Life on Hyperbolic Steroids
It’s not that often you come across a band that puts a shit-eating grin on your face so wide that you’re able to swallow all the bullshit and lies and deceptions of the 21st century and still have room in your mouth for love and happiness and forgiveness. Yet that’s exactly the kind of “root-a-toot”, pie-faced smile you get when you listen to They Shoot Horses Don’t They, a fresh-faced young band from Vancouver, BC.
Forget the mild weather, strong drugs, and stronger drugs, the best reason to move to Vancouver is for the chance to see They Shoot Horses play live almost every month. Because—good fucking God—live, these guys (and one drummer girl) are better than Animal Collective (whom I mention as a sonic comparison), better than Black Dice (whom I mention as over-hyped), better than fucking Bright Eyes (whom I mention because I hate his simpering), or that other new T-shirt band from Greenpoint that I listened to the other night (whom I mention because I accidentally bought their hype). They Shoot Horses have that experimental drawl, but none of the in-bent, Brooklyn faux-shyness that usually accompanies it. Live, they approach the wild days of Omoide Hatoba or Truman’s Water, and they choir and doo-wop like the best of TV on the Radio—every one of the six members looking like they wouldn’t want to be anywhere else but on stage playing their songs.
To save time, I’ll call They Shoot Horses Don’t They simply “They” from now on. They are not just a rock band. To call They freak-folk is to lump them with the wrong folks, freakish though They may be. If They are infused with the sounds of freaky folks, it is the oompah-oompah caterwaul of a Croatian rebel wedding party, midnight folk musics from the Europe we’re told to never ever visit. Black cats and white cats meowing together in a world shot up by history; a who’s who of political bandits streams by my eyes in brackets. You’ve heard Goran Bregovic’s tribute to the Kalashnikov? That whole Groucho Marx vibe as rider music in a war zone? Imagine that song as played by Modest Mouse for a new soundtrack to Woody Allen’s post-identity masterpiece Zelig, and you’re beginning to understand They. You’ve driven down the main street of your city with the doors wide open and you shot your guns in the air and cried out to be Free! Free! Free!, all the while listening to underground music from the worst parts of the world, and you wondered what band could ever express this feeling you have, this feeling that life is only worth living if we can somehow find a way to celebrate the worst of humanity. The crimes committed against truth require a soundtrack and They provide it.
The slide trombonist, Eli, is a mid-sized vaudeville comic, with little business-like marching steps and spastic hoppings. Eli could have his own solo project based exclusively on his stage mannerisms. He is a mad child of Charlie Chaplin. Ryan on sax is poker-faced, keeps time with a sneaker, and from under his serious mien, death comes ripping in blasts of horn call-and-response. He is gravity for the tottering Jean Tinguely-like sound sculpture of the music. They want to fall apart, and somehow falling apart achieves the perfect song. It’s called “Transmitting” and it is too crazy; it needs to be given its own room with a lock and leather walls. It is a head-bobber, like a hammer on a clown’s head.
The drummer, Julia, is a skinny girl with a ghost’s dedication to rhythm; pounding and pounding and pounding. Death’s own posthumous army trots on skeleton horses to this rhythm. I’m telling you. This is the drums of the war of the afterlife of bananas. She conjures devils in yellow skins with pale intentions. She makes you slip on the scary. She also did the album art, which reminds me of Devendra Banhart and the tripped-out cats of Louis Wain. Julia should be represented by the Jack Hanley gallery in San Francisco alongside Chris Johansen and Christopher Garrett. She should be given a stack of black paper as tall as the economy and told to go nuts.
The singer and guitarist, Josh—he is a middle-aged man in the body of a teenager. He knows more than he should, and wants to put his knowledge to no use. “It might sound cruel, but that’s only the way that it sounds”, he sings on “The Farthest Reaching”. It’s true. The cruelty is a kind of novelty. The novelty is a kind of originality. And the originality is a kind of artifice. And the artifice is a kind of art. And the art is a way of life. Yes, capital-A Art is a way of life for They. Josh is under the impression that if he groans and whines and cajoles and cavorts and howls, then his audience will rise gracefully from their seats and bellow out the words with him. And he is right. People are moved to scream as if they are members of They. They are not. We only wish we were in They. Josh is the hero of a Christian movement called the Unionization of the Voices of the Dispossessed, which calls for an awakening of the lyrical in the stomachs of the lost. The instant you hear the music, you’ve joined the cult and you get to go straight to Heaven.
Robb, the bass player, is a kind of red-headed Brian Wilson, with secret vestments of musical genius that come out in wiggles and whoops. If he doesn’t go insane in the next few minutes, then his energy and wit is sure to launch this band into the hearts of data entryists and unhappy unwed mothers the world over. Unwed mothers? I’m telling you, this young man will take care of your children during the day and make love to you at night like you are Eve and he is the shy snake offering bites.
Finally we have the keyboardist, Chris. You remember the organ-grinder’s monkey? That monkey has grown to a whopping seven feet tall, and lost all sense of inhibition. This monkey is Free! Free! Free! to plonk and pound on his organ, not against his will, but due to his will. When the times come for the monkey to go to sleep in his wicker basket, he dreams of They. His enthusiasm for They’s music is measured in smiles. His grin is the grin we all get when listening to They.
Make it your lost cause to hear They Shoot Horses Don’t They. They are touring across Canada as we speak. Bring your guns. Make They your birthday wish. Let this band blow out your candles.