A Lunatic With Conviction
Cody Chesnutt flirted with success briefly in 2002 when he was featured on the Roots' single "The Seed (2.0)" from their Phrenology album. The song was actually an adaptation of one of Chesnutt's own solo tracks, a cleaned-up, tighter version of his sloppy and occasionally out-of-tune original. Chesnutt opened for the Roots on their tour supporting that album and gained a small amount of buzz as a result.
2002 also saw the release of Chesnutt's debut album, the ambitious, eccentric, hilariously-titled double-disc The Headphone Masterpiece. The first time I heard it, I suppose I was expecting songs like the Roots' "The Seed (2.0)," and I was quite surprised to be greeted with a forty-second tape-hissy keyboard and vocal track followed by a seemingly endless, though actually less than four minutes, naughty/sexy spoken word piece by terrible guest poet Sonja Marie. The record was already confusing and frustrating me, and then he couldn't even hit his own high notes in the original "The Seed!" He'd play a great lo-fi acoustic track like "Enough of Nothing" for less than a minute and then follow it with a looped beat for another 46 seconds with him on top saying, and I quote, "Test test test test ahhhhhhhhh." By the time I got to the end of the tremendous nearly-100-minute album (this guy's got some serious huevos rancheros putting out a debut that long and bloated) I was left thinking, "What a weird album." Then I realized - I love weird albums!
It's like the diary of a nutty, earnest, gifted and slightly delusional recluse put to music by the love child of Stevie Wonder and Daniel Johnston. Chesnutt has no reservations or continuity lyrically, going from songs about childhood best friends to songs about sex while high, then continuing to beg for forgiveness for cheating on his woman and singing a 13-second ode to his "big black penis." He's all over the map musically as well, from acoustic guitar and vocal ballads, hip-hop tracks (with occasionally dreadful freestyle rapping), retro soul, and straight-ahead garage rock, all recorded with a lo-fi feel and usually with a Chaturbate drum machine. His aesthetic is unique, and it'd be hard to find an artist that sounded like one of these tracks, much less an artist who can pull them all off like Chesnutt does. And his voice, despite its limits and occasional blemishes, is remarkably expressive and smooth. The pimp anthem "Serve This Royalty" has a bridge melody that'll break your heart and the introspective "5 on a Joyride" hits me right in the middle of my soul.
After his short stint in the spotlight and this wonderful album, Chesnutt has all but disappeared, apart from a painfully-brief appearance in the high-spirited documentary/concert film Dave Chappelle's Block Party and a recent inclusion on the Biblical concept compilation Plague Songs. Chesnutt contributed "Boils," a rollicking reggae track full of horns, groove, bombast, and notably improved production values.
Chesnutt's MySpace page hints at a new collection of songs called The Live Release, "a unique experiment in music, an exercise of the living word." I'm not totally sure what that means, but I'm excited to hear it. He releases what he wants when he wants, and whenever he decides to drop another album on the unsuspecting public, make sure to take notice.
Who Needs a Love on Mars?
Detholz! recordings, Detholz! tour dates, and other assorted Detholz! tidbits available at www.detholz.com.
The Detholz! have a way of rearranging the realities of the sensory world. At every Detholz! show I have ever been to, there has been a sniff of the weird, or a sense of the infinitely possible. Strangers show up at Detholz! shows and turn out to be long-lost twins. Lovers reunite, and people who do not yet know they are perfect for each other pair off. I have run into ex-boyfriends, ex-peers, ex-coworkers, ex-costars, and ex-floormates at Detholz! shows. And, it seems, I learn another of the endless and eerie commonalities between myself and drummer Andrew Sole, who grew up in metro Detroit, just like me, and went to church a mile away from my house. He babysat for the kid who played Poseidon to my Medusa in a high school play (directed, as an extra note of interest, by the fiancée of one of the editors of this website); his pastor was the father of a former symphony standpartner, who also made a guest apperance as the frontman of an opening band at a show they played in Wheaton, Illinois.
I was an eighteen-year-old with an angry ache nestled in my heart when I saw the Detholz! for the first time. After a crunchy, kitschy set of space rock - songs about following a spurning lover on a train to Mars, a supervillian named Mr. Electricity who is "impossible to touch," cities overrun by alien armies - the band came back for an encore, wearing bright suits and pale make-up. They set their gear up in silence, played a few tentative chords, and when they all wailed in unison, they spit out cornstarch blood.
They played "Celebrate" and "Hot for Teacher," rendering every tacky cover with charge. By night's end I had never been sweatier or more worked up. I had never heard silliness delivered with such urgent earnesty, flushed rock beauty paired so seamlessly with nerdy irony.
My heartbreak was smashed into dust and scattered over the ocean. I was in love.
It was my first year at Beloit College, and during my four years there, the Detholz! became an institution, playing once a semester in the smelly, roady basement of the C-Haus. Their jasminlive shows were like no other shows. They played to shirtless, screaming crowds for hours, encore after encore, giving us their best songs two or three times. The walls of the bar would sweat brown streaks of beer, tobacco, and grime. Afterward they would come to our parties and dance on our tables. This was rock revivalism at its best, with all of the danger, all of the spirit, all of the flesh.
The Detholz!, of course, have regularly scheduled lives away from this dirty booze pit on the stateline. They live together in Chicago, have other jobs, play music with other bands (notably, Baby Teeth and Bobby Conn), and maybe - no one really likes admitting this, but we're jealous lovers - maybe have dedicated fans that aren't Beloit College students.
Formed in 1996 at Wheaton College - the notoriously fundamentalist alma mater of the Reverend Billy Graham, where dancing was banned until 2003 - the band initially explored their frustrations with stagy irreverence, performing in space suits and smashing television sets with pickaxes. Return engagements at Wheaton resulted in demonstrations, prayer circles, and altercations between fans and detractors.
"We nurtured images of the 'quintessential Detholz! fan,'" says lead singer Jim Cooper, "who is a socially maladjusted male between the ages of 15 and 30, in a profession related to science or math, probably hopelessly addicted to porn, terrified of women, snorty, constantly apologizing, etcetera."
In 2002, Detholz! debuted their first full-length, Who are the Detholz!?, a sort of campy musical Metropolis. Though members of the band have expressed reluctance at ever performing or even hearing most of the songs on that album ever again, it is nonetheless meticulously crafted, full of tabernacle harmonies, impeccable electronics, electrifying arches of melody and rhythms so sharp they could snap your neck. This was the album I took home with me after my first life-altering Detholz! experience, and it spent long summers spinning in my car stereo, and lonely winters waiting with me for the thaw of the earth and the blistering homecoming of my heart's most resilient suitors.
Seasons turned and the band returned, time and time again, to the C-Haus. I kept listening to Who Are the Detholz!?, but it was becoming evident that the album was aging, and that these rock-and-roll missionaries were not themselves getting any younger. Their new songs were full of disco experimentalism, psycho-curious explorations. Jim's televangelistic monologues were getting darker and closer to the quick. And as the annual Halloween Jukebox of the Dead fete became increasingly elaborate - evolving to include covers of "We Built This City" and the unfortunate Cher-surrection single "Believe" alongside old favorites "Like a Virgin" and "Dancing on the Ceiling" - their sets of original music became tentative. Requests for "Last Train to Mars" were not always honored, to widespread disappointment. Songs were played that we would never hear again. Whispers persisted that a new album was coming out "soon," but we could never get a straight answer as to when.
Their shows remained transcendent. We kept taking our shirts off.
But we started to ask ourselves:
What is going on? Were these guys Christians or what? Were there kernels of sincerity in their preacherly tirades? Was a song like "I.M.A. Believer" presented to us only in parody? Wheaton College was no big secret, and of course we would have accepted the Detholz! regardless of agenda or persuasion. Still, it nagged, and it nagged more as the band seemed to be scampering off in ambiguous directions.
And then, like a strike of lightning from the sky, the good people at RightRightRight Films produced and released Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?, a feature-length documentary about Christian rock and including extensive interviews with members of Detholz!, addressing at once the question that many of us had formulated on our own over the course of a long courtship with this band, and forging a valley of clarity. This was a band that was Going Through a Transition. They were Figuring It All Out.
"I will say that it's a little disconcerting to be referred to as a 'Christian' or even as an 'anti-Christian' group," Jim tells me, "and we've been labeled as both by listeners and in the media. Detholz! is neither Christian nor anti-Christian. We are neither pro-life nor pro-choice. We are not members of Rotary International or of the Kiwanis. We are not Freemasons. We are not politically motivated. We do not wish to touch you or your children in inappropriate ways.
"We are musicians. Period."
And THEN, like lightning striking the same place TWICE, Detholz! finally released Cast Out Devils. And the light hit the stained glass window and fell onto the rough-hewn floor of the chapel.
Here's what I want you to understand.
I want you to understand that I am not a widely-listened listener. I am not particularly deft at detecting the myriad contextual subtleties of most individual releases. I am not especially literate in the language of contemporary music. I am sure there are many who would argue that I flat-out have bad taste, given my fondness for kitsch, schlock rock, accessibility, satisfying chord progressions, and my fundamental laziness.
I like to think my greatest asset, as an appreciator of music, is an open mind. That is why I am here at The Post-Rockist.
But. I also want you to understand that I love this band like I have never loved any other band, ever. I like music a lot. I have been to a lot of shows. I have rubbed elbows with a lot of hustle-bustle sorts of musical folk, like D12, and the guy from the Verve Pipe, a black-eyed Jason Stollstmeier of the Von Bondies post-tussle-with-Jack-White, and speaking of Jack White, did I ever tell you about the time I saw the White Stripes for free in the Diego Rivera plaza of the Detroit Institute of Arts for FREE before they were FAMOUS?
Cast Out Devils will inevitably invite comparisons to Devo, Talking Heads, and other such post-punky new-wave outfits. This is fair and to be expected. "We approach music in much the same way that a lot of New Wave bands did in the early '80s," Jim wrote to me. He also wrote:
"Schtick and ironic posturing served us well in our formative years- and garnered us a solid cult following- but since we decided to 'unzip our fly,' so to speak, & forego some of the silliness, the response has been overwhelming and the band has really taken off. This has been disconcerting to our old-school contingent- understandably so. What I've discovered, though, is that most people want to be communicated to, not just toyed or joked with."
What do I want you to understand? I want you to understand that nothing I have ever experienced really compares to a Detholz! show. The gentlemen themselves may blush (or cringe) at my saying this, but it is imperative that you get it:
Though my feelings about God and the universe are squarely, certifiably ambivalent, I always go home from a Detholz! show feeling a little transformed. A little baptized.
I went to see them play at the University of Wisconsin-Madison not long ago, in the Busch-Gardensy Biergarten of Der Rathskeller, a polyester-Old World sort of cafeteria. Everyone sat at looming wooden tables. It was not unlike the show I saw at Wheaton College, where everyone sat on the floor.
During the opening act, a small man in a wheelchair scooted up to the stage, climbed out of his wheelchair, and started to dance. He wore an Alonzo Mourning jersey, baggy Dockers, and reef runners on his feet. He hopped on one foot, flexed his muscles, and repeatedly hit himself on the head. After twenty minutes of math-rock, he sat back down in his wheelchair and wheeled himself away.
Not long after Detholz! took the stage, an elderly black man in a red plastic hat and a leather jacket stood up and began distributing enormous five-dollar bills with stickers that read "SOUVENIR: Cincinnati Museum Center!" He gave one to keyboard player Jon Steinmeier, who grinned and held it bravely aloft. And then, like the rest of us, he danced. Without removing his leather jacket or his red plastic hat, that man got down.
It could not have happened anywhere else. At a Detholz! show, it seemed downright banal. So it is that the universe is organized - long stretches of emptiness, dimpled with pockets of weird, effervescent, revelatory glee.
When the average music fan thinks of heavy metal, in either its traditional Maiden/Priest theatricality or in one of its numerous violent subgenres, there is usually one constant in its approach: a sense of misplaced seriousness. This is a practice as old as metal itself, as lines like Judas Priest's "Grinder / Looking for meat / Grinder / Wants you to eat!" and Slayer's classic "How long can you last in this frozen water burial?" were delivered without a hint of irony or self-referential humor. Death metal has a similarly straight-faced delivery much of the time, even with the ridiculous B-movie horror themes or that old standby Satan as inspiration. Modern instrumental metal bands are serious in a different way, creating heavy but somber music that sounds like the score to a very dramatic scene in a film in which a character contemplates suicide or cries about something. I saw the band Pelican (the Explosions in the Sky of metal) live a while back, and not only did they stare at their instruments and not move the whole performance, but they specifically requested that only blue and red lighting be used to illuminate such a boring spectacle.
Canadian quartet Electro Quarterstaff creates exciting, vital instrumental metal without falling into the dreaded trap of seriousness. They are certainly serious about writing riffs, but they refuse to forget that metal should be fun and slightly goofy. "We act silly on stage," guitarist Andrew Dickens wrote to me, "because we're all silly in person. We have a great time playing these songs and express that through a stage show filled with funny faces, hip-swinging and foot-stomping good times. We aren't going to put on a show acting like we hate the world." From their song titles ("Something's Awry in the Hetfield of Dreams") to the cover art to their debut album (a bizarre pastel-colored painting of a one-antlered creature in the ocean with a boat sailing through the hole in its torso), the band is winking at the metal establishment. And unlike many other instrumental metal-ish bands, like Red Sparowes or the aforementioned Pelican, Electro Quarterstaff aren't here to uplift your heart - they play fast and the riffs never stop. Ever. "The goal of this band has always been to embrace the power of the Riff, or in the case of our songs, many riffs working together to resolve themselves into some kind of cohesive musical speech that's both sonically fulfilling and challenging to play," says guitarist Drew Johnston. "There's such an abundance of boring, tepid, predictable catshit out there that passes for 'music' that we try to create something that can be heard as majestic sonic weaponry puncturing the shield of mediocrity. or at least making a dent."
If you like riffs, then Electro Quarterstaff's debut album Gretzky is for you. It's a buffet of tasty licks courtesy of the triple-axe assault of Dickens, Johnston, and Josh Bedry. Dan Ryckman pounds the drums and somehow keeps up with the hyperactive harmonic shred squad without veering into the tasteless unrelenting blast territory of brutal death metal. Three guitars and drums - no vocals, no bass. "I don't think of our unorthodox lineup as a defining characteristic of the band. In fact, I hope riff lovers from around the world relate to our sound for the same reason we do, the 'feels good sounds good' approach. I guess the whole triple guitar instrumental band thing might spark some interest for the uninformed, but to ride that as what defines Electro Quarterstaff would be selling us short in my opinion," says Dickens. Johnston adds, "I find that instrumental music is like reading a book. The listener is enabled to use their imagination to really focus and zero-in on the interplay between the instruments as opposed to having the pictures painted for them by a vocalist or singer yattering on and on, gurgling ad nauseum; which, in the case of extreme metal, can sometimes trivialize or belittle otherwise brilliant music.It's literally impossible for us to get away with something that sounds half-hearted or half-baked as there are no vocals to 'carry it' or to 'masquerade' a presumably mediocre or temperate section."
Their music is rooted in metal traditions, but just because you think you don't like metal doesn't mean you can't get down to this. "We've never been too concerned about being considered a part of the metal world. Our roots are clearly in metal and the high-gain riff-intensive songs are that of metal, but I would hate to limit ourselves solely to one genre.I think we have enough to offer to allow some interest from outside the genre, as well as to alienate some of the narrow-minded metalheads out there." The songs are meticulously-planned (Johnston compares the arranging process to "the molecular Tetris match from hell") modern compositions that the composer decided to orchestrate within the sound of a specific genre. There's very little repetition in these songs, and considering only one of the eight songs on Gretzky is under five minutes long and one is nearly eleven, that's a lot of riffs. Johnston says, "The instrumental aspect of the band is liberating in that we're totally unencumbered by conventional structure, so it's been interesting for us to experiment with idiosyncratic accent placement, mutating syncopation, and mathematical patterns embedded between multiple, overlapping and intersecting riffs." Riffs are serious business, but that's pretty much the band's only statement. "We don't have any message or political ideal we're trying to get across," says Dickens. "We're just a few guys having a good time playing songs we love and that's how we'll always keep it."
The band completed their first tour in the spring of 2006, which included a stop at the highly-regarded Maryland Deathfest. "[The tour] was one of the greatest experiences of my life," says Dickens. "We had an awesome response, made lots of new friends, introduced Electro Quarterstaff to quite a few new faces, and even came home without having to get a second job to pay the bills." Gretzky was released on Willowtip Records last fall, and the band has been back in Winnipeg since the tour, going to school or working a job and playing the occasional show. They hope to tour again soon, which would once again bring the riffs to the masses, as well as the most outrageous guitar faces you'll ever see. "I liken the faces and antics to a profoundly cherished David Lee Roth quote: 'You gotta make it look like it sounds!'" says Johnston. "Since I sing with my guitar instead of my voice, it's fun for me to kind of mime the riffs using my face and body. As soon as you climb onstage, you immediately become a performer or entertainer whether you want to admit it or not, so why not relish in that for a minute? I have a lot of fun playing this wild music and I think that unbridled enthusiasm comes across to people when we play live and is effective in establishing a rapport between us and the audience, regardless of how sophisticated their musical tastes may or may not be. At any rate, I certainly hope our band can at the very least be a catalyst or buffer in raising 'riff awareness' and turning people on to more progressive, challenging music they wouldn't otherwise be exposed to or interested in."