Summer Music Guide: Death Grips' Disappearing Act
Last month, seeking an interview with the elusive Sacramento experimental noise-rap band Death Grips, I e-mailed the address posted at the bottom of the band's website, thirdworlds.net. The group had announced a June 13 show at the Music Hall of Williamsburg in support of its much-anticipated major-label debut album, The Money Store—and with no publicity information available from label Epic Records, the direct approach was the next-best alternative.
Within an hour or so, I received a polite, unsigned note agreeing to talk. Hey, this is fun, I thought. A little mystery never hurt anything.
Little did I know that, within weeks, the band would up and cancel a full summer slate of tour dates on multiple continents and announce the about-face with a message on Facebook and Twitter: "We are dropping out to complete next album NO LOVE. See you when it's done. (There are no longer any scheduled shows)."
Fan reaction tended toward the predictably perturbed. (At the ever-vitriolic Brooklyn Vegan, comment-thread remarks ranged from "Shows don't mean shit anyway" to, referencing the band's drummer and public face, "Zach Hill = Axl Rose.") But tellingly, no one had any real information to share. Even promoters seemed flat-footed by the news: It took the better part of a day for the Music Hall of Williamsburg to confirm the cancellation. The person who answered the phone at Bowery Presents several days later refused to comment about any possible reasons or even confirm which publicist to direct questions to, saying, "It's all very secretive."
If the sudden abdication from their summer-long coming-out party hasn't made much sense, well, neither did much about Death Grips' signing to Epic in the first place. After all, we're a long way from the 1990s, when company A&R reps stretched their long leashes in order to vacation through the underground, looking for edgy acts possessed with potential above-ground appeal. In the era of crowd-sourced pop, you'd be forgiven for wondering what Epic could want with a hip-hop ensemble that delivers beats abstracted with a free-jazz energy, vocals reminiscent of early hardcore punk, and cover art that's casually sadomasochistic.
When I spoke in April with Hill—the only member of the trio who routinely talks to reporters, and as I had by then discovered, my mystery e-mail correspondent—he told me that none of it was a hard sell. Epic was the final label that Death Grips met with last winter, after the success of their self-released mixtape Exmilitary brought several suits calling. Hill told me the whole process of meeting with record execs was "feeling based," and that label president L.A. Reid seemed to be responding to the "true nature of our energy."
Months later, as the band was prepping the release of The Money Store, Whitney Houston died. And Reid, who was close with the singer, made a surprising connection, telling Death Grips that their intensity reminded him of Houston's. "He was still emotionally dealing with her passing," Hill recalled. "And I was just like, 'That was something.' . . . In our first meeting, you could tell that's the level on which they were connecting with this music. On completing the record, it was kind of reaffirmation that we had made the right decision."
Despite the WTF? Internet commentary that Reid's Whitney/Death Grips nugget set off, it wasn't that big of a leap. After all, a young Houston once sang in a group with downtown-scene eminence Bill Laswell. Energy, conceptual refinement, and pop technique needn't be enemies or even strange bedfellows, a point driven home by The Money Store, an early candidate for end-of-2012 best-of lists ever since its April release.
More hooky than Exmilitary (while managing the trick of also being sample-free), Money Store doesn't scrimp on rustling, scraping textures—even when using a Salt 'N Pepa–like beat on "I've Seen Footage" or employing riffs that recall subcontinental pop before the big distorted beat drops during "Punk Weight." And MC Ride's barked, not-always-rhymed vocals haven't taken on any corporate sheen in the interim, either. After a decade-plus of pop-culture derision of rap-rock, the fusion of the two musics has taken on a renewed legitimacy, especially for a band like Death Grips, which blends additional genres as well. There's a global pop language here, as well as a wider-than-usual palette of energy that admits of free-improvisational playing.
For a band that gets called "horrorcore," "aggro-rap," and "dark" so often—due mostly to the stream-of-subconscious disturbances that flow through Ride's head ("Lycanthropic manic cycles/Fire water burnin' Bibles/Wake up ragin', call a taxi/Take me to the nearest city")—there's an undeniable danceability residing within tracks like "I've Seen Footage" and "Hacker." Pressed on just how much of the band's sound runs through his electronically augmented kit, the place where the band's hooks are taken through a wood chipper, Hill admitted that "a lot of the music is dictated by rhythm, even the melodic aspects."
So are listeners who have thought of Death Grips as straightforward doom merchants missing something? Hill pointed to early American hardcore punk for comparison. "The energy of the sounds you're hearing may come from a negative environment. But the exercising of those feelings, on the other end, is where it becomes really positive. There's a lot of music that comes from a place of possible suffering or whatever unrest of some sort, even with the happiest rave or house music in the world."
Hill was also—ironically, in retrospect—eager to talk about the band's desire to expand and transform their by all accounts high-energy live show. According to Hill, the Death Grips live experience means to offer ecstasy and euphoria. In fact, he told me, the band was hoping to play more dance events. "Rave-oriented festivals, we talk about that all the time as something that's interesting," he said.
Death Grips wasn't booked into the biggest venues in its alt-rock-friendly milieu—not even on their since-scotched summer tour—and Hill was humble about their prospects of getting there. "We have a lot of ideas as far as once we're able to expand—or if we're ever lucky enough to expand—like [placing] audiences into bigger spaces, in terms of how we want to approach things visually," he said. Everyone in the band is a visual artist, he added, noting that each member contributed to the video for the new song "Blackjack," a found-footage collage that plays inside a rotating circle that looks both like a record spinning backward and a ship's porthole window.
The question going forward, however, is: How much of this still stands? If a band on the verge can just pull a 180 like this, how much of anything they say can be counted on? Will we actually see a planned second album this year, No Love, which Hill told me was "70 percent" finished already? Because Internet-music culture abhors a vacuum, the near-term danger is that the band's surprise disappearing act will overshadow the aesthetic solidity of their music—the one thing that ought to be more important than touring dramas or surprise major-label signings.
When I called Hill's cell phone after news of Death Grips' macro cancellation broke, my call went straight to a full voicemail box. E-mails to the website address likewise went unanswered. I did track down the publicist-of-record for Death Grips, at Big Hassle Media, and asked whether anyone at Epic Records might be able to speak to the band's future progress or schedule. He replied: "I don't think so only because they don't know. Band just went underground."
Meanwhile, fans and music journalists alike are left to look for clues in the band's thin sampling of past public statements. (Plus a new video of unknown vintage "Hustle Bones," that recently showed up on YouTube.) In what now seems like foreshadowing, Hill told me in April that Death Grips were prepared to dismantle and reassemble the formulas that have worked thus far. In particular, he predicted a pivot back toward some more work with recognizable music samples and said their third release would try to synthesize the respective energies of the stark, streamlined Exmilitary and the more generous-sounding Money Store.
"It's kind of hard to talk about the ways that we work," Hill said then in describing the band's progress on No Love. "There's a lot of destruction that comes into play, in terms of making something and slowly mutating it or destroying it. . . . I think we're just constantly developing."
Bang on a Can Marathon
Given that the Bang on a Can organizers are celebrating their 25th anniversary this year, it makes sense that they'd pull out all the stops for this iteration of their annual free summer festival. During this year's 12-hour stretch of adventurous contemporary music, you can expect to see some alt-rock boldface names like David Longstreth of Dirty Projectors and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth having their solo works performed. That's in addition to a presentation of Steve Reich's Six Pianos and a performance by Pauline Oliveros's Deep Listening Band. But don't just try to catch the familiar names; the great thing about spending time at a Bang marathon is discovering a previously unknown act, like Buke and Gase (who came to broader attention after their 2010 appearance). World Financial Center, 200 Vesey Street, bangonacan.org
Hilary Hahn & Hauschka
Hilary Hahn wants you to know she's not just your average, elegant violin virtuoso. So when she's not tackling rough pieces of modern repertoire—think Charles Ives and Arnold Schoenberg—she's cutting albums with the German prepared-piano experimentalist Volker Bertelmann, who is better known to indie-world types as Hauschka. This concert celebrates the release of Silfra, their collaborative, improvisational album on the venerable Deutsche Grammophon label (which might now be wondering if it'll get its first-ever Pitchfork review). City Winery, 155 Varick Street, citywinery.com
The Governors Ball
June 23 through 24
So Fiona Apple is back! Perhaps you saw some of the breathless coverage during SXSW or the reporting on the long (natch) title of her forthcoming record? She's probably going to be unseeable in small venues for the foreseeable future—so both new fans and those with deeper bragging rights are advised to check out her set at this Randalls Island festival, which is promising no overlapping sets. (That's good news for the nostalgic, who won't have to make an agonizing choice between Apple and, say, Beck.) Major Lazer and Santigold are putative highlights among the rest of the lineup. Randalls Island Park, governorsballmusicfestival.com
New York Philharmonic
June 29 through 30
It's something serious when the philharmonic has to leave Lincoln Center to put on a show. The occasion this time is truly remarkable: a rare NYC performance of Karlheinz Stockhausen's epic Gruppen for three orchestras (they play simultaneously). This is not just the most exciting thing on the philharmonic's schedule this year; it should also prove to be a contemporary-art event, full stop. The theme of the evening is music prepared with "spatial" concepts in mind—and so the 55,000-square-foot Armory will be put to use for a staging prepared by director Michael Counts. Expect cacophony, expect disorientation, expect a scene. Park Avenue Armory, 643 Park Avenue, nyphil.org
Roomful of Teeth
Did you know that Pazz & Jop 2011 winner Merrill Garbus, a/k/a tUnE-yArDs, knows how to write notes down on paper? At the behest of New Amsterdam Records organizers William Brittelle and Judd Greenstein, Garbus has contributed music to a vocal ensemble called Roomful of Teeth. That debut record, new Garbus music included, is scheduled to be released later this year, but this free show presents an opportunity for an advance hearing. World Financial Center, 200 Vesey Street, worldfinancialcenter.com
Subotnick pioneered electronic music in the '60s with albums like Silver Apples of the Moon, as well as at the San Francisco Tape Music Center, which he co-founded (and where he co-commissioned the first synthesizer from Don Buchla). This "composition-improvisation" performance of "Energy Shapes," presided over by Subotnick, will see him feeding vocals into the Buchla 200e model, manipulating and spinning them out via his own patented process into a work that will probably be hard to describe, other than as a product of Subotnick's inimitable style. Michael Schimmel Center, Pace University, 3 Spruce Street, pace.edu/culture
Dirty Projectors and Wye Oak
For one of the benefit concerts to support the Celebrate Brooklyn! festival, the indie-rock group will tout the release of their new album, Swing Lo Magellan, which is due to be released on the same day. The addition of Wye Oak—whose most recent effort for Merge Records, Civilian, represented a career high—gives this lineup the slight edge over Wilco (who take their turn celebrating the borough on July 23 and 24). Prospect Park Bandshell, Brooklyn, bricartsmedia.org/performing-arts/celebrate-brooklyn
This singer-songwriter brings her bottomless vocal technique to the free Lowdown Hudson Blues Festival. Case doesn't have a new record to promote, but so what? The concert will be a top draw simply on the basis of her six-album solo songbook. One evening earlier, Buddy Guy will take care of the guitar side of the blues. World Financial Center, 200 Vesey Street, worldfinancialcenter.com
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