Thursday night, as the free-cocktail-stained chaos of Fashion’s Night Out was just starting to descend upon lower Manhattan, I clambered up the stairs into a third-floor classroom at Dubspot, the 14th Street haven for aspiring DJs and producers. The occasion was a master class by Adrian Sherwood, the British music impresario known for his work in the boomy, reverb-filled genre of dub; the class was part of the Dub Invasion Festival, a 10-day celebration of the genre’s past, present, and future. (Events, including a master class taught by the UK dub producer Mad Professor, continue around the city through Friday.)
In the digital-music age, when MP3s can zip across communication lines with the speed of a lively Gchat conversation, it’s easy to believe that music just appears, the result of a certain combination of commands being typed into a computer. The word “remix” is especially prone to this sort of bias; remixes have become the sort of kudzu of the blog age, with up-and-coming artists doing their best (or, in the case of some, their worst) to the Hype Machine’s most wanted in hopes of catching a snatch of those artists’ search-engine mojo.
But watching Sherwood make over a reggae track in his own, hyper-reverbed image was—even from the weird catty-corner angle offered by the overflow room where I sat—both refreshing and hypnotic. His craft consumed him, even though he was performing in front of a classroom and a camera and not at a cavernous club; he bobbed and weaved with the song’s rhythm as he fiddled with his mixing board’s faders and knobs. A camera had been set up above the mixing board, so his hands were projected on the wall behind him. Watching each tweak and turn made the effects they produced seem even more grand—amplifying an insides-rattling drumbeat, fading up the track’s vocals so they sounded like they’d landed in the mix from another planet, dropping everything out except a single, repeated, eternally echoing note. His mini-lectures on what, exactly, he was doing straddled the line demarcating the technical (describing the effects he used, the mathematics behind some of his delays) and the passionate (discussing his collection of sound effects CDs, telling the producers in the audience that it was crucial to “get your own arsenal of sound”) in such a way that his love for and knowledge of the music he was working with filled the room.
A similar sense of vitality courses throughout the self-titled debut by Wild Flag, made up of ex-members of left-of-the-dial lifers Sleater-Kinney, Helium, and the Minders; it’s tempting to call the supergroup’s career up to this point a master class in turning the slightly moribund genre of “indie” into something that can still thrill and surprise, even with the basic three-chords-and-a-chorus formula intact. The foursome’s just-released album (Merge) is, in large part, a love letter to the power of music; in the opener, “Romance,” they sing as one, “We love the sound, the sound is what found us/ The sound is the blood between me and you.” It’s the sort of vow that, were this fifth grade and the promise-makers were on a playground, they’d seal by engaging in a high five with spat-upon hands.
Guitarists Carrie Brownstein (formerly of Sleater-Kinney) and Mary Timony (ex-Helium) approach their instruments in ways that are compatible while not being absolutely similar—Brownstein turns punk into a pealing, chaotic rollercoaster ride, while Timony’s approach has a bit more languor to it, filling the songs on which she takes lead with long, bending notes plucked on a single string. Backing it all is Janet Weiss, Brownstein’s former Sleater-Kinney bandmate and a one-woman clinic in the art of keeping time while seeming absolutely spontaneous. The result is a collection of songs where the choppy, dreamy prog of “Glass Tambourine” can exist within a few tracks of the pogo-inducing “Short Version” and still come off as a cohesive, energy-rush-inducing whole.
I’ve seen Wild Flag twice so far; they played a show at the Rock Shop this spring and opened for Sonic Youth at the Williamsburg Waterfront this summer. Both times they melded their consummate professionalism—all four members have been playing in college-radio-beloved bands since the ’90s—with a roaring enthusiasm that stretched all the way to the back of the room, causing even those back-of-the-crowd lingerers who had grown up with the principals’ earliest seven-inches and compilation appearances to feel like the gray hairs and balky knees that they’d accrued over the past 15 years had somehow dropped away. The album doesn’t quite capture the brio of those shows (perhaps the deluxe edition will come with a vial of sweat that can be easily tossed around whatever room is being used for the listening party), but it still brims with enough enthusiasm and confidence to show the next generation what can happen when experience and, yes, romance collide.
The Dub Invasion Festival continues at various venues around the city through Friday; Wild Flag plays The Bell House on October 15 and the Bowery Ballroom on October 18