I’m not cool, but I thought that was the point—you know, of that whole subcultural identity thing. Of course, there is the obligatory nose-turning. I forgot about that. Even in the hipster fringe there’s a point where the oddly eccentric becomes decidedly too much, even for supposed auteurs of the mondo-obscure. It’s hip to be weird, but not too weird. After all, you don’t want to harsh anyone’s mellow. So maybe my toes have been tapping on the wrong side, reaching to far into the outer stratosphere—I did just get this anthology of really ripping ‘60s avant-garde Dutch tape music from the public library. I thought Frog Eyes was cool; I still do. Why doesn’t anyone else?
5 Oct 2004: Warehouse Next Door Washington, DC
It would be a lie to say DC’s buzzing with anticipation. Maybe 20 kids (25 would be a pretty generous estimate) stand quietly in the Warehouse Next Door. It’s a tiny theatre space buried in D.C.‘s Chinatown district, the kind of place where you feel like a dick for saying you’re on the guest list, so you just pay your seven bucks and dig into an empty corner. I arrive early, expecting a crowd. Idiot.
The members of Frog Eyes are hardly imposing, possessing little of that pretentious air usually teaming from weirdo-indie groups. Normal, dorky kids in from Canada. No bells, no whistles—though singer Carey Mercer does don a checkered cowboy shirt, a marked improvement over the grimy white, sweat-stained tee he wore last time the band came to town.
There’s no lull, no build, in a Frog Eyes set. From the outset Mercer attacks his guitar. Bare fingers claw at the fretboard, eliciting discordant, skronky tones. No subtlety here. Tuning up, he looked like he had his shit relatively together, but when he begins to play his eyelids grip tightly, his lips purse violently. His body gains momentum shaking like that of an addict, lost in the throes of an unrestrained coke-binge.
Plummeting into “The Emperor of Time” Mercer shrieks into the microphone, contorting his voice, bearing its flaws for all their worth. The result is something vaguely like a David Bowie tune, that is, if Bowie were caught in the midst of a horrible seizure. Solid tones blend with screeches, and cracked notes. This vocal inconsistency is Mercer’s trademark. He revels in the sharp, jarring cracks, pushing them so expertly into the realm of the ugly that they actually regain a certain, let’s say, inconsonant beauty.
From the beginning Mercer demands your attention. There’s a band behind him somewhere, but as the singer’s squawks become less and less discernable, and his feet begin to stomp erratically, the other players seem to disappear. Even the band’s drummer, a bobby-pinned indie rock beauty, fades into the background. Mercer’s body gyrations are something akin to those of the late Ian Curtis, unrestrained, seemingly unconscious, as if inspired by some sort of devilish spirit. There’s an awkward electricity running through Mercer’s hands, his neck. Hardly self-aware, he bends slightly at the knees, striking a pained expression, as if he’s exorcising something truly horrible, or perhaps simply summoning it.
Immediately into “One is the City”, Mercer labors over the words, “Mastication, we hate the front lines. Oh Mastication.”
This is where the line is drawn. Some make their way for the doors, perhaps rightfully so. If they’re not digging it now, they may as well get out; it’s only going to get weirder from here.
In “The Akhian Press”, Mercer declares his wish to be “a mother of an engineer to be” with such driving intensity that it sends a spin through my already frantic chest. By the time I notice my heart’s erratic beat the song’s two minutes are up. Not a moment too soon for my unsteady nerves.
Mercer says he doesn’t usually get this drunk. Those are his words, slurred over the bottle-neck of another fresh, cold one. I believe him. Caught in a barrage of hecklers’ taunts, he smiles, softly delivering his response, “OK guy,” in a slow, long drawl. He’s smiling more, but if anything the alcohol deadens his spirit. Last time I saw him, he didn’t touch a drop on stage, but the result was the same. This is no alcohol-fueled rage.
Breaking into the confrontational “Ship Destroyer”, Mercer’s words are attacking. “I DON’T PAY FOR NOTHING THAT I DON’T WANT.”
“OK, fine,” I’m thinking, “Just don’t hurt anyone.”
As the band plays “New Soft Mother Hood” the audience receives a relative reprieve from the skronk as Mercer drones slowly over the haunting buzz of a scratchy guitar. This plodding procession through the angst-ridden realms of Mercer’s psyche would seem to return the listener to some sort of relatively balanced plane, if not for the lyrics, “I ain’t going to fuck you around / I’ve fucked a lot of ponies / but the pony’s got to get down.”
As the band brings its performance to a fiery halt, one is left to survey the room. Diminished. The group’s hand-held curtain call is met with ecstatic applause… by the 10 or so fans left in the room.
OK, so I get it. Frog Eyes isn’t a fun band. At one point between songs, Mercer randomly asserts that “it’s a kind of bleak world we live in.” Adding no context, save a tortured glance at his shoes, he breaks right into another song.
Try responding to that with an asinine request for “Free Bird”. But then, I’m pretty tired of “Free Bird”, of apt musicianship stunted by restrained emotion. Frog Eyes scare the shit out of me and I think that’s cool. You should too.