A strange new wave of retro washes over music and nightlife
MUSIC "In a time when people are becoming more and more isolated every day by the Internet, alone at their computers and staring at the tiny, sad glowing screens in their cellular hands, it only makes sense to me that we are all feeling a slight sense of loneliness and (hopefully) the desire for connection with others ... Whereas 1980s groups responded to implicit cold, colorless alienation of the repressive regimes of Reagan-Thatcher-era politics and culture, today's groups I think express a similar frustration responding to what I call 'the culture of isolation.'"
That's Pieter Schoolwerth, founder of Wierd Records, a New York City label dedicated to releasing records by contemporary acts that eerily mimic the sounds of obscure electronic new wave, in a recent interview with Austrian music journal Skug. Oddly in the context of connection, he's talking about some of the most deliberately cold, enigmatic, bleak yet beguiling music ever produced — "lost" underground European and American music that came out roughly between 1979 and 1986 (if it came out at all), was inspired by goth, industrial, and synthpop giants like Throbbing Gristle, Joy Division, Bauhaus, the Cure, and Depeche Mode, and is only being rediscovered now.
It's igniting fierce interest, with musicological fanatics digging up spooky swaths of unknown angular gems and a slew of current bands channeling the sound. Originally made in decaying urban centers with then-newly-affordable analog synthesizers and drum machines by dozens of often untraceable musical mavericks — Ausgang Verboten, Esplendor Geometrico, Das Kabinette, Eleven Pond, Nine Circles, Zwischenfall, Gerry and the Holograms — these unearthed and unearthly tunes from decades ago are beginning to seep into the Bay Area scene via a handful of excellent compilations, club nights, and musical visionaries. Can something be retro if hardly anyone heard it the first time? That's just one of the intriguing questions that springs to mind. Meanwhile, humans are dancing. Here's a mix of some of the originals:
This bracingly unfamiliar music (or rather, slightly familiar — you think you're hearing some bizarre 1981 B-side by Soft Cell or Visage but it turns out to be a crazy one-off from Columbus, Ohio from that same year) was usually grouped at the time into three fuzzy genres that overlapped at many points, sharing among them a DIY spirit, a dystopian view of the future, an urge to map the melodramatic onto the automatic, erotic astringency, and pretension without pretentiousness. Yes, much of it veers into "Sprockets" territory, but that's actually part of the appeal.
Dark wave was an umbrella term for goth rock, early industrial, and darker synthpop. It grafted lamentation and cavernous basslines over post-punk's angular angst and icebox oddity, and was popularized by groups like Fad Gadget, Front 242, and Chris and Cosey and at clubs like London's seminal Batcave. Cold wave was the French version of dark wave that skewed toward more Pong-like synth figures, fizzling chords, studied malaise, and gnomic haiku. ("Business man/Yet you kill the boss/Computer programs/Shadows in the night," Lyonnaise duo Deux disaffectedly intone on 1983's unshakeable "Game and Performance.") Synth wave, or minimal synth, was a kind of prickly disco: chromatic, sparsely produced, brooding and moody, yet often quite catchy and dance floor-oriented.
All three genres are now generally lumped together as "wave" (or sometimes "retrograde"), which can include a vast array of other period sounds, from John Zorn-like no-wave jazz explosions to Dead Can Dance spooky-tribal incantations. Basically, if it feels like you're listening to a late-night college radio program somewhere in the Midwest in 1984, one possibly called "Flash Frequencies" or "Shadow Talk," you've caught the uncanny wave gist. If you imagine yourself a fishnet-gloved extra in the movie Liquid Sky who pronounces "paradise" as "pah-rahd-eyes," then you definitely have.
Dark wavers Brynna and Domini at Club Shutter. Photo by Sadie Mellerio
But just because the sound aimed for frigidity doesn't mean it didn't build community. Wave acts may have been what some would call "unbranded," but they operated within close-knit networks: cassettes were passed hand-to-hand, recording studios were shared in warehouse-based artists' communes, fans around the world braved dangerous parts of town to attend wave-centric club nights. The music itself attempted to humanize the arctic pitch of analog synths by infusing it with longing, restlessness, ennui, and gloom.
Today, that naive sincerity, refreshing lack of self-conscious irony, and marketplace virginity translate into authenticity, appealing to retro aficionados who vomit a tad at goth's Hot Topicality, the macho posturing that torpedoed industrial, or the Polly Estherization of new wave. (Like techno, soul, and disco before it, new wave retro is finally purging itself of excess baggage and mainstream complications by going minimal and original.) Dusted-off waveforms and hyperactive web forums attract a network of virtual seekers and posters who salivate at each discovery. Schoolwerth may be right about wave's cry against a culture of Internet isolation — and the turn toward analog is a specific rejection of the digital — but like an anxious clan gathered around a silicon-chip fire, its current fans watch anxiously online for freshly exhumed and re-chilled visions to appear. Then they go play them at clubs. Here is something old that seems truly new.
Wierd Records' contemporary roster of disquieted simulators, including the almost paranormally attuned Xeno and Oaklander and Led er Est, has been gaining global club-play traction — something many of the original artists, who drifted off into other, often fascinatingly mundane lives, could only have hoped for. (One example: Lidia the Rose, one half of Dutch act Nine Circles, abandoned musicmaking in the early '80s to raise "a half dozen" children in a commune-like setting. It was only after one of her sons Googled her name that she realized there were fans of her extremely limited, cassette-only output. She has since started making music again.) And wave affectations have garnered larger attention from the breakthrough of experimental synthpop band Cold Cave, which draws on the sound's pallid idiosyncrasies. "Hear sounds about yesterday's pain today," the band's MySpace deadpans.
Notable contemporary Bay Area wave acts include the excellently jerky Muscle Drum, founded by long-term wave-proponent Rob Spector of the group Bronze, fog-shrouded darkwave duo Sleeping Desiress, cinematic dirgers After Dark, and exquisitely anguished quintet Veil Veil Vanish. The East Bay's Katabatik Sound System has been producing lurching experimental-industrial music and events for a while, and V. Vale's Re/Search crew has been exhuming rare tunes forever. A particular favorite around the Bay Guardian office lately is the Soft Moon, a melancholic, pitch-perfectly crepuscular project of punk veteran and graphic designer Luis Vasquez.
The Soft Moon
"Honestly, being associated with the wave phenomenon was a little surprising to me at first," Vasquez told me, balking, like many retro-contemporizers I talked to, at being associated with any kind of scene. "But I think I understand why. My instrumental formula is similar because of the use of drum machines, synthesizers, rhythmic bass lines, and somber melodies. It could also just be the overall feeling my music has. I'm still not quite sure."
On the classic side of things, two just-released, high profile compilations — The Minimal Wave Tapes (Minimal Wave/Stones Throw) and Wierd-curated Cold Waves and Minimal Electronics Volume 1 (Angular) — along with recent German comp Genotypes (Genetic Records) have made underground synth rarities more accessible to potential wavers.
"I was exposed to new wave at a young age via my older brother's small collection of cassettes," NYC's Veronica Vasicka of the Minimal Wave label wrote in an e-mail. "Later I'd sneak out of my parents' apartment at night to go dancing in the East Village. I really associate those teenage days of first discovering record shops and old VHS tapes of bands like Throbbing Gristle with the inspiration that led me to launch the Minimal Wave label."
Vasicka coined the term minimal wave to encompass her fascination with both cold wave and minimal synth sounds. Her long-running Sunday night East Village Radio show has served as a beacon for American synth fans, and the incredible response to her extensive Web site (www.minimal-wave.org ) has established her as the point-person for the movement. She has her own theory about why the sound seems right:
"On one hand, I am surprised that minimal wave has been so easily welcomed in this day and age. But on the other, and when looking at things from an economic standpoint, there's a distinct parallel between what was happening during the late 1970s and early '80s and now. The weak economy that led to the recession peak in 1983 is similar to what has been happening during the past several years. And it seems that cultural and artistic output tend to be affected by economic and social struggle. So perhaps this context has provided the openness necessary to embrace minimal, DIY synthesizer music."
I've just entered Sub Mission Gallery for underground queer punk party Sissy Fit. The energy is edgy. Clouds of smoke drift in from outside. Patrons in black sway on the dance floor and eye each other from the benches lining the bare walls. DJ Pickle Surprise, whose style ranges from hardcore blasts to camp classics, puts on a throbbing track by early '80s Marseille synthers Martin Dupont and I'm instantly transported back to my shadowy youth, spent skulking around the checkerboard dance floors of downtown Detroit clubs Bookie's, Todd's, and Liedernacht. I whip an imaginary cigarette holder to my pursed lips, checking to make sure my phantom pillbox hat is properly tilted. He follows that up with a selection of wave tracks old and new, including Storüng, Oppenheimer Analysis, and 2VM, that transforms the joint into an electro-sepulchral time portal. The added twist to this nostalgia trip is mystery -- the music ventures beyond the "'remember the 80s party" canon and into some uncanny partial-recall state.
DJ Pickle Surprise
"I find I'm playing this sound more and more," Pickle Surprise, a.k.a. Joe Krebs, told me. He got into wave after attending one of the parties Wierd has been throwing in Brooklyn since 2003. "It can call up visions of lasers and line-dancing robots, but after getting to know it more, there's something less cold or android about it, more of a human touch. It's analog. There's something supernatural as well. Like Videodrome, where you're up in the middle of the night and get pulled into something on television. Something haunting that recalibrates you."
"Did the passions of the artists shape the way the technology was used, or did the technology shape the people using it? NERD!" DJ Nary Guman, a.k.a. Joe Polastri, teased over e-mail. Along with DJ Inquilab, a.k.a. Nihar Bhatt, he puts on the monthly wave-friendly Warm Leatherette. They started their own party early last year because they found their tastes didn't quite fit in anywhere. "Once I started digging I found out just how vast the field was," Bhatt added. "It's exciting to have something that can be danceable, experimental, popular, and punk at the same time."
Other San Francisco parties that have embraced the sound include the monthly Shutter (www.myspace.com/clubshutter ) at Elbo Room, which packs in the kohled and the beautiful with hits from Sisters of Mercy and Fields of the Nephilim among rarer tracks. Local band Jonas Reinhardt's Synth City, every last Thursday of the month at the Attic (www.jonasreinhardt.com ) mixes a wave feel into atmospheric krautrock and new age rambles. And the Radioactivity happy hour at 222 Hyde (www.222hyde.com ) celebrates "low-budget synths and Cold War dance parties."
LE DECADENCE ELECTRONIQUE
The party most faithful to the retrograde spirit, however, is the energetically opaque Nachtmusik, put on by DJs Josh Cheon, Justin, and Omar. Chilly green lasers strobe live performers, wave-o-philes gather in corners to trade track knowledge, and open-minded dancers try out new-old moves to alien beats. (Surprisingly, this insular music sounds really good loud in a crowd.)
Josh Cheon of Dark Entries Records. Photo by Jon Rivera
If anyone's the heart of the Bay wave scene, it's Cheon. One of our most important amateur musicologists, he was integral to the disco revival of the '00s, tracking down and conducting in-depth interviews with gay bathhouse-era survivors and then moving on to international wave. For him, the music summons youthful memories of dancing at NYC's the Bank to Clan of Xymox, Q Lazzarus, Cetu Javu, Wolfshiem, Beborn Beton, and VNV Nation. "From the first notes of Ministry's With Sympathy and Depeche Mode's Speak and Spell, I've been a sucker for synths," he told me, laughing.
In 2009, Cheon started Dark Entries Records (www.darkentriesrecords.com ) to release some of his finds, including Second Decay, Zwischenfall, Those Attractive Magnets, and upstate New York's Eleven Pond, whose "Watching Trees" has become a wave anthem of sorts. (He found Eleven Pond through a comment one of the members posted on SF synth collector Goutroy's A Viable Commercial blog, goutroy.blogspot.com.)
Staying true to the "DIY vinyl retrograde" spirit, Dark Entries releases come in hand-numbered batches of 500, and for the most part the digital rights are kept by the artists themselves. There are no CDs.
He shrugs off the possibility that there's little left to discover. "It's like gold mine after gold mine," Cheon told me. "There's just so much out there — even the artists themselves are surprised to be reminded of this time in their lives that they'd mostly forgotten. It's actually really touching when they find out there's an intense interest in what they did in their youth. They're just amazed."
Later this year he'll be releasing a Bay Area Retrograde (BART) compilation, highlighting our own historical wave purveyors. "What many people forget is San Francisco's rich synthpop and new wave history, with bands like Voice Farm, Tuxedomoon, the Units, and the Club Foot scene for starters. [Factrix, Minimal Man, and Los Microwaves are some others.] But that's just scratching the surface. I mean, who knows what great tracks are waiting to be heard? And what amazing stories behind them."
Wed/14 and second Wednesdays, 10 p.m., $3
3223 Mission, SF
Fri/16 and third Fridays, 9 p.m., free
1141 Polk, SF
THE SOFT MOON
Tue/20, 8 p.m., pay what you can
416 25th St., Oakl.