fuck sounds that obliterate all thoughts save the ion storm consuming your brain; with every album encounter you hear new outrages to audio decorum.
To many underground-noiseniks, Wolf Eyes' appearance on Sub Pop is akin to the Linda Blair character's appearance at the grown-ups' party in The Exorcist. Sure, the band members--John Olson (electronics, tapes, horns), Aaron Dilloway (tapes, guitar, voice, electronics), and Nate Young (vocals, electronics, programming)--look like fairly typical Midwestern dudes, but onstage and in the studio, they are freakin' possessed.
It's that outsized presence that won the group labelhead Jonathan Poneman's heart. "Wolf Eyes [are] a rock 'n' roll band," Poneman says. "[People] can make the Nurse with Wound, Merzbow, White House parallels, but for me it's just going back to the emotional resonance. There's the spectacle, there's the noise--it's like watching Led Zeppelin. They get into these grooves, and I'm saying this as an old geezer but a groove is a groove and sonic firepower is sonic firepower. It's very expressive, very liberating, it makes me want to kick shit and rock 'n' roll needs to be about that."
"It wasn't hard to sell Jonathan on it," says Sub Pop's Kotowicz. "After we saw them [in Minneapolis] it was a pretty mind-blowing show. They were completely brutal, totally visceral."
Wolf Eyes' virulent expulsions of sound perfectly captured the dread of anticipating four more years of Bush rule. (Now that Kerry's conceded, Wolf Eyes will be more necessary than ever.) Not that they would ever engage in blunt sloganeering. Rather, Wolf Eyes' wholly caustic output offers some of the best venting for individuals who feel powerless to change a deeply flawed society.
When confronted with music as fucked up as Wolf Eyes', you naturally wonder about its creators' motivations. Do they view their music as personal/communal catharsis? Shock tactics? Stimulus for political revolt?
"We just do this 'cause that's what we do," Olson tautologizes. That answer's sure to rankle all the noise fiends, culture-studies students, and know-it-all record-store clerks antsy to air their over-intellectualized analyses of Wolf Eyes' tattoo-erasing music. "We're not doing this for any other reason than making the raddest sounds possible," Olson states. "Fuck shock and politics. That shit is wack."
Wolf Eyes' recent success (signing to Sub Pop, touring with Sonic Youth, hobnobbing with ex-Domino's Pizza CEO Tom Monaghan) hasn't spurred them to get fancier gear. Don't expect to see a phalanx of PowerBooks in their live setup any time soon.
"Fuck that shit," Olson pontificates. "[Our music consists of] the grossest sounds made by the grossest equipment. We only use laptops to check www.bigboobs.com."
Surely Wolf Eyes' creative process involves serious aesthetic discussions, theoretical discourses about timbre and dynamics, explorations of the outer limits of their homemade gear, and ruminations on the subversive properties of noise. Right? "We get wasted, we fucking jam, and we put it out," Olson explains. "Then we get a pizza."
Whatever their methods, they captured Sonic Youth gadfly Thurston Moore's imagination. He helped to get Wolf Eyes onto the bill at Lollapalooza, and when that folded, he asked them to join Sonic Youth for a big tour.
"I think they write catchy tunes," Moore says. "It's like catching a screaming bloody skull with nails jammed into its face into a mitt sewn from the rotting face of a slaughtered grandma. Plus, they're cute, good-looking Midwest boys with chipped teeth and tattoos. They're also well-rounded; they're not just fascist noise freaks--they come out swinging with sweet inspiration from heavy psych-folk vibes, which, mixed with their love of high-energy MC5 ass-kick, makes them an H-bomb of greatness."
Another of Wolf Eyes' staunchest champions is motivational rock star Andrew W. K. The white-jeaned dynamo used to move in the same Ann Arbor experimental-noise circles as Wolf Eyes and even appeared on a few of their releases.
"It doesn't surprise me that Wolf Eyes are progressing," says W. K. "They've always been on the cutting edge, and they use that edge as a slicer--that's the key. I'm very proud of them. I see tons of other new bands ripping off Wolf Eyes' moves, but it's understandable: They're the originators of that Nate Young vibe, and it's something that people like so much they can't help but reassemble it."
About Wolf Eyes' future, W. K. speculates, "All I care is that they keep on going. I really hope that they take huge risks and push the whole thing into different doors. It's wider than you think, and yet it can still be squeezed through any doorframe. I can envision Wolf Eyes playing in front of 10,000. I think it's a matter of giving people what they want, and what they never knew they could have." DAVE SEGAL
Comets on Fire and Wolf Eyes perform together Mon Nov 15 at Chop Suey, 8 pm, $10 adv.