A Time to Ask, a Time to Smoke, a Time to Write and a Time to Leave
This time there was no fucking about—I wrote my fiveish questions down in my catch-all journal during the lead-up to DIIV and Ariel Pink—wholly intent on clamming out some answers from DIIV and ignoring the fact that Ariel Pink was even going to be there.
What can I say? His records were nice, but they didn’t catch my attention…unless they were pom pom, which finally, mercifully pulled itself home and stayed there, never again to traverse from the Spotify Search Bar into my technopolis motherboard through the ramshackle wire tunnels into the amplifier’s control board and back out again from two near mint Yamaha speakers of ’72. It took mere seconds for me to regret playing pom pom, but those opening ticks were nothing compared to the millisecond eternity for that record to just shut the fuck up. But I digress—the epochs in between the birth and death of the universe (pom pom’s run time, funnily enough) could be better spent listening to DIIV (Zachary Cole Smith, Andrew Bailey, Devin Ruben Perez and Ben Newman) and their two records. A 50/50 split seems fair, for even though Oshin could zip along from the Big Bang to 2016 without trouble, it’s all Is the Is Are from there. Spotty and sprawling, yet tastefully ending at 64 minutes without repeating itself too hard, so how difficult could five questions be? Not even close to the struggle for the perfect J—or five of them, to be exact. One for each question and one for each phase of the night, excepting the beginning (that’s what the bowl and questions 4a through 4d were for—leftovers!). I did say I wasn’t fucking around—and these five cannonball colitas were to be my witness to a night well-spent. The plan was almost insidious—but damnit, any artist that can punk out shoegaze like DIIV deserves all the joints they can get. So, with five questions in mind and five joints in shirt pocket, I was ready for tonight’s soiree at the Crystal Ballroom and in this regard, my growing craze with five am weeknights had come in handy—I had a flight to catch at six am.
At 1am I found myself, three joints out in the Sandy Hut on the Eastside after driving to Milwaukee to drop my friend Alex off. That other band (y’know, Ariel Pink?) rocked the house with DIIV opening and after Ariel Rosenberg and Don Bolles (The Germs, Celebrity Skin, Velvet Tinmin, Kitten Sparkles’ Glitterbox) had invited me over to engage in the “Seventies we never had” © that featured such talents as Iron Virgin but really just recalled T. Rex, Diana Ross and Lou Reed in bubblegum drag. The hits were fun but nobody announced what was playing and when Dan Bolles finds obscure shit, you best believe it’s records that swallow Discogs’ attempts for clarity like light in a wormhole. And when I say invited to this shindig, I mean everything short of being dragged into the same car. My beglammed friend, Alex had caught old Bolles’ attention with the sparkles in her coat—and now I sat like an awkward little nerd in the corner of a bar with my journal writing down all these little notes I’m reading from, attempting to piece together that rather long conversation with Zachary Cole Smith and Ben Newman. As I did so, I watched Don Bolles skitter around the bar area, working his magic on the girls surrounding the turntable while his co-host nailed together 7 inch after 7 inch with hardly a drop of dead air in between. His night was winding down and I pounced into action; I had improvised a question for him:
“So why did you want to play with Ariel Pink?”
“He is the best songwriter alive right now. I try, he can’t help it!” he says, before working his magic on a mixed drink. He didn’t need to convince me, Ariel Pink already did, or at least his band did, unfortunately his vocals didn’t quite translate over the acoustics of Lola’s Room—but Rosenberg’s band shredded while Bolles MC’d his way through the concert. By 1:45am it was nearly hour five of his nightlong maître d’ responsibilities. As an aside, I ask him how he felt about the Germs from an inside perspective, Bolles states in factual tone: “[The Germs] were the cartoon version of the Stooges—GG Allin doesn’t really count; he was the cartoon band version of the Darby Crash Band.”
I can understand why, GG Allin would have made Aztec heart sacrifices to Quetzlcoatl if it meant a bloodier audience. Forget about cartoon version, he’s the death priest version. I move back to my notes, finish scrawling, close my beat-up journal, pay for my drink, say my goodbyes, give Ariel Pink a joint for explaining the line he liked to draw between himself and the White Stripes (“The White Stripes were my in, I was listening to the radio feeling kind of bummed that nothing was guitar-based and then alla the sudden the Billboard Charts had guitar-based music on top and I realized I would have an audience,” he said with super confidence before I left) and lit my last and only persie joint—the perfect one. As I sat, the wack-tobacc smolder plumed smoke in the car and I only thought about my first words I relayed from that journal to DIIV.
“You guys strike me as a buncha punks who made a shoegaze band, do you agree with that?” are the words that started the ball rolling.
It was a terrible second question. A passable follow-up question. But I g-g-g-gulped and swallowed it down with the nerves. It appeared despite my age of 24, I was still the biggest kid on the street; Amateur—because I am—but for the first time feeling squeezed by the moniker. My eyes were a dead bloodshot from a walk around the block or two, my pocket was two roll-me-ups lighter and my back was pinched with fatigue—a needlepoint poke in the middle vertebrae—but damn, if musicians can bleed for their instruments, than I can stand for this. Ben Newman, DIIV’s drummer and the fifth Ben I’ve ever met in my life, should’ve bit his tongue on a snicker: “I would say that’s actually a good way of putting it.” I’ll let you decide if it was a genuine agreement or not and really, never has the scale of indie rock been more apparent than standing on the Burnside by the Crystal Ballroom and Ringlers’ Bar; Fifth Ben was both percussion and crew, guarding the mini-van calf behind Ariel Pink’s Babe the White Ox of a recreational vehicle on their west coast of America (that includes Mexico and Canada) spring tour. Zachary Cole Smith just loaded gear and grunted his response. Understood, but untranslatable. Whatever, the guy was my in. Before my gauche bystanding of this tiny mystery van, I stood next to Pink’s eight-wheeled edifice with three concert buddies—total indieheads—and nervously eyed Cole as he took drags on a cigarette and a chat with, well, I still don’t really know who; fan or fam, but it made no difference, I’m not one to butt in on a convo like a jackass until it’s dead. Problem is, this cold clammy conversation wouldn’t just fucking wheeze its last breath and scram. So, I apologized, squeaked an introduction outta my mouth (“Hi, my name’s Ben and I was wondering if I could interview you for my blog.”) and used my first question as an appeal for an interview. “Dive, deev or div?”
“Well… what does your heart tell you?” Cole replied, displaying that same onstage guile with a side-smirk in a baggy pullover and puckish candor. This is hard—I figured it would be ‘dive,’ as my fellow indiehead had suggested but for the last few months I had been screeching ‘deeeeeeeeeeeev’ like a child with a new word that they can’t help but repeat ad nauseum, a scuffed comedy record stuck on the same joke. And with gung-ho abandon, “deev” jumps from tongue without much thought—that might have been a mistake, a jab instead of a flick—but Cole ripostes deftly: “Well,” he pauses, “Your heart’s wrong.”
I laugh: “Figures!” And Cole tells me he’ll come find me after they load most of their gear. He never does, but I suppose this is where the inner journalist comes into play. He takes the form of a professor from college, who was right on many a thing, including ethics, thoroughness and how to be a right sonuvabitch. Your pick on which lesson was being applied tonight. But there he sat, on my right shoulder, mustachioed, wizened, wiry and without pencil in ear, a traditionalist who hated clichés yet whispering totems to my ear: “patience is a—” Proverb be damned, Professor, I’m patient because I want to talk about how Nirvana don’t mean shit when it comes today’s alternative! Sonic Youth are the ones everybody and their mother should be talking about and dive or deev or div or whatever the fuck DIIV stands for should be on the tip of their tongues when they start the dialogue on who influenced who. And so Professor took me to them and I posed the question to Fifth Ben: “Sonic Youth seems to be a keystone for much of the indie noise rock, do you find yourselves influenced by them as well?” Actually, what came out of my mouth was not as articulate as that—what came out of my mouth was a stuttering, stammering mess of “It seems, like, that Sonic Youth is, uh, like one of the m-more influential bands out there, unlike, Nirvana, y’know—s-so, so do you guys feel like you might’ve been influence by them at all?”
“I would say so, yeah,” Fifth Ben said, his eyes diverting to Cole breaking his back on the tour gear. I can’t recall if I shivered because the night made it clear that it was not quite yet summer or because the answer drawled out like “yeah, duh,” between the ears. A boulder of sarcasm that budged an inch instead of rolling for miles while climbing the cliff face to some mesa of answers. How curt, polite and utterly goddamn terrifying: the rock groaned its misery to such a mundane, minor chip of a question. Oh, sure it’s all in my head—but that’s not the problem— it’s that all I can remember is another blighted, old codger advised that it was still just as real! As real as Fifth Ben, Cole and Ariel Rosenberg standing four yards behind me and conversing with a rando and my crimson-haired indiehead friend, Alex, about cult culture in Oregon. There was no real support up here, and with that the performance flagged and the asshole in my brain, apparating on my left shoulder, began: “You butted into a conversation and interrupted a peaceful night just to ask these banal, stupid questions? What are you doing? C’mon, stop wasting their time. Pack it up, put the notebook in your b—oh well you don’t have your notebook, may I suggest you bring it next time? God I can’t fuckin’ believe you sometimes, you are amateur hour, what are you even doing here? Can’t you see it in his eyes? It’s all there—he’s thinking the same shit: you’re shit, now c’mon pack it in, get outta here, why are you still standin’ like a moron, let’s—”
“GET YOUR HEAD IN THE GAME, BEN!”
Professor stood on my right shoulder, surely fuming and flushed scarlet like the red-ink annotations on my annotation assignments. It was like the start of week six and he realized I might not be taking this seriously enough—something about the smell of Jane in my hair and front pocket. But I didn’t take the time to notice—I had questions to ask, like this one: “With the advent of internet as a platform for music distribution, do you guys consider yourselves a part of a more local scene in New York or a global internet scene?” I felt pretty proud about that one—but I could masturbate over it later—Fifth Ben had already started talking: “I mean, we definitely spring from New York—”
“Our label is a scene,” Cole cuts him off, suddenly done with the gear and now sitting with his back on the black instrument cases and amps, done playing his nightly game of tourbus tetris, “we actually just met a fellow labelmate. But for a while I think we were a part of a New York.” Diplomatic as he was, a timeline was needed: “When did you guys start coming up?” I press, thinking 2008 would be a good starting point.
And with an “Around 2011,” Cole fractures my expectations as he reaches for a smoke.
Time for a changeup—what type of gas lit the stove and boiled this pot: “What band really kicked your ass to pick up your instrument?”
“Ever heard of Don Caballero,” inquires Fifth Ben
“Name not sound,” I reply, struggling to remember any tunes by the Math Rock outfit—another artist to heap on the already large pile of missed groups. Another scream from my brain that there is literally too much music for a single human being to handle. Consider the challenge accepted, but the champion occupied. Fifth Ben continues, “That’s what really taught me that the drums were more than just rhythm instruments,” and Cole takes a drag and puffs, then breathes to the sky, the vapor trail of paint-thinner and tobacco floated into the nightsky. The smell of the arrondissements entered my roman nose and had me rose-eyed for the sweat and cigarettes of Boulevard de Clichy.
“Ever heard of a little band called Nirvana,” Cole asks, coy as ever. And as far as I am concerned—that settles it: Sonic Youth must be an influence. Sure, no one ever picks up their guitar because of Kim Gordon but she’s not the Messiah; that’s a very naughty boy: Kurt Cobain. He’s the savior before all the dirt falls away or is scrubbed clean and before the book is written. He’s also thoroughly uninteresting musically. A generational voice, a garage traditionalist, reading off the same playbook as the Melvins, Meat Puppets, Hüsker Dü, the Pixies and others. DIIV just found the chapter titled “Noise Rock and No Wave” and ran with it like a couple of Ramones with a Bible and a dirty magazine, ready to work a nasty surprise into the reverend’s sermon. That Jesus, not unlike the Pope, may sell Bibles and Cobain, not unlike Jimmy Page, may sell guitars, but Gordon, not unlike Lou Reed, is why people play them; finding cracks in the wall between avant-garde and traditionalism and then exploiting them like no other. Channeling the overstimulation of noise into the wrath of the dregs, DIIV is an avid disciple of the Gospels of St. Albini and St. Branca. So what if their records have attained a sweetness since their DIY origins of New York ca. 2011? What should really matter is how all this appears on my face as if I’m Zach Galifinakis working the blackjack table and yet the singular answer I can muster is:
“Yep,” says Cole back. Fuck, I need a follow-up to the follow-up of the follow-up. Err, um: “Do you think a band will ever reach the same appeal?”
So convinced was I that the Sonic Youth influenced these cats, I, a dolt often enough, pursue the Nirvana angle and Fifth Ben dismisses it whole heartedly, “Nah man, that was a very unique situation, getting to that level.” This is fair, because Nirvana killed classic rock n’ roll. But contrary to Gene Simmon’s inflated autopsy, Nirvana never killed alternative rock—just confirmed its status. Besides, if classic rock was to become hair metal, then it was a just death. But still, alternative rock has grown in it’s niche, coming to silver line the conglomerating record industry and it seemed a cycle needed repeating, a circle needed flattening and while Tame Impala seemed the obvious choice, he was psychedelic, ergo the wrong one. Perhaps old contemporaries could be answer:
“What about Foo Fighters or Pearl Jam?”
Cole deadpans “I don’t really listen to Foo Fighters.” Of course he doesn’t. And Fifth Ben just stares at me blankly, musta zigged when I zagged—”oh shit,” I thought and thusly gulped out “Well, as a ‘legacy band,’ d’you think [Pearl Jam or the Foo Fighters]’ll be as big as Nirvana was?” But it was at this point that Cole just nipped the question in the bud: “Well for whatever cosmic reason Nirvana was Nirvana. I mean everyone that was needed to be there was there at the right place, right time.” Ah, here lies the convergence of punk and shoegaze—fatalism—and Cole knew how to use it. Punks, as is there wont, tend to not look on the bright side of life and how could they? Surrounded by decay and rot on the underside of the shining metropolis in the sky or the singularized cyber-city, the world becomes a boxed in place, a man-made construct, wholly unnatural and totally guided by vicious Nashian axioms and scrubbed clean of any Kantian ethics. In this space they look for other philosophers; the Doors found Hesse, Iggy Pop found Turgenev, the Sex Pistols found Jacobi, Velvet Underground found Kierkegaard. Fate was decay, fate was to die, rebellion was an attempt to flip the table on the bored game of society. There was the method of the music: shake it up, be ugly, be stupid, be free; society would chew them out at their best so why not be their worst? In the conflict suivant most punks fought cruelty with cruelty, some cashed out and became new wave, others hid out and wanted no wave. From there, the dawdlers began to chill out and shoegaze and daydream but do anything but slack. Shoegaze’s destiny lies in its name: it will shoegaze, meander and tame itself to a shy demeanor. Shoegaze never look up to see the decay in society, it must be inherent (and thus become a great wall from which few Shoegazers climb over) and therefore, unmoving—instead Shoegazers observe the decay in itself and all subjects pursuant: dreams, youth, morals and standards—Shoegaze microdoses on the individual contradictions of purpose, tires of them and proceeds to watch a caterpillar scavenge on a branch or the wind carry the caravel clouds. Distracted music? Yes: it’s melodic, ambient morphine made by depressed millennials with a healthy distaste for speedballs when death is already coming. Sure, life sucks, but the flowers crowns melodies bring out colour among the grass and the music rhythms resonate in the concrete grooves of commercial purgatories. For the last thirty years, shoegaze and punk have seen growth that separated them further, but with DIIV, these two genres converge on the same point of origin—existential dread.
“You guys seemed very Kurt Cobain-like all night,” and by you guys I meant mostly Cole, who suffered from the curse of the frontman, i.e. the frontman is the band, right, guys? Right? Guys? “You were playing with the crowd about all the ‘critical acclaim,’ baiting them a bit like Cobain.” It’s true—not nearly as mean spirited and teasing, but still coy and agile and sarcastic. But Cole’s eyebrows perk up, “Oh, really?” and Oh Shit, Part Two began in earnest with another throat clearing: “It just seemed to me—y’know Kurt Cobain would refuse to play “Smells Like [Teenage Spirit],” and open up with guitar lines similar to it but then not play it. You guys dabbled with him in that line, not that I was complaining,” I end with another gulp. and if you’re wondering how the fuck I continued after this hurdle, well, me too, reader, me too. The only thing next on my notes is the statement: “Do you feel a cosmic reason brought you guys together?”
“Right place, right time, right instrument,” waxes Cole in short order. Improverbing this interview to an end. Or what should have been the end—I try to drag it back to that “New York scene” but Fifth Ben’s affirmative nod should have been enough of a clue that the interview was done. The Professor, who stood on my shoulder even as I fell down, disapparated. And then, while he wasn’t looking, I offered Cole my fourth joint for the road. With a slam, he slammed the other side of the double hinged backdoor to the tour van. On the window was a sticker for Sonic Youth.