Assessing Their Performance: The Burnside Project Legacy
Burnside Project had audience members screaming their quirky electropop lyrics back at them one moment and shrugging the next. Here, Burnside Project's rise and fall is documented, culminating in a free download of their unreleased private masterpiece.
The way Richard Jankovich remembers it, the high point was pretty stellar:
"There was a moment in time where things were looking really good for the band," he tells PopMatters, self-deprecating, wistful, and candid. "It was 2004, [sophomore album The Networks, the Circuits, the Streams, the Harmonies] was out for a year, 'Cue the Pulse to Begin' was a theme song for a big TV show, and we got signed to Sony in Japan, and we toured Japan and played sold out shows in Tokyo. So there was all this momentum, you know? I think if you talk to any band that has a legacy, or has been around for awhile, they'll tell you that there's that moment, where every decision you're making is under a microscope, because you're on the precipice, and things are going to go really really well, or fizzle out."
"In our case," he adds, "you can guess where it went."
He says that last bit with a laugh, but in truth, Burnside Project were a unique creation whose short history belies their one-hit-wonder status. "Through the '90s, I always had alternative rock bands", recalls Jankovich, "but when I got to New York, I wanted to do something different. I intentionally, like very crassly, got into electronic music. I didn't really like it, but I was like 'What's drum-n-bass? What's trip-hop? What's big beat?' I remember the mission statement for Burnside Project, in like 1999, when I was conceptualizing it: 'What would it sound like if Pavement was remixed by Fatboy Slim?'"
He laughs, before continuing that line of thought: "Now today, that's no big deal, like, who cares? But back then, that was a really interesting and new concept, like, indie bands did not get remixed. [laughs] So what would an original project sound like that way? But guitar was always at the center. We were always a guitar band that just didn't have a drummer or a bass player. We'd play guitar over what is essentially an electronic rhythm section."
Ahead of their time? Hard to say, but when you get down to it, what Jankovich, Gerald Hammill, and Paul Searing managed to accomplish was greater than the sum of its parts, and after their little-heard 2000 debut, The Networks--with its lyrics referencing the alienation of technology and Philip Seymour Hoffman--started generating CMJ-level buzz, eventually leading "Cue the Pulse to Begin", the band's readymade indie-dance single, to become not only a chart success in Japan, but also the theme song to the US version of Queer as Folk. Press notices started stacking up, and the band seemed to going places, culminating in that Tokyo performance.
"We got the total rock star treatment," Jankovich, now 45, recalls. "We were picked up by limos from the airport, I walked on as an interview guest on MTV Japan, and we sold out Tokyo, our first and only time playing there we sold it out, a room full of Japanese people singing along to my songs -- that was the high point! There is no doubt about it: that was the apex of my musical career. I've never done anything that's achieved that level of response from the world."
Since then, however, the group had a bit of a rocky history, recording a follow-up album called Syntax & Semantics that, despite throwing everything they had into it, they ultimately shelved. Only recently did the band, in conjunction with Bar None Records, decide to finally unleash it onto the world, and are doing so now, exclusively on PopMatters for a limited time.