Thinner, better looking and more fashionable? Band of Susans would disagree on what constitutes success in music.
"My life is lived between the polarities of would-be cult leader and would-be cult member," says Band of Susans' guitarist and co-founder Robert Poss. "I'm not sure if I'm a sheep or shepherd. I know nothing of religion but there is a spiritual element to loud guitars and feedback."
Undetoured by lack of commercial success while former band members (in this case, Page Hamilton of Helmet) have gone on to sell half a million records, New York's Band of Susans pursue their music with a singleminded, almost Pentecostal fervor that has resulted in four albums and a handful of EPs and singles.
Taking a simple idea: a loud and noisy three-guitar frontline that relies on counterpoint, minimalism and stark melodicism placed over a precise rhythm section, Band of Susans create a blaring hypnotic trance that resembles the otherworldly feeling of prolonged sex.
"I don't separate the religious from the erotic," says co-founder, bassist, and deeply brown-eyed Susan Stenger. "Thinking about sex or music is equally erotic. Playing an E-chord over and over can be a powerful, spiritual, physical thing. You don't divide them into separate spheres. What our music gives us is a gut level, really neurotic experience. It's not cold composing."
With the new album VEIL on the Restless label, Band of Susans distills many strains and influences into their most satisfying release yet. Critics often carp on about the band's ties to avant-garde and minimalist composers (most of the band has worked with Rhys Chatham; Susan with Phill Niblock, Christian Wolff, and many times with the late John Cage) but that connection is largely cerebral. VEIL, like its previous Susan-tized efforts, is about hunkering, caustic, repetitive, noisy, brutal, mesmerized, melodic, Orwellian guitar domination.
As the trio of guitars -- Anne Husick, Mark Lonergan, and Poss -- take different positions within the mix of a song like "Pearls of Wisdom" from VEIL, overtones, and weird, unintended harmonies can be heard. The guitars rise like a prayer, swirling. No one solos per se, it's more like a momentary nervous cackling over the already buried vocals of Stenger or Poss. It's the blues, Iron Butterfly and Sonic Youth all rolled up into one.
"When a tune works well," says Poss over tonic water in the bar of the Knitting Factory, "it's almost like alchemy in the sense that we're taking simple parts and combing them into something complex and, we think, rich and beautiful. That's so different from the '70s retro, hair-swinging tradition of playing a big power chord and a big solo. It's a different aesthetic."
Poss, who came up with the three-guitar lineup, can trace his influences from early blues slingers through tenure with '70s cover bands to treasured if unprofitable downtown noise status. It's all full circle now.
"I was originally a serious blues guitarist," he says. "I can still play all those Albert King solos. I was into it in the '70s before it was retro. There was a very narcissistic, guitarist-as-athlete thing -- then punk totally blew that out of the water. You had Steve Jones, the Sex Pistols and the Clash and Johnny Thunders playing these very sparse, simple solos that mad more in Lightnin' Hopkins than Duane Allman. The less-is-more school is something I really embrace. We never wanted a band with three guitarists so we could have three people wanking off on their instruments."
Unlike many groups that change musical identities with the winds of fashion, Band of Susans have plotted a direct course through their eight-year career, veering slightly to add drone here or a little commercialism there. That's what makes a Band of Susans song like "Mood Swing" (from VEIL) so good. Stenger's bass is riveting and drummer Ron Spitzer supplies lock-step, unfunky support under the droning guitars while the melody (over Poss' Joe Strummerish vocals) recalls the Clash, the headiness of early Genesis or King Crimson and the dirty butt-rubbing of STICKY FINGERS-era Stones. Other songs, like "Following My Heart" and "Trouble Spot," sport Byrds-ish guitars or teetering Charlie Watts drum grooves. It's all subliminal to be sure, but these are people in their 30's, children of the '70s filtering their love of guitar chaos in the '90s.
"We've tried to build something without any influences," says Susan, as if that were possible. "Our approach to writing and the guitar is political. We do away with the old-fashioned hierarchy of lead guitar and rhythm guitar. There are three guitars but at various points all the rules change. We upset the definitions."
"Though we're commercial," adds Robert, "we're still uncompromising and we have a weird, singular approach to rock and roll. When I was 21, I was thinner, better-looking and more fashionable and I was playing more derivative music. It took me a long time to absorb influences then put them aside. What am I gonna do that's original?"
Stenger, talking as easily about third-stream minimalism and her love for the work of Jasper Johns, to her fascination with her Catholic upbringing ("What's interesting is the whole neurotic sexual stuff about St. Theresa and St. Sebastian fasting and going crazy, being pierced with arrows"), to her contempt for misogynist labeling, joins a coterie of women drawn to the electric bass.
"It's a really powerful and appealing instrument. I know people will check out what I look like before they listen to my bass playing, but I've never tried to be the frontperson. I'm always happy when a band doesn't have the 'rock chick' up front. I'm interested in gender integration. ROck music is the folk music of our generation, why should it belong to one gender?"
Stenger's presence in Band of Susans (originally there were three Susans, but now there is only one) from timid player and infrequent composer to full co-writer and solid purveyor of creative, wiry bass work is a testament to her talent. Her bass often takes the lead role now, the band's true power-drive while Spitzer seems content to dryly subdivide or accent the beat.
It's hard to know who's wiritng what but Poss is the more visceral of the two, usually locking himself up and tossing off a song in an inspired vision. Susan is admittedly more analytical.
"Spiritually, I've always been interested in music that cuts away the bullshit," she says. "I work with simple things that interest me. That applies to all my tastes. Jasper Johns is one of my favorite painters, the way he'll take one image and make something very colorful and resonant with it. One idea can be layered until it's very dense."
Dense and colorful are constants in Band of Susans' music. From their praised debut, BLESSING AND CURSE (Trace Elements/Blast First) to LOVE AGENDA with Page Hamilton passing through (Blast First/Restless), to THE WORD AND THE FLESH and the cleaner, poppier NOW (Restless) to VEIL, there is a continuity to their work. They strip away and burnish the original intentions.
"VEIL is the most developed of our records," says Stenger, and she's right. The songs are melodic yet give up nothing. And, after eight years of writing, recording and touring together, Band of Susans is a tightly wound, exacting live unit.
Will all this translate into some long-awaited monetary success and widespread public acceptance?
"We couldn't ask for more success musically," says Poss. "People confer marketing success with musical success. That's why everyone formed independents. Bands were successful but the music was full of crap. We feel successful because we've explored different areas, we've done records we're proud of and we've toured with artists we respect.
"Commercial success may correspond with musical success but it has more to do with if you have a good photo or if you've slept with the right person or went to the right party. It's great to have success without selling out."
-- Ken Micallef
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