Swede ‘N Lo-Fi : DUNGEN & WOODS in Seattle (9.3.09)

Gustav-acousticI used to work the graveyard shift as a night auditor at a pair of shitty hotels, across the street from a crack park in downtown Seattle.  I was eventually, and intentionally, fired but, like most shitty jobs, this one had some Pros mixed in with its Cons. The pros were the comical wingnuts and crackheads, the fact that I met my girlfriend there, my free pizza hook ups every night, and that it was not uncommon for patrons to kick me down free weed.  Among the cons were the not-so comical wingnuts and crackheads, my incompetent and self-important dipshit of a boss (who was over-compensating for his secretive, yet discovered, history for having a taste for man wiener), that I was constantly scheduled as a security guard (not my “job”), and the time that the vato with the dress shirt and neck tattoo tricked me into smoking a sherm blunt with him at 3 in the morning.  The most frustrating situations were the ones where the Cons actually canceled out the Pros all together. One example was when I had learned that the Swedish psych band, DUNGEN, was staying in the hotel and had offered the entire staff free tickets to their local performance.  Sure, it was a “sweet” bonus for having a shitty job, but the problem was that I was actually working at that shitty job during DUNGEN‘s performance.  It would take almost 4 more years before I realized to what magnitude I had missed out.

Based on a recommendation from my friend BennyP” (The Punks), I made sure to get to Neumos early enough to catch the opening act, WOODS.  When we got there, the members of DUNGEN were out front talking casually to some fans.  Sean Prince noticed a friend of his and, after they spoke for a moment, we discovered that there was a third band, which was playing before WOODS, and that this friend, Justin Shwartz, was in it.

BRAWLEY BANKS

Brawley Banks was six members deep; covering bass, drums, keys, and 3 guitars.  They sauntered out onto the stage, somewhat lackadaisically.  At first site, they didn’t exactly scream confidence, but I wouldn’t necessarily say that they came across as “nervous” either.  If there was any unsureness on their part, I would attribute it to performing in an opening slot on an unfamiliar stage.  A few things seemed off with the sound.  The levels were a bit uneven and Shwartz‘s vocals were far too quiet.  The venue’s sound engineer slowly made the necessary adjustments but, even with a less than perfect take-off, it was immediately clear that the band would provide a set worth listening too.  The keys, mixed with the chunky riffs and use of guitar slide, provided Brawley Banks with a dirty Southern Rock sound.  Although I think that it is more than unfair to equate them to a band like The Black Crowes, it is hard to find a widely accessible analogy to describe the sometimes raunchiness of the guitar work, swirled with the soaring notes of a baptist church organ.  Once the mics picked up, the sextet actually displayed some nice Grateful Dead style harmonies.  Another aspect that was impossible to ignore was the thundering strikes and cymbal crashes from their drummer.  Even the rest of the group seemed to look back towards him as a regular reference.  It wasn’t too surprising to later discover that the man behind the kit was none other than William Goldsmith, from Sunny Day Real Estate and early Foo Fighters fame.

It seems as if they haven’t been performing as a group for too long, which may have been forcing them to make more of a conscious effort to play with each other.  Whether that was true or not, they still sounded surprisingly good and were clearly each experienced musicians separately.  The “surprising” part was that I have fallen prey to the expection of opening bands being disappointing.  One of the main reasons that it would be unlikely for me to write for a local publication, like SOUND Magazine, is because they’re in the business of sucking every local acts dick and dousing their derivative and overly processed tripe in sugary coating.  I understand that the priority is to hype local acts and say encouraging things about them, but the only reason that I write anything ever is because I just didn’t believe anything that I was reading.  I always want to be able to embrace the openers and shower them with praise but, most of the time, they’re not even worth mentioning.  Brawley Banks is a good band and, although the crowd was not huge, everyone that was in attendance was forced to pay attention and acknowledge their performance.  Their sound offered up some familiar elements, but they didn’t come across as being contrived or overly forced.  Eventually, I realized that any lack of “stage presence” or awkwardness that I may have sensed was stemming from Brawley Banks just not giving a fuck about image and placing their focus on the music, the way that they should be.  I also realized why I was having trouble getting into so many other small-time local bands.  It was because they were focusing on their fancy images and stage presence, instead of creating listenable music as THEY should be.  Their set was extremely short, but it was long enough for the group to make an impression and set the tone for the evening.  All too often, the most effective thing about an opener is that they set the crowd up to be blood thirsty mongrels, waiting for the headliners.  This show was different and, since it began on an up note, I was comfortable enjoying the acts as they came and without any anxiety.  It was one of the first times, in a long time, that I didn’t feel the need to kill time getting drunk in a bar waiting for the main act.

WOODS

Jeremy-Earl-WoodsThe crowd size was decent on the floor, but I had noticed that the upper portion of the venue had been closed off for the night.  They clearly didn’t expect an overwhelming turnout and it was fine with me that they were right in their assumption.  I used the gaps in the crowd as an opportunity to maneuver my way up close to the stage before the WOODS set.  Guitarist and lead vocalist, Jeremy Earl, set up on the left,  while Jarvis Taveniere and Kevin Morby handled the rhythm section respectably.  Band member, G. Lucas Crane sat on his calves dead center with his left side to the audience.  He had a suit case with him and a giant pedal board at his knees in front of him.  When he opened the case, it exposed a pile of loose cassette tapes with various day-glo scrawlings across them.  The top-center of the board contained a Big Muff distortion pedal.  On either side were numerous other effects, including a Holy Grail reverb and a couple of Boss pedals.  The lower half of the board was arranged with two big ass, old school tape recorders plugged into a mixer that they were sandwiching.

At first the name “WOODS” didn’t sound like much to me.  I thought that it was  just another random and unrelated word pulled from thin air and chosen to represent an indie band, so as to evoke as little emotion as possible, but I was wrong.  WOODS is actually the most aptly named group that I have come across in quite some time.  Their sound provides the soothing and comfortable feeling of a drinking tea at sunset on the cool porch of a humble, moss covered woodland shack, while, simultaneously, mixing in the spooky uncertainty of howling winds and rabid wolves, strategically circling the same shack at dusk.  The music is both comforting and ominous.  WOODS‘ latest release, Songs of Shame, is a great album and was represented strongly at the performance.  Seeing them live was like breaking through a wood-rotted fence to experience Songs of Shame in 3D, from the seat of a poorly oiled carnival roller coaster.

WOODS combines a solid balance of pop and folk structures with a lo-fi approach and the unrestrained, anti-structure of noise rock.  Jeremy Earl’s solos find him brutally strangling his guitar neck and landing on discordant frets, as if wringing the life from a rusty android goose.  The guitar work circles the tracks like a buzzard over dessert carrion.  Somehow, there is logic in their mix of chaos and imprecision and it works for them.  The potential for the warbling melodies to lose their footing, is remedied by the constant support provided by the static ridden, lo-fi effects.  G. Lucas Crane operated his pedal effects and knobs entirely by hand.  His janky looking mixer was missing it’s knobs and the tape-recorders had the cassette covers removed.  As incense smoke wafting into his face, he leaned over his set up.  He was constantly replacing the tapes and, like with any other DJ set up, he was working the faders to mix the pre-recorded sounds.  Headphones wrapped around Crane‘s head horizontally, so that one of the ear pieces covered his mouth and worked as a microphone.  He often appeared to be working frantically, but  it was difficult to hear if he was doing anything at all.  In monitoring his movements, while listeneing closely, his vocal and abstract sound contributions pronounced themselves from the background.  Jarvis Taveniere and Kevin Morby shared duties with the drums and bass.  Mid-set, Morby grabbed the bass from Taveniere and moved out of the way for Jarvis to settle in at the kit with a guitar.  He played the axe while seated and even laid it across the floor tom, beating and manipulating the strings with his sticks.

g.-lucas-crane-green-hair-sillhouette

Everything about the indie quartet seems fragile enough to topple over at any time.  There is so much contradiction and duality in the music that it is often one aspect of the group threatening to weigh down on the other lighter elements and snap them like a twig.  Jason Earl‘s voice is probably an acquired taste for most, but I really enjoy it.  His delivery is tinged heavily with the sound of Neil Young, but as if it was placed through a high-pitched Brother Danielson voice modulator.  The instrumentation often mirrors Earl‘s cracking voice, as it is both fluid and harmonious, but also diced up with choppy moments.  Imagine the morse code-like flight pattern of a remote control plane that’s running out of batteries, with all of it’s drastic, brief, and sudden dips, drops, and peaks.  With all of their disinterest in orthodox musical approaches, WOODS is still more than a troupe of untalented and gimmicky noise rockers.  In fact, the songs are actually catchy and their sonic madness, traveling echo effects, and experimental chaos all play roles in supporting song structure, not simply in replacing it.  The lo-fi lack of interest in over production works to provide an earnestness, instead of coming across as pretentious as is too often the case.  They differentiate themselves from the electro-noise environment of their hometown, Brooklyn, by transitioning from instrumental psych into songs with delicate folk lyrics floating across static clouds, like a paper boat drifting down a sewer drain.  I recommend checking them out and I enjoyed their set, even more than I may have realized at the time.  Ever since the performance, I’ve had the song “Rain On” burrowed into my fucking skull like a mole cricket.  It’s definitely something that  grows on you.

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DUNGEN

Gustav-Ejstes-singing

In continuance of the “groupings of trees” theme, the name DUNGEN translates from Swedish as “The Grove“.  Front man, Gustav Ejstes is credited with writing all of the music and performing most of the instrumental parts on the album but, by all accounts, DUNGEN is still a 4 piece.  The other members are featured on the studio releases and consistently operate as Ejstes‘ touring band.  A piano bench and keys were brought out and placed center stage.  When the band took the stage, they had a fifth member seated behind a set of congas next to the drum kit.

During set up, I snapped a photo of the set list that was taped to the stage for reference.  Since all of the lyrics and most of the titles are in Swedish, I have a problem remembering the songs by name.  Gustav entered with a huge smile of gratitude, but kept his back to the audience, as he shook a tambourine throughout the opening instrumental track.  It was simply labeled as “Intro” on the setlist and, although it wasn’t the same “Intro” from the Tio Bitar album, it was a great high energy opener that helped to showcase the musicians‘ technical abilities, right off the bat.  After the intro, Gustav picked up an acoustic guitar and prefaced the next tune by stating that it was “Dedicated to Fleet Foxes“.  He further explained that they had had an opportunity to spend some time with them, while in town.  In fact, the percussionist, which would later be referred to as “Josh“, was actually none other than, local troubadour and Fleet Foxes drummer, J. Tillman.  They performed the Summery and melodic psych-folk track “Festival” and followed it up with the track “Bandhagen“.  Ejstes sat for the piano heavy instrumental; his face blocked by his wavy shoulder-length hair.  The song sounded amazing and I was surprised at how flawless everything had been performed up to this point.  Whether or not people feel the constant necessity to remind each other that Ejstes is the “core” of the group, nobody in DUNGEN should be overlooked or ignored.  Their individual versatility and complexity, as well as their overall cohesion and synchronicity as a group, is nothing short of mind-blowing.  The most exciting part was that the show was only getting started.

For the song “Ingenting Aer Sig Likt” (“Nothing is the Same”), Gustav invited the remaining four members of Fleet Foxes to come up and join them.  For the most part, Robin Pecknold just hid himself behind the bass amp, but the rest of the band members grabbed percussive instruments.  It was a jazzy number that really displayed Ejstes‘ piano skills.  He twinkled away and tore up the keys like Fred Rogers on his famous children’s show intro.  The guests left the stage and the next offering “Det Tar Tid” (“It Takes Time“) was introduced as “A Love Song“.  It’s a sultry song tinged with psychedelia and ethereal piano ripples, which would fit right at home in a romantic boat sequence at the end of a ‘70s Bond film.  For “Du Ska Inte Tro Att Det Ordnar Sig” (“You Shouldn’t Expect it to Work Out“), Gustav rose from his Reine-Fiske-hair-blockseat and grabbed his tambourine again.  Bassist, Mattias Gustavsson, laid down a 70s blues rock rift, which provided a solid foundation for Ejstes vocals and Reine Fiske‘s soaring guitar work.  Drummer, Johan Holmegard, provided a heavy back beat, accented with little explosive, Jiffy-Pop drum rolls.

Before the next track, I heard Sean Prince scream out a request of “ABBA!” from the other side of the stage.  About this time, I was also asked to stop shooting photographs by the management.  “Bortglömd” (“Forgotten”/”Neglected“) contains a heavy driving rhythm and crunchy, choppy guitar distortion.  It’s easy to hear the Sabbath influence in DUNGEN‘s music, but the sound of this track might be more appropriately likened to stomping on bald, squealing break pads, while traveling through a black whole on your way to smash through a brick wall.  Gustav stomped around and shook like Robert Plant and Reine Fiske held his screaming pick ups towards his speaker cabinet.  His ability to harness every note and control every aspect of, otherwise, unwieldy feedback was amazing.  He had a delicate touch that was hard to ignore and could tweak a high-pitch note through the roof like a Blue Angel, make it stop on a dime, drop it like a busted elevator in an inferno, and reel it back again.  It was as if Fiske could set off a landmine, freeze the shrapnel in mid-air, form the pieces into a bullet, and then shoot it through your face.  His control was ridiculous.  They slowed things down for “Sätt att se” (“Ways to See“), a beautiful and jazzy piano odyssey filled with wispy psych guitar.  Something about the tune reminded me of Dots and Loops-era Stereolab.  The next song was “Mina Damer Och Fasaner” (“My Ladies and Pheasants”) and featured Gustav on flute.  The bassline thumped along like the soundtrack to a mythical army of Orcs marching through a barren wasteland.  Buzzing Eastern guitar painted a landscape of blood red clouds overhead.  It was a dark tune, but whimsical as all get out.  I wouldn’t have been surprised if a fairy or some magic potion spilled from the end of Ejstes‘ flute during his little wind flurries.  Those in attendance were fortunate enough to be treated to an extended jam that doubled the length of the song.  Mattias Gustavsson ran up and down neck of his bass and Johan Holmegard spooled out drum beats like a trash can full of hummingbirds.  If the show was an acid trip, this portion could definitely be considered the peak.  It was like the moment when Robin Williams finally sees the fluorescent putty that everyone’s munching on and has a food fight in the movie Hook.  The jam was part 1970s Dead and part Miles Davis.  Although they ventured into spaced out areas with reckless abandon, every single note and movement seemed logical and transitioned smoothly.  Holmegard simultaneously threw down complicated drum lines while taking tempo cues from Gustav to end the song in percussive lunacy.  The top of my skull had been blown off like a toy rocket and WOODSG. Lucas Crane lovingly screamed, “You Mutha Fuckaz!”  at DUNGEN from the audience.

The drum intro to “Panda” was quickly and easily recognized by the excited crowd.  It was the first DUNGEN song that I had ever heard and it had sucked me into their music immediately.  Holmegard‘s drumming continued to mystify me and he effortlessly maintained the driving beat which, in reality, was way more complicated than I had ever realized.  Gustav had, what appeared to be, an electric Gretsch leaning against an amp throughout the night.  The neglected guitar featured a reference to his hip hop roots in the form of a Stones Throw decal.  He picked it up and stated his desire to dedicate the next song to their US tour manager, Chris Newmyer.  He followed that up by saying,  “It’s nice to play music in another language.  People have their own.” and then asked Newmyer to remind him of the English phrase that he substitutes when singing along to the title track from their Ta Det Lungt album.  Apparently it was “Play With Balls” and, every time that they reached the chorus, Gustav Ejstes actually screamed the words “PLAY WITH BALLS!” in it’s place.  Mattias, who was singing along from the bass, clearly didn’t know that Ejstes was going to do that, so he laughed and stumbled through his vocals.  As the song progressed and he realized that he was going to be forced to stand in representation of scrotal manhandling until the song was over, he looked more and more uncomfortable.  The members from WOODS roared with laughter and, when the music finally ceased, Newmyer stepped up to the piano and left two $20 bills on it, as if it was payment for the antic.  Gustav crinkled the bills under his nose like he was savoring them and Mattias just said, “I should have some of that money too.”  They played one more jazzy piano tune, “Målerås finest“, before announcing that their “last song of the tour” would be “Fredag” and inviting the members of WOODS and Fleet Foxes to come back on stage and join them.  They crowded onto the stage and Gustav thanked everyone for coming out to the final show of their “Fuck Yeah Tour 2009“.  J. Tillman had left the stage during “Panda“, but Ejstes only just realized it and began screaming, “Where’s Josh?!  Where the fuck is Josh?!”  Once everyone was ready, they finished off the night with a percussion-filled extravaganza, and left the stage.  Mattias Gustavsson pointed a camera at the audience and prompted, “Get together.  I want to get you all in this.”  He later returned to quiet the screams for an encore by apologizing and explaining that Esjstes could not continue due to a current health issue.  “Seriously… seriously…seriously.  Gustav is fucked up inside.

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It’s a rarity for me, but I found the entire show to be captivating and packed with substance.  The combination of the WOODS and DUNGEN sets made me feel like I was at an incredible and amazing house party, minus the irritation of pretentious activists and the standard, drunken hipster in the obscure amusement park sweatshirt gratuitously macking on uncomfortable college girls.  The majority of DUNGEN‘s set was comprised of songs from their most recent album, 4 .  Although it hadn’t resonated with me as much as the previous efforts, the show was so great that I’ve gone back a rediscovered much of it’s material with fresh ears.  Their jazz sensibilities were more pronounced than I had expected and were admirably fused with the Prog, Psych, Folk, and Rock elements.  I ran into my friend Josh, towards the end of the show and we both expressed our awe and satisfaction of the show quality to each other.  He mentioned that, after seeing DUNGEN perform two years ago, he half-assumed that they would have reached some sort of Zeppelin status by now.  Not that they don’t deserve it or don’t have the live chops, but I just don’t see that happening.  In general, I feel that people have a problem moving beyond the language barrier to give them the chance that they truly deserve.  After I left, Josh also mentioned that he spoke with Reine Fiske, who told him that he had a straight job that he needed to get back to when they returned to Sweden.  Apparently, the sheer appreciation that DUNGEN expresses towards their audiences is derived, at least partially, from the fact that they have somewhat normal lives back home.  They come to the United States and get to become rockstars for 5 weeks, or so, and then it’s over.  One thing is definite; all of the excitement, power, and gratitude that they feel is projected in spades for those brief moments that they get to perform for those who appreciate it.

Dead C

Located in Seattle, Dead C is the founder/editor, as well as the principal writer and photographer, of Monster Fresh. Creating the site in 2007, he did so with a specific dream in mind. Unfortunately, being a muscle relaxer-fueled fever dream, it’s hard to recall all of the details.

I remember that my mom was there, but it wasn’t actually her in the dream, it was actually 70s heart throb, Jan Michael Vincent. And everything took place here, in this room… but it wasn’t actually here… it was different. The colors were washed out and, for some reason, there was a raccoon kicking it with us and it was wearing a holographic monocle.

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