After its hiatus, Freak Scene has re-emerged written by FADER contributor Jamie Johns. Every other Monday she'll be drawing attention to the choicest selections of the weird underground.
This week: first, riding the “Crimson Wave” with Zola Jesus, then a journey with Emeralds.
Zola Jesus is the moniker of 19-year-old Nika Danilova. People are going pretty gaga over her sets at SXSW (I wasn’t there) but I have been gaga for the recent New Amsterdam CD-R and the recently repressed Souer Sewer 7-inch that she has out on one of my favorite labels, Sacred Bones, so it seems like an appropriate time to talk about the project. To say that Danilova is a woman loosed or a banshee is too simple. Certainly you can hear the influence of people like Elisabeth Fraser or Lydia Lunch or even Kat Bjelland (oh yeah) in her voice. From the live footage I have seen, Danilova paces back and forth onstage, blaring into the microphone.
Some people are labeling groups like Zola Jesus, U.S. Girls—who put out an amazing record last year on Siltbreeze, called Introducing—and Cro Magnon—whose new 7-inch on Bruit Direct Disques can only be described as totally awesome, as “Crimson Wave.” I am not sure how I feel about this label or even if it is actually a real movement but I have to say that the title does have a way of capturing the confrontational and corporeal aspects of this music. The way Danilova contorts her voice reflects a body that changes on its own whims, a body that is possessed or unstable. The tracks on her recently released New Amsterdam CD-R on Sacred Bones sound hostile and antagonistic; the drum beats are severe and there is a repetitive, throbbing electronic cut that sinisterly repeats itself throughout the tracks. If I put this record on at a party, things might get awkward, just like when the other crimson wave is discussed in public and people walk away in disgust. Dudes just don’t want to face that shit. These release “get” me and I recommend them highly! Zola Jesus will be touring the country in June and July with Wet Hair, another Freak Scene favorite.
Stream: Zola Jesus, "Odessa"
On to another young group: Emeralds. Just over two weeks ago, Cleveland’s favorite sons came to New York to celebrate the release of their latest CD, What Happened on Carlos Giffoni’s No Fun Productions label. It was a great show all around that was topped off by two sorority sisters, clad in short dresses, 4-inch heels, and tiaras, climbing on stage to celebrate their birthdays. They had reserved Brooklyn venue Glasslands after the show for some Meatpacking District-esque shenanigans and I am nearly 100% certain that they didn’t know who Emeralds were, but they wanted a photo anyway.
Emeralds have been beloved by Freak Scene in both of its incarnations and I will be the first to tell the world that I think they are complete and total visionaries…AND THEY ARE SO YOUNG. The group is right, it is easy to describe them as Cluster/Tangerine Dream/all around Kraut-esque as a way out when it is too hard to find the words to describe the textured and nuanced soundscapes they create. Yeah, those influences are definitely there and if you like those groups, you will probably find something to love in Emeralds. Yet, the direction the group has been moving in as of late has taken them beyond the parameters of what their Kraut forebears have done. What I think separates the group is their ability to let the elements of their music stew in their own juices until they are ready to come together. Check out the last two tracks on What Happened, a collection of live, improvised recordings from the last few years, for evidence of that. The music slowly and organically washes over you and the group can evoke a bleak, vulnerable landscape within their work that is a huge departure from the trippy, kosmische of Krautrock. Without a doubt, the record demands deep and repeated listens. It’s not noise, it’s not drone, it’s Emeralds. I was able to sit down with them to talk a little bit about Cleveland, being young, and Stargate.
Could you talk about how the group came together? What were your goals?
Steve Hauschildt: I guess that we started in 2006, in June. We formed out of an older group called Fancelions, it was a four piece. We dropped a member and became Emeralds. We recorded a few demos, really limited CD-Rs and just kind of went from there. We were self-releasing stuff before Emeralds, we were already doing that.
John Elliott: That’s kind of it.
Mark McGuire: Yeah, we did all vocals at that time. The band before Emeralds - we had a lot of elements. We did a lot of songs where we had different instrumentation and stuff, so Emeralds was real stripped down. We wanted it to be a lot simpler.
You just said that you think of yourself as more stripped down. A lot of the time when I read about you guys, I read about the Kraut influence and people compare you guys to Cluster a lot. How else would you describe yourselves?
JE: I think people say that definitely for lack of a better term. It seems like the people that are saying that stuff are the people who have hardly scratched the surface so it’s kind of like the only reference that they have. I guess in that case it’s fair for them to do that, but in the greater scheme of things there’s a lot more to us. We all listen to tons of different stuff that has nothing to do with like Krautrock or kosmische a lot of the time.
SH: We’ve definitely listened to the records and taken an influence from them, but it’s not the kind of thing where we only listen to that style of music or something because that would be kind of self-defeating. It wouldn’t go anywhere if that was what we were doing. Really, the idea is that you have to do something new in experimental music and you can’t do that if you are just working within one pre-defined genre. It’s just too limited I think.
Is there a group of musicians or other artists or a community that you associate yourselves with? What records have you recently really enjoyed?
MM: We have so many friends within the Midwest and the East Coast, I guess the noise scene you would still call it. I just feel like there are a ton of bands that are all really interesting. We have a mental connection with a lot of musicians in the country right now.
JE: Especially back home in Cleveland there are a lot of people that we’ve always known to play and stay underground. We definitely connect with those people too. It’s cool to have a good amount of people back home that do the same thing. When we first started playing shows it was a lot of those kind of bands would get together and do house shows. It’s weird because a lot of those bands moved and transplanted to different states and stuff. When they started getting recognized and stuff like that, people think they’re from this different state and it’s funny because a lot of these different acts are just coming from Cleveland. It’s cool.
What acts are you talking about when you say that?
JE:Telecult Powers, they played last night. Those guys are from Cleveland. They were in a band in the early 90’s called Process Sound, which was the same guys. They’re New York’s pride and joy now.
I was going to ask about Cleveland…it’s not the first city that rolls off people’s tongues when they’re talking about experimental music. No offense!
MM: It’s not the first city that comes off of anyone’s tongues ever.
You were just talking about how there is a community there, how is it different from being a group from Brooklyn or San Francisco or LA or Chicago? What is particular to Cleveland that you think has influenced you guys?
SH: I think Cleveland is in a very unique location just because it’s between Chicago and New York.
JE: It’s on the north coast.
SH:It’s on a body of water, which is really helpful, lots of resources…drinking water.
JE: It’s wonderful.
SH: It’s cool because when we started playing as Emeralds, it was kind of easy to have local gigs and bring a lot of bands through. It seemed like there weren’t people that were really trying to bring in a lot of these newer bands.
JE: More like in the ’90s and stuff like that. In the mid-’90s…no one’s been doing anything for years, especially after Speaking Tongues was done.
SH: I definitely think that being close to Michigan, being a few hours away from Michigan and Columbus and stuff…we played a lot of early gigs in Columbus and Detroit. Just to reach out to people who aren’t in your local town is really important. Cleveland is a really good place, like a stepping stone or something, to those places.
You guys are pretty young. I know you just graduated. I don’t know about you…
JE: I’m gonna be 25 soon.
You’re 25? How old are you?
MM: I’m 22
I’m 21. How did you guys get interested in this music to begin with and start playing?
JE: Maybe it’s been coming our whole life?
SH: I think it’s just completely a part of who we are and it always has been. Just the way you can be tied to music.
JE: You always find a record that’s going to knock you into a different direction or something like that. It has a lot to do with who you are and how you express yourself as well that takes you to where you are.
MM: I think we’ve been listening to music our whole lives and eventually we just started finding stuff that really opened up our heads to new possibilities and new ways. We just wanted to find as much stuff that made us feel like that as possible.
When you guys are playing on stage how much is improv and how much is planned ahead?
SH: There’s no set percentage of what is actually improvised and what is prepared.
MM: It varies gig to gig.
SH: It depends on our practice regimen and things like that. For the gig we played last night, the release show for What Happened, we prepared a set for it and we strayed away from it a little bit, especially at the end. When we practice something, there are parts which we can recall live and really once we are playing that, it’s just kind of going. Because we can do that, we can kind of gauge if we are playing what we had already wanted to do but it’s never like completely a concrete, defined set that we’re going to play.
hat else do you guys have on your agenda for this year? We were talking about No Fun and the Throbbing Gristle shows, and you guys just put out a record.
JE: We’re really excited for those. We’re going to put out our next record ourselves and hopefully it’ll be out by the summer.
SH: Also, we’re going to be playing this one gig that’s coming together in Cleveland. At the Cleveland Museum of Art, it’s like a solstice party.
JE: June 20th.
SH: It’ll be in the middle of the night, outside.
JE: Everyone should go to that, that’s going to be nutso.
Stream: Emeralds, "Up in the Air"