all photos: Brandon Hirsch
There were not many people at the 930 club Wednesday night to see the Brooklyn band A Place to Bury Strangers, perhaps because it was a late show: doors closing after a more popular and accessible band’s performance and reopening at 9:45. Samantha had no idea it was starting so late, so she showed up at 9:30 and stood outside in the cold smoking and trying to decide who to call. It was the first cold night she could remember, made colder by the weak work jacket she still had on. She came straight from work, a terrible day of phone calls and important looking foreheads cupped in weathered hands, then clattering awkwardly up the metro stairs in her flats, changing trains, thinking she was late. Then there was a text from this earnest but total fuck-up boy who was supposed to meet her here, a boy whose ticket she bought weeks ago for him because she insisted he would love this band, texting her to say he had forgotten it was tonight and he had to go to practice and wouldn’t be done until eleven and probably couldn’t come. She had a quick huddle with herself to synergize her options, and after one-and-a-half cigarettes in the cold and her square work-jeans among the flipping hair and blouses of the kids leaving the early show she decided to just watch the bands and have a couple drinks and go to bed. She was tired of fighting to make things work, and here she was and though she had two tickets maybe she could give one away, or invite an imaginary friend.
She had heard a few songs by the headliner online, which reminded her of on of the louder coy English records her older brother used to bring home in the early 90s. Even though APTBS lives in Brooklyn now the main guy came from Fredericksburg VA, near where she grew up, and she felt as much a connection to the rough violence that Oliver Ackermann adds to the waves of numb ethereal feedback and soaring melodies as she does to his scruffy blond hair and blue eyes and stark southern cheekbones. She had also read that they were loud, that they make a point of being louder than you can stand. She heard more rumors of this sort as she finally stood in the echoing cavern of the main room, conversations drifting clearly through the space. “I saw them at the Black Cat and I couldn’t hear for a week,” said the pasty boy to his bemused Asian girlfriend. “You’re going to need better protection than that, want to borrow my earplugs?” asked the 40-year-old guy with the red Italian motorcycle jacket. His long-haired friend, kind of disgusted, pulled his woolen skullcap around his ears.
Samantha got up in front of the stage and tried to blot the voices out by drinking gin and suffering through the opening bands. The Sian Alice Group was burbling quiet and then humming loud but the girl singer’s voice fell flat for Samantha, as if she was affecting a chorus pedal, blurring her syllables and intoning mildly. Then Ceremony played and were a little better but something about the politeness of each drum machine beat, something about the wooden bass player’s hunched shoulders as he bent over and hit a play button before every respectful imitation of a 1980s shoegaze band frustrated her. Or maybe it was the way the melodies didn’t pop out of the noise, fading after each well-executed dispirited jaunt. She didn’t really blame them for not caring much though. Shafted by a booking agent and lolled at by hipsters are hardly better stimulants than “jilted by loser” and “rotting from the inside because of poor career choices” if you think about it. Samantha hardly felt like breaking it on down either. She went and smoked another cigarette to stay awake.
Emerging from the bathroom with TP to stuff in her ears, she heard the cough of pedal board being kicked and hurried through the 90-odd people to stand right back up front. Maybe she should wait to see how loud they really are before protecting herself, she thinks, and so stuck the wad in her pocket as the band started up: just bass, guitar and a small drum kit. Now they are playing and it doesn’t seem unbearable. She is surprised to see that the singer has a bushy beard and his lank hair covers his face. The drummer is a lot faster and more rocking than she’d expected, the bass is guttural rather than booming and there’s not that much feedback, despite the seven or so amps piled on Oliver’s sides of the stage. Some of the guitar lines sound more like 80s psychobilly than dreamy pop, Gun Club or the Cramps hiding beneath a blanket of fuzz, and his vocals, though almost indecipherable, are more like the folksy mumbles of Belle and Sebastian or Nick Drake than the Ian Curtis tonelessness she caught on their myspace page. It’s catchy, even, like, pretty. She starts to sway, the whole crowd starts to sway, but Oliver looks at his feet and moans. She is aware only of a few words in each song; “I can’t,” “You know,” “This is,” “What I,” “It’s not,” only the interstices between waves in the choppy surf tempos come through. Oliver doesn’t look up, and there are no breaks or banter, but when he steps back in the rhythmless howling after one song crashes to a close and clamps the head of the instrument against an amp for a second before the drummer starts beating out a uptempo, almost pure punk beat and the bass player steps on something and starts feeding back too, OK, she knows what the rumors are about, she just realized this shit is really really loud.
She also realized that she’s been dancing, bending at the knees and holding her arms out like some hippie fuck at Phish show, but whatever: she wasn’t even conscious she can hardly be blamed. The fast part is over and it’s just the drums and the bass now, grinding over a Birthday Party sleaze groove and she’s aware of the silence from stage left. She looks up and Oliver is staring at her, right at her with his enormous blue beacons beaming through her skull, and then the skull of the next person and the next. Is he thanking us? she wonders but he looks so somber, almost furious but more like concentrating desperately to push an idea out of his head into our minds and finally when he turns his back and switches the machine back on it is pure antimusic coming out of the amps, white shit, no soul and no mode and no end, just chaos with a broken backbeat. He punches the thing, twists around and lets it clock the mike stand, falls to his knees and bangs it on the floor and pulls the strings but the waves of sound don’t even seem related to his attacks. The noises are running the show now and they reach into the light booth and turn on a strobe pulsing so fast that the whole setup looks like the surface of the moon and Oliver is wrestling the beast on the ground pulling it off his body as it tries to enter his breast like a snake. He stands up and holds it at arms length but the sound continues to pulse and churn as if some invisible Pete Townsend arm is windmilling the strings. He drops it at the ground still holding the cord but it catches, wire tangled around the neck, and hovers inches above the floor malevolently, so he spins the hanging contraption like a cowboy doing a ropetrick with a screaming steer on the end of his black lasso. He begins to spin in its vortex too, spinning the guitar and revolving around it, everything pulsing so quick it looks carefully painted still.
As the guitar whirls around on the edge of the chord Samantha is detached from the wet edge of herself, until she is no longer Samantha. Suddenly she is the teenage girl with the yellow hat and the too-small jeans tilting in the balcony backward, idle conversation quashed by the noise, hands over her ears and her mouth open. She is the bartender leaning on one elbow and mopping at spots with a rag, and she is the fat man with the little glasses and the bagful of books. Everyone crowds forward to see the sacrifice, to take what is being offered without feeling it come upon them, or to not feel at all. The spectacle braids her impressions with the others, or tangles them; with the tight-lipped middle-aged black woman in the shawl and the tall tattooed gaunt bike messenger. The breakers continue to pound even as the plug pops loose from the instrument and the drums swirl faster. The cord is unplugged now, caught in loops on the strap, but there are some high keening melodies in the feedback which seem to beat in time with the slowing strobe and sing. Or there are no tones, they are just imaginary, and the scene means nothing or nothing more than her unexpected unity with the light—blinking now in discrete moments like a dying man—light shared by the bored and the curious, by the thoughtless and arrogant goths and lost ravers, by the guy in the blue hoodie with the empty notebook dangling from his numbing hands.