Pretty Surfaces, Sharp Edges: An Interview With Wet Confetti
Wet Confetti's Alberta Poon fronts a three-person band that's drawing comparisons to Delta 5, X-Ray Spex, and the Au Pairs. Funny, though, she says she and her two band-mates never heard of post-punk until after they started making music.
Delicately pretty, Wet Confetti's Alberta Poon looks even smaller than she is next to her bass, her slender arms extended to full length in order to play the herky-jerky post-punk rhythms that underpin Wet Confetti's sound. She sings in a high girlish voice, a sweet, whispery almost transparent overlay on the band's spiky, stop-start sound. Her long-time friend Dan Grazzini -- they met while still in high school -- sways restlessly to one side then the other, shoulder thrusting in time as he plucks off-kilter, geometrically- precise guitar riffs. And Mike McKinnon, in the rear, is a straight-out basher, filling the anxious spaces with scatter-shot explosions and treble-heavy, cymbal-laced beats.
The three members of Wet Confetti have been playing in and around the Portland area since the early 2000s. Now, with a breakout performance on Brendan Canty's Burn to Shine 3 video, a high profile partnership with Gang of Four's Dave Allen and album number three just released on Allen's Pamplemoose records, Wet Confetti seems poised for their very own ticker tape parade.
Like most of the really interesting bands, Wet Confetti didn't come out of any sort of cool, pre-existing scene, but rather grew out of a musically barren, congenitally unreceptive environment. Poon and Grazzini first started playing together in the Mormon stronghold of Orem, Utah. Grazzini had grown up in the church, Poon was simply surrounded by it, but both felt that their particular brand of angular, jittery music was never going to go over in this conservative setting
The two of them set out for Seattle, then, when that didn't work out, moved briefly to K Records birthplace Olympia, Washington, in the late 1990s. Unhappy there as well, Poon was offered a job opening a branch of the store where she worked in Portland, Oregon. She jumped at the chance, and finally, after all that travel, found a place where she felt at home. "It was like an instant fit," says Poon. "There's just something about Portland."
Wet Confetti began making music in the early '00s, first a CD-R and an EP that flew mostly under the radar. With the full-length This Is So Illegal in 2004 the band began picking up steam, and with the newest CD, Laughing, Gasping, its members seem to be on the brink of wider recognition.
Burning, shining, extra loud
The surge Wet Confetti is on now can, perhaps, be traced to their appearance on the third edition of Burn to Shine, a video performance series conceived by Brendan Canty (of Fugazi and Garland of Hours). In each edition, a group of artists from a specific town gather in a building that is about to be destroyed. They play one song each in the doomed structure. The final shots are always of the building going down, either by fire as in the first and third editions, or by bulldozer in the second.
The Portland Burn to Shine was curated by Chris Funk of the Decemberists and his partner Sian. Portland has, for its size, an exceptionally fertile music scene; the roster included Sleater-Kinney, the Gossip, the Shins, Mirah, the Decemberists, a fantastic preteen girl group called the Ready and ... Wet Confetti.
"We were extremely excited not only as Fugazi fans, but to be in something with so many amazing Portland bands," says Poon. "I still can't believe we were one of the bands that got picked."
Wet Confetti had planned a tour around the time of the June 2005 filming session. "But when they asked us to play, we were like, 'Screw the tour!'" says Poon. "We'd had really bad luck with van breakdowns and fires, and we were convinced that we were going to go on tour and something really bad was going to happen and we weren't going to make it back. We got back that night and then the next day we filmed."
Poon says that they were all surprised to find that they were going to be the loudest band of the day. There were rock powerhouses on the bill -- Sleater-Kinney and the Gossip for instance -- but these bands had opted for softer, more acoustic material. Wet Confetti came on like a cubist painting of a tornado, all violent twists and sharp angles and deafening blasts. "It was really scary because you only got two takes," says Poon. " Like if you messed up, too bad. It was crazy."
Wet Confetti [Photo: Jeff Mawer]
Recording with Dave Allen
But Wet Confetti didn't mess up. Their cut was one of the highlights of a very strong reel of Portland-area rock bands. And there was something else working in their favor at about the same time. They were working with Dave Allen, the bass player for Gang of Four, who had relocated to Portland and recently started his own label, Pamplemoose Records.
By email, Allen says that he first saw Wet Confetti open for Menomena in 2004. Alberta Poon says that she first heard from Allen a bit later than that, when he was curating a show at Portland's Crystal Ballroom. "We were really excited that someone from a band we all admired was asking us to play a show," she recalls. "We got to meet him, and it was really exciting, and we were all going, 'I wonder what he thought?'"
Still about a year and a half passed before Wet Confetti heard from Allen again, this time through a friend who passed along an early demo of Laughing, Gasping. Wet Confetti had been working on the album themselves and had come to an impasse. "When you record yourself, you can get stuck in a trap where you don't have anyone to answer to and no budget limit," says Poon. "You can start obsessing over recording and tweaking and changing and thinking you could make it better and better. In the end you just destroy it. That's exactly what happened to us."
Allen, though, heard the core of a good album in the demo'd songs. "The songs were there, but the album sounded like it had been recorded in a fridge across the hall, all muffled and less than inspiring," he says. "They'd done all the hard work. The first attempt at making the record meant they were well rehearsed." Allen helped them clean up their sound, though he now says, "I like the crisp production a lot, but with hindsight, I might have dirtied it up a bit more."
Allen also laid down some bass tracks during these sessions. Poon calls the experience -- having the bass player from a legendary band come in to play your instrument on your record -- a little surreal. However, only one of his bass parts made the final record. You can hear him on the single "Sorry Dinosaur".
Continuing to evolve
Wet Confetti re-recorded seven of ten of the songs from the original demo, then added three more from newer material. Even so, Poon says that the album doesn't really reflect where the band is, artistically, right now. "I feel like some of the songs on there are not songs we'd be writing now. We really like the songs and we're really happy with the album. But they ... some of the songs were written two or three years ago," she says. "We're constantly evolving. I don't think we're ever a band that just jumps onto a bandwagon of style of the moment, but we definitely do evolve our songs. Some of those songs, they're definitely still our sound and us but they're not songs that we'd do in the present time."
That evolution has been a continual process, right from the start; in fact, fans of Laughing, Gasping might not even recognize the earliest material. One reason: in the first recordings, Grazzini, not Poon, did all the singing.
"I seriously wouldn't even sing 'Happy Birthday' at friends' parties," she admits. "Now I'm singing in a band, which is really, really weird. I guess it just kind of happened when the boys would encourage me to sing more, and they thought that was a good direction for the band."
Poon also had to learn to sing and play the bass at the same time, an undertaking that many musicians find particularly difficult. "You have to have two brains, kind of, to play the rhythms and sing something completely different," she says. "In the beginning I would sing stuff that was easier to sing with the stuff I was playing, or I would play a more simple bass line."
But these days, Poon says, both the singing and the playing has grown more complex, as Wet Confetti continues to push its sound in new directions. Already, she explains, the band has moved on beyond the stuttery, stylized, stop-start punk of Laughing, Gasping towards a new, more melodic style.
"I'd say our songs are a little less aggressive and more poppy now ... less punk, I guess, though we definitely still want that edge," she says of the change. "We're still a live band, sounding live, but when our next album comes out, it's going to be pretty different. We just recorded a demo at our friends' studio. The songs are a lot more melodic. They're pretty catchy in a different way than our other songs are."
More punch and power
All along, Wet Confetti's songs have drawn comparisons to late 1980s post-punk and no-wave bands like Delta 5, X-Ray Spex, Au Pairs and Gang of Four itself, something that initially puzzled Poon and her bandmates. "It might sound crazy. Early on, we were playing our music and being compared to X-Ray Spex and Gang of Four, and we were not even familiar with these bands. Obviously, we are now."
Even now, though, when all three of them know these older bands, Poon says there's never an attempt to sound like anyone else. "We don't write based on what we want to sound like. We just write what we feel at the moment, and then it comes out with our distinctive sound. I guess we've kind of noticed it's working for us really well. Obviously, the way I sing and our rhythms are very distinct, and people really like them."
And Allen, who knows some of these bands first hand, dismisses the whole idea completely. "That seems like a lazy comparison, just because they are all bands led by women, I think," he says. "Wet Confetti has far more punch and power than any of those bands."
Listen to "Laughing, Gasping"