The members of Fleet Foxes have been away from the recording studio a long time since the recording of their breakout self-titled full-length in  2008. Their follow-up, Helplessness Blues (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the vinyl on Amazon.com), reveals the Seattle-based folk rockers have grown up a bit since then. Most distinctly amiss from the new album is the lack of hooks that made a lot of their lush, dreamy debut such a darling in the indie rock world. However, in place of hooks, the band have conjured a work of immersive music that rewards patient attention.

With Helplessness Blues, Fleet Foxes shows more concern with evoking atmosphere than pulling together catchy songs. The music more than ever buoys the words of singer and songwriter Robin Pecknold, making his lyrics stand out more than on any previous album, which also includes the band’s debut mini-album Sun Giant (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the CD on Amazon.com). The first three songs alone on Helplessness Blues open with solitary acoustic guitar lines. While the guitars on most songs  sound as crystalline as on any other Fleet Foxes album, the opener seems to come out of some dark, cavernous chamber, echoing, as the guitar rambles along like some babbling brook. Then Pecknold sings the album’s opening lines: “So now I am older/than my mother and father/when they had their daughter/Now what does that say about me?” Throughout the album, Pecknold’s words seem obsessed with mortality and a search for place and purpose in the fleeting moment that is human existence. Helplessness Blues could almost be the soundtrack to Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the book on Amazon.com).

“Lorelai” opens with Pecknold singing, “So, guess I got old/I was like trash on the sidewalk.” But lest one think this might herald a darker turn from previous albums, Pecknold also offers contrasting images of joie de vivre and enlightenment. On the title track there are experiences of finding passion in something as quaint as maintaining an orchard in contrast to the disillusionment of the predestined purpose of a person’s role in society.

Highlighting the lyrics further is the band’s more evolved use of vocal harmonies, more than ever recalling the Beach Boys. If it wants to, Fleet Foxes could make songs with only vocals. Pecknold’s voice alone is like a wind swirling up to heaven, then behind are these cooing layers of breathy vocals humming along. “The Plains / Bitter Dancer” opens with the gradual crescendo of vocals piling up on each other with various “oos” and “ahhs” at various lengths and tones, sounding like a Philip Glass organ piece.

Underneath the lyrics and voices is a new, more adventurous musical styling for Fleet Foxes focused on mood. On the title track, the shift in tone of the lyrics accompanies an extreme turn in the music. As Pecknold sings lines like “I’d rather be a functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me,” acoustic guitars drive the song along on ringing riffs like some troubadour folky piece by Bob Dylan. But then, halfway through, the song breaks out to another dimension with booming percussion and tremolo electric guitars, recalling the brighter side of Red House Painters.

Atmospherics in music does not come from hooks but from things like sound quality, subtle things like noise. A perfect example would be the abstract ending of “The Shrine / An Argument,” featuring the reedy freak-out of a bass clarinet and the warped plucking of strings. It offers a distinct contrast to the quiet babbling of the acoustic guitar that appears on many tracks of Helplessness Blues. On “The Shrine / An Argument” Pecknold even sings in a raspy howl contrasted with his more familiar ethereal exhalations, which is actually juxtaposed from one line to the next in the line “Sunlight over me/No matter what I do! Apples in the summer all gold and sweet…” The song then shifts to a chugging melody where even the guitar sounds percussive. With another sudden shift to the dreamy world of acoustic guitar plucking, something indecipherable hums in the background before the song swells to the aforementioned cacophony of clarinet and strings.

“The Shrine / An Argument” is practically a progressive rock moment unheard of in the Fleet Foxes canon until now. To top it off, this is not the only song that features extreme shifts in tone. The title track also features such a moment. Then, in the grander experience of listening to the album all the way through, the band explores a range of ideas that add to the dynamics of the work as a whole, almost like the prog rock of the late sixties/early seventies. There are not only surprising tonal twists within the songs but throughout the album. There is an acoustic instrumental at the center of the album called “the Cascades” that could have felt right at home on an album like Genesis’ Selling England By the Pound or King Crimson’s Islands. The quiet “Blue Spotted Tail” features a tremolo guitar line and Pecknold’s voice without any of the usual backing harmonies featured on the other tracks. The album then continues to the near bombastic finale of “Grown Ocean,” which sounds like Sigur Ros crossed with Yes.

This album is a challenging listen and may not win over the same kind of fans the first album gained for the band, and it probably will not reach the same kind notoriety in this age of immediacy and trashy delights. But it will reward those listeners who like to invest attention when listening to music. Indeed, Helplessness Blues is by no means background music. One should be prepared to have a seat, stare out the window, gaze upon nature, and follow Fleet Foxes on an elegant journey into music. Helplessness Blues offers a delightful and majestic aural experience for those ready to invest their attention to subtle yet rewarding songcraft.

One final note: Fleet Foxes released a video of “Grown Ocean” featuring home movies of the band as it recorded the album. Seeing the presence of a reel-to-reel machine among the images, gives hope for an analog source for this material, so hearing it on vinyl seems more appropriate than the mp3 version Sub Pop Records shared with me ahead of the album’s release (I have been listening to it off and on for the past two weeks before passing this judgment, and the more familiar I become with it, the more moving it gets). I leave you with the aforementioned music video:

If you want to hear the entire album now, NPR was granted the privilege of streaming the whole thing as one track, a week before the album’s official release, May 3 (Stream Helplessness Blues).

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Continuing on from my last post regarding Portland’s Starfucker, I would be remiss not to discuss the start of the band’s tour, when much drama unfolded after police placed one of its members behind bars. As the end of the longest tour of its career looms (purchase tickets through this link or see the remaining dates at the end of this post), the start of Starfucker’s road trip across the US, did not come without eventful hiccups.

In recent days, the band has posted playful images and videos from the road on their Facebook page. Sure, this indie rock band with origins in space rock and a danceable beat seems to be doing all right. But when I met the quintet in Orlando, Florida, back on March 26, when their tour had barely begun, some members of Starfucker sure could not wait to get back to their hometown of Portland, Oregon. If any one member of the group had a right to feel melancholy, it was Ryan Biornstad (guitar, keyboard, vocals, turntables). The clock had just passed midnight, and he was celebrating his 31st birthday away from his family. He also still seemed haunted by his arrest in Austin, Texas during the SXSW music festival.

Following their debut performance in Orlando, He and the other members of Starfucker stood around in an open-air alleyway in back of several downtown bars, as party music fought for sound wave space in the background. On this warm night that served as a prelude to the many hot days and nights Florida often experiences approaching the state’s seven-month-long summer, Josh Hodges, the main songwriter and multi-instrumentalist behind Starfucker, noted the weather the band was missing out on in Portland. “I miss it, but I’m really happy to be here right now,” he said. “It’s really weird for me. It’s warm [here], but it’s probably 40 degrees and raining in Portland right now.”

Biornstad, his face still smudged with lipstick and bright rouge from his stage appearance, also admitted he was missing Portland. “Very much. I broke down crying last night,” he confessed.

Standing next to him, Hodges could not help but laugh. “Really?” he asked.

“I was,” said Biornstad with sincerity, though he is all smiles and energy, still buzzed from the band’s current conquest of the Orlando crowd … and maybe some beer. “It’s hard being away from them,” Biornstad added about his children and fiancée.

“It’s the most pretty family you have ever seen,” commented Hodges. “Like, all of them, it’s crazy, and they’re good. They’re a good family.”

Though many shows on Starfucker’s tour at that point had so far sold out, none of the band’s three stops in Florida did. However, tonight’s show at the BackBooth gave them a boost of optimism (read a re-cap of the night’s show here). The venue was still packed with a crowd who gave back as much energy as Starfucker threw at them. Toward the end of Starfucker’s set, Biornstad tested the audience’s affection by leaning off the stage to be pushed back up by outstretched arms. At one point, he dove on top of them to crowd surf. See the video captured by below showing Biornstad stage diving:

“Tonight was fun,” Hodges said.

“It was great, yeah,” added Biornstad.

“Orlando kind of surprised us all, I think,” Hodges continued. “We played in Tampa last night. It was awful, but it was also kind of interesting,” he added politely. When asked to explain “interesting,” he admitted:  “It was just like pretty much a cover band kind of scene.”

Orlando marked the deepest south the band had toured in its career,  and after starting off with four sold-out shows in California, the tour took a turn south in another sense, fraught with difficulties that probably hit its lowest point when police arrested Biornstad in Austin, Texas right before Starfucker’s first night of showcases at the SXSW music festival.

Via Twitter, , the band broke the news to followers: “Ryan just got arrested… WTF FUCK THE POLICE… Our show at 6 is canceled…

Most likely, Shawn Glassford (bass, keyboards, drums) sent that Tweet out. He said he was with Ryan unloading the band’s van for a show when an Austin Police officer approached them. “I was the main witness, actually,” Glassford said. “It was the most bizarre cop interaction I have ever seen in my life, and I’ve seen a lot of them, and that was just like, what the fuck is happening? This just makes no sense.”

Biornstad must have that evening burned hard in his consciousness. He offered a breathless replay of the night: “We were unloading the van, Shawn and I, and this cop came up and said I had to get off the street, and I told him I was unloading the van for a show, and he still insisted I had to get off the street. Shawn handed me some equipment, and I was like, ‘I have to get off the street, fine, but I have some equipment to unload,’ and he blocked the way for me to get off the street, and then he decided he was going to write me a ticket. We go to the sidewalk, I hand him my ID, and I’m like, ‘Fine, give me a ticket,’ and this other psycho cop ran up on me, and he’s like, ‘You’re under arrest!’ and he turned me around, and he pushed me up against the wall, and he put me in handcuffs, and they put me in jail.”

City of Austin Police Corporal Anthony Hipolito, a spokesperson for the department, responded via email to several questions. “[Biornstad] was standing in a lane of traffic in the 700 block E 7th St.,” he explained. “He was not cooperative with police, and did not comply with anything they were asking.”

Hipolito said police booked him on two charges: “pedestrian on the roadway and resisting arrest.”

Biornstad called the first charge “retarded” and the second “bullshit.” He said, “I did not resist arrest. They never told me I was under arrest. They never read me my rights… They didn’t say anything. They ran up on me and put me in jail. If they had said, ‘You’re under arrest, put your hands behind your back,’ I would have done so. They didn’t say anything of the sort. They just turned me around, fuckin’ cuffed me and put me in the car.”

When asked whether the arresting officer read Biornstad his Miranda rights,  Hipolito stated, “I do not have any evidence of his rights being read.  You will have to get with the Judge who set his bail.”

After a couple of emails were sent to Austin’s Municipal Court, I was redirected to Downtown Austin Community Court. Chief Prosecutor Bianca Bentzin responded by email to say she will examine the court file to see what information the APD have provided on the incident as far as whether Biornstad’s Miranda Rights were read to him during his arrest. She stated she will have a response within a week. The spokesperson for the APD did note, however, that the confrontation was non-violent. “No one was injured,” Hipolito stated.

Finally, one concertgoer posted an account by a bouncer on YouTube after he noticed the signs outside the venue declaring: “Starfucker has had to cancel. Sorry. Fuck the police”:

Starfucker would not perform its scheduled shows for that night. “We missed two because of it,” Glassford noted.

“I was in jail for 10 hours in prison stripes,” Biornstad said, adding that he found some way to wile away the hours behind bars. “I worked out a little bit … I was in jail, fuck it. I did some push-ups, did some sit-ups, slept a little bit, and then they let me out at 4 in the morning.”

The band, in the meantime, had appeared at their scheduled venues to watch other groups perform and do— what else— some networking. “These guys represented,” Biornstad noted. “They went to the shows we were supposed to play at, and fuckin’ got everybody hyped up, and they met some people, and they met a lawyer that got me out of jail because everybody knew it was bullshit.”

Biornstad said he plans to fight the charges. To cover his legal bills, Starfuckers’ label, Polyvinyl Records, is helping raise funds with sales of an exclusive T-shirt.

With Biornstad out of jail, Starfucker went on to play two shows at SXSW. Here’s the band at one of those gigs playing “Rawnald Gregory Erickson The Second” (which happens to be the song featured on the Target ad mentioned in Part 1 of this piece):

Though Biornstad’s jail stint proved the band’s greatest challenge, the omen of bad things to come first crept up on Starfucker as the band headed out of California. On March 12, the band posted this message on their Facebook page:

OMFG our trailer just fell off the van. Holy Fucking Shit that was scary… Thankfully we had emergency chains, or else we would have just either lost all our gear or killed someone… Whoa! Crazy shit…

March 12 at 10:10pm via iPhone

To top it off, on their way out of Austin, the band suffered a second problem with their transportation and had to get the van towed to its next gig. “All 6 of us in a tow truck with our van and trailer getting pulled behind!!! Crazy shit right now… Houston, here we come!!!” read the Facebook update posted on their way to Houston on March 20, Sunday night, at 10:54 p.m.

But since then, things seem positive from there on out: “Thanks to everyone in Houston last night! We’re so happy we made it (even if it was via tow truck) … Hopefully our curse is lifted…” read the band’s post on Facebook, the day after the show.

Soon after, someone in Starfucker would note the new album’s appearance on the CMJ Charts at number 11 thanks to college radio airplay. The last bit of exposure gained for Starfucker was when their name appeared on the latest creation by gourmet coffee company Intelligentsia. You can buy a 16 oz. bag of the STRFKR blend via Polyvinyl’s website.

The band is now very close to a triumphant return home for a series of intimate shows in their hometown of Portland. All of the group’s members hail from the Northwestern city, which has its own unique metropolitan quirks. During the interview, I had to ask the members of Starfucker what they thought of the IFC-produced sketch comedy Portlandia, a show that parodies the lifestyle of those living in Portland. It features comedian Fred Armisen, most famous for his work on Saturday Night Live, and Carrie Brownstein, probably best known as a founding member of nineties riot grrrl group Sleater-Kinney. She is now an active member of Wild Flag, a new band based in Portland that has been around for just under a year. As Wild Flag is part of the same music scene as Starfucker, the members of Starfucker know her particularly well. “Ryan and I have played foosball with Carrie,” Hodges said.

“Yeah, I know Carrie pretty well,” added Biornstad. “She’s been living in Portland for 10 years.”

Biornstad and Hodges agree that “Portlandia” has its witty moments, and, they said, it even paints a pretty accurate picture of life in Portland, but when it comes to the Armisen-lead music video that declares “the dream of the nineties is alive in Portland,” the pair beg to differ.

“I feel like Seattle is stuck in the nineties,” Biornstad said. “Portland is very much more forward-thinking than the nineties, I think. But I can see some value into their humor for sure. Carrie is awesome. Fred’s awesome. I hung out with him for a little too. He’s rad. He’s a really nice, kind of shy guy.”

Asked if the band would ever entertain an appearance on the show, Biornstad said, “I’ve been talking to Carrie about it, and I think, at some point, what I’d like to do is kind of like a spoof on the Portland music, hipster scene and make fun of ourselves, make fun of Starfucker a little bit.”

Biornstad better watch what he says about Seattle, though, as the band stops there for a few days before their finale in Portland. Here are Starfucker’s last up-coming tour dates:

04/22/11     Vancouver, Canada @ Biltmore Cabaret
04/23/11     Seattle, WA @ The Vera Project
04/26/11     Seattle, WA @ The Crocodile Cafe
04/28/11     Portland, OR @ Holocene
04/29/11     Portland, OR @ Doug Fir Lounge
04/30/11     Portland, OR @ Mississippi Studios

Read more about Starfucker in Part 1 of this profile piece.
Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)
Ryan just got arrested… WTF FUCK THE POLICE… Our show at 6 is canceled…

At the time of publication of this post, Starfucker have only about a week left in its nearly two-month-long US tour (purchase tickets through this link or scroll to the bottom of this post to see the remaining dates). In recent days, Starfucker has posted news of one sold out date after another (they are going on 19, at this point), plus details about a growing overseas tour and additions to giant music festivals on their popular Facebook page.

For a band with a name too naughty for radio and most commercial publications, this group with neo-psychedelic space rock leanings and a taste for dance music, has done all right for itself. Though the band still might be sitting in the shadows of a pair of groups they are often compared with: MGMT (read my lengthy review of MGMT’s last album) and Passion Pit, they seem to be signaling their own breakthrough without major TV appearances (pesky dirty name).

During the early part of their tour, while visiting Orlando, Florida, all five band members indulged in a little chat about their music and their experience so far. The gang from Portland, Oregon talked about specifics in their lyrics to their genre stylings to how this tour had so far treated them.

When I met them after a performance at the BackBooth (read my re-cap of that night’s show), much drama had already unfolded after one of the members’ arrest at SXSW, among other things, details of which I shall save for part 2 of this story. But, first thing is first, what musical stylings define Starfucker?

“We’re apparently following-in-the-footsteps-of-Passion-Pit-vein,” said Josh Hodges, the band’s songwriter, singer and multi-instrumentalist, with a laugh. “Even though we’ve been around longer than them.”

Hodges, wearing horn-rimmed glasses from out of the fifties, and the other four members of Starfucker stood around in an open-air alleyway that served as a cross section of back doors to several bars in Downtown Orlando, as music like Jay Sean’s “Down” blared out of a nearby club.

“Well, people have said it’s ‘future pop,’” said bassist Shawn Glassford, and they all laughed.

As for the MGMT reference,  Ryan Biornstad (guitar, keyboard, vocals, turntables) said, “We didn’t follow after MGMT cause we were around at the same time. They blew up before we did. We’ve never blown up; that’s the thing.”

The group, which also includes Keil Corcoran on drums and guitarist Ian Luxton, does show a sense of frustration with it all. Though they stare into the dark abyss of possibilities with a smile and a laugh, they remain weighted by a name that seems an obstacle to further success. During research on the band, I learned Hodges chose the name Starfucker to purify inclinations to create music chasing after notoriety with other projects that never came close to the popular fruition Starfucker has so far achieved. His motivations for creating Starfucker came from a pure place of art, as no one could market a band named Starfucker in the puritanical US, he had no pressure to create music aiming for popularity.

The problem was the music that resulted was so catchy it even made it to mainstream TV via commercials for products like Target and IBM. “It was totally luck,” Hodges said about his music’s appearance in some popular TV ads. “The ad agency that made the Target commercial is in Portland, and then, Badman [Records], the label who put out the first album, somehow organized the ‘Holly’ song being in the IBM commercial, so I had nothing to do with it.”

The songs featured were pulled from the band’s 2008 self-titled debut, recently reissued on vinyl (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the vinyl on Amazon.com). IBM used the mid-tempo and wistful track “Holly” while, according to Hodges, a friend working at the advertising agency hired by Target, suggested the bouncy “Rawnald Gregory Erickson the Second” for its ad.

The exposure in television not only saw the band earning royalties from airplay that never needed to identify the band by name, it also upgraded its exposure, and Starfucker soon moved on to a larger indie label, leaving Badman for Polyvinyl Records. At the end of March, Polyvinyl pressed the band’s second album, Reptilians (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the vinyl on Amazon.com), which the band is currently supporting with this tour.

With Reptilians, Starfucker has certainly shown it has grown since its first album and an intermediate 8-song mini-album in 2009, entitled Jupiter (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the album on Amazon.com). “Our previous album was very electro poppy, kind of like light and fun,” noted Biornstad, “and the truth is, it’s like been a few years since our first album, and we’re at a point now where we’re getting older and touring a lot, and we’re staying true to what we feel is our sound, and it’s growing, and it’s evolving, and we’re not interested in making an album that’s just like the first one. We’re making it as an evolution.”

With the first album, Starfucker gazed up at the heavens and offered a grounded, but dreamy, view from below. But with this recent release, the band sounds like it has floated up to exist among the stars. Take the back-to-back moment of “Bury Us Alive” and “Mystery Cloud.” “Bury Us” 0pens with a twinkling electronic sample and zipping sounds that could have easily been lifted from a cheesy science fiction flick. On the chorus, Hodges sings in hushed, breathy tones as the song bursts with harmonizing electronics that buzz and screech only to melt away to the twinkles that opened the song. As the song fades away with the noises tightening around each other and drifting apart, the pace picks up with “Mystery Cloud.” With Hodges’ singing mixed even lower, decorated with echoing effects, he references desires to be a spaceman, as the drums pummel along and the synthesizers layer up from whining peels of noise to Moog-like burbles.

According to Polyvinyl’s bio on the band, Hodges wrote almost all of Reptilians by himself, just as he did the two earlier releases by Starfucker (save for the cover songs on Jupiter, of course). Whereas Hodges, Biornstad and Glassford all contributed drum work on the first album, Corcoran, who joined the band in 2008, took that primary duty in the studio for Jupiter and Reptilians. Luxton only recently joined the band as an extra guitarist for the band’s current tour, but has yet to record with the band, which is now focused on the touring and promotion cycle, which will soon see them on stages overseas in Europe, Canada and Mexico.

Polyvinyl made an exclusive variant of the album on clear vinyl limited to only 700, which sold out very soon after its release, at the end of March. The label is currently offering “Bury Us Alive” as a free download, to entice potential buyers. Polyvinyl already offered the band’s first single totally free for a limited time, the spacey “Julius,” reviewed in this blog last year, after it was released as a 7-inch single (The song is currently in the works of getting the music video treatment, according to Glassford).

Though I go into the single’s merits in depth in that aforementioned posting from October 2010 (the first and so far only 7-inch I felt inclined to review on this blog), here was my chance to settle a doubt I had about the lyric, as the new album features no lyrics on the jacket or inner sleeve. As a matter of fact, the LP record includes a poster of the album art formatted to look like a blank coloring book page, offering some insight into the band’s aesthetic sensibility inviting interpretations from fans. “It’s a mystery,” said Biornstad with a sly smile. “Mystery’s important.”

On “Julius,” Hodges’ voice is so affected by reverb, it makes it hard to tell if he sang, “Picture your body/Hearing your voice/Fall into your eyes” and not “Fall into your arms,” as it might have more rationally sounded to many fans. “That’s what a lot of people think it is. It’s ‘Fall into your eyes,’” said Hodges. “I actually wrote the lyrics to that song on our Facebook page because people kept getting it wrong.”

Hodges’ assurance that the lyric is indeed “Fall into your eyes,” is more than an artistic validation but also validates the philosophy that informs the album. In my review of the single, the lyric brought to mind the image of a lover conjured up by the mind’s eye that in turn sucks the dreamer back in, in an ever evolving loop. Sure, it makes for a surreal— and maybe unreal— image, but it also comes from a metaphysical place. It’s an interpretation that not only compliments the layers of noise and melody that wrestle with each other over the course of the song but also the album’s theme. Hodges offers his inspiration behind the track: “It’s about my grandfather waiting to die after my grandmother died,” he said. “He’s still around. There’s like all these old pictures of them at their wedding and stuff at their house. That’s the whole thing about looking at a picture.”

As an album obsessed with death, following Hodge’s grandmother’s passing, Reptilians is incredibly light for an album exploring such dark subject matter, but that maybe because Hodges has a clear handle of the roll death plays in life. Cementing the theme beyond Hodges’ sometimes obtuse and surreal lyrics, are the words of British philosopherAlan Watts. His lectures are excerpted at various moments within several songs. In the particular choices Hodges made for this album, Watts’ statements describe death as an integral part of life.  “Mystery Cloud” ends  as the song unwinds from a noisy clash of synths to a throbbing burble with Watts talking about that entwined cycle of life and death:

Everybody should do in their lifetime, sometime, two things. One is to consider death. To observe skulls and skeletons and to wonder what it will be like to go to sleep and never wake up— never. That is a most gloomy thing for contemplation. It’s like manure. Just as manure fertilizes the plants and so on, so the contemplation of death and the acceptance of death is very highly generative of creating life. You’ll get wonderful things out of that.

“We all just love him,” said Hodges about Watts. “For me just Eastern, and specifically Buddhist, philosophy is just very much influenced and changed my life, and Alan Watts is one of the most colorful and articulate speakers on the subject and one of the first people to bring it to the West, and in a cool way. He has such a playful way of talking about that stuff.”

Hodges said the band often listens to Watts’ lectures on the road and credits Bionstad for bringing Watts into his life. “It’s really inspiring,” Biornstad added. “Plus, I would say the way Eastern culture’s evolved in western culture is a lot of people have become extremely dogmatic about it, but I think Alan Watts is amazing because I think he was the forefather of bringing Eastern philosophy into the West, but he didn’t try to make it dogmatic … He got to the core of it, and he was like, you know what? You can apply this to any part of your life.”

Watts, who died in 1973, could almost be considered the band’s phantom member. His voice not only appears in several songs on Reptilians, he has appeared on all of Starfucker’s prior albums. The band’s debut album opens with “Florida,” a song Hodges insisted has nothing to do with the US state his band was visiting during this interview (“It doesn’t have anything to do with the state. It’s just a nice word”). Appropriate to the conversation about this seemingly randomly titled song is what Watts says at the end of the track:

This world is a great wiggle-effect. The clouds are wiggling. The waters are wiggling. The clouds are wiggling, bouncing. People— but people are always trying to straighten things out. You see, we live in a rectangular box, all the time; everything is straightened out. Wherever you look around in nature you find things often straightened out. They’re always trying to put things in boxes. Those boxes are classified. Words are made from some boxes. But the real world is wiggly. Now when you have a wiggle like a cloud, how much wiggle is a wiggle? Well, you have to draw the line somewhere, so people come to sorts of agreements about how much of a wiggle is a wiggle; that is to say a “thing.” One wiggle. Always reduce one wiggle to sub wiggles, or see it as a subordinate wiggle of a bigger wiggle, but there’s no fixed rule about it.

But do not confuse Starfucker as taking itself too seriously. The band does dress in drag upon occasion, after all. Also, Hodges’ lyrics do seem to start from very concrete sources of inspirations. When asked to explain “German Love,” to a part German, such as myself, he comes clean. “There was this girl that I was obsessed with, and that’s just how it goes,” Hodges said, at first.

“I’ll tell you the real story,” offered Biornstad, lighting up at the opportunity. “This is what really happened: Josh was super into this girl, and she was German. She was living in the United States, and he started dating her, and they were just hanging out for a couple of weeks, and he was really into her, and she was kind of not… She was into him at first, but then, with the touring and all that stuff, she kind of started getting some distance, so he got a little insecure, a little bit obsessed— sorry, no offense,” he added, looking over to Hodges.

“No, it’s OK,” Hodges accepted.

“But he got a little bit obsessed … She kinda didn’t want to be hanging out with him anymore, and so anyway, it was kind of like a Say Anything moment when he was going to her house late at night and playing songs for her, and he wrote ‘German Love,’ and he played it in the speakers for her and bringing her flowers and stuff, and she didn’t want anything to have to do with it, and he actually ended up with a restraining order against himself for this woman.”

Asked whether there was truth to this story, including the restraining order, Hodges admitted, “Yeah, actually I’m not supposed to be telling anybody about this, but we’re both kind of drunk, I guess,” Hodges added, excusing himself and Biornstad.

“Long story short, everything worked out fine,” Biornstad summed up.

“It’s fine, we’re friends kind of,” Hodges said of this German girl.

“She was a little bit sensitive to the whole thing,” added Biornstad. “What he was doing was actually kind of romantic, and she was just not getting it.”

“She was definitely not feeling it,” added Hodges, “but, you know what? There’s like so many different girls out there.”

Well, at least Hodges never went to jail over it. However, under very different circumstances, Biornstad did wind up behind bars, on this very tour. He and the arresting police department offer their stories in the second part of this artist profile. Update: Here is a third post on the pre-Starfucker, Sexton Blake years: Starfucker frontman recalls early years as Sexton Blake (an Indie Ethos exclusive)

In the meantime, here are the remaining dates on Starfucker’s current US tour:

04/19/11     Salt Lake City, UT @ Kilby Court
04/19/11     Salt Lake City, UT @ Urban Lounge
04/20/11     Boise, ID @ Neurolux
04/22/11     Vancouver, Canada @ Biltmore Cabaret
04/23/11     Seattle, WA @ The Vera Project
04/26/11     Seattle, WA @ The Crocodile Cafe
04/28/11     Portland, OR @ Holocene
04/29/11     Portland, OR @ Doug Fir Lounge
04/30/11     Portland, OR @ Mississippi Studios
Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives exists in that all too rare world of pure cinema: A place where images and their associative relationship, through editing and even pacing, or how long the camera lingers on a vision, invites deeper meanings. Director Apichatpong Weerasethakul is an expert at this. The Thai director has shown more maturity with every film, and Uncle Boonmee continues this growth.

Weerasethakul’s films have always been meditative. He allows scenes and images to breath with much patience, opening the audience to informed personal breakthroughs. His films are a guide to the experience the viewer brings to the cinema screen, as the projected image, I have always believed, is best appreciated as a mirror of sorts. It seems Weerasethakul feels the same way. In his 2004 movie Tropical Malady (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the movie on Amazon.com) he has the main actor stare and flirt with the audience during the opening credits. In the commentary of that DVD, he says this is in order to invite the audience into the movie.

As great and typical a Weerasethakulian experience that is Tropical Malady, the director had several movies to grow from there. Compared to Uncle Boonmee, Tropical Malady is ham-fisted. Boonmee shows a much greater trust in the audience. The camera lingers much less, and Weerasethakul’s lens has grown more focused. All the while the director leaves those entrancing spaces that invite the audience to inform the images.

Thanapat Saisaymar plays Boonmee, a farmer in his last days due to kidney failure. Though his days are numbered, this sets him up with a unique opportunity to reflect on not only his current life, but the cycle of lives that informs this old soul. You know he is near death when the ghost of his deceased wife Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwong) appears at the dining room table as Boonmee eats with his nephew Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee) and his sister-in-law Jen (Jenjira Pongpas). Huay has been dead 19 years, and Boonmee has not seen her since. As the film goes by, and he gets closer to death, she becomes more solid and explains to him “Ghosts aren’t attached to places but to people.”

The wonderful monkey wrench in all this is the fact that Tong and Jen also respond to her presence and interact with her as plainly as another flesh and blood person in their presence, though they do refer to her as a ghost.  Weerasethakul is not offering a fever dream of a character approaching the abyss. This is a film about transcendence.

Complicating matters even more at the dinner place is a second, even stranger apparition. Boonmee’s long-lost son, Boonsong (Geerasak Kulhong), has returned from the jungle that surrounds the farm in the form of a creature not too different from the mythic Sasquatch but with glowing red eyes.

He emerges out of the shadows from the stairs leading up to the dining table. A scene that Weerasethakul could have played for cheap fright is instead offered with incongruous mystery, giving a sensation of surrealism instead of terror. It feels like a scene from a David Lynch movie if Lynch had a lighter heart.

The creature soon introduces himself, and tells a tale of how he slipped away from civilization to become one with nature. As Boonsong tells his story, Weerasethakul plays with something he has also grown more crafty with over the years: sound design. He augments Boonsong’s story with an odd throbbing noise, not too different from the sound one might hear when covering the ears to only hearing the echoing of their own heartbeat. It’s a sonic theme that recurs a few more times in the movie signaling moments of transcendence in the story, and it again recalls Lynch who also uses sound in unsettling and oblique ways in his films.

Boonmee certainly feels like a transcendental experience, and it is thanks to the deliberate and daring pace of the film, not to mention Weerasethakul’s inclination to defy real world rules. He does this simply. In what seems like arbitrary images, he captures the everyday with more power than mainstream movies, which prefer to shove narrative and conflicts and character types down the viewer’s throat.

Like a great painting or a great song, his film defies written description. His movies exist in and of themselves. They are meant to be experienced. They activate the mind on a near subconscious level.

Watching his films allows for an entrancing experience, should one invite the film in through the eyes and not over-think what one might perceive to be Weerasethakul’s intentions. Recalling one of his movie’s is like remembering a vivid dream, and the best cinema is indeed dreamlike. Dreams are said to be the symbolic interpretations of the life you lead, and like a dream, this movie invites the viewer to fill the amorphous spaces with their own experiences. This is a gift beyond measure. Walking out of the movie house after a film like Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is like waking from a deep trance and experiencing the world with supreme awareness.

It’s great to see this Palme d’Or winner from the 2010 Cannes Film Festival finally made it to Miami thanks to the Miami Beach Cinematheque. Catch it tonight or tomorrow or Tuesday night. Those are the only chances you will have to see this masterpiece.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives opens tonight and plays through Apr. 5 exclusively at the Miami Beach Cinematheque.

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Casiokids, a group of independent musicians from Norway, have been taking the persistent road to gaining recognition outside of their native country. As covered in the first part of this interview with singer and founding member Ketil Kinden Endresen, the band spent 2010 in 18 different countries, performing over a hundred shows.

Last week, leaning against the bar at the BackBooth, an Orlando Club hosting the band’s debut performance in the city, Endresen spoke about his band’s influences and plans to release an album before year’s end. Casiokids were there as a support act to Portland-based Starfucker, their US labelmates on Polyvinyl Records.

Endresen noted this marked Casiokids’ first visit to the southern states of the US, out of eight times his band had toured in the US. The two bands would later head off to Jacksonville and then to sold out shows in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and Philadelphia. Their combined powers also sold out their final tour stop together: New York City’s Bowery Ballroom, which is scheduled for today.

Though partial credit for the sell-out dates is definitely also due to the amazing Starfucker*, this does mark quite an achievement  for a band that features songs sung in their native language of Norwegian. Endresen noted that Casiokids have gained their popularity, though still a bit obscure, while staying faithful to their native language, and they have done well enough that it has become the members’ primary source of income.

Moshi Moshi Records, a UK-based record label, released “Gront lys i alle ledd” b/w “Togens hule” in 2008. “The first single we did was called ‘Gront lys i alle ledd,’” said Endresen, “which means ‘Green Lights On All Levels,’ and it was the first Norwegian language pop single released in the UK.”

Though he is quick to offer translations to his song titles and even some of the band’s lyrics, Endresen said fans should not hold their breath for any lyrics sung in English. Via a follow-up email after our meeting in Orlando, Endresen stated, “We have no plans on recording songs in English for the new album. I still feel that using my Norwegian tongue is the best way of keeping our sound original and personal.”

Research on the band revealed at least one article that noted the band sings with a made-up language, not unlike Sigur Ros. Actually, as Endresen described it, his lyric writing is not quite as elaborate as that. “The lyric is in Norwegian,” he noted, “but seeing as we have so much harmony vocals, what we like to do is just play around using sounds of voices in parts of the song that are more about the melody and not the words, so there will be a lyric to all the songs, but sometimes we do some choruses or some harmonies without the words just because it kind of sounds better sometimes.”

Via email, he noted some songs that are typical examples of such “nonsense” lyrics. “Some songs have parts that are just there for the melodies and harmonies, like the chorus in “Det snurrer” and the end of “Togens hule”, but most of the songs have lyrics to the singing.”

Both songs feature melodic, “ya, ya, ya, ya, yas,” which stand out particularly in “Togens hule,” which is an instrumental save for Endresen singing those ya, yas. With “Det snurrer,” a remake of the Swedish band Familjen’s “Det snurrar i min skalle,” the song actually features some ya, yas that were never in the original song, but added on as an extra layer of melody.

Endresen noted that the music often comes before the lyrics. “We usually very rarely start with the vocals,” he said. “It’s something that comes very much later, so in the beginning you’re bound to play around with the vocals as an instrument, as often a lead instrument, and even when I do the lyrics, I end up keeping parts of the song that maybe I just improvised at the beginning … just because I got the right sound, we got the right harmonies, and then we, instead of removing that, we build on top of that. I find that fun to use— that immediate impulsive experimentation with vocals, as well as using it with words.”

This method shows in the strong melodies within Casiokids’ instrumental songs, such as “Fot i hose,” a piece that actually made the rounds to a variety of countries thanks to its association to Electronic Arts’ FIFA 10 soundtrack and its use as transitional music in the UK sitcom “Friday Night Dinner.” Here’s the band’s video for that track:

In part 1 of this profile, Endresen noted his affection for Krautrock, and he compared some of his style of singing to Can’s early vocalist, Kenji “Damo” Suzuki, whose singing style grooved along with the band’s playing above anything else. “I guess [it's] the same as Can does,” Endresen said. “This Damo Suzuki, the Japanese vocalist they had for what I think are like the best albums: Future Days and Tago Mago and Ege Bamyasi, those three albums. He did the vocals for that, and it’s a mixture of psychedelic words and just playing around, improvising with your voice, and I think that’s the way we make songs.”

Though one might not expect to hear Endresen singing in English anytime soon, he does light up when considering collaborations, especially with African-based musicians. His band can appreciate Anglos mixing it up with African musicians. They did end their concert in Orlando with a recording of a song from Paul Simon’s famed 1986 fusion album of western pop rock with South African pop music, Graceland (it might have been the hit single “You Can Call Me Al,” I can’t recall exactly).

From the mid-eighties, into today, Endresen appreciates that mixture of music. “Damon Albarn, he’s co-writing with Tony Allen [the drummer who worked with Fela and is credited as one of the founders of Afro Beat] and he produced Amadou & Mariam, and I think he did a really tasteful job with those people,” Endresen said.

Endresen truly beams at the idea of collaborating with African musicians, especially after his time spent in Lagos, Nigeria researching the legacy of Fela. “We have considered it,” he said. “Especially after me and Geir’s trip to Lagos to do this documentary. We have contacts with musicians in the scene down there, so it’s definitely been something that’s been on our minds.”

But even in general, Endresen enjoys collaborations, and it shows in last year’s release of their first US release Topp stemning på lokal bar (support the Independent Ethos by buying the vinyl on Amazon through this link). “With this album that is out in the US right now, there are certain collaborations with other musicians like Familjen and with James Yuill. He’s an English artist, and we definitely want to do more of that. I think it’s just an exciting way of bringing our friendship with musicians a step further because when we tour so much we meet the same people, and we play with a lot of the same people in different festivals. It’s just an exciting idea to do more, do more collaborations, and we’re definitely going to do that in the future.”

One group Casiokids have been famous for collaborating with is not a music group at all but a visual one. Digitalteateret are actually behind the video for “Fot i hose” above. They also worked with Casiokids on many live shows featuring shadow puppets and animal costumes. Though it has been several years ago since those shows were a consistent thing for them, those performances went over so well, the band continues to be associated with such theatrics.

Actually, the majority of those shows happened in the band’s native Norway. “Like three years ago, when we didn’t tour so much, and we were also involved in visual projects, we collaborated with a theater group called Digitalteateret or Digital Theater, and they did shadow puppetry and life-size puppets,” said Endresen. “When we did shows with the theater group, they at one point did animal costumes in the show. I remember they once had this massive, six-meter tall orange monster creature that was held up by two people using a parasol.”

“In the tour we are on now, and the last couple of years, we’ve toured so much in very limited spaces,” Endresen continued, “and it’s been difficult both economically and practically to do the visual projects that we had done in the past on our live shows.”

He did clarify that the work with Digitalteateret is far from over, and they have revisited collaborations since the image above was taken in 2008, but this was the early years of the band, and their sound was distinctly different then, with Endresen not even daring to sing. The group’s 2006 debut, Fuck Midi on the Norway-based Karisma Records, featured only one song with properly sung vocals (by a French singer). Otherwise, according to Endresen, the album included sampled conversations the band made of friends talking and some of the melodic, nonsensical singing noted earlier, with the band mostly noodling on Casio keyboards and sometimes augmented by horns.

“We have done it since,” Endresen said of the theatrical performances. “In the beginning our music was very atmospherical and loose and improvised.”

He explained that there is a distinct difference in the music they perform when it comes to the more visual, theatrical shows. “When it became more dancey and direct, we’ve found that it would be better to use the visual elements on like separate projects from playing live shows,” he said.

But then, that also does not mean that dance and visuals are mutually exclusive in their shows. “Only like a month ago we did a dance project in Norway in three electronic festivals there, together with two dancers, and last year we did kid’s theater performance together with Digitalteateret in Norway, and we have done workshops for kids and we are just continually excited to do new projects like that.”

So don’t always expect a fancy, theatrical show when you see Casiokids, though the potential of grander type performances in the future still exists. The momentum behind the band is there as is the infectious quality of the music— even back in the more experimental Fuck Midi. Here’s an early music video from that album for “Bagamoyo,” featuring the shadow puppetry by Digitalteateret:

*A 2-part profile on Starfucker will appear in this blog in a few days, as they continue on their lengthy US tour before heading for a UK tour.

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)
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