Writing about Brooklyn music and movement collective People Get Ready is kind of like, continuing that unavoidably overused adage, dancing about architecture. The New York Times came close when they described frontman Steven Reker’s choreographed sequences as a “moving meditation”, but that’s still not quite enough. Watching the promotional video for their performance Specific Ocean is about as close as you can get to the People Get Ready live experience without actually being there: you can hear the slap of the masonite boards, see the deliberately geometric lighting, almost feel what it’s like to be dragged, singing, across the stage. But when I met with Reker at his Williamsburg apartment, I was there; so he danced.
“We work with this one idea of creating a sonic landscape through movement, so basically one can’t exist without the other,” he tells me as he slings a weathered teal guitar–which he later admits he somehow acquired (“We stole it. We didn’t steal it”) from touring with David Byrne from 2008 to 2009–over his shoulder. As he pirouettes on his living room floor and the instrument clangs and bangs into the lacquered wood, all I can think about is how expensive it was, the neighbors downstairs, his security deposit. Isn’t he afraid that’s going to damage the guitar?
“Yeah, it fucks it up completely,” Reker agrees. “But that’s why we call it ‘circumstantial guitar.’ It’s all about the movement. I’m dancing without giving it attention, so the sound being created is circumstantial. If you turn the sound off and [the dancer] were dancing around with a guitar, it would be stupid. But if you take the movement away from that, if the theater went dark, you’d still have this sound, but without any context. When you put them together, there’s unity.” Even then, there were still a few moments when I didn’t quite “get” it. Watching a linked line of people crawl across the stage in that video, I comment that it’s like the Human Centipede. He gently shushes me. When I asked him how he felt about the musical theater production Stomp, sadly my closest reference point, he said, “I don’t really know anything about it, so I don’t really care.”
Mostly, it’s because Reker comes from a completely different dance background. In college he studied post-modern and contemporary dance, moving to New York several years ago to work with dancer and choreographer Yoshiko Chuma. He also made “really sad, sad” music on the side in a band called Silver Haunches (“You’re the only person who thinks that’s a good name,” he says) that “never took off.” Then, he dreamed a self-respecting musician’s wet dream and landed on Byrne’s tour as a backing guitarist. It was there that he ran into People Get Ready member Luke Fasano, who was drumming and touring with Yeasayer at the time. “We had some beers and talked about what we weren’t doing currently. We were hungry for something else.”
When Reker returned to New York, he reconnected with vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Jen Goma, who went to the same “weird charter arts school” in Arizona and who belonged to A Sunny Day in Glasgow at the time. Such musically disparate backgrounds only contribute constructively to People Get Ready’s D.I.Y. found sound aesthetic. “We meet a lot in the middle, if that’s a term we’re using,” Reker says. “There’s a common spirit. I don’t mean that in a hippy-dippy way.” But there is something undeniably holistic and at times guileless about Reker, who greets me with a bowl of orange sections and is probably the only person who thinks it’s “really, really fun” to play with heavy slabs of wood that make him grimace with exertion. He recently discovered Freaks and Geeks but doesn’t know anything about Girls. At one point Reker refers to a DJ at an event the band attended as “that guy from LCD Soundsystem.”
“James Murphy?” Nonplussed, he says, “Yeah, I think that’s who it was.” But he speaks with reverence for his Brassland label mates. “I love Nico Muhly. I’ve been a fan of his for a long time. I see him around all the time and he has no idea who I am. That’s cool, I’ll keep it that way.” People Get Ready’s music, which until recently was largely written by Reker, reflects this sense of wonderment. On “Orange Groves” off last year’s self-titled full-length, he sings against a backdrop of vocal rounds that peal like church bells in the background, “I gathered up my wonder…” leaving the rest up to the rousing drum breakdown that closes out the song.
Even without any visual accompaniment, People Get Ready’s visceral pop hits the same solar plexus sweet spot as Arcade Fire anthems or West Coast African music purveyors Fool’s Gold. And it can only get more affecting and experimental with the addition of Deerhoof’s Greg Saunier, who will produce and record People Get Ready’s next album. Reker thinks that doing it “Greg-style”–recording at home and over the course of six or seven months as opposed to holing up for a week in an everyband recording studio in an upstate New York cabin–will better integrate the band’s visual aesthetic with how they come across on record.
“I don’t think we’ll have to pick one or the other, you know?” he says. “We’re doing both. One requires songs–got plenty of those–and the other one requires… Well, we’re working on it,” he says. “We’re straddling both these worlds,” carrying the weight of masonite on their shoulders.
People Get Ready play tonight at the Mercury Lounge with Color War and Man Forever. 21+