Anyone as serious as their art is generally not trustworthy. When I meet experimental musicians whose demeanor is austere, authoritarian and unsmiling, as if trying to let you know what they are doing is important and meaningful, I just see a lack of trust. The forward-thinkers I love the most are the ones who are able to crack a joke at their expense, because they trust their work and their audience enough to know that their intent will always come through loud and clear.
The three artists I saw at Noise Pop this year embodied that kind of confidence: Arooj Aftab, Phil Elverum and William Basinski all grapple with personal and potentially uncomfortable themes.
Aftab’s Prince Vulture of last year mourns his late brother Maher, while Elverum’s work since the death of his wife Geneviève in 2015 has been, in some ways, a rejection of the “conceptual void” that was the big theme of his earlier work . Basinski, meanwhile, uses his archive of decaying tape loops to play with death, inevitability and the passage of time. His most famous work Decay Loops is often described as an elegy for 9/11.
And yet all of them are colorful personalities, crack jokes, know when and how to lighten the mood. I love when onstage banter clashes with the tone of the music. Aftab’s expansive, meditative and dark songs were usually six or seven minutes long at a majestic pace. Once the audience was well marinated in it, his jokes about unruly shirt buttons allowed us to get some fresh air. Interpretation by Elverum of his album of autobiographical songs Microphones in 2020 was punctuated with little ad-libs and sage cracks, but people were still crying. He was happy to have fun with the fans at the merch table (although he’s not an easy guy to break the ice with; as charming and sweet as he is, it seems like a lot is going on in his head at one point.) As for Basinski, his non-rhotic OG-gay-punk New York sassiness is just delightful, not to mention his enthusiasm whenever a particularly epic tape loop drops.
Aftab and Basinski performed at Gray Area, Elverum’s Microphones project at Swedish American Hall. I’m not sure Gray Area was the best room for Aftab, whose small group seemed overshadowed by the impersonal large room. However, the slow beams of light that accompanied Basinski were perfect for giving the impression of a laborious process. (The machine firing fog blasts onstage at Basinski’s opener, Faten Kanaan, looked more like farting in her face.) But I can’t imagine a better venue and performer pairing than Elverum. at the Swedish American Hall. The low ceilings and tall wooden gables built over 100 years ago were the perfect setting for a man whose music often seems to encompass everything that ever happened.
Opener Ragana had a bit of that, too: a mossy couple of Northwestern doom and the anarcho-witcho-feminism of the Oakland experimental scene, aptly shouting “you’re not taking anything!” Most of the openers came from Oakland. These included Maria B.C., a rising dream-pop singer-songwriter whose set cast a spell until it was interrupted by unintentionally funny samples of accelerated self-help talk. She was accompanied by another resident of East Bay piano rainwho dedicated a set of epic collages not only to Ghost Ship [she had been present, and was even on the night’s lineup, when the underground venue’s devastatingly fatal fire started in December 2016]but to “The Titanic and Noah’s Ark”.
Overall, Noise Pop did a great job picking bands from the local DIY rock scene, like slow-punk regulars Buzzed Lightbeer and Milk Bar, Loserlees. was suffering from bad sound, and that the whole group of Catch Prichard came down with COVID.
Due to commitments with my own musical projects, I was unable to see more than these three shows. I almost went to see Alex G.the Bandcamp hermit who shot to fame with brilliant DIY pop albums like Race and Fool. But I feel like he’s the kind of artist that it helps to know the songs before seeing the show, and I’m still working on his catalog. Jersey heartthrob rockers Titus Andronicus performed their 2010 epic The monitor in full at the beginning of the festival, and even if it’s an album that I love, I find the performances of the full album uninteresting. Seemingly uncancelable New York fire-eater Azealia Banks headlined Warfield the same night as Basinski, and it’s easy to think Basinski’s set is a more relaxing alternative.
But to hell with the scheduling issues – the three performances I saw at Noise Pop were first and foremost proof that quiet, serious music can be great too.