Capillary Action is an all-acoustic avant-pop quintet led by Oberlin graduate Jonathan Pfeffer, The band is presently on an 11-week international tour, which includes a stop at the Primavera Sound Festival in Barcelona on May 24. They played a show in Dresden, Germany on May 15 and PopMatters was there.
According to Pfeffer, Capillary Action strives to use music to interpret specific, often extremely personal experiences:
“The challenge is always how to convey this particular feeling using the most creative means possible. The songs aren’t willfully obtuse because I want to throw people for a loop, but because the feelings tend to be complex and it’s important that whatever musical decisions I make stay true to the song’s original intent,” explains Pfeffer.
Capillary Action’s show in Dresden followed this message. The band’s set showcased numerous unpredictable rhythmic and mood changes within each song, as well as Pfeffer’s expansive vocal range – and the band never omits any of the notes and noises from the original recordings of the songs, resulting in an array of aural treats from a variety of instruments.
The first song, “Methheads & Mormons”, carried the audience through a plot from the band’s 2007 US tour in which they were “ripped off by a promoter in Salt Lake City, Utah”. Pfeffer sang about the experience with shorter phrases — “no one has come equipped”, and “all of us expecting to hit paydirt” — forcing audience members to pay attention if they wanted to obtain the full meaning of the song.
Percussion struck its peaks during the songs “Sweepstakes” and “Feeding Frenzy” where drummer Colin Hacklander and accordionist Julian Chin played a variety of instruments, ranging from seedshells to cowbells to Chinese opera gongs. The chaotic, fragmented air of “The Castle Is Real” evokes the feeling of being trapped within a surreal maze of sorts — pretty realistic, considering the song is actually about a hellish experience Pfeffer and co. once had at Disney World. The eclectic percussive patterns in “Feeding Frenzy” encompassed the song’s themes of consumer seduction and alienation with a call-and-response demand from the audience and loud whistle-blows with deep, beating drums.
Capillary Action added calmer points to the set with songs like “Tenderloin” and “Brackish Love”. The performance of the former song juxtaposes an unwinding of eerie toy piano and glockenspiel with high-pitch trumpet and awkward vocals that sang of “fear becoming fantasy”. The discomfort produced by the peculiar, slow-moving execution climaxes during the repeating line, “What turns you on?”
“Brackish Love” was the most surprising song of the night, as the band summoned a local string quartet to join them for the performance. Pfeffer explains, “There was no way we could properly execute “Brackish Love” without a string quartet so I took it as a challenge to line up as many quartets as I could along the tour using local players. I can’t stress enough how generous these string players have been with their time and talent. I was able to arrange string quartets for most of the North American dates, but Dresden happened to be the one and only European date where I was able to round up one. Tabea, the Dresden cellist, was a friend of a friend and she was kind enough to wrangle up her group to play the tune.”
The song began romantically with a two-minute-long introduction by the quartet before the band slowly morphed the song into a convoluted story of love and loss. “Brackish Love” is Pfeffer’s most beautiful and immediate song, with lines like, “What are your demands? / Could I bring you back with just a simple sleight of hand? / Inch by inch the thicker the salt of the sea.”
All of the night’s songs were off the band’s latest album, Capsized (2011), except for the final song of the set, “Elevator Fuck”, a track off Capillary Action’s debut release, So Embarrassing (2008). Pfeffer chose the track as the encore because “there was a period of time where it was the most-requested song in the Capillary Action repertoire” and because he “wanted to give a little back after putting the audience through all new material”. According to Pfeffer, despite the song’s depressing lyrical content, “it’s an uplifting way to end the evening”.
Capillary Action’s music is like a perplexing film that you have to (and want to) watch more than once. But at the end of the night, only those who listened to the band’s set attentively would walk away with a complete impression of the band’s intent; without careful listening, the full impact of the intense, ever-transforming instrumentation can be missed. And in Pfeffer’s words, “None of this conceptual, philosophical bric-a-brac matters unless the music engages people on a visceral level.”