They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? has a way of destroying language. First, there’s the name. It comes from the title of a 1969 Sydney Pollack movie about Depression-era dance marathons, one which was itself taken from the 1935 Horace McCoy book that inspired the film.
When the Vancouver band plays live, singer/guitarist Nut Brown announces, “We are They Shoot Horses (pauses) Don’t They?”. We are They? They are They? In any case, when They play, dancing ensues. Heads bob, hands clap, limbs take on a life of their own. This band has people everywhere leaving shows with the strange name on the tips of their tongues. Then there are the reviews. Critics routinely (and comically) bollix up the English language when describing them.
This review is no different. It is the warm, fuzzy memory of a cold, brisk night in Oakland, California - usually home to the Raiders football team, but tonight host to a band of foreigners that are, well, much smaller. The venue is 21 Grand, a place of cheap beer and small triumphs, one of those spaces where art is not just on the walls, but tucked messily, half-finished, into corners.
Rome’s Dada Swing, on its second tour of the States, precedes They Shoot Horses. With a sound like this, the band should be much bigger than it is. Dada Swing shows are sonic outbursts of id. Faced with drums, Antonio Cutrone bashes them. Guitars, somewhat tuned, undergo all manner of assault. Nino Pizzino and Manuela Marugj take turns cooing and yelling while gleefully poking at a table full of electronic toys. Like that of their showmates, Dada Swing’s sound is hard to describe. The band bills itself as “yes-wave-electro-punk-pop-twitch-attack”. In more concrete terms, imagine the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Erase Errata as children, banging on pots and pans.
Technical problems plague the show. Cutrone grapples with borrowed drums; the sound mix is horrendous; and Pizzino’s amp barely cuts through the din. In response, the band only plays harder. In between “everybody goes nuts” freakouts, songs lurch through carefully arranged transitions and tempo changes. Cutrone barely holds it together, beating his cowbell as if his life depended on it. People respond instantly, throwing their hips to trashy hi-hat grooves.
While his bandmates converse in Italian, Pizzino addresses the crowd in English. According to him, his Sicilian accent sounds rough. Evidently, the crowd likes it rough; they hang on his every word. The band debuts new songs, one of them a seemingly unironic rap. Pizzino barks hoarsely, rhythmically at the mic, but his guitar keeps getting in the way. He slings his axe behind his back. Free of hindrance, he thrusts his hips at the mic stand. It’s impossible to take one’s eyes off him. Cutrone and Marugj trade places for the last few songs. Cutrone looks a little lost on guitar, but Marugj makes a mighty noise for one with such a delicate frame. Always polite, the band announces it has two songs left, then one; coming up are They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
They Shoot Horses aren’t even on the bill. The band is touring on its new album, Boo Hoo Hoo Boo, but its website says it is playing in San Francisco, not Oakland. It would have been nearly impossible to see them tonight on purpose. Most of the room leaves after Dada Swing, the putative headliner, finishes. It’s late, it’s cold outside, and people are tired. About 30 stragglers remain, talking amongst themselves, perhaps waiting to dry out to drive home. Almost no one notices the band setting up. With no fans, fanfare is unnecessary, and the band simply begins playing. People immediately stop talking and take notice.
There’s a lot to notice. The stage is way too small for the band—only two members fit, drummer Julia and keyboardist Chris. Julia is button-cute. Chris is tall, very tall, and seems to grow taller as the show goes on. Everyone else stands on floor level. Bassist Robb is to the left of the stage. He has strong red hair, and round, thick-rimmed glasses. His basslines are bouncy, and he is as well. He is undoubtedly the happiest person on earth playing one-note basslines (that dour fellow in U2 could learn a thing or two from this guy). In front are two saxophonists. Ryan stamps in time with both feet; Shane stands back and lets riffs rip. Nut Brown is to the right of the saxes. Thin and bearded, he conducts the band with his guitar, and hollers and preaches over tart, single-coil chords.
Someone in the audience is playing a trombone! He’s good at it, too. How does he know to play along with the band? Oh, because he’s in the band. Why is he playing out in the audience? Has he done something bad and been ordered to play apart from the others? Or is there just not enough room? Pietro doesn’t seem to mind. No matter his distance from his bandmates, he plays in perfect synch.
Once the novelty of the itinerant trombonist wears off (and it never really does), one notices how perfect each tune is. There’s no waiting around for songs to finish; one hopes they never do. The bass is bouncing, and the snare is crisp. Nut calls the plays, but Julia is the quarterback, looking left and right to make sure each band member is with her. She knows exactly how much to play. A sturdy kick here, a jaunty fill there—in one song, she holds off on the snare for what seems like minutes. When she finally thwacks it in, people grin and clap.
Feet shuffle; hips sway; one person does the polka. With the horns, these songs sound a little like the circus (in fact, the band once spent two weeks playing for an actual circus). There’s joy in the room, and people are warm now. One song features yelling from the whole band. Another sits each musician on the floor, pounding out rhythms with whatever debris is lying around. The set rolls on, but Pietro seems not to notice. He continues to scribble away urgently on some broken thing, then suddenly jumps up and joins in perfect unison with the horns.
“Is there time for one more?” Nut asks. They’re supposed to end at 1 am. What time is it? Eleven, someone desperately says. The last song is a feverish dream. Julia starts a snare roll, looking intently at Nut. Egged on by Nut, the roll builds and builds. Julia’s eyes open wide. Nut crouches and digs in on guitar. Chris takes his hands off his keyboard to beat his chest ecstatically. The whole room is on its toes. Everything happens as it should; everything crashes in perfectly. People whoop and cheer. Not a single foot stands still. It’s as if, after all these years, Stereolab finally delivered on its orgasmic metronomic promise.
Afterwards, the room is aglow. People hang around, talking, smoking. Chris gets on the mic and asks if anyone has a floor on which the band can sleep tonight. Unbelievably, no one volunteers—after a performance like that! I walk up to Chris and offer my floor. It’s dirty, I say, and it’s 45 minutes away. He looks like he just won the lottery. He clasps his hands in joy, and runs to tell his bandmates. They’re loading their van , but he pulls them aside to introduce them to me. “Band meeting,” someone says, and they huddle out in back. Chris returns with the longest face. They can’t stay at my place because they have a radio interview tomorrow in San Francisco, and they have to stay there tonight. “That’s no skin off my nose,” I say.
That’s not really true. I had so wanted to take them out to brunch. (If the band is reading this, the invitation still stands.) Instead, according to Shane’s blog, they stayed at “an incredibly friendly woman’s apartment downtown across the street from the Fillmore and a block over from John Lee Hooker’s Boom Boom Room”. Well, good for them. John Lee Hooker knew a thing or two about toe-tapping grooves. He would have dug these guys.