At the Ridgewood venue Trans-Pecos, a box, inscribed with the word “Juárez,” sits in the middle of the room. A demonic voice emanates from somewhere, like that of an invisible witch cursing the audience. Slowly, Raúl De Nieves, the leader of experimental Brooklyn art band Haribo, emerges from the box wearing a striped jumpsuit, his long hair braided into pigtails. He has a deranged look in his eyes, which are covered in dark face paint. De Nieves holds up signs with phrases like “AMORES MUERTOS” and “NOS SOMOS LA REVOLUCIÓN” before ripping them to pieces. He screams and rants in Spanish while his bandmates shuttle between power metal riffs and synthetic droning. By the end of the show, the box is no more, a casualty of the ecstatic madness of Haribo’s set.
Upon making this electrifying first impression, Haribo — comprising De Nieves, experimental percussionist Jessie Stead, and guitarist Nathan Whipple — seemed to be a bilingual performance-art troupe with a political message. But watch just a few of the band’s many taped live performances on YouTube, and you’ll see it’s more complicated than that. Haribo never do the same thing twice. Each show is a thoroughly thought-out performance piece centered on a different theme, although all of them involve a few common features, including over-the-top antics and the destruction of whatever cheap props they’ve made. The mini-narratives are often centered on a character played by De Nieves. He’s been a boxer, a maid, and once, disturbingly, a twenty-year-old newborn.
Their show came off as overtly political, but Haribo are adamant that this particular vignette had little to do with the ongoing gang violence plaguing Mexico. They say Juárez was simply the name of the character that the Trans-Pecos show was based around.
“Whipple was telling us about a serial killer who killed six people and would consume their bodies,” De Nieves tells me at Stead’s sprawling Bed-Stuy apartment and practice space. Mexico is De Nieves’s home country, and Juárez, a city recently infamous for its drug wars, seemed an apt name for their symbolic killer. The idea continued to mutate from there.
“I think we started talking about Stephen King’s It,” De Nieves says. “Then that morphed into this jack-in-the-box theme,” Stead continues. “Juárez-in-the-Box. We made this boing-boing sound effect track to play at the show, all these spring sounds. It just kept getting more and more ridiculous.” Building this kind of stream-of-consciousness narrative is Haribo’s m.o. They often brainstorm their ideas via group text, and performances have been inspired by everything from a tropical drum machine sound to the 2012 presidential debates.
Before Haribo formed in 2010, Stead was the designated video artist for De Nieves and Whipple’s old band, Try Cry Try. After their bassist departed, a trip to Berlin brought the three current members together. They had their first show at a German arts space — Stead describes it as “a giant mess”: “[It was] a half-hour freak show. There were like three people there.”
Stead and Whipple create music that can swing between genres as diverse as hair metal, hardcore, noise, and blues-rock, creating freeform songs over which De Nieves screams or improvises monologues. Their lyrics are short phrases repeated by De Nieves like primal chants. “We like to pack a lot of existential information into the smallest amount of words,” Stead says.
Sometimes it seems Haribo don’t take themselves seriously enough, although it’s just as likely that they’re simply careful not to reveal too much of the meaning behind the music. When asked about the role of gender in their work (which, due to De Nieves’s sometimes exaggeratedly feminine costumes, seems a relevant theme), the group responded laughing, in unison, “We want to be an all-girl band.” A later request for their preferred pronouns returned an ambiguous answer from De Nieves: “We don’t have any.”
They seem almost surprised that people read serious themes into their performances. “We will have people who are thinking beyond the funny aspect,” De Nieves says. “They’re like, ‘That must be this political thing,’ and we’re like, ‘Uh yeah, sure, whatever.’
“Those are things we do care about,” he later admits. “But we don’t want to sound like we’re preaching.”
As much as they talk about having fun, the three members are all serious artists, both in Haribo and with other pursuits. De Nieves has performed at the Whitney and P.S.1, and his psychedelic sculptural shoes were photographed by Karl Lagerfeld and worn by Lady Gaga. Whipple has a book of line drawings out from indie publisher Printed Matter, and Stead’s light- and video-based installations have been shown in galleries from London to Hudson, New York.
While other artists could falter with such diverse talents and so much room for experimentation, Haribo’s work remains remarkably focused. It’s not the wild themes of their shows that make them compelling so much as their commitment to their performance. In their YouTube videos De Nieves is often seen suffocating himself with a giant plastic bag or smashing mirrors on his head. “It’s a form of release and experimenting with the audience and ourselves,” he says.
As of now, Haribo have only two official releases: a downloadable single of their song “Hell Is Where I Die,” and an EP, Vines, released on cassette. The latter comprises soundscapes with lyrics taken from De Nieves’s now-defunct Vine account. Still, despite their few official releases, Haribo are serious about documentation. In addition to Stead’s video collection, all their practices are recorded and preserved. This archive is more important to the band than recording and releasing music in the traditional sense, because it captures their elaborate live theatrics — and because, after five years together, they’re finally working on their first album, which will incorporate some of these recordings along with new material and sampled sound collages. They’re talking to the arts organization Issue Project Room, where Haribo had a residency last year, about possible funding for the album.
On June 20, Haribo will play outdoors with a slew of bands to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Brooklyn D.I.Y. venue Secret Project Robot. The place is no stranger to Haribo: De Nieves has a studio at the venue, and works on the side at Happyfun Hideaway, the Bushwick bar that was opened by Secret Project Robot owner Rachel Nelson to help pay the bills for the arts space.
What will Haribo’s upcoming show be about? That’s a complicated question. “Our next show is possibly about kidnapping,” Whipple says. “And kidnapping yourself. On social media. No, not on social media. In the media. There’s going to be a murder theme. And Rockaway, the beach. Kidnapping yourself, despair,” he continues, listing the words ominously. “On the beach,” Stead clarifies.
It’s hard to imagine that anyone beyond the three members would get what Haribo are trying to do. They insist that they are just having fun, but it’s clear that they’re driven to bring strange visions to life in the grandest way possible. This is what elevates them above other experimenters: Anyone can make a mess onstage, but few can give that mess meaning. Stead thinks their unified vision comes from something more basic.
“I hope [Haribo] makes people think, ‘I can be in a band.’ Like, all you need is friends,” she says. “You don’t really need anything else. Just friends that get your jokes.”
Haribo play Secret Project Robot June 20. For performance information, tickets, schedule, and more, click here.