In this week's Freak Scene, Jamie Johns brings us into the cold world of Wierd Records and the weekly Wierd party. Read about new records from Xeno and Oaklander and Led Er Est, check out a playlist by Wierd founder Pieter Schoolwerth of new minimal synth groups and read an interview with Xeno and Oaklander member Liz Wendelbo.
Six years ago, Pieter Schoolwerth, formerly of Bloodyminded, started hosting a small party for his friends where he spun his favorite minimal electronic tracks. Now, that party is a weekly event at New York's Home Sweet Home that has featured performances by Freak Scene favorites like Zola Jesus, Yellow Tears, Pharmakon and Tamaryn, plus Wierd Records groups like Martial Cantarel, Xeno and Oaklander, Led Er Est and Automelodi. Don't let yourself be distracted by the seemingly infinite amount of fog in the room—most people are there to dance. As the party grew, Schoolwerth decided to start a record label, Wierd Records, to put out releases by the young crop of bands who were coming to the party and performing. Says Schoolwerth, "I feel very strongly that the current musical climate in the world is not conducive to allowing bands to grow, mature, and learn their craft which takes time, and this has had very unfortunate consequences for contemporary music. Fragile young bands with infinite potential can be shattered by a single bad online review at a major blog nowadays, and this also creates tremendously distracting pressure that has no other effect than watering down the music itself." This partly explains why it has taken three years for Xeno and Oaklander to create their first full length LP, Sentinelle. As I have seen the group play over the past few months, I have heard the songs on Sentinelle grow and morph into their final forms, changing slowly as the live experience and crowd reactions seeped in.
With the continued growth of Wierd and the emergence of other cold synth groups like Cold Cave and Silk Flowers, I asked Schoolwerth if he thought that there was something particular about this sound that resonates with the current climate. Schoolwerth replied, "In the world in general, and New York in particular, in a time when people are more and more becoming isolated all day by the internet alone at their computers and staring at the tiny sad glowing screens in their cellular hands, it only makes sense to me we are all feeling a slight sense of loneliness and (hopefully) desire for connection with others which is slowly slipping away year after year...this is one of the predominant feelings of the Wierd world—an affirmative sense of humanistic longing for true human connection conveyed through emotionally melancholic sounds."
It feels like everything is culminating for Wierd with the release of two new - and much anticipated - records: Xeno and Oaklander's Sentinelle and Led Er Est's Dust on Common. When you see either group live, you're bound to see more head banging onstage than at any metal show. These are cold sounds, no doubt, but there is something about that chilly wall that lets the performers reveal more than they would, or could, otherwise. At the heart of each Xeno and Oaklander song there are vocals, often shared between members Sean McBride and Liz Wendelbo, that create an emotional current for each song. Whether Wendelbo is singing in French or English, you feel something. It's a little Chris and Cosey, but they would probably shudder at such a reference and recommend a 1982 7-inch from Belgium instead. Led Er Est replace the fragility of Xeno and Oaklander with maniacal pacing and synth pop ragers that come out of nowhere. I first saw the group last March and was desperate to find something they had done on vinyl. Now, Dust on Common has satisfied that craving. Despite the nods to the past, these two records both sound current. We checked in with Xeno and Oaklander and Schoolwerth about music, and present a special mix of Wierd Records groups.
Xeno and Oaklander
How did X&O begin? What were your influences and motivations when the group began and how have they changed over the past 5 years?
Liz Wendelbo: Voltage control is our starting point—the hand on the keyboard, a friction between musician and instrument, electricity. We’ve cherished a certain era in music too, generally 1979 to 1984, the more remote and obscure the band the more alluring. We had an aversion to anything contemporary, especially digital based instruments, and we still do. This is what we abide by today, although we have developed our own particular sound over the years—as Pieter puts it "cold, distant, echo-laden electronic landscapes." We used to be quite diffident about our vocals and we’ve come to realize that our lyrics should be audible, so we don’t hide behind our cavernous spring reverbs and synths as much anymore.
I think the vocals and lyrics of your songs are so essential to the mood of each song - How do you and Sean approach lyric writing (influences?) and singing? How do you decide how to split the vocals? How do they come together?
LW: The voice for us is a musical instrument. It’s vulnerable and sensitive, at times aggressive and dark. Between Sean and I, we consider ourselves equal in our approach to vocals and are averse to the idea of a front person, or vocalist. The voice is an instrument that we play in conjunction with the synths. The vocals always come last in the song-writing process, although the lyrics are important to us. The lyrics most often function as allegory, whether there be some cinematic implication, autobiographical allusion, or simply some scattered jeux de mots. In our eyes, the Sentinelle LP is an oneiric travel through paradox and shifts. We’d like to think that our album is a faceted portrait of an era in transition.
This is the first full-length album you have released, how did you approach it differently from your other work?
LW: We’ve always placed an important emphasis on the live and direct aspect of our music. Our first self-released CD-R Vigils was a session recording: it was done live in our studio in one take on a single-track cassette in one day. The Sentinelle album is also recorded live in our studio with analogue instruments exclusively. We took more time crafting the songs though and spent a whole summer in our home studio rehearsing and many months playing the songs live in concerts until we were ready to record in one go, on 8 tracks this time.
I spoke with Pieter about the community he has fostered over the past few years and his desire to let each band develop on their own outside of the blog-hype cycle. Could you talk a little bit about the synth/minimal scene in NYC and beyond, and your place within it?
LW: We’ve been devotedly attending and participating in the Wierd party every Wednesday for the last six years! Sean was pretty much "first wave" Wierd in that he was the first to make this kind of music in NYC as Martial Canterel. In those days collaboration was very important and we all played in many different configurations with fellow musicians in bands such as Pleasures of Xanten, Xeno & Staccato and Three to Forgotten, so from that sprang X&O
What's next for Xeno and Oaklander?
LW: We have a tour in California in November and are planning to tour Europe in the spring. We have art related projects in the works – films we’ve shot this summer and videos with various film-makers including art collective Circular File for the Performa NY Biennale, and a jaunt to Art Basel Miami in December.
For those of you who don't want to read, there are audio and visual goodies too. Below is a live video of Xeno and Oaklander performing "Saracen" from Sentinelle shot by Jordan Levine.
Wierd creator Pieter has curated a downloadable playlist of 13 current Wierd and Wierd related bands.
Download: Wierd Records mix
1. Xeno & Oaklander - 'Shadow World'
2. Led Er Est - 'Port Isabel'
3. Blacklist - 'The Believer'
4. Martial Canterel - 'Cities of Ash'
5. Automelodi - 'Buanderie Jazz'
6. Frank(just Frank) - 'Beneath'
7. Staccato du Mal - 'Just Another'
8. Light Asylum - 'Nights and Weekends'
9. Further Reductions - 'Gato Negro'
10. Figure Study - 'Lesson One'
11. Futility - 'Artificial Tears'
12. Opus Finis - 'Violent Virtues'
13. Void Vision - 'In 20 Years'
4304 Lerner Hall
New York, NY 10027