“Any favourite cities, besides, well, I was gonna ask about Bordeaux but **chuckle** but you guys got in late, so I guess Bordeaux’s been struck off the list.”
Michael Perry Rudes: “Well no, we were here in 2016, and the first show that we played in Europe was here, in Bordeaux, and we played in front of Saint-Michel… and it was right after we got off a plane that was like nine hours… drove six hours and then immediately got thrown on stage in front of a couple thousand people. And it felt crazy, but we had a really good time.”
The VOID in Bordeaux was quite clearly not made for me. A punk-and-metal garage venue just off the rue Sainte-Catherine that takes its cues from CBGB, knackered and graffiti’d.
Except you can tell the VOID is a little more couture about itself (And I say this endearingly: bloody French), I mean, would CBGB really line-up festival posters for the Talking Heads, Ramones, Blondie or the European Punk Rock Festival of ‘76? Shit, festival culture was but a nascent babe back then, the dive-bar punks would have eaten those posters alive, glass and all, bleeding out just to spite the body! (Or at least the Iggy Pop wannabe iconoclasts would have, in their ironic emulation.) But along the entrance walls remained a very clear and present cleanliness, art-nouveau gothica for Hellfest, Graveyard, Wo Fat, Saint Vitus and Celeste Vampire among Dada-esque, aboriginal and lithographic art designs, creative and aleatory, but arranged. There was a veil here, so thick and put on it transformed the band sticker spread into pure bukkake over the bar head.
But I have to admit, up to now it’s all been professionally shot. The VOID is an association, see, a highly regarded coop of punks presided over by a Monsieur le Président, François (once again: bloody French), the latest in the succession line. The association itself has stayed alive in Bordeaux for twenty years under various names, Heretic Club, Plug and Zoo Bizarre, and François stays on top of it, helping carry bandstuffs to the basement, making sure the bar is stocked plenty with vin du table (my personal remerciments) and hounding the mixing table that the sound met the standard—unfortunately that standard might have included a neighborhood sound order, but I digress—the man was leading from the back and the front. Coursing the staircases so he might have a break at the intermissions.
Speaking of, there were two stairwells that led down to the basement; one at the back by the bar and one just past the main entrance hall replete with posters, leading down to the backstage area, covered in grubby markings (that’s more like it!). The backstage is often given an aura of sexiness that it doesn’t deserve. Mostly in my own head, replete with Seventies-era biopics, rockumentaries and Lester Bangs testimonials, which meander between rose-tinted kumbaya fables and scathingly precise details. At The VOID, the backstage is a den, cigarettes stained my nostrils, French chätouille babble cozy against my ears, I sat on what felt like a worn out casting couch. And I had to ask: what is sexy that isn’t also slightly seedy? What isn’t to love about these colourful tell-alls? Wide-eyed wonder will do that ya, from here to eternity. I suppose its my own fault really; recently I’ve been told I’m too pure to fall in love with trash. Well, my pasty, jeans-and-a-band-shirt ass has and it still sort of is.
There was a moment where I mentioned to FEELS’ tour manager, Sal Priem, that he looked like Shaggy and proceedingly caught his look of the ingracious “wot,” but triggered laughs out of the members of FEELS. The perceived Charlie Bucket boyishness of my comment may have forestalled surprise at my fascination with the grease-works of the graft and I suspect my lay innocence may have laid a sign upon my back.
I half expected it to say kick me.
Because that’s how I feel. Every. Damn. Time. I. Interview.
I’m a terrible speaker—very inquisitive, very curious—but stuttering, never really, er, never really completing a thought before moving to the next. So, well, now I’m floundering—but you get the idea. Always trying to weave words around the question, delicate, rather than just dunking the head, bobbing the apple and asking the wretched thing.
So it was, when I went about asking Laena Geronimo, Shannon Lay, Amy Allen and Michael Perry Rudes on their latest album Post-Earth (you mighta hurd me sputter a werd or two about it recently), the nature of touring in Europe, the evolution of their production style and more, that the ers and the likes and the blablabla’s gotta little out o’ hand, y’know? We West-Coasters are a bit prone to this oily language, linguistic lubrication that it is, and it was that way as we sat for half-an-hour while Magnetix raged behind us ragging on their puckish-punkish Chuck Berryisms. It also didn’t help that FEELS were on that indie wagon life, traveling like minstrels all through the day from a witching hour gig in Barcelona to a garage soirée in Bordeaux. They were downright dog-tired—which made their performance all the more impressive.
I really should have expected it, the way Allen crunched and dreamed along the setlist; the way Shannon licked her rhythm guitar into shape; the way Laena fell to her knees praying to the sight onstage; and the way Rudes kept FEELS on point and en marche. This was their life.
But the crowd? They never saw it coming.
“Post-Earth, it feels, just even from it’s title, like it’s more politically-minded.”
Shannon Lay: “Yeah, I think it was just the current climate, it had everybody on edge and it wasn’t an intentional thing to make something super political but it was just all we could think about. And I think whatever you’re experiencing is what you end up writing about. And it was just a collective feeling among us that was like ‘uh-oh.’”
I quip that France is closed on Sundays.
But it might just as well be Saturdays now, too. In Bordeaux, the gendarmes had barred off townsfolk and tourists alike from the Cathedral Saint-André, the Hotêl de Ville and the Cours de l’Intendance. Playing the dumb tourist, I had to ask and received a three word reply “les gilet-jaunes.” Innerwardly, I gulped.
Two days near Christmas eve, my cousin, Andrew, and I stayed close to Gare St. Jean in Bordeaux. That Saturday was spent exploring the Quais on the Port de la Lune, watching the first stirrings of a popular demonstration, weaving the side-streets and finding the Saint-Michel along our way to a museum consecrated, naturally, for the history of Bordelais wine trade. Leaving, with a pretty French girl’s Facebook profile in hand, we were caught, three bottles of wine boxed and pressed to my chest, criss-crossing every which boulevard and mainstreet looking for a sign to point us in the direction of Place de la Victoire. There the tourist curio of popular demonstration had frayed at the borders, pointed at the corners and hollered where it had chanted. Black smoke rose on the metro tracks and the smell of burning plastic mingled with tear gas. We hightailed it. From la Porte d’Aquitaine on to a parcours parallel with the Cours de la Marne and its host of yellow jackets, all under sporadic fire from tear gas and flashbangs alike. Corralled by those French sirens, the kind that gives you flashbacks to the Bourne Identity, blaring past to set a roadblock. It was one of those rare fears—the fear that comes with the threat of being maimed and knowing so. Usually that fear sits in the back of your skull, chittering, chattering, combating your more idiotic impulses, y’know, a conscience. God bless it.
But that night, when the flang-bang flash grenades went off and the taste of tear gas tepid pushed that terror impulse right to the forefront and center of our mind, there was no other recourse. So we ran with the civilians and the tourists alike, non-warriors running like the Warriors. When we finally reached the AirBnB high in the apartment block, I placed the wine on the counter, opened the balcony door, regarded the night skyline, returned to Andrew with a smile and asked if he was game for dinner. Luckily, Dominos still delivered.
I never made it out to Saint-Michel during a lovely springtime Saturday; but I assumed the basilique was just as well guarded. Me, I was of two minds about it, the tourist and the revolutionary, you guess who is who:
On one hand, as of this writing, the French have taken to the streets for 24 straight weeks; livid and with good reason—Emmanuel Macron was the least worst candidate in the last Presidential election, but that just meant things would get worse, slowly. Public budgets have taken poundings; the amount of teacher’s union fliers titled with an “appel à la grève” that I’ve received in my mailbox and resulting unscheduled days off I’ve taken are clear on whats happening in the education sector. La societé nationale de chemins-fers (SNCF), meanwhile, has been facing increasing privatization, selling off services piecemeal to interested parties. But it was the Loi El Khomri, a massive overhaul in codified worker’s law, that started this winter of discontent; Macron’s support of further measures to “modernize” France’s medical training has only come to further identify him as someone who wants to “destroy” France. Add in increased taxation for these lessened social services and the gas was lit.
On the other hand, at the time of my second Bordeaux trip, Act 21 of the gilet-jaunes was upon them and it would have been damn shame if the pretty part of town got roughed up to resemble the banlieue, wouldn’t it?
Say what you want about Donald Trump, but his idiocy and disregard for, well, everyone and everything has given the disaffected lefties and moderates an easy target for discontent. His flouting of whatever we thought normal if not legally required in America’s pernicious phiz of oligarchy posing as republicanism has led to some serious marches, but lemme tell ya: nobody does revolution like the French.
The Sunday morning after our mingle with the masses, Andrew and I made for a ballad down the boulevard; I needed some more dough and he needed some pain au chocolat before we were to cruise over to la Cité du Vin up on the old docklands, paved over by a brand new business district and hosting the vestiges of a mercantile past. Cranes crowded the dry docks inundated with rainwater as witness of their disuse and testament of their disrepair. The wood was rotting, the sandbank was sickly. But there was no signs of revolt, not like on the Cours de la Marne, witness to the previous night’s warzone. There, burn marks scorched the street from impromptu pyres, windows were cracked with hammer blows and each ATM face was smashed to bits. I wouldn’t find a workable cash booth until Rue Sainte-Catherine, where we would each grab a crêpe menu at la Parenthèse and act like last night’s action never happened.
All I could do was paraphase the Clash: “I’ve fought the law, and the law won.”
“Pivoting to a different subject: band similarities. When a reviewer, like I, gets the genius idea that ‘oh, they’re like Sleater-Kinney!’ and says that, do you find that useful or kinda like neat?”
Laena Geronimo: “I’d say neat, between the two…”
Shannon Lay: “I think that you find that it’s essential for people to, like, put it in that kind of category to feel comfortable, and it just inevitably the things that we create are inspired by the things that were. So, to compare it to something is natural.”
Laena Geronimo: “…It’s interesting too, because people tell us different things all the time, which, I actually love, y’know. S’like one night someone will be like ‘you remind me of the Smashing Pumpkins!’ and then someone else will be like ‘wow, you remind me so much of Wire!’… and you’re like those two bands don’t sound very similar but that’s so cool.”
One set and four or five cups of table wine later, Laena Geronimo and I were chatting between sales at the merch booth. The fold-out was covered in t-shirts, black or white, any colour you like. They had pressings of both albums but the pièce de resistance was a first edition pressing of Post-Earth, complete with poster and, well, they’re post-punks so what else do you really expect?
The spirit of Penny Lane had moved through me before the show, beckoning me to put the notebook down, and it didn’t hit me until then, after the last song just how quite like Polly Jean Harvey that Geronimo resonated in form and spirit: a husky mezzo, black curls, eyeliner and mascara dovetailing off her eyelids in the ever-so slight kabuki fashion, her forehead dried with sweat; this was a woman who worked her ass off for her money and for whom merching was leagues below her skillset—just as it was for Allen, Lay and Rudes—but no less the only guaranteed source of income to make some money in this racket. Independence not affording much expense, it still has become absorbed, like its forebears, into mainstream mores; to be independent is no longer a practice, it’s an attitude.
When I posed the comparison to her, she gave the famous half-chuckle of the female sex—the one that renders “yeah, I get that a lot” redundant—and then commenced her questioning of the comparison:
“Is that a good thing?”
I couldn’t answer her question—but my mind reeled: how many critics would rip an artist like Geronimo for putting on someone else’s image? How many more will want to? She looked at me like I had the answer—perhaps forgetting I was the one who asked the original question. Platitudes, full for sentiment but empty for comfort, dribbled out of my mouth. Only now as I am writing do I remember a pertinent conversation after a private concert on the night before the 2017 eclipse. I was privileged as a nascent fan to watch a performance by Sol Seed (freshly on tour for their latest and greatest long-player, The Spark) and meet the various band members while bartering for CD’s. Eventually I met lead vocalist Michael Lennon, expressed my fandom’s birth from an earth-shattering medley cover of “I Shot The Sheriff>Soul Sacrifice” two summers prior and then began to spitball on the nature of taste and human reciprocity, when Lennon replied to my spiel and I will paraphrase:
“Humans are incredibly mimetic creatures… that we are able to identify and replicate what we like is entirely natural and profoundly human; imitation is the highest form of flattery after all.”
So who was to care if Geronimo looked like PJ Harvey? She doesn’t play like Polly Jean, she played like Laena Geronimo. These words probably would have been more of a comfort after her expression of self-doubt. Alas, I’m only good at these things when I write about them. Allen came to relieve her while we went to smoke in the foyer of the VOID, waxed a little more bullshit on Indiana Jones films and then returned. Once back at the booth, I bought myself a tee-shirt. They had run out of sizes with the debut artwork (I’m quite fond of that hand) so I settled on the fingerprint decal—Geronimo quipped, “Hey, at the very least it won’t look like a band shirt.”
“Yeah, don’t worry,” I swung back, “I’ll let everyone know.”
Paying, retreating, scrambling down the backstage stairway, I got back to my speckled hippie-sack and stashed the shirt, then I made for the hall, hoping to catch the last of Reverend Beat Man and Sister Izobel Garcia. Before I got there, Shannon Lay caught me and “fuck it” crossed my mind, so we chatted gear; I couldn’t see her guitar during the performance and was curious. Not missing a beat, Lay confirmed: a classic chestnut Fender Telecaster for her, a white Jaguar—no whammy—for Geronimo and a scintillating, pretty-in-pink Fender bass for Allen (upon further research, an American Performer).
“Yeah, we’re sponsored by Fender,” she confirmed in matter-of-fact tone.
Fair enough, the racket requires instruments and sometimes it just easier to have them gifted. But Fender doesn’t make drums, Shannon smirked and pointed out Michael from the background, packing up his set, muscling items into pouches and coming to grips with some spirited cymbal sticks.
“Yo,” he said. I’d been teaching my students all year to use that word as a greeting rather than their static and stiff “hello’s” on the basis that “yo” sounds infinitely more laidback. Rudes’ usage proved my waxings and so beckoned me over.
“Ludwigs—I’m a John Bonham guy,” he said before I could ask the question again.
“Oh nice, so I was right that you guys are a little like Led Zeppelin then?”
He chuckled and I departed to go watch the Reverend and the Sister; their set was winding down but the crowd was having none of it. I wondered if they would get an encore; as it was Beat Man was playing guitar and kick drum, singing with a voice that is quite frankly disturbing, amusing no doubt, but still disturbing. Imagine Nick Cave’s stream-of-conscious lyrics sung at a pitch high enough to make Alvin and his Chipmunks turn white. Sister Izobel had the hi-hats, tom-toms and would kick in with Spanish vocals for the last cut. All I could watch was that hi-hat though, with its hang-nail for a lip twanging on every smack.
When I went upstairs, they had finished serving the swill wine I had so come to love. It was then that I realized my night at the VOID was mostly done, so I began to do my rounds before leaving. I watched fans leave the venue with Post-Earth copies in hand, but I got the setlist as another memento.
Before long I was back at my AirBnB, having picked up another screwdriver along the way and walking on goddamn clouds. There were no gilet jaunes any more, and the Place de la Victoire buzzed with a regular nightlife hum. Tony Allen’s Black Voices serenaded me to space. I’d been meaning to give his discography a listen, but it seemed that Ibibio Sound Machine had finally given me the kick-in-the-ass to do so. After having my spirit rattled out of itself by a first professional interview that went swimmingly, Tony Allen managed to bottle the motherfucker and take it to space as I laid, grinning like an idiot, on the bed.
“The name FEELS, where did that come from?”
Shannon Lay: “In that time that we were playing together, we realized that were really emphasizing the directions we were going on how stuff felt. Like, we would just be playing something and saying ‘oh that doesn’t feel right’ or ‘that feels really good,’ trying not to intellectualize it too much and just keep it like a very visceral reaction to sound. And so we just kept saying the word and then we were looking for a new band name and that one was kinda on a list that just kept staying on the list even though other ideas changed. And so after a few months of that we just decided that that was it.”
“…Which brings me to my next question, if you’re songwriting, you don’t really think about, like, what influenced you, you’re kinda just thinking in parts, aren’t you?”
Michael Perry Rudes: “You chisel it out, like a sculpture. Also, we all have our own voice, our own artistic voice and when we put them together, it kinda creates a whole new thing.”
Amy Allen: “It’s a gestalt…. It’s like the pieces—the sum of the pieces—are greater than the individual parts.”
On the performance I have just four notes:
- Fellas, find yourself a lady who throws herself at you like Amy Allen throws herself at her bass.
2. Ladies, find yourself someone who knows you from within like Shannon Lay knows her guitar.
3. Queerfolk, find yourself someone who delights in you like Laena Geronimo delights in her bandmates.
4. And whoever the fuck you are, find someone who will reinforce you like Michael Perry Rudes reinforces nearly every moment of FEELS.
I will try to supplement these with a mental recollection.
There was a man clad in a worker’s cap, a classic striped sweater and quite amiably drunk, raging all night to Magnetix and Reverend Beat Man and Sister Izobel. I think his face spoke for every member of the audience when FEELS came on. God bless, bloody French, but I don’t think they’re much impressed by American ragtag; Geronimo told me this is true of all indie/garage/DIY what-have-you crowds, but it was eerie—most experiences with the French that I have go along swell, younger generations are quite excited to meet Americans, especially those who can make the extra effort and spit some of their language, argot included. This can get me into trouble when I start using words like “fric” (cash) or forget my “ne’s” for negations. Sometimes the students assume then that I’ll be able to keep up with their pig-latin verlan and lightspeed argot. L’Académie française dictates a dictionary 20 years behind these trail blazing teenagers.
As it stood, the crowd was pleased enough with Geronimo and Allen’s somewhat frequent “merci’s.” All good.
However, the real change happened late in the set. There had been a sway in the front and cheers from the back after the third cut of evening, “Car,” but momentum had stalled with “Unicorn” and “Tollbooth,” not being my favoured cuts of either debut or second record, it was curious that FEELS had filled up the show with filler. Punk white noise. The crowd was slipping, but before the final notes of “Tollbooth” had even dissipated throughout the crowd, Allen began that ominous bassline.
Lay’s guitar went high-strung melodic, Geronimo’s joined her, some hertz underneath, and the roll worked into high gear. The melody ended, the shred began. There must have been anti-moshing rules at the VOID because the crowd was on the literal verge of getting it on. I said it during the interview: “Sour” is tailor-made for a remake of the Warriors (and once again, Hollywood, please forget I ever said this you money-grubbing bastards), this time fleeing from the Pacific Palisades, across the city of angels into South Pasadena. The mania engendered within “Sour” provoked a moving image within me and no one else in the crowd—they were too busy chafing against establishment rules in a punk venue, quelle ironie. They were tense, just where FEELS wanted them to be and then, they were unleashed. Amiably Drunk Man was headbanging like a champ, the public was jumping, I sat on the wall smiling (if I joined, I would have moshed too hard; I’ve been removed from clubs for less).
Then “Sour” ended and the crowd roared.
The only musical moment that came as close to this was a rousing, ad-hoc rendition of “Find a Way,” but considering the lyrics were all in English, I wouldn’t be surprised if only half the crowd caught its anthemic nature. Another victory was in the stage antics: Geronimo kneeling to Allen’s bass; Allen crushing, careening, rocking, back-and-forth to Rude’s beatwork; Lay just staying cerebral and, well, I’ve gone over this already before. The real victory, however, was how they convinced a French crowd that these Americans were worth their euros.
They were the only band allowed an encore.
“I remember I was reading [Pitchfork] and they were talking about how you guys were almost, whether intentionally or not, building a new vision of the world out of the garbage of the old.
Michael Perry Rudes: “What’s the alternative? What else is there to do?”
Amy Allen: “There’s no time machines that I’m aware of to hop in and stop some people from doing some devastating things but, y’know, we can only be optimistic in how move forward.”
“’Find a Way’ was the song that grabbed me because of its anthem-like qualities. When I was listening to it, it felt very U.S.-centric, but reading the lyrics, I don’t know if you guys were thinking U.S.-centrically or going for something more global?”
Amy Allen: “I don’t think it’s possible to be so centric when we’re all living on the same planet… I think that punk music—and not just punk music, necessarily—but music in general can be a really great channel and a really positive place to put those feelings and bring people together who also feel that way and make people feel like they’re not alone in feeling that way. Y’know, it’s powerful, it’s powerful stuff.”