City Paper is not for tourists
For the last year or so, Fan Death Records co-proprietor Sean Gray and DJ and man-about-town Denman C. Anderson have been repping hard for something called cold wave, or minimal synth—-an obscure subset of post-punk that’s been enjoying a slightly less obscure revival in recent years thanks to the work of labels like Wierd Records and bands like Xeno and Oaklander. It’s distant, gloomy, often kinda danceable stuff, and Gray and Anderson have been spinning it each month at their No Love Lost night at Velvet Lounge.
Tomorrow, No Love Lost is taking over Brightest Young Thing’s temporary 14th Street space, vitaminwater uncapped LIVE, for a night of DJ sets and live music: Locals Screen Vinyl Image and Phonic Riot are opening up for New York’s Martial Canterel, a Xeno and Oaklander side-project whose new album You Today is spooky and quite solid. I asked Gray and Anderson to make their best case for cold wave, and a transcript of our GMail-conducted chat, condensed and edited, is below. They spoke about cold wave’s appeal, why it’s perfect music for the making of unholy babies, and why, apparently, I’m a shoegaze fanboy. It was fun.
Washington City Paper: To start, explain the kind of music you play at No Love Lost. What is minimal synth and cold wave?
Denman C. Anderson: I’d say it’s the early exploration of electronic music from roughly the mid to late ’70s through the early ’80s.
Sean Gray: I think what makes synth-based music in general interesting is how for me it pretty much presents itself as some sort of emotionless platform due to the technology it uses, and try to create emotion.
DCA: It was pared down, very raw in its own way, and would, in many ways, go on to become “new wave” in the mid ’80s.
SG: I never really view what we do in terms of coldwave/dark whatever. To me there is a feel with this synth-based music that lends itself to a sort of idea that the offshoots will have something in common. I also think what we do lends itself to the idea that DJing doers not need to be dance-based so much as it can be based on the dynamics of the sounds.
WCP: Is that a new idea? The listening-based DJ night? Do people, um, dance at No Love Lost?
SG: To me it’s somewhat of the same idea. I think people can dance, sure; much if not all of what we play is pop. But instead of it being this grand narative of like, “Here is the catchy part,” a lot of it when I DJ is mostly the feel of the songs
DCA: Yeah, we definitely have some random tracks, for instance, Dive’s “Dark Room” is really early industrial, but Jesus fuck I love that song. The opening beat to In My Rosary‘s “Short Dance” takes me to that place where unholy babies are made.
WCP: What are the sound’s offshoots? Cold wave or whatever may be a nebulous aesthetic, but there seems to be a cohesive revival going on.
DCA: Yes, while it started several years before that, it caught steam three or four years ago with Pieter [Schoolwerth] from Wierd Records running his night and label out of NYC.
SG: I mean, I’ve always felt a connection to say something like Babel 17 and, say, whitehouse.
DCA: In many ways, his fascination with what was more or less a loss era of music not only brought to light some amazing sounds but also allowed groups such as Xeno and Oaklander and Frank (Just Frank) (who we just played with in N.Y. at Wierd) to imagine their own versions of those sounds today.
WCP: Are their lyrical themes you see across the genre? Does that even matter?
SG: I honestly think lyrics are a joke. They could be talking about elephants for all I care. To me it’s more about the feel of what we play.
DCA: I mean, you could easily guess a lot of it. I think I wrote a piece about how Cold Wave formed at the apex of what would be the “post-modern” and used the word “misanthropic” a lot.
WCP: It is kind of dance music for misanthropes
SG: I think the one thing about this kind of music is that its extremely serious, but for me I try not to present it that way. I mean right now i am listening to Feu Ma Mere, just before that I was listening to The Frogs. I think it’s really fucking easy to get pegged into this NU GOTH or Grave wave bullshit.
WCP: Would you play The Frogs at No Love Lost?
SG: Sure, they can do it all synth-style.
DCA: I mean, Sean I are both into dark goth themes, and I’m super off my rocker with sinister types of metal, and having the inverted crucifixes on my shoulders and all, but this music is less like that, and more utilizing the coldness of electronic sounds to express the disconnects between everything from romantic partners to people disconnected from the world.
WCP: You were saying that it’s sort of the opposite of witch house and all that other bullshit, but you can see where people might conflate the two?
DCA: Ah! You said witch house!
WCP: Well, it had to happen.
DCA: Here’s what’s funny, “cold wave” was really the monolithic buzzword for a while, and prepped to launch big. Little did we know that witch house was right around the corner. It seemed to have just crushed the momentum of this scene, and, in fact, a lot of nights across the country that started as cold wave, and were akin to what we do, now have all jumped over to witch house.
WCP: Cuz the kids like it?
SG: I really don’t know what witch house is. I just also learned how to use Twitter. So take that for what you will.
DCA: Don’t lie, Sean.
SG: I know oOoOO. That’s really it. I think the idea of witch house being a pure Interenet-meme genre is interesting. Without, say, soundcloud, last.fm, etc. it wouldn’t really exist.
DCA: I’ve seen oOoOO DJ before, and it was hilarious, because the crowed left until he untransposed the tracks, thereby being left with terrible ’90s pop music.
WCP: Why pair Screen Vinyl Image and Phonic Riot with Martial Canterel?
SG: Well, Screen Vinyl Image to me aren’t a shoegaze band, as some here like to peg them. I think they have more in common with what we do, whats going on with Wierd, etc. than people here think. It’s really easy to see those Jazzmasters and say, “Oh, I get it, they like MBV!” To me, I always thought they sounded more dark than that.
DCA : They are two bands that share our aesthetic in many ways. Phonic Riot certainly has a darkness to them.
WCP: You brought up that disconnect between emotion and synthetic instruments. But I feel like Screen Vinyl Image is the opposite: The vocals are really subdued while the music (the guitars, especially) is where the emotion is.
SG: That’s a typical shoegaze fanboy thing to say. Go listen to the Rude 66 split or the new 12-inch.
WCP: Haha. Caught me, I guess.
SG: Their peers in Ceremony, Ringo Deathstarr or whatever…I think Screen Vinyl Image has postioned themselves into something much more. The way they operate has much more in comon with, say, Xeno and Oaklander or something. I think the singles that are coming out, or say the Fan Death one, kinda show the guitars are taking much more of a back seat. Instead of being this blissful shoegaze band, I think them layering synths has really put them in a different place thantheir peers.
WCP: OK, wrap-up time. Make your pitches. Why should people come tomorrow?
SG: I think what we are doing really is different from what really is going on in D.C. I dont think its a bold statement to say what we are doing and presenting with the DJ stuff or shows we put on is nothing like anything else in D.C.
DCA: Well, first off, whatever you’re into, all three bands put on amazing sets. I back Sean’s statement. Not as a bold proclamation but as a fact.
SG: I think there is a segment of people that want a DJ night that isnt aboutgetting your fucking photo taken with a shitty rail drink in your hand and some girl that’s way out of your league.
DCA: Haha, yeah, I’ll take care of that on another night. That’s not what I do at No Love Lost. It’s something in some ways deeper.