Giving Back, Giving Up by Robert Wheaton - Bands struggled with venues and venues struggled with bands, but the audiences dispersed amid the NXNE festival in Toronto never coalesced into the true listening public necessary to consecrate the next big thing.
PopMatters Gauges the Heat at NXNE 2005
Giving Back, Giving Up
Bands struggled with venues and venues struggled with bands, but the audiences dispersed amid the NXNE festival in Toronto never coalesced into the true listening public necessary to consecrate the next big thing.
by Robert Wheaton
Shortly after midnight the four men begin to play. They do not introduce themselves, nor do they announce their material. They are dressed anonymously and, until they begin to move shuddering volumes of brilliant and traumatized air, they easily passed as events staff. The four of them spend most of the next 40 minutes bent and hunkered over their equipment and their instruments. They are mostly hidden in darkness. They do not look at the crowd. This is Holy Fuck.
Brian Borcherdt, a former By Divine Right member, is the brains behind Holy Fuck. They specialize in degraded sonic detritus and scrapbound electronic equipment. Holy Fuck weld FX and samples to a welter of drums, bass, and video, brandishing this fusion against the listener with a propulsive iron fist. The squalls of feedback and decay and fossilized synth sounds descend from unchecked chaos to a throbbing and anesthetizing inertia. If rhythm had a temper, this is what it would sound like. The band barely acknowledges the presence of a listening audience. They are there for the noise.
Even at an event billed as "dedicated to independent music", it's hard to think that any particular indie aesthetic dominates. There are simply too many approaches, too many genres, and too many young musicians too naive to adapt to an established zeitgeist. And yet, it's undeniable that many of today's bands, across genres, share an attitude toward the public that's quite different than their predecessors'. For all the ghastly excesses of stadium rock, the inconsistency of Madchester, the charmlessness of grunge, or the brattish insularity of Britpop, all of those genres were in some manner self-consciously public. By contrast many of today's bands, like the Holy Fuck, shun the very idea of performance, as if the creation of a distinct public identity was phony and insincere somehow, a fatal concession to the world of commerce and marketing. Today's indie bands aim for something more personal � a direct connection between artist and listener without the complicating intermediaries of society or public or crowd. Their attitude promises that the music would be the same whether they were playing to four people or 4,000.
Templo Diez is a four-piece from geographically scattered backgrounds � Italy, France, Venezuela, the Netherlands. Several of their members are multi-instrumentalists. At NXNE, performing at Holy Joe's on Queen West, the band appeared with drums, two guitars, keyboards, and violins. They were very charming. Guitarist Leejon Verhaeg brings tasteful post-rock stylings � plenty of well-managed feedback, reverb, harmonics � to prettily arranged songs adorned with the dewdrop decoration of keyboards and Paolo Panza's adept brush and stick work.
In spite of the dirge-like structure of some of Templo Diez's songs, the violin and the rounded phrases of vocalist (and guitarist) Pascal Hallibert give the band an Americana texture � Appalachian, Western even. All of them have a feel for the sure, well-placed touch. What Templo Diez lack, like most everyone else, is a singer to wrap together their considerable charm: as with most instrumentalists who also sing, Templo Diez's vocal melodies drape too tidily over the chord structures. The occasional song lifts off, but the cumulative effect is like having a soft wet blanket placed over your face. But it was appropriate for the venue. Holy Joe's is an intimate room, located upstairs from the Reverb and the Kathedral. It has soft, low, comfortable lounge chairs that occupy much of the floor space and sit in front of a private bar before the stage. It directs your attention toward the band without forcing you to attend to much more than your own comfort. It is a relief from the open spaces of the rooms below and is ideal for a band that wishes to simply appear before an audience rather than address one.
The back room of Cameron House is a direct contrast in all but scale. It feels like a contingent space, as it should: The building itself is a converted flophouse and has managed by sheer wit, ingenuity, and some well-publicized licensing fights, to become a sort of hipster landmark. The back room has in recent years been converted into a theater and the room scatters raised fixtures and tables and steps to produce a cabaret feel. It is cramped but viewy, a space that delights in throwing people into seating from which they can't avoid facing one another almost as much as they face the performers. You have to admire the ramshackle spirit of the place.
But the temperature that night never dropped below 75 degrees, even at four in the morning. It made the club a rancid armpit of a venue. Nobody could breathe. A sign taped to the back exit read, This door must remain locked at all times. A game bartender clambered around with a tray of beers that were warm by the time they reached those of us at the back. Bands leaving carried their cases over the heads of those setting up. Everybody prayed silently for their own safety.
It was not the best venue for a contained and tasteful electronic act. The Hermit is drummer Hamish Thomson's moniker for his electronic project, which currently tours as a five-piece. They have a very clear sound � spacious keyboard voicings, major chords, an open midrange. The drums are wide and warm; the electronic loops are soft, regular and undistracting. It is very practiced, and it sounds like Zero 7, or Morcheeba, or Lemon Jelly at its most benign. It's featherweight, in other words, and accompanied by visuals featuring caterpillars, flowers and butterflies, it was too good-natured by far. Some people were having difficulty breathing. We wanted to be put out of our misery. They were showing us fauna. "Flutterbye" gave the bassist some work, with a thick dub bassline in the manner of Massive Attack's "Angel", but it lapsed into some uninspired string arrangements and vocalist Paula Toledo's Beth Gibbon–inspired vibrato.
It needs a lot of politics � a lot of context � to give this kind of music any edge. British downtempo, at its hollowed-out mid-'90s best, was political because of its corrosive minimalism and its hybrid sound, an unselfconscious blend of voices, genres, and influences that emerged in reaction to the evisceration of public life by the Thatcher-Major government. The kind of watered-down poptronica that the genre serves up at this point may be smooth and highly professional, but it's an aesthetic dead end, a cheapening of the impulses inherent to both electronic music and the torch song.
The Hermit was joined by CR Avery, an MC whose scat turntablism and kinetic sense of timing is remarkable. Avery knows how to work a crowd, and while his asides may not be particularly interesting � "You can't be critically acclaimed without a critical mass" � his presence on the second half of the Hermit's set reordered the room. The audience leaned in, and for twenty minutes the band became commanding and dynamic.
Vitaminsforyou offered similarly passive fare at the Oasis, which is a pretty good non-specialist venue for Bryce Kushnier's type of electronic music. This is another way of saying that it is a very poor venue for everyone else: a low-ceilinged, unventilated room at the back of a compact restaurant. Everything that comes into the room stays there � whether it is the collective body heat of everyone in attendance or the swelling midrange register that would elsewhere be lost amid rumbling bass and high-register drum sounds. Vitaminsforyou's music is cumulative, reminiscent of U2's Achtung Baby for its overlayering of bass lines, which reverberated and hovered against the room's back wall.
The music was pleasant but essentially unchallenging. There were the layered choral sounds and the decorative harmonics, bell chimes and xylophone figures that typify the folktronica formula. The breakbeats were uninteresting. There were dangerous moments when Kushnier stepped away from his equipment to snag a drink, and the music continued entirely unchanged. Most electronic bands have learned to strip back their sound when they leave the laptop. They do it not just because most audiences still instinctively expect that when you stop touching an instrument, it will stop making a noise. They also want to show that they care to be there � that performing in front of fifty people is different for them than performing at home in private.
No Luck Club
At the same venue later that evening, No Luck Club, an instrumental hip-hop crew from Vancouver, knew how to move. When they stepped back from the turntables and laptops, the music simmered down to the starkest bass throb. Their movements throughout the set were fluid and measured and smooth; clinical precision alternated with frenzied activity. These were functional movements first and foremost, but they formed a bridge between the audience and the music and the sound. And the sound was very good, indeed.
There was a lot of brass. Great blocks of ‘70s funk emerged amid hot Latin horn choruses and slabs of unencumbered snare. Though the room's acoustics of the room kept too much midrange floating around, it held the feel-good soul-jazz loops in a crashing mixture of chunky piano and organ licks. In one song they washed great tides of sonorous bass sounds around, chirp scratches skipping across the dark surface.
This music was never abstract. At its best, instrumental hip-hop thrives on association, grabbing handfuls of sound that are over-familiar (or which sound as if they should be) and placing them into unexpected combinations. There were the most obvious AWB and Kool and the Gang samples amid the rarest crate-digging; squelchy ‘80s synth loops nested amongst screechy and witty scratches. If there's a weakness with No Luck Club, it's that its low end lacks the same astonishing range and virtuosity as the sample selection and the turntablism.
The group's music, at least, has a similar aesthetic to that of Holy Fuck: It is a percussive hybrid of different sounds. But the contrast in their outlook is reflected in their audiences. No Luck Club are populists, building their music from an unregulated mix of cultures, sounds and genres. Its audience was similarly varied � the occasional hip-hop head, the blissed-out couple dancing at the front, the folks that looked like truckers at a stopover. They didn't care how they looked. It was democratic rather than cliquey, a spontaneous community brought together by the music.
Holy Fuck are reductionists, intent on marshaling the squeals and protests of equipment designed for other purposes. At the Reverb, the audience comprised the would-be-hip and the professionally curious. It was a brilliant set, but only a few people got it. Much of the audience seemed more concerned with impressing the other people there. It was an elitist crowd, brought by the Now magazine showcase, of which Holy Fuck were the fourth act. Downstairs from the intimacy of Holy Joe's, the Reverb has something of the church about it, and something of the thoroughfare. Its high ceilings produce great sound, showering shards of noise back to the audience along with drips of condensation from the air conditioning, a venue in which a dropped glass produces a shatter rather than a smothered crunch. But the utilitarian design � the traffic to the bar and the washrooms and the exits runs along the back � means that until an act is truly engrossing, it feels contingent. There is little to keep you there; you could be listening to another act upstairs (or downstairs, at the Kathedral) within moments, or out on the street. It does not ask anything of audience. It does not require you to commit. You have to want to be there, and you have to want to stay.
More people wanted to be there for Josh Martinez and, after him, the Most Serene Republic. Martinez is an MC from Vancouver, with the quick wit and not-to-proud-to-mix-it-up attitude shared by many Canadian MCs. He introduced himself as a "professional karaoke wizard". He began his set hidden behind a hat, shirt, glasses, mic. His beats featured the crisp EPMD-style throwbacks favored by b-boy revivalists DJ Nu-Mark of Jurassic 5 or the UK's DJ Format. His flow has a good-natured urgency, and though his rapid-fire, slightly nasal delivery is not terribly original, by the end of the evening it had acquired a sharp and varied syncopation.
There's a lot of spraycan variety to Martinez's show, from the classic hip-hop breaks to the repeated invocation of Johnny Cash. Not all of it is as carefree and humorous as his utterly unselfconscious cover of "Eye of the Tiger". His act is surprisingly intimate, and when he introduced the final song � his new single � with a dedication to "you big dudes who screw it all up with your playboy attitude and your dry humping", his isn't entirely a humor that deflects introspection. His earnestness encourages you to lean into the room, allowing everyone to gather closer without feeling needy. It was a good use of space, but you couldn't the help concluding that the occasion and the room � and, indeed, the hyped-up expectations of the audience � had forced him into it.
Much of the audience, including the television cameras, were awaiting the Most Serene Republic, a band from Milton, Ontario, who have just signed to Arts & Crafts and had the showcase's top billing. When they turned out to be quite good, everyone was relieved. They have a great sound, a lot of which comes from the ballast and weight of drummer Adam Nimmo and from Andrew McArthur's locked-in bass. Nimmo is not afraid of his kick drum and he is not afraid to drive the band. The Manchester comparisons serve for now, largely based on Adrian Jewett's boyish, rounded vocals. His trombone playing is a gimmick but a crowd-pleasing one, forming a direct line from the strength of the band's musicianship to the untrained enthusiasm of its demeanor.
The Most Serene Republic made the most of some unforgiving equipment and a (mostly) forgiving audience, and its performance had that feeling of a moment at which its official discovery was ordained. That's a neat trick for a young band, and a good one for festivals. Some bands � the Arcade Fire among them � carry it off at venue after venue for years. The Most Serene Republic did it quite likeably, and to do it while playing in 7/8 time shows their depth.
The format of NXNE � 400 bands in three nights, across 30 venues � effectively atomizes any sense of a collective public. Most bands performing here were still in search of their audience, hoping (perhaps in vain) to attract a following that would guide their careers. Bands who know their time has come have an advantage: Though it might not pay the bills, they continue their artistic path and wait for the world to catch up. They know what music should sound like now and must convince one audience after another by strength of will and performance that they are right. The ones who will make it are the ones who will not compromise, and the moments in which they refuse to compromise are always deeply public: It is about making people listen; eventually everybody does.
More of those moments may come, but there weren't many at NXNE. There was far too much of the music of insularity and angst and of personal alienation, and for the most part it was well-received. Very little of the music here had the capacity to speak to issues of sex or class or race or youth, and thus little of it had that urgency so close to the heart of a healthy popular music. NXNE is, among other things, an attempt to put bands before audiences and get audiences inside venues. Sometimes it worked. But nobody was much interested in a public.