"Band of Susans was born in the spirit of anti-technique," reminisces Susan Stenger, their bass player and sole surviving Susan. "Some of the people in the band couldn't even finger the guitar properly, but so what? We put their guitar in an open tuning so all they needed to do would be just to hit it. Technique is completely irrelevant."
"Sometimes," adds Robert Poss, lead guitarist and songwriter, "I think of us as a blues band. "Nobody said about Muddy Waters, 'Oh, he only played three chords.' There's something great about somebody working within their limitations. The musicians I admire are the ones who do one thing really well. To me, the others have less commitment and soul."
Band of Susans seem to have been around forever. Since 1986 the've been releasing records, usually every other year, initially for the seminal U.K. indie label Blast First, then for other labels. Though the lineup of the band has changed with virtually every release (Page Hamilton of Helmet was, for example, once a member), the five-piece have remained just that, a three-guitar, bass and drums rock and roll group.
Nor, really, has the approach, only that the songwriting has improved beyond measure. Which may at first seem odd, since many have written the group off as a fringe avant-gardist concern. But Band of Susans aren't progressive, they're AFFIRMATIVE. In an interview two years ago, at the time of the release of their previous album, THE WORD AND THE FLESH, Robert told me he saw no reason to suddenly switch tacks, no indeed, is there any. They're back with album number four, VEIL. This time around, it's beginning to seem as if someone's remembered them: "Oh, Band of Susans, weren't they on Blast First with Sonic Youth? They're playing tonight, let's go check them out." They're over in Europe to do press after what's probably been their most successful tour of the States yet, where they could even play the Spinal Tap-style barroom Friday night gigs and still get a whoop of response from entirely virgin audiences.
"If you put on HOPE AGAINST HOPE or LOVE AGENDA," says Robert, "it sounds current, and several people have said that to me. Some of the ideas we were exploring then are just starting to catch on now. We've noticed that our early records are starting to be recognized as classics or influential albums on some younger bands, who are forming bands with three guitars. And it makes us feel pretty good. We're still evolving. VEIL is the strongest record we've done to date, the one we're happiest with, and it may also start to make people go back and check out HOPE AGAINST HOPE and LOVE AGENDA."
"It does irritate me when a lot of the music press has a short memory," says Susan. "The same language in which they talked about us comes up about newer bands, almost exactly. Don't pretend it's new when it's not!"
"There seems to be always two roads to take," says Robert, "the default road, or the weird way to striking off on your own, which is what we did. Two years ago it seemed like every band sounded like Dinosaur Jr. meets someone else. That was the default mode."
LOVE AGENDA, which Robert flippantly describes as "in use by rat catchers to clear a room of rats and mice -- supposedly the high-pitched frequencies stun them for a while or something," was perhaps the best showcase of their material up until now. Blessed with a production sound that made the stree strobing guitars seem as if they were generating blinding, incandescent white light, its simple bass lines and chord progressions were reduced almost to the status of rhythms rather than melodies, Susan's and Robert's vocals almost fading into nothingness against the sheet-aluminum of the guitars. If it shares anything in common with VEIL, though, it's in the lyrics -- a stream-of-consciousness internal monologue that, because mixed down so low, read almost better as poetry than they did as the occasional verse of lyric coming through the mix. You're never able to catch more than the odd few phrases, yet the subject matter suits this approach almost perfectly, with songs evoking almost Cold War paranoia on THE WORD AND THE FLESH (like "Tilt": They've mined the road we're on"), full of references to roadblocks, safe houses, spies and fear, Band of Susans are a band that do, for once, deserve the epithet spies in our house of love. VEIL's songs continue in the same vein, partly, or, like "Following My Heart," become simple, unforced, quiet pop songs about love.
If at times their music seems like the dictionary of guitar effects and sounds that the ill-fated shoegazer movement must have consulted, Band of Susans' own lack of apathy have never been in doubt.
"There's always a certain amount of rage on our records, which I can't believe nobody's really noticed. Just certain songs that are to us seething with emotion and passion... it's totally there, but just not Las Vegas style."
"It's not necessary to scream to express rage," says Susan.
"And by the same token, it's not necessary to whisper to be intimate. We don't use the common cliches as singers."
If there's a song on VEIL that illustrates these dictums best, it's the single "Mood Swing."
"It's about rape and revenge," she explains. "It's the most literal narrative I've written lately. I suppose it was originally inspired by the story of a woman arrested in Florida after killing a series of men, and there was a reaction of complete outrage at the fact that a woman had killed some men, when it's the most mundane thing in the world for women to be killed by men."
"The culture doesn't even seem to take note anymore," chips in Robert.
"And I saw an interview with her, and she spoke about her life, how she'd been abused over and over and had finally cracked, and to me, it seemed totally justified and understandable how that could lead her to murder."
"It's not only about rape, but about the treatment of rape victims," says Robert, "how they're victimized by the courts and society."
"There's been some big profile rape cases over in the U.S., in the last two years -- Mike Tyson, William Kennedy Smith -- and also the case of a New Jersey [woman] first getting with a broomstick by high school students. She was mentally retarded as well. And in every single case, the defense pounced on the woman's sexual life and how she'd brought it on herself because of her lifestyle. It can get really depressing -- seeing how many things have changed since the '60s for women because of feminism, yet things are still no better."
"The fundamental attitudes are still medieval," says Robert, "on the overall level of sexual politics, attitudes are Neanderthal. It seems as if the agenda is to say you can't expect men to be civilized...."
"Because they have unharnessable, uncontrolled desires, " adds Susan. "That's the subtext. That's people's attitude towards it.... Camille Paglia totally glorifies this as something that is fabulous and the essence of masculinity. She's often put forward as a feminist, but I think she's incredibly reactionary. She's this academic that doesn't believe that date rape exists, and that it's the woman's fault for not recognizing the man's uncontrollable urges. And she doesn't know shit about music, that's another thing. She believes this Oliver Stone version of Jim Morrison and the Sixties, she's so eager to become famous, wants to be like the Madonna of academe.... But basically, she's like Reagan, you could put a quote from her about free enterprises next to one of Reagan's and there'd be no difference. Or put a quote about rape victims and it sounds exactly the same as the most reactionary misogynist.
"The middle verse of 'Mood Swing' is an almost exact paraphrae of what she said in SPIN about rape. And people actually call her a feminist. Even people like Courtney Love have been telling interviewers that she's reading Camille Paglia and Susan Faludi (author of BACKLASH, and Paglia's bete noire among contemporary feminists) like they belong together. She should be exposed for what she is."
It'd be easy to make out like Band of Susans were some kind of proto-Riot Grrl band (along with every other mixed-sex or all-female gorup ever in the history of rock, of course), what with Susan saying that they were formed in the spirit of enthusiasm rather than any muso technique. But unusually right now, they have far more praise than blame to direct towards the movement.
"One of our guitarists overheard this conversation where this guy was saying that I was basically a hot babe and the girl he was with was furious, saying how I was the sole reason she had picked up the bass guitar, like I was a role model for her," says Susan. "A lot of Riot Grrl is not news at all, but it's vital 'cos it's happening again."
"The spirit's essential," says Robert. "You need that once in a while, just to shake things up to make people more into it again."
"It'll be revolutionary," says Susan, "to get to the point where girls can play guitar and badly and with spirit and get credit for it. When guys play guitar badly it's punk or cool or deliberate. We always said we were fighting for the freedom for girls to be bad and get the credit for expressing yourself. No one says about a male band, 'Hey, pretty good for guys,' do they?"
Yet theirs is a feminism that's entirely compatible with the base roots of rock and roll -- in sex. Band of Susans make a superbly androgynous sound, music, I once said about them, you can fuck to. What's more, they're perfectly happy to admit it, saying they often find themselves thinking of it when playing, Robert once told by a girlfriend that the expressions he makes on stage are the same he makes in bed! Robert, to tell the truth, is a clown, cracking jokes when he's not replying to a serious question. "Hey," he says, "have you heard about the new heavy metal supergroup? Coverdale/Page Hamilton!"
They may not be as big as Helmet, but they can sure tell a mean joke.
-- Miles Lebedev
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