Tom Van Buskirk, the thoughtful Los Angeles-based half of polyglot pan-tropical duo Javelin, has some mixed feelings about social media. “When I follow someone on Twitter and all I get is a barrage of RT’s or straight-up PR shit, it kind of offends me, and they never know. It’s just funny that we put all this stock in a little interaction.” It’s partially the subject of the song “Friending”–which is, yes, a Facebook reference–off Javelin’s forthcoming record, Hi Beams, coming out in March on David Byrne’s Luaka Bop imprint. The other idea for the song came from Van Buskirk’s teenage brother and graffiti enthusiast in New Zealand, who once boasted he was friends with a famous tagger in New York. “It took me a minute to realize that he meant Facebook friends,” he tells me over the phone. “It’s a strange world we live in.”
For the self-described technology-obsessed outfit, which includes Van Buskirk’s cousin George Langford in Brooklyn, the new album is a departure of sorts from the eclectic sampling that, until this point, had come to define Javelin. Raised in Rhode Island, Langford and Buskirk started playing together in 2004 with just two MPCs and a vast array of clips culled from record store bins, which they manually spliced together in ways that have been compared to J Dilla and, at least once, Girl Talk (“Thank God someone did that, because now I don’t have to,” Van Buskirk said in an interview a few years ago). Some years after they started playing together, the ingenuity of their first few mixtapes–2009’s Andean Ocean, for example, interpolates ridiculously smooth self-help phrases with Andean flutes, mariachi horns, seagulls, and Tropicana muzak–caught the attention of Byrne and avant-garde indie stronghold Thrill Jockey, not to mention everyone else with a pulse and attention deficit disorder. And Javelin’s live shows, which involved piles of multicolored boomboxes tuned to the same FM transmitter, had become the stuff of DIY legend.
By that point, according to Van Buskirk, “we had already been messing around with that approach for four years, dabbling in it, never seriously. We didn’t even read blogs back then. We were stuck in Providence and what became our aesthetic (which I still love) but that janky, crowd-surfing thing had already become old to us. We definitely saw pigeonholing.” So for Record Store Day in 2011, Javelin came out with a American West-themed EP, Canyon Candy, complete with songs like “Fievel Goes West” and “Saddle Sores.” As Van Buskirk sees it, “If you’re sampling, you’re letting someone else’s aesthetic influence what you’re doing. It’s fun, but with Canyon we definitely were working within that non-pigeonholing paradigm. Like, what happens if we take that approach and just apply it to something completely uncool and not dance music?” After successfully crafting an album that was actually pretty cool–akin to when androids dream of spaghetti western soundtracks, perhaps–Javelin decided to see what else they could do.
Their decision was also informed by touring with Sleigh Bells and Yeasayer and seeing how their epic performances impacted an audience substantially larger than those Javelin had played to. “Given all that history, we were like, ‘What happens if we try to make real songs, write real lyrics, make something a little more cohesive and whole that we can then present at a live show?'” So they traded mp3 ideas back and forth for months via email before coming home to Providence, crashing at Van Buskirk’s mother’s house, and recording Hi Beams down the street at Machines with Magnets Studio. Engineer Seth Manchester (Fang Island, Battles) effectively became the third member of the band, helping them with “amps and mics and real plate reverb and actual air and space, which George and I don’t have the technical expertise to do. We didn’t want to use a whole lot of computer effects, because we record on a computer and we wanted a sound that was bigger than [the two of us] could ever get.” When describing listening to the finished version of Hi Beams on vinyl, Van Buskirk is at a loss. All he can do is pause for a good awkward beat or two, exhale, and say, “Oh my God.”
Then he’s back. “And that’s what we wanted!” he says excitedly. Whether on vinyl or on a computer, Hi Beams is a big, golden, weird record, glistening with the novelty of classical strings and central harmonies. Beneath the new framework, however, the old Javelin is still there: “l’Ocean” (which Van Buskirk has to pronounce a few times before getting it right) lifts a riff from Andean Ocean, and “Nnormal” samples the band’s re-do of Janka Nabay’s “Good Governance.” They’ve even upgraded their signature boomboxes–a project they tweeted about–decorating and Velcro-ing up to 30 gutted and disinfected donations to build a giant onstage pyramid. Both in sound and image, “We wanted to feel like it was bold new steps to something.” Not even Javelin seems to know exactly what that something is, but that makes it all the better.
Javelin perform tonight at Shea Stadium.