When I saw the lineup for this show I thought, “This combination of bands makes no sense.” (My other thought was- “Really? Múm are still together?”) On second thought, however, perhaps it’s logical that a show organized by a group called “Hostess Club” is out to satisfy a variety of tastes.
Wavves is a surf rock meets garage punk outfit that is a vehicle for San Diego singer and guitarist Nathan Williams’ catchy, hormone-charged songs. Williams is infamous for some spotty performances (most notably a well-documented meltdown at the 2009 Primavera Sound Festival in Barcelona), a habit of drinking on the job, and starting and stopping songs about as often as Cat Power during darker times. To Williams’ credit, he’s settled down a bit over the past four years and, if the Taipei show was any indication, the band is as consistent and together as they need to be. The other musicians were bassist Stephen Pope (ex Jay Reatard), Jacob Cooper on drums, and guitarist Alex Gates (wearing an ROC flag headband).
After a false start or two, they got going with “Super Soaker” and “King of the Beach”, songs from their 2012 album King of the Beach. After the third song (“Bug” from 2011’s Life Sux EP) bassist Pope made an announcement: “Nathan’s birthday is tomorrow… [cheers from the crowd] …He’s turning 14! [laughs] He doesn’t have pubes yet… [chuckles from those who understand “pubes”] [Revised to-] He’s got pubes on his face, but not on his balls!”
Like the word “pubes”, Wavves’ music also reminds me of being 14… in a good way. Their songs convey the raging hormones, newfound alienation and disillusionment, and anti-social antics that are the lingua franca of high school boys walking the line between freak and cool. Their music is loud, noisy, and their lyrics both direct and alternatingly negative and self-aggrandizing: “Got no friends, got no family, just a bunch of people have been put around me” [“No Hope Kids”]; “I still hate my music, it’s all the same” [“Take on the World”]; “My own friends hate my guts” [“Green Eyes”]; “You’re never gonna stop me, King of the Beach” [“King of the Beach”].
I’ve seen Nirvana and Weezer cited as influences, but I hear more Descendents and Ramones in Wavves. With a direct link to Jay Reatard, through bassist Stephen Pope, there’s an audible kinship there, too. Now and then a chord sequence or major-scale melody in their songs even recalls Green Day, for better or (probably) worse. But Wavves is also surf-rock something, born in a garage with the sound that you’d associate with such origins. There’s more plate verb that you can shake a stick at, more than a few “woo-oo-oo” vocal refrains, the bass lines are bouncy, the melodies straightforward, and mixed together it sounds like SoCal, filtered through disaffected youth.
The next three songs (“Demon to Lean On”, “Paranoid”, and “Afraid of Heights”) were from their 2013 album, Afraid of Heights. The sound of the new songs is clearly recognizable as Wavves, but is a bit more polished; the jagged parts have been sanded down a bit. Lyrically, the new album has a lot of talk about dying: “Oh, but we’ll all die, that’s just the way we live, in a grave, in a grave, in a grave” (“Sail to the Sun); “No hope and no future, we’ll die the same loser” (“Demon to Lean On”). For lyrics this bleak, the music sounds pretty damn sunny and carefree. Maybe it’s the alcohol? During “Afraid of Heights”, Nathan sings, “I think I’m dying; Maybe I’m thirsty; I think I’m drunk…” When the song ends, he grabs a nearly empty Jameson’s whisky bottle and takes a swig.
After a handful more tunes from the two more recent albums and one, “No Hope Kids”, from 2009’s Wavvves, a birthday cake entered from stage left. Nathan seemed genuinely appreciative. Polite cake-eating and rock & roll don’t mix, however, and it wasn’t long before one of the entourage swooped in, grabbed the cake and deposited it firmly on Nathan’s face. After a bit of clean up, there was some onstage debate about who was going to take Nathan’s virginity (for his 14th birthday, of course). Bassist Pope volunteered to do the honors. This inexplicably prompted someone in the crowd to call him “cute”, to which he replied: “Cute?!? I’m not cute. In America I’m considered clinically obese. That means I could die at any moment.”
To finish their set, Wavves first tipped their hats to Sonic Youth with a cover of “100%” then played “Green Eyes” from King of the Beach. During the finale, Nathan fell down and didn’t get back up, though the song continued until the end. The curtain closed on the band. I loved that there was actually a curtain drawn between the sets. Wavves had certainly brought the rock & roll theater.
When the curtain opened on the members of Múm, they were silhouetted against a glowing blue background. Out of a gauzy sonic texture and fragments of melody, the final song from the band’s 2002 album Finally We Are No One, “The Land Between Solar Systems”, leisurely emerged.
Hailing from Iceland, Múm was formed way back in 1997 by Gunnar Örn Tynes and Örvar Þóreyjarson Smárason. Twin sisters Gyða and Kristín Anna Valtýsdóttir joined not long after, but aside from Gunnar and Örvar it’s been a rotating cast since then. After an extended hiatus, sister Gyða is back, and was with the band in Taipei.
The band’s fondness for melodica, glitchy beats, and breathy vocals was on display as they played a number of songs from Finally We Are No One, as well as a song from their earlier album Yesterday Was Dramatic—Today is OK (2000). Band members frequently swapped instruments and it seemed as if everyone could play at least two different ones. At one point, Gunnar was sitting on the piano bench with a bass strapped around his neck, playing parts on both instruments. Though some of the instruments the band plays, such as melodica and ukulele, have been flagrantly overused in indie circles, they are part of a palette that Múm uses to create the variety of timbres and textures that define their sound.
Múm has a new album titled Smilewound due out in fall 2013, and they previewed some of these songs for the crowd. One of these, “Toothwheels”, is out as a single already and is a pleasant, string-filled affair with a big (for Múm) beat that is notably less busy/glitchy than those in their earlier music.
In contrast to Wavves, the band didn’t have too much to say from stage. They are polite ladies and gentlemen, however, and having learned “thank you” in Mandarin, they used it after nearly every song. They are also a group that works best when they create an intimate, dream-like atmosphere. It is that liminal, séances-and-wood-fairies state that would allow things like cellist and singer Gyða Valtýsdóttir’s modern dance moves to make sense. Apparently, I hadn’t gotten enough of my pagan trance on, because her occasional mid-song dancing seemed out of place.
I should say I played the hell out of Finally We Are No One for the year or two after it came out. I can look at the cover and think of nights coming down with a buzzing head, Christmas lights on and Múm playing. Now, however, even many of the beats from that album sound a bit dated and generic to me. Perhaps even to a greater degree with the newer material, I think the weakest point of the music is often the drum sounds and programming. To me, it doesn’t sound like they’ve received the same care as the rest of the arrangements. During the show, I found myself feeling thankful when the beats cut out and Múm was left creating their shimmery, twinkling atmospherics sans rhythm track.
The band’s finale was the expansive track “Green Grass of Tunnel” from Finally We Are No One, a song that after 11 years still seems a kind of perfectly constructed, self-contained world. I felt the warmth of nostalgia wash over me and decided there was no point in further analysis or judgment.
British Sea Power was the third and final band of the night. The curtain opened to reveal the band, as well as what looked like an incomplete stage design featuring amplifiers and equipment partially covered in fake foliage and outlined in Christmas lights. To top it off, the bassist Hamilton was wearing a green hood with the same design theme. I suppose this could have been a reference to WWII camo, but all I could think of was Monty Python.
While I debated whether the stage setup was ironic, post-ironic, or perhaps simply moronic, they launched into “Machineries of Joy” from their eponymous 2013 album. I read somewhere that BSP frequently include arcane references in their lyrics. If so, this doesn’t translate in a live setting, so I looked up some of the lyrics later. A scan of the lyrics from “Machineries of Joy” reveals phrases like “a hobbyist of deranged proportion” and “an athletic form of warm distortion”, which I’m certain refer to an underappreciated 18th century amateur scientist with legs for arms even though they sound a lot like Mad Libs.
BSP is mentioned in a number of places as being influenced by Joy Division, but I don’t hear it. I was getting a little Super Furry Animals, perhaps aspirations to Arcade Fire. To me their songs have the cadences of British Isles folk music, played with distortion at higher volumes. I also couldn’t shake the feeling that there’s something a little Mumford & Sons-y about them.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should say I missed most of their set because of a phone call. I came back in time to catch the end of the show, which closed with a semi-improvised piece known as “Rock in A”. Although the crowd had thinned a bit, some of the remaining listeners were clearly devoted BSP fans who jumped up and down enthusiastically as the insistent, four-on-the-floor kick drum and one-chord, flogging a dead horse guitars kept searching for a climax to end on. Oh, and don’t even get me started about the panda costumes.