Kumite Across the U.S.A.

Joe Pompeo

Whether it's dropping avant-garde, free-jazz-influenced metal or demolishing the barrier between performance and crowd, An Albatross wants us to confront real experience.

In the current state of indie-rock inflation, it doesn't take much for bands to present the illusion that they have made it big. A new scene or buzzword seems to pop up each day, making it easier for burgeoning acts to climb aboard any of a number of potential bandwagons. The Internet has made generating hype easier than ever: Profile your band on one of several popular networking websites, such as My Space or Pure Volume, and unsuspecting listeners might conclude that your project is the best thing to happen to music since iTunes. But even in an era dominated by excessive PR, some bands still manage to turn people's heads by doing something truly interesting, bands who have no angle other than unending hard work and creative integrity. Pennsylvania's An Albatross is one of those bands.

Formed in Wilkes-Barre in 1999, An Albatross quickly began to amass a devoted following in the basements and bars of Philadelphia, New York City and college towns along the eastern seaboard. After releasing their debut LP Eat Lightning, Shit Thunder in 2000 (reissued on CD by Bloodlink Records) and undergoing several member changes, An Albatross struck a deal with New York's Ace Fu Records in 2003. Although it clocks in at a mere eight minutes and 20 seconds, the band's sophomore release, We Are the Lazer Viking, described by Ace Fu as "MC5-meets-70s-prog-meets-Naked-City-meets-Nintendo-meets-carnival-music," garnered international acclaim, taking the band to Europe and Japan and winning them the approval of a slew of their punk-rock elders from GSL ringleader Sonny Kay, to Sonic Youth members Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon to Germs drummer Don Bolles. And their increasingly chaotic live shows -- part church gospel, part cult ritual -- have evolved into full-fledged performance spectacles, both on stage and in the crowd.

Whether it's dropping avant-garde, free-jazz-influenced metal or demolishing the barrier between performance and crowd, An Albatross wants us to confront real experience.

Though busy writing their third and forthcoming release (as well as recovering from their widely successful spring tour with Melt Banana), An Albatross vocalist Edward Geida, bassist Jay Hudak and keyboardist Kat Paffett recently took time out to talk about their music, their aesthetic and what it means to be a Lazer Viking.

PopMatters: Beyond your music, what is the aesthetic of your band? What is the An Albatross manifesto?

Edward Geida: The An Albatross gospel, so to speak, is about loss of inhibition, togetherness and a celebration of life and all that's good. It's about eroding boundaries between audiences and bands. It's a regurgitation of a lot of old concepts but with a new face. The goal is to pursue revolution through music and through cultural and social change.

Jay Hudak: The manifesto is about being real people and connecting with people in a real and passionate way. If you're performing music, you should do your best to connect with people honestly instead of trying to sell some kind of image.

Kat Paffett: Yeah, it's about putting across good energy. We connect with people through our music. It's very rare to connect with other human beings the way that you can connect with people through music.

PM: You've constructed a very powerful sense of community at your performances. How is the element of community important to what you're trying to achieve as a band?

JH: It's vital. It's everything. We wouldn't have been able to be a band for five years if it weren't for the people in the audience who were essentially a part of our band. And some nights when you play a show and you have absolutely no energy, you connect with people and they give you the energy. You're almost a catalyst or a psychiatrist, in a way, for people who need a release.

KP: I think that we break down the barrier between band members and audience. At most of our shows we get people to want to be a part of the performance. We've played shows before without certain band members, even without a singer, and people from the audience have actually come up onstage to fill in for those of us who weren't there. In essence, they're a part of the band too.

EG: I think the need for community is reflected in the way we live our lives. I think it's reflected in the Internet and the cubicles we work in. It's reflected in people living their lives vicariously through reality television, watching American Idol rather than singing in the shower. Our construction of community is a direct antithesis to the hyper-individualism that is sweeping across our culture. I think that everyone is living so compartmentally that if for 15 to 30 minutes per night I can get onto a stage and provoke some sort of group reaction in real time, in real life, where you're standing next to other people and having an experience as a group, it's something very different from the direction in which a lot of our world is going. It also correlates very nicely to the ancient tradition of people getting together around music. That is such a beautiful aspect of civilization, and to have that lost in today's world is such a frightening scenario. It's a very healthy idea to melt down the barriers between band and audience and force this experience on people. Indifference to it is probably the worst thing that could be expressed.

PM: Is your approach to music and performance something that sets you apart from other bands right now?

JH: We won't limit ourselves to playing just one specific kind of show. We could play in a basement one night and in France for 10,000 people the next and not feel any different about it. I think a lot of bands really do have a pretentious wall of "us versus our audience," and they don't truly understand that the audience is the reason they're able to continue making music.

KP: And we don't take any of the kids who come out to see us for granted. There are a lot of younger fans, 15- or 16-year-old kids who are really excited about coming to the shows, and that was why I got into the punk scene at such a young age and connected with other musicians. It is a community, and it's important not to ever take anything for granted with respect to that.

EG: I also think we grab references and influences from a grander scheme than a lot of bands do. I think a lot of bands read a certain book or conform to one certain ideology, or musically they're trying to regurgitate a single band or time period. The influences we draw on politically, musically and artistically come from a much broader picture. We all have a certain history and have evolved as people in different ways and have listened to different music and read different books. There are commonalities that make us a band, but a lot of what I'm into -- 1960s and 1970s soul music -- none of my band mates are heavily into.

PM: Where do you draw the line between the performance and how you are as individuals when you're not onstage?

KP: What we do onstage and how we connect with one another is exactly how we are as human beings. It's how we are when we're not playing music together, when we're not on the road and we're all doing our own things. That's what's been able to sustain the band for this long. What we do onstage is not just a show.

JH: Our aesthetic will always continue to grow and change because a lot of what we're putting across to people involves things that are happening in our own personal lives and in our own consciousness development. The aesthetic is truly a part of the way we live, and whether we express it through different code words or different slang, it's still natural to us.

PM: Can you go into greater detail about some of these code words -- kumite, [pronounced coo-mih-tay] bear warp, Lazer Viking?

EG: What we're trying to achieve in taking on certain words, images and pop references is cultural reappropriation. An Albatross is like a cultural buccaneer. I've always been inspired by bands who have done things like that. It's like taking back pop culture, taking back certain aspects of the world around you and claiming them as your own. It's about developing your ideas and pushing them into the limelight and into people's consciousness through performance. A lot of our critics think we have this post-modernist, sarcastic, ironic sense about the words we use. People think things like the Lazer Viking are just stupid concepts we made up, but they do go beyond that. Kumite, for example, is the essential element of completely losing your shit, being a beautiful human being, being around the people you love and letting it all hang out, whether that means getting completely wasted or feeling completely high on life and good with your friends and just going for the gold. And it's derived from a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie. Now that we're older, the thought of actually idolizing Van Damme is completely hilarious, but after watching it a hundred times over in the van, it was just like, "Fuckin' kumite!" You know?

JH: You can take any word with a certain connotation and make it your own, and this band is all about having different connotations for sound or expression. That's the idea behind the words Lazer Viking. If you say, "I am the Lazer Viking," maybe you're saying "I'm a very powerful person" or maybe you're saying something else. That's what music and expression should be. I never realized when I came up with the words Lazer Viking that a few years later I would be in Germany seeing people singing those words. It tells me that we're obviously translating and that the energy is connecting to people all over the world.

KP: It all comes right down to the basic elements of human nature, that primal state of "we are human beings and this is what we have in common." With regards to the bear warp, it's about getting past the bullshit and getting back to our primal states. It's all about what is vitally important at the moment. For a bear, hibernating is about storing natural energy to be used at a much greater time and harboring only what is necessary, and that's what our band does when we're on the road for months and months on end. We take with us only what we need and we're able to survive on that.

PM: What are some of your biggest accomplishments as a band?

JH: Every experience you have when you're in a band is a true gift. Just the fact that everybody can be together and that we can be here with our friends and make music for people who took time out of their lives to come and watch us perform. As far as grand accomplishments are concerned, I'm just really honored to be playing with everybody and to be able to travel to other countries and spread our message. It's much like a garden. We plant the seeds and we see the crop.

EG: It's strange because you don't really realize how good you're doing. I think about my goals and ambitions when I first started this band compared to what they are now and it's like night and day. But it's such a slow rise, especially for a band doing what we're doing, which I guess I'd describe as avant-garde, free-jazz-influenced metal rock music. It's so hard to digest, and we really have to try to win people over. So it's a much slower climb than if we were playing something more accessible. The ascent to where we are now has been a six-year crawl. Every single transition we make and every single crowd we play to that's even just a smidgen bigger than the last feels like progress.

KP: When these guys first started playing, booking a tour basically meant calling all their friends up and asking them if they could play in their basements.

PM: You've played in Europe with bands like the Pixies and Blonde Redhead in front of thousands of people, and you've also packed basements in college towns for a few hundred people at a time. What are some of the differences between these two extreme venues and have you come to value one more than the other?

JH: It's always a challenge when you play in front of a lot of people because there's a good chance you'll be playing for people who have never seen you before. It's challenging to us to be able to pull the energy out and get our message across. But whether you're playing for five people or 5,000, it still comes from the same place.

KP: Putting a selfless act of art out there and seeing it reflected on the faces of the people watching us is just a reaffirmation that what we're doing right now is a totally positive thing.

EG: I really feel equally as nervous performing in front of small crowds as I do huge crowds and I think a lot of the feelings I've developed from playing really organic basement shows still have a very solid core in my psyche. I feel that when you're so isolated on a huge stage where there's a barrier and the crowd is so far away, and you're playing to a lot of people who don't speak your language, you feel limited in a lot of ways. Some times I feel more introverted and introspective performing in those larger venues. In a really great club in New Jersey where I'm playing to 200 people, many of whom I've been friends with for a long time, that allows me to be much more extroverted. So I think that there is a difference, but I think that it's more evident in my inner functions than in how I come off as a performer.

PM: What more do you hope to achieve that you haven't already accomplished? How far do you hope your message spreads?

KP: I don't think that we're bound by anything. There are no limits. All of us are at a place where we feel open and we just want to keep working with each other and take it as far as we can.

JH: I would like to be able to see as much of the world as I can by playing music, because it's a wonderful thing to be able to go to another country and connect with people when there's a language barrier. So just to be able to tour the world and meet people would be the best thing for me.

EG: I hope it goes as far as being able to perpetuate and excel a community of underground, avant-garde and artistic music. I hope it goes as far as to bring people together and hopefully spawn some other like-minded individuals to carry the torch when we're old and gray. One thing touring Europe has taught me is that words and verbal communication are very surface-oriented means of communication. Energy and music and togetherness are the universal language, so I just hope to be able to play in front of as many people around the world as possible.

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