Monday, June 30, 2008

Some Serious Words About Some Serious Dudes

Ever since the term “Rock and Roll” was coined by Alan Freed in 1951, it has been synonymous with power, masculinity, and aggression, all with a heavy dose of sexuality. A real Rock Star is always simultaneously the good guy and the bad guy. They are riotous and compelling, bringing the always-devoted fan almost to the point of aural orgasm over and over again until he finally lets them have it in the final wail of the final twenty minute guitar solo, a moment so sweet and frustrating that the fan might punch their deity if their hands weren’t covered in the fruits of his labor. This might be seen as romantic, but Rock and Roll was made to be romanticized, and without some fantasy the genre as a concept would be quite flaccid.
New Jersey group Serious Dudes understands the importance of this fantasy, and has based their entire existence as a band on it. With their uncanny obsession with facial hair and armed with riffs that would make Jimmy Page feel impotent, they have set out to “bring rock back,” as singer/guitarist Alan “Charles” Charles put it.
“Rock and Roll is the most important thing in the world,” Charles added. “It just sickens me to see rock music taken over by such pansies in their makeup and shit.” Charles sees the members of Serious Dudes as the lone saviors of the much-maligned genre of Cock-Rock, one of the most masculine forms of Rock and Roll ever to emerge. Although the borders of the genre are vague (many Cock-Rock bands also fall under the category of Butt-Rock, which Serious Dudes cite as an influence as well), some of the cornerstone albums include Van Halen’s self-titled album, IV by Led Zepplin, and Second Coming by Lynyrd Skynyrd. Dad-Rock has also been cited as a notable influence on Serious Dudes, and Charles has been vocal about his own father’s support of the band.
“My dad said that hearing his son playing the music of his youth was one of his proudest moments, which was then one of my proudest moments, knowing that my dad was so proud. We were all very proud that day.”
Serious Dudes stick to the formula laid out by their idols closely, leaving little room for experimentation or anything else that might muddle their intentions. Their flagship song, “Serious Business” opens with a jolt to the system as a dual guitar line erupts out of one of the most solid riffs known to mankind: a simple whole step, F to G. The guitars, played by Charles and band-mate Dan “El Dangeroso” Fandoso, provide the framework for Charles’ gruff, masculine vocals. “C’mon lets go, it’s time to Rock and Roll./You know it’s right; no baby it ain’t wrong” he sings with enough conviction to lure someone’s grandmother to come along for the ride. The whole band, including drummer Richard Alcott, then bursts into ecstatic cries of “oh yeah!” while Alcott continues to pound a steady, propulsive beat, pushing closer and closer to the point of release.
“The lyrics are a bit like a combination of that lyrical storytelling of the old mystics, but it’s set in a modern Southern context,” explained Fandoso. “But (they’re) about the everyman too,” interjected Charles before concluding, “Like a working class Odysseus with a moustache, you know?” Despite their New Jersey origins, the hearts of the Serious Dudes are in the South, where their message is more readily accepted. The final line of “Serious Business” ends with, “Gettin’ down and dirty in the Southern night/I know it’s kinda funny but I’m feelin’ alright.”
“I don’t think I like this,” said real Southerner Yousuf Ahmed when confronted with “Serious Business,” “Yeah, this really isn’t my kind of thing. I didn’t even know people made this kind of music anymore, truthfully.” In response to such dismissing words, Charles said, “Well, he doesn’t even sound like a true Southerner to me. Maybe from the south of Iraq but not from these United States of America.”
Despite their strong convictions, even the members of Serious Dudes will admit that they did not come to Cock-Rock as honestly as some. The band formed when Charles and Alcott were in Alcott’s basement “jamming” after their previous band, John Hinckley, had broken up. John Hinckley had been a metal-core band in the vein of Botch and Coalesce, and they gained prominence throughout the oversaturated New Jersey hardcore scene before they broke up in February of 2006. During that fateful jam session, Charles began to play the riff to what would become “Serious Dudes Theme,” a rollicking, Sabbath inspired slice of rock, and an astonished Alcott followed along. It was at this point that the pair realized that they had just been kidding themselves for the past several years.
“It was just like one of those scenes in a horror movie where two people look into each other’s eyes and realize something terrible is about to happen, but instead of something terrible, it was something really awesome,” describes Charles as he looks back on that moment. Once that core duo had solidified the concept behind their band (a good rock band always has a concept), they called in Fandoso, who had been studying guitar for almost 10 years before he joined the band. It was his addition to the band that gave it the dual guitar attack that is so prevalent throughout the band’s discography.
“Basically I just took what Alan wrote and helped them decide which sections to use and how to use transitions more effectively,” Fandoso explained. “I added some harmonies to guitar parts that were already written and played some solos.” Although Fandoso is modest about his contributions to Serious Dudes, his solos lend the band a legitimacy that they might otherwise lack. His technical proficiency, which he built up through years and years of classical training, adds icing on the top of Charles and Alcott’s testosterone filled cake.
“Dan is the man.” Charles said with a little giggle and a smirk. “Without him we wouldn’t sound anywhere near as balls to the wall as we do now. At first I was skeptical of him because of his short hair, but once he picked up his axe, man, I realized that dude can play.”
Finally, in the summer of 2007, there was a bass player the Serious Dudes felt they could bring into their circle. Not much is known about Bekim Hida, but we do know that he joined Serious Dudes on stage for an infamous performance at a Brooklyn loft party in July of 2007. His past remains a secret even to the other members of the band, and Charles and Fandoso described his tenure in the band as “weird,” but “inspired.” They said Hida responded to one of the many fliers posted in Guitar Centers around North Jersey that read “KILLER BASS PLAYER NEEDED FOR KILLER BAND! PLEASE CONTACT SERIOUS DUDES AT 201-450-XXXX IF YOU ARE READY TO ROCK!” Hida called Charles at 2:30 A.M. on a Tuesday and they set up a band practice for the following weekend.
Although little is known about his past or his present whereabouts, for the several weeks Hida was a Serious Dude, the band flourished, gaining fans throughout New York and New Jersey. Ian Drennan, a fan and friend of the band, said, “While Bekim was in the band…I don’t even know…something just clicked. I felt like throwing all of my indie rock albums out of the window and starting a real Rock and Roll band myself. Everything else just felt way too…pussy.” Despite his undeniable influence on the band’s popularity, Hida is not featured on any of the recordings that Serious Dudes have released, as Charles took over bass playing duties during the recording sessions.
The culmination of Hida’s tenure in Serious Dudes was the aforementioned show at the Brooklyn loft party. All four members packed into their van on July 28th and headed to Bushwick, not knowing what to expect from the ironic hipsters that had become their main fan base. When they arrived at the loft they saw what they described as a “punk faggot” with an acoustic guitar singing slightly off key while four people sat on the floor and listened politely. This was not a good sign.
Thankfully for Charles and Co., three bands later when it was time for them to take the stage themselves, the loft had filled to capacity and the beer was flowing freely. As Charles hammered into the opening riff of “Serious Business,” the whole loft began to scream and jump around excitedly, as if Tony Iommi himself was on the stage. Serious Dudes fed off this explosion of energy, encouraging everyone present to join in the cries of “Oh yeah!” earning a response that almost drowned out the guitar solo that followed. As the song ended, shouts of “Rock and Roll lives!” and “America!” could be heard among the screams. Charles was beaming, looking out into the crowd of loyal followers and new converts.
“Thank you, thank you,” Charles said once the crowd had quieted down. Sweat was dripping down his face, into his scruffy facial hair and his long, dark hair was thick and greasy. He wore a vintage Kiss t-shirt with cut off sleeves, Levis blue jeans, and a scowl. When he spoke a little bit of spit flew out of his mouth. “We are Serious Dudes, coming to you from the other heartland of America: New Jersey. This next song is about our love of America and it’s dedicated to 9/11.”
With that, they were off, performing other songs including “Gettin’ Serious” and the newer, unrecorded song, “Something About Moustaches,” which explores the moustache as a facet of manhood in modern society. Every song was dedicated to America. Some have said that true Rock and Roll can only be experienced live with a couple beers in the belly, and in the case of Serious Dudes, they are right. Fandoso’s solos wrap themselves around the listener like a snake constricting its prey, and to witness Alcott’s drumming is akin to surviving a nuclear explosion but without the risk of cancer later in life. As the partygoers left later that night, they were covered in sweat and beer, feeling tired and used in the best way.
This would be the last time Serious Dudes would play in front of any crowd. After Hida stopped returning Charles’ desperate late night phone calls, the band decided to record their remaining songs using the Pro-Tools set-up Alcott had in his basement practice area, having Charles overdub the bass parts after the basic tracks were laid down. The recording process was tumultuous, especially given the short time frame forced upon the band by Charles’ return to school at NYU in late August.
“That whole recording session was really embarrassing, actually,” recalled Fandoso. “I’d rather not talk about it.” According to the rest of the band, Charles took over the sessions and became dictatorial, making the band do take after take until he thought everything was perfect.
“The Zep never made a perfect album in three days, I don’t know why I should either,” commented Charles. It was at this point that the rest of the band decided that once Charles left for New York City, the band would go on a hiatus, at least until Charles returned to New Jersey. Charles agreed, vowing never to let Serious Dudes die, even if there was to be a hiatus. “There’s still so much to do,” he said.
During the hiatus, Fandoso has moved to Chicago and given up the guitar as an instrument. In a move that could prove quite surprising to those fans of his shredding in Serious Dudes, he is now, “concerned with using electronic means to reach organic ends, using a dynamic form of electronic and acoustic improvisation to exercise intuitive communication,” according to his website. He performs using a turntable and a laptop, and is part of a group called the Green Pasture Happiness. Alcott has returned to the world of hardcore, drumming for his current band, Dick Punch, which for a brief period of time also featured Fandoso. While at NYU, Charles has stayed true to his Cock-Rock roots, despite dabbling in pop music.
Whatever the outside world feels, Charles will stay true to his views on the true American art form: Rock and Roll. It is a powerful tool, a tool of revolution and action, and one that has been underutilized in American society for years. Serious Dudes stayed true to the American spirit of Rock while the rest of the world has past it by, never forgetting their core value, (according to Charles): “Serious Dudes is anti-gay.”

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Notes from Music History III

This is why I will never be a great classical musician. I have no appreciation for technicality. A performance cannot move me past indifference without something to show for itself other than hours upon hours of time spent alone in a fucking practice room. Those rooms will never center my life, that's for goddamn sure. I refuse to applaud here, no matter how much I respect this man. I value his thinking more than the movements he has trained his fingers to perform. Energy: this is what I value. Destruction, too. I want to deconstruct this and put it back together in the most fucked up manner I can. This is what is so amazing about Bach. He was a fucking punk, despite the religious affiliations. He can make straight eighth notes sound like a desperate lover scratching at their face until blood is running down their cheeks to stain their clothes. Every note is another thick red drip from the chin to the lap. It challenges you to actually feel something from a pattern so simple and complex simultaneously, something this trained singer could never do. Iggy and Bach are blood brothers, I don't care what you say.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Fleetwood Mac is Better than Rilo Kiley Ever Will Be (An Excerpt From Mixtape Liner Notes)

I have a confession to make: I never listen to Elliott Smith unless I’m making a mix for a girl, in which case it is the sort of “Oh look, he’s a sensitive guy who has complex emotions” track and is probably a complete invention because loneliness is only what you make it and complex emotions don’t exist. Which is okay really because no one is ever really “themselves” or whatever people like to call it, because we are constantly reinventing ourselves to try to appease everyone else and anyone who denies that fact is lying to themselves as much as they are lying to everyone around them. I mean, has Lou Reed been genuine once in his life? At least Lou Barlow has come close. It is damn near impossible to express supposedly genuine feelings with art because all art is itself an affectation.

Every mix I make is circular.

Monday, August 27, 2007

So I Saw Keith Fullerton Whitman...

Lately I have become enamored with the sounds of drones, especially Kranky drones, and I was able to indulge myself when Keith Fullerton Whitman came to St. Louis last night. The venue was perfect, a modern setting right by the river with the artists set up in what looked like the garage area. The lights were dimmed, there were few windows and the floor was hard concrete. I had been trying to figure out which of the figures around we was actually Whitman before his performance, and was surprised when a stout, bald man with long stiff beard walked up to the equipment. Everyone was seated as the room went darkened and Whitman began to perform.
As he generated the music on laptop and analog synthesizer in a secluded corner of the room, a slide show that threw pictures at the audience at twelve frames per second was projected onto the wall. The pictures were mostly of commonplace activities or scenes, bridges, plants, people lounging in chairs, and a surprising amount of them of cats. Whitman began with sounds that resembled metal being stretched and broken, all put through immense amounts of reverb and delay. These sounds seamlessly morphed into an electronic approximation of rain falling and beautiful drones emerged from the silence that the percussive noises were painted on. All movement in the room stopped as the crowd was drawn into the projection and the drones.
This calm, ambient middle section, which comprised the majority of the set, was the most engaging electronic performance, ambient or otherwise, that I have ever experienced. Whitman’s music coupled with the projection reflected the best elements of the mundane, of life in general. Nothing ever happens. The performance seemed to insist otherwise, that there is so much that happens in the day-to-day life of human beings, who are seemingly unremarkable, and that happiness comes through peace with the notion of boredom. The music itself would appear as boring itself to many. The whole room was captured by these mundane sounds that were also incredibly exciting and entrancing. No other artist that these ears have heard has exemplified this contradiction so well.
To delve into autobiography a little bit, this was my last night in a town that is defined by boredom, tedium, and stagnation for some time. People perceive New York as characterized by excitement and the feeling of being in motion again: the most extraordinary thing in the world. Once the realization that there can be beauty in the commonplace is made, the desertion of that commonplace is all the harder, however extraordinary the destination is. I have found something of incredible beauty that I am leaving behind in a place even more mundane than St. Louis, and I’m sure that had influence on how I perceived this performance.
As the calming drones were penetrated by harsher synthesizer noises, the atmosphere became more tense until the synth squiggles overwhelmed the calmer drones and became a sheet of noise themselves. As this happened, I was disheartened that Whitman would take a sledgehammer to something as beautiful as anything off Playthroughs, but as I think about it more, the contrast made the middle section that more remarkable and the build at the end made the piece seem more climactic. As the reverb, both natural and electronic, faded, the entire audience sat still and silent for five seconds before clapping. I had forgotten where I was momentarily. It was an incredibly happy moment.

Friday, August 17, 2007

I Miss Tony Wilson and Other Ramblings

There is one issue I would like to address that I was confronted with while at the Pitchfork Festival. Although I was already prepared to come face to face with many pasty anorexics that religiously carry a messenger bag and SWEAR to God that the Arcade Fire is the be all and end all of indie rock, I was slightly taken aback when they began to (I assume seriously, but it was actually hard to tell) imitate hip-hop dancing. During certain sets it seemed like this was more legitimized (De La Soul literally commanded the masses to put their hands in the air), but it was during Cadence Weapon's set that these actions seemed not only ridiculous, but also offensive. It seemed put on, as if these indie rock fans (I'm not excluding myself here) took the most basic notions of what hip-hop is and was and clung onto those base ideas rather than looking further than "Lets wave our hands in the air and pretend to be gangsta!"
Cadence Weapon was trying his hardest to be offensive in his juvenile attempts to attack Pitchfork and WaterPlus, but it was in his posturing that this was real hip-hop that seemed to sting most. He opened up his set by reading a scathing review of The Blueprint 2 by Jay-Z that he wrote for Pitchfork several years back before launching into his nerdy, what some critics might call "hyper-literate," brand of the genre. Not only was this Cadence trying to separate himself from Pitchfork, which now has become oh-so-cool to hate, even when they put on an amazing festival and we all know that we still read the reviews, but also from the mainstream hip-hop community, which consequently gives the audience the notion that this is the alternative, this is the real. The reality, however, is that most of the fans of this "real" hip-hop are middle class, suburban college students who are more into indie rock than hip-hop anyway. Rap and hip-hop have always been a language for the oppressed, a way to get a voice heard through the noise of society by imitating that noise through loud beats. It is beautiful to see such a subversive genre become so integrated into our culture, but in doing so it has lost the spark that ignited the fire. In many ways it seems that there is a contradiction built into hip-hop, that there could be no such thing as mainstream or widely accepted rap because rap itself was created to overcome the mainstream. It is very much like punk in this way, that there is an inherent issue of what is "real" and what is an imitation.
I was at a hardcore show at some punk space in North St. Louis City recently and the singer of the band Civic Progress blurted out near the end of their fifteen minute set, "Fuck the music industry, we play for real." It was such a quintessentially counter-cultural moment, where one group of people are throwing all notions of previously established expression out and placing themselves at the forefront of what they see as the revolution. By playing faster and louder and with more angst and aggression than what their parent's generation listened to, they must be real, right? Unfortunately Civic Progress and most hardcore bands out there today have missed their chance to be "real," as they themselves are simply imitating what was started by Bad Brains, Black Flag, Minor Threat, and the countless other pioneers of the genre. Punk for punk's sake, though I'm sure they mean every word. Punk, and Hip-Hop, really, is built on the use of the idea of newness, that it is a revolution of sound as well as thought. Can it really be punk if it just sounds like punk? Can a band “play for real” that is part of a scene that worships idols to the point of blatant imitation? That is directed more at you than myself.
It is worth a mention that it is hip-hop and punk that are, from my observations, the genres that are most cited to be dead. CBGB is closed. Nas of all people named his album Hip Hop Is Dead. Could this be caused by this same contradiction? The counterculture's strive for authenticity does seem to lead to its own downfall, or at least a tainting of itself. This is probably the most punk think about punk rock, that it is such a self-destructive force that it has a suicide mechanism built into the ideology that characterizes it. In both ideology and in the pure sonic characteristics, both genres have been contradicting their founding principles. The smallest signs of stagnation many times equal death and destruction.
So what does this mean, and here’s the bigger question, does it even matter? Well, yes and no. I think as avid music listeners (Hello?! Anybody out there?!) we should be aware of these contradictory ideas, but to expect bands and listeners to react in a similar manner is ridiculous. Once a new idea is presented (“Punk”, “Hip Hop”, “Jazz”, “Rock and Roll”, etc) there is naturally going to be a decomposition and capitalization of the ideas, and fighting it as a whole is futile. At the same time there is always going to be a Cadence Weapon or some random garage punk band waving the banner of the authentic, and we need to use our bullshit detectors and be able to call it out. Popular music has thrived on that balance for decades, and the calling out has been enacted as legendary rebellious motions such as the “God Save The Queen” or Public Enemy or Factory Records or even Kurt Cobain’s suicide. To have these acts, however, the previous rebellion must be sacrificed. Punk could have never happened in the first place were it not for the marginalization of rock ‘n’ roll. It is in this beautiful and desperate struggle that we place ourselves now, and I am calling for a savior.