I Wish They All Could Be California Bands
Boyz II Men, ABC, BBD—the East Coast Family. Sure, a tired lyric from a song better left in the foggy memories of whomever’s early ‘90s, but the four Philly crooners who belted that line hinted at an undeniable truism—East Coasters, man, they stick together, especially when it comes to representing against their compatriots on that other, faraway shore. This great divide is one that has driven a stake between hip hop and R&B movements, gave punk distinct flavors during the late 1970s and early 1980s, and can help to explain how Jefferson Airplane and the Velvet Underground could have existed in the same musical moment. It has also, finally, given some substance to the veneer-y musical movement known as electroclash.
10 May 2003: Knitting Factory New York
In NYC (as oftentimes pilfered from Europe), oodles of bands have been doling out this sound, most (in)famous among them Fischerspooner, who are either brilliant innovators or a brilliant joke, depending on your perspective. Their West Coast counterparts are I Am Spoonbender, born in San Francisco in 1993. Like their spoony comrades, IAS are more comfortable with technically evolved instruments than they are with the standard guitar and bass; also like Fischerspooner, they put on an over-the-top live show that seems as at home in an art gallery as it does on a rock’n'roll stage. Overall, IAS is mechanized before they are organic, programmed before they are spontaneous, stylized before they are natural.
The difficulty, with all these factors, is to pull off a performance that leans more toward irony and commentary than it does arrogance and attitude, without descending into kitsch. It’s a fine, fine line to tread—and frankly, making this work onstage has been the sore point of myriad otherwise enjoyable groups. But IAS have finally—praise them—demonstrated that there is a place for electroclash in a live arena. At their second stint in NYC, that cool ease endemic to laidback Californians proved just the right ingredient to make IAS’s show at the Knit near perfect.
They set their stage with oodles of gadgets—synthesizers, lighted panels, drum machines, and telephones. Yes, telephones. Hooked into them were microphones, adding a constructive, affected hassle to the process of singing. The members of IAS themselves were simply extensions of this elaborate set up. Three of the group members are males—two of them multi-instrumentalists, one a sort of wizard/mastermind/God, with hellacious blonde hair and an ominous arsenal of computers and monitors. The main vocalist, a small woman with a tremendously fashion forward haircut, stood center stage, barriered by keyboards, telephones, and lights. All members of the band wore futuristic white and black costumes. Think the Jetsons, only hipper.
Musically, they are off kilter and digitized, but far more complex and intelligent than most of their electroclash counterparts. Songs like “Remove - Installer”, off their 2002 EP Shown Actual Size are raucous and technologically maniacal, like a computer system meltdown. Over the course of their too-brief set, every movement and moment was scripted, calculated. Lights ran amok. Their bodies seizured rhythmically. The stage went dark, strobe lights flashed, the drummer’s drumstick went luminous. They skillfully ripped off their top uniform to reveal saucy red outfits underneath. Besides angular sonic programming in a synth-heavy, dark, yet hooky montage, they also rock out, thrash, kill their instruments with mechanical strength, burn. There are drum machines ad a kit. They hammer away at both. It is too much. It is not enough.
The too-cool ‘tude that unfortunately makes a lot of similar acts laughable was also, thankfully, absent. When they did break character, it was with humble modesty and sweetness, thanking the audience for showing up, and remarking that this was only their second time in New York. Like the Faint, IAS have a thing or two to show electronic dance pop bands that think that keyboard + fashion + snottiness = entertainment. Take that, East Coast Family.