Clocking in at a scrappy 20 minutes, Show Pony—the 2010 self-released debut LP from Brooklyn’s Boom Chick—brings the hangdog harangue ruckus, a snarling, hair-raising blur of raw rock primitivism and full-tilt blues grooves. The songs, from the ephedrine-juiced surf-snarl of “Nailgun” to the howling, cyclonic distortion of “Black Dress Blues” to the ignition-spark strut of “When I Don’t Love My Rock & Roll,” pit Frank Hoier’s malleable, ceiling-less guitar heroics against Moselle Spiller’s threshing-machine drumming with thrilling results; imagine the Fiery Furnaces covering “Don’t Dance Her Down” in a blind, murderous fury, without modern references or keyboards or organs to hand. Hoier’s upper-register lead vocals serve to warp things further still, limning the topical tropes the pair are so faithful to—romantic devotion, love gone bad, the power of rock—with a slight scrim of gender confusion. Deal in iconic Americana stage backdrops, ecstatic live shows, and the fact that this is a frills-free band mercilessly touring under its own steam—in the tradition of similarly frills-free Americana rock bands of yore—and you’ve got magic. 2012 will see the release of a second album and a seven-inch, plus lots of touring.
Sound of the City emailed with Boom Chick about the band’s origins, Show Pony, and where they were when Kurt Cobain’s death was reported.
How did the two of you come to play together?
Moselle Spiller: We lived in the same building in Bushwick, and eventually started hanging out. We shared an apartment for a year and practiced in the living room. It was such a loud crazy neighborhood that nobody ever complained. Then we moved to Red Hook and had a rehearsal space in the Ohm Speaker factory down by the big container port. That is where Boom Chick truly formed, and where we wrote Show Pony.
How did you come up with the name “Boom Chick”?
Frank Hoier: Three or so years ago, I invited Moselle to sit at a drum kit, purely because she said she never had. I showed her to tap the hi-hat and give a “boom chick, boom chick” to the taps, and she could just play immediately. Boom Chick has come to mean for me the simplicity you have to start with and pay respect to when making art. You have to start with the boom chick; it’s also the most powerful beat of all.
Show Pony is probably the most aptly named debut album I’ve come across, a bundle of raw, immediate tunes with little muss and fuss that feels like a concise introduction to what you guys do. When you were writing and recording it, were you approaching it from that perspective?
Spiller: Yes. Show Pony was sort of a tongue-in-cheek poke at our naive confidence and unbridled energy jumping into not just our first recordings but the music scene in New York, too.
We were dressed up, made up, and hauling our instruments through bridge and tunnel to any show we could get, sometimes three to four times a week. Many will say that’s a bad approach in a highly-saturated music scene like NYC, where you should play just one show a month and hype it hard to get a good draw. But who were we to do that?
I was just starting to play drums and we had this sort of philosophy like we were the Beatles from the Cavern days in Germany, putting in our dues, logging as many live performing hours as possible. We probably had some terrible shows, but we got them out of the way as fast as we could. We were “show ponies.” We still are, actually; we’ve just become “national show ponies” since we hit the road so hard earlier this year.
Where all did you tour, and for how long? Did you come away from that kind of intense touring with any paradigm shifts or epiphanies?
Hoier: We’re currently wrapping up our fourth North American tour in under two years. We’ve gone to the West Coast and back now twice. There are only 11 states we haven’t played in.
A big epiphany for me is the constant change. The constant moving, seeing old friends and cities—and then they are gone. It helps you to realize that life is a moment that one day will be gone. The other epiphany is how kind people can be.
What are some kindnesses that surprised you?
Hoier: Many instances of strangers letting you stay in their homes, and the next morning cooking you breakfast. A great example happened in Eugene, Oregon on this tour. We went into a print shop to make some fliers, got talking with a girl working there and, she brought 10 friends to our show that night.
“Black Dress Blues” has an interesting gender dynamic happening; the narrator would seem to be a man pining after a long-gone woman—in emotional or mortal terms—but Moselle sings, of course. This disconnect adds an extra dimension while forcing the listener to confront his or her own ideas about narrative and sexuality and gender, a tack taken in the past by PJ Harvey, Antony, and the Fiery Furnaces, who you remind me of in some ways. How did this song come together?
Hoier: Well, I’m sorry to say that that’s me singing. I’m proud to be taken for a woman; I’m always trying to push my voice higher. And I love the gender confusion. I always try to write from a universal perspective so everyone can find meaning. “Black Dress Blues” was written high on Hound Dog Taylor and Moselle’s pretty dresses. It’s just a writing exercise in the joy of colors and things they inspire.
Does that happen often, where people don’t know who’s singing Boom Chick songs?
Spiller: This is the first time it was brought up, but you just made us aware that there are probably others out there who think I ‘m singing! I actually just recorded my first lead vocal on one of our new songs, “Country Star,” so there’s going to be a growing female vocal presence in our work. Audiences often ask me why I don’t sing, and it is only because I have been waiting to develop that talent. I play guitar and write my own little songs just for me. I sing privately when at home or late night at a party when it gets loose. It’s funny that the first thing I do musically in public happens to be the loudest and most thrashing—and then I’ve waited to express the vocal side of myself.
What’s the Boom Chick songwriting process like?
Hoier: Our process is always changing. Mostly we just write songs as we are playing, and I stop playing real quick and ask Moselle, “What does that make you think of?” One time she said “Owls,” so we wrote a murder ballad called “Miss Mouse” with a spooky minor yodel for the chorus. Those are the best times—when it’s flowing so fast you have no time to control it; the song is shaping itself.
What was the first song the two of you wrote collectively, and what was that experience like?
Spiller: “Untitled Jam #1” is first original piece of music we co-created. It’s just an instrumental track using slide guitar and dramatic cymbal crashes. The second, more fully-realized song was “Ghost of Bo Diddley.” We wrote them in our Bushwick apartment. My drumming was still unknown to our friends and we had not yet done a performance. We had no expectations for ourselves or from anybody else about what to be or sound like. It was very relaxed exploration.
Have you found that the limitations inherent in being a duo force you to be more creative in some ways, musically or otherwise?
Spiller: Absolutely. There seems to be an energy vortex created between two people and the stark dynamic of just guitar and drums. It feels so exciting that you are driven to push random combinations of riffs and beats until it feels like a groove. Touring-wise we are hyper-aware of how much we need to take care of each other. The show can’t go on without either one of us.
When I first saw the band logo on your website—before I heard your music—I automatically assumed Boom Chick was a metal band, but the logo fits nonetheless. Who designed it?
Spiller: I designed it, as well as most of our visuals. I feel like a lot of people have strong aesthetic associations with the branding of Americana and Blues music, that it should be old timey, rustic, or country. Boom Chick is taking cues from early American rock ‘n’ roll and Delta Blues, but it’s seriously electrified and heavy at times. We’re referencing a lot of dead people’s music that we happen to mutually love and be inspired by.
I think the opening 5 seconds of “Ghost of Bo Diddley” and the whole track in general is a good example. The main riff is a mutation from Carl Perkins, haunted by rockabilly and blues, while not being either. It’s played with joyous thrashing energy, but the theme is ghostly. As a visual artist I’m not in to spoon-fed branding that will automatically label the music; I’m having fun with vibes.
The two of you have done a lot of groundwork in the last few years. Does it seem like people are catching on, coming along for the ride?
Spiller: Yes, we feel a positive vibration coming back. Every city reacts differently to us. We are happiest when people dance, or when afterwards somebody asks “do you have any vinyl?”
There’s definitely an unvarnished punch to your songs, but it’s not an off-putting harshness at all; it’s like you’re inviting listeners to join you on a guided your of primal pre/60s American rock’n’roll, lots of yummy gristle but no unnecessary excess.
Hoier: Thank you. That’s just what we hope we are doing. I’d say we are going for direct rather than raw. Moselle is the punch.
Tell me a bit about your forthcoming album. How did the circumstances of its creation differ from those of Show Pony?
Hoier: Show Pony was recorded in NYC with engineers helping us. However, it was not heavily produced; it’s just capturing our live songs to tape. Our new album was recorded by us, mostly in a barn in New Hampshire, so we took our time crafting it a little more. We bought a tape machine and a vintage board, and got to work. We have a 1950s slow dance number called “Sweaty Dress,” and a slide-guitar song called “Shake Can Well” that we jokingly call “disco delta.” These two songs will be on our first 7″ record.
Growing up, what were some of the artists whose music really spoke to you, and why?
Hoier: Growing up I was inspired to pick up the guitar by Nirvana, Punk Rock and Led Zeppelin. In my late teens Dylan and The Beatles spoke to me and caused me to dig into their influences. Fifties rock and roll, Blues, Sun Records, Chess Records, Hank Williams, Harry Smith Anthology, Woody Guthrie. But after all the years of digging, what I found was that what spoke to me most was that wild, joyful early rock and roll. When Moselle and I found we could play music together, we naturally fell into writing music that came directly from that energy.
It’s amazing how far-ranging and extra-musical Nirvana’s influence is, how integral they were to the development of so many musicians whose work shares nothing immediately in common with then, from noise artists to rappers to metal-heads.
Hoier: I was 11 when “Teen Spirit” hit. Someone showed me a power chord, and I could play along with Nevermind—which was much easier for me than my first try at a guitar riff, which was Zeppelin’s “Black Dog”! I just loved the energy and [Cobain’s] sense of melody.
Do you remember where you were and what you were doing when you found out that Kurt Cobain was dead?
Spiller: I was a little girl, playing with Barbies.
Hoier: I was 13 and really dug him, so I was sad, but way too young to get how really sad it was. There’s something about getting news from the same box you watch Beavis & Butt-Head on that makes it all surreal.
I noticed that on some songs on Show Pony, there’s a 1, 2, 3 count-in, which is one of those exciting, early rock’n’roll traditions. Is that a practical or aesthetic choice?
Hoier: I think we leave them in to warn people that the song is coming.
Like “get right with your maker, because this song is about to run you over”?
Hoier: Hahawell, yes. We are going for that “atomic energy,” as Dylan puts it so well.
I was just watching the video for “When I Don’t Love My Rock And Roll” on YouTube, and there’s a wonderful sense of abandon and freedom about it, how it jumps at will from the shots of the two of you frolicking on a beach to performance footage to shadowed bluffs; there’s a palpable looseness and ease and humor here that reminds the viewer of what we love about music at it’s best. Where and when was the video shot? Going in, did you have any definite sense of what shape it would take?
Hoier: Thank you so much. One day. Moselle says, “I wanna shoot a video. Let’s go buy a Flip camera and go to Fort Tilden.” I was a little hesitant, but we just went and had so much fun. A couple beers on the beach, and we danced around doing whatever we thought would be fun to watch. We had no sense of what shape we wanted out of the video really, just crafting the shots as we went. It’s so inspiring to find what can happen in the joy of the moment.
The biggest thing I took away from the video is that beaches are awesome.
Spiller: Yes, and very wet and sandy.
Do you feel like New York understands or gets Boom Chick? There’s a lack of irony or pretense to what you do that seems like it could run counter to audience expectations.
Spiller: Well, I know we are not riding one of the trends right now, which often pull from retro sounds and inflect some irony, or mix genres in a formulaic way that creates a strong brand: a meme that is easily catchy. While we are indeed mixing past eras with modern times, I think the limitation of being a duo, using minimal effects, and virtually no digital technology results in an honest expression of what we love in music.
Hoier: Making rock and roll right now does seem to be kind of counter to the music trends happening. I can only say that for me, I have to make the music that moves me. We are not trying to say “this is real music”; we really try to shut out any idea of expectation from anyone but ourselves. I don’t know what to expect out of music but emotion, connection, mystery and escape.
Was “I Made Up My Mind” inspired by any particular experience? Its interesting in that it seems like somehow it’s always existed, that sort of timeless, resolute declaration of independence, of putting one’s foot down.
Hoier: Wow, that’s the nail on the head. It was written for the times when you finally decide something is bad for you, and you are going to drop it or them from your life.
Tell me about how “Nailgun” came together. It’s probably my favorite song on the album, this gnarly, snarling surf-rock beast.
Hoier: Thank you. We had a Link Wray CD that didn’t leave our car for about a whole week. His riffs are so fantastic. At the time, we were building a practice space in the corner of Moselle’s Uncle John’s speaker factory in Brooklyn. I was using a nail gun, and thought it was so scary and gnarly. I just picked up the guitar and thought, “I’ll write a riff that sounds like a nail gun.” That was a super-fun song to write.
Is there any trepidation for you—economically or otherwise—in making Boom Chick your core focus?
Hoier: Economically, it’s challenging. Touring at our level while being our own record label and promotion isn’t easy. We have no trepidation personally; Boom Chick is our baby. We feel very blessed to have something to work so hard on, somewhere to put our energy.
Usually when I ask musicians about their jobs, they talk about careers they’re not crazy about, that they can kind if of take or leave. It sounds like the two of you are living the proverbial dream.
Spiller: Yes, we feel fortunate. Most days we look each other in the eyes and laugh at how much fun we have. Other days one of us has to pick the other up and convince them to keep going. We genuinely can’t imagine another path right now.
What are some of the difficulties and frustrations you’ve encountered in making this band your bread and butter and doing all the work on your own, and what have some of the rewards been?
Hoier: Both the frustrations and rewards are huge. We are our own production studio, artwork, photos, videos, recording and releasing our own music. Until this tour, I was booking our tours. I’d say the biggest frustration is self-promotion. It’s never fun to promote yourself, but you have to let people know you are playing. The biggest reward is those magic, sweaty joyous shows where you have no doubt that you connected with people, and really shared a musical moment.
Boom Chick plays Pianos tonight.