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Camp Cope Aren’t the Openers Anymore

On an early summer afternoon in Greenpoint, Georgia Maq and Kelly-Dawn Hellmrich of the Australian rock trio Camp Cope are talking about confidence, or, more specifically, the lack thereof that defined their coming-of-age in punk. “I was involved in music for such a long time, but there were so many things I believed I couldn’t do,” says Hellmrich, who plays bass in the band. “I’m still learning. I still have to remind myself, ‘You can do that.’ ”

“I’d always be the acoustic female opener on a bill of dudes,” deadpans Maq, the band’s guitarist and vocalist, who started playing solo at eighteen. “That was the norm. I thought, ‘This is just how shows are, I guess.’ And I was so much better than all of them.”

“She played with some pretty shit bands,” confirms drummer Sarah Thompson, who they all call Thomo.

The confidence gap is a plague on society — the cultural reality that makes women more likely to underestimate their abilities, while men overestimate, get more opportunities, and earn higher pay. In 2018, “carry yourself with the confidence of a mediocre white man” is a line so commonly told to women that an Etsy search yields more than a dozen results, with cute items like tote bags and cross-stitch kits. In her Melbourne music community, Maq knew things were unfair. “I didn’t have a lot of confidence,” she says.

“People around you kind of make you feel like that’s what you deserve as well. They kind of put you in your place,” says Hellmrich, turning to Maq. “You played first, and had the biggest crowd.”

That kept happening. “I kept having the biggest crowds,” clarifies Maq, “and getting paid less than all of them.”

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Camp Cope’s latest record, How to Socialise and Make Friends, sounds like a revelation. Not because three women playing in a band in 2018 is novel, or because women are saving rock music. But because of its clarity and bravery and emotional scope. Over its 38-minute running time, you can hear a band that’s been through the ringer and come out stronger on the other side.

“The Opener” is its grand entrance, an epic, searing anthem that tells the story of the band’s year leading up to its genesis. Its verses detail what women in music still deal with on a regular basis: unsolicited advice, backhanded compliments, the near-constant mansplaining. In her lyrics, Maq takes some of these off-the-cuff comments verbatim and pieces together a constellation of reality.

“Almost everything in that song is a quote,” says Maq — things the band was told over the course of a year by specific people. “That’s why I was so impressed the first time I heard it,” says Thompson, laughing. “I was like, ‘Georgia literally rhymed all these things.’”

The song is the album’s opener, but it sounds like it should be playing as the credits roll. In some ways, for them, it is: if the entirety of the male-dominated music world that they came up in was actually just one long, bad movie of sexist cliches, mansplaining and constant one-upping — maybe this is point where it stops.

“You worked so hard but we were ‘just lucky’
To ride those coattails into infinity
And all my success has got nothing to do with me
Yeah, tell me again how there just aren’t that many girls in the music scene!”
— The Opener”

Lately, when I think about the hatred for women that seemed to hang in the air in the emo and pop-punk music spaces I came up in — similar to the scenes members of Camp Cope came up in, they tell me — I am consumed by thoughts about those women who were most failed by the deep-rooted sexism there: the women who just stopped, who endured enough, said “fuck it,” and never went to another show again, who ceased playing, booking, or writing about music at the whim of men who wanted to stomp them out. Who could blame them? That’s partially why, speaking to the women of Camp Cope, their existence feels like such a victory.

Hellmrich says she had all but given up playing music before Camp Cope. In high school, she played in metal and shoegaze bands, but was always the token woman, playing with men who belittled her and would rewrite her bass-lines. At seventeen, she moved into an apartment above the now-defunct all-ages Sydney venue Black Wire Records, where she helped run shows. “I knew that venue in and out,” she says, but still, men would regularly speak down to her, “as if they deserved the space more than me.” She eventually met women musicians there, and joined a band dubbed “suburban feminist screamo,” an experience she describes as “infinitely better” than those other bands. But when they broke up, she just stopped: “I moved to Melbourne and I was like, ‘I give up on music. I only liked that one band. I’m never playing in a band again.’ ” 

Thompson had also given up playing music for seven years before Camp Cope. A self-described Hole-loving ten-year-old in the mid-1990s, by age twelve she had found some other girls who liked Nirvana and started a band in her family’s garage. She played in bands for years despite the challenges (“It was either be one of the boys or just go away”), but ultimately decided to stop: “I always played in bands, but I also always worked in music.” (Thompson works at Australia’s Poison City Records, who have released Camp Cope records, as well as the likes of Cable Ties, Iron Chic, Pity Sex, and a long roster of others.) “I couldn’t do both,” Thompson says. “You get treated like shit in one and you get treated like shit in the other. I was like, ‘I’m gonna lose my fucking mind…it’s one or the other.’ So I quit playing music for seven years.”

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Then they each met Maq. Georgia Maq describes herself as a lifelong singer and feminist. As a child, growing up in the suburbs of Melbourne, her musician father (Hugh McDonald of the chart-topping political folk-rock group Redgum) would teach her Green Day covers on guitar. When she was about ten, she organized a wage-gap protest at school. She loved playing piano, too, but ultimately dropped out of music lessons (“I hated the bureaucracy of it”) and studied nursing in college. All the while, she began playing shows, just an acoustic guitar and her maximalist, folk punk–tinged songs on topics ranging from dumpster-diving to “white male propagandists on the outskirts of the truth.”

“I always wanted to start a band but nothing ever felt right,” Maq says. “I was too self-conscious to do anything with boys. They didn’t get me or what I wanted to do.”

In 2015, she formed Camp Cope, recruiting Thompson, whom she knew through the local punk scene, and Hellmrich, whom she met while getting a tattoo. Though the band is still relatively new, when the trio came together, they brought collective decades of experience playing and booking, working at labels and venues. They knew what they did and did not want to deal with as a group. By 2016, Camp Cope released a debut, self-titled record, and on the strength of those songs, they’d soon be opening up tours for the likes of Against Me!, Modern Baseball, the Hotelier, AJJ, and Waxahatchee.

How to Socialise and Make Friends is a louder and more collaborative record than their first record. It’s an album that contains multitudes: blunt criticism of sexism in music, but also slow burners on love and death and friendship, ripping pop songs on anxiety and empathy. Maq’s songs tell stories, and within them there are women who have agency, sleazy men who get left behind, images of herself out at night alone. “I can see myself living without you,” she shouts on the title track. “And being fine! For the rest of my life!”

Like their debut, How to Socialise… is an emotional roller coaster, where Maq’s bandmates’ dynamism makes her all-caps poetry all the more potent. Among its most devastating moments is “The Face of God,” in which Maq recounts a sexual assault by another musician, an encounter in which she had to say “no” too many times, where boundaries were crossed. “Could it be true? You don’t seem like that kind of guy,” she sings from the perspective of the subsequent skeptics, drawing out every word. “Not you, you’ve got that one song that I like…”

The album “just depicts the year we had,” says Hellmrich. “The anger is in that album.” Performing the songs now is cathartic, she adds: “Even the quiet songs have loud messages. It’s unforgiving.… Playing these songs, even though I’m not shouting, I can feel the same things as Georgia and I’m getting them out too. We always talk about how amazing playing ‘The Opener’ is. It’s this huge relief. Of all that shit we went through. And finally getting to let it out.”

It’s equally cathartic to listen to. Maq’s raw, booming voice makes each line feel visceral. “I’ve always been very loud and emotional. That’s my whole thing,” she says. “When I first started playing shows, I was very loud, very unapologetic. Then there was maybe like a year where the boys’ club slowly ate away at me, so I started writing songs that were quieter, where I didn’t yell as much. Then I started yelling more.”

“It’s another all-male tour preaching equality
It’s another straight cis man who knows more about this than me
It’s another man telling us we’re missing a frequency
Show ’em Kelly!”
— The Opener”

When we meet up in mid-June, the band is passing a few days before taking off on a six-week, full U.S. tour with fellow pop-punk-adjacent indie rock band Petal (a tour that wrapped up last weekend in NYC). While they wait for the tour to start, Camp Cope have been crashing in Brooklyn on the floor of their previous tourmate Jeff Rosenstock. Today they spent their day off getting manicures with Jeff’s wife, Christine, who is also their good friend; Maq and Hellmrich flash their newly painted nails for me to check out — baby blue, highlighter orange. Maq sips water from a bottle donned with a sticker reading MEN ARE TRASH.

“I remember when you sent it to me,” Kelly says, reflecting on the first time she heard “The Opener.” “I put it on in my kitchen. I was living with a bunch of people, and they were sitting at the table, and I was cooking. And we all had to just stop. Almost every sentence, we were like… OK! Yeah! OK! We’re gonna do this!”

“I had that too,” says Thompson. “I was at work. I sit at a desk with my boss, and he’s putting the record out. I put the phone down and I press played. And I’m like…,” she continues with a big smile and a sarcastic shrug. “Sorry, Andy!”

Although Camp Cope has only existed for three years, they seem like sisters — a tight-knit unit, the type of support system necessary when doing the sort of work Camp Cope has taken on. Together, the band has been unafraid to call out gender inequity in music at a time when on the surface level it seems that things have changed. Their approach seems to be: just uncovering the truth. Earlier this year, for example, they played Australia’s Falls Festival, and onstage they sang, “It’s another man telling us we can’t fill up a tent/It’s another fucking festival only booking nine women,” swapping some lyrics on “The Opener” to criticize their surroundings. Their commentary made headlines. “It was weird. People said it was a controversy when all it was was the truth,” Thompson said in an interview earlier this year.

Camp Cope recognizes that visibility doesn’t always equate to support — that although this is indeed a moment where more women artists are being given wider platforms, there is still a great disparity in terms of the scope of opportunities provided to underrepresented artists, not to mention the persistence of day-to-day sexism. And sometimes shallow industry “support” can actually be a means of exploitation that serves to benefit the appearances of the festivals and the publications more than it helps the artists. “It may appear that there’s all of this diversity in music, but so many of our friends are in the industry and we can see the people who are suffering,” says Hellmrich. “The ones that aren’t getting by, the ones that are getting exhausted, the ones that are burning out the most are women and queer people. It gets incredibly personal and frustrating. They may be getting a spot on a bill because people are trying to champion diversity, but they still can’t afford to live. It’s not working.”

After her seven years away from playing music, Thompson feels like not much has changed — not enough to celebrate, at least. “Coming back to the music scene, it was literally the same,” she says. “There’d been no progression in seven fucking years. Men are still being pieces of shit, sound guys are still fucked, other bands are still fucked. It’s all still fucking the same. I got so mad. I was like, ‘No, fuck it, I’m going to just do it, and I’m going to rip all of your heads off if you’re being cunts.’”

“It’s another man telling us we can’t fill up the room
It’s another man telling us to book a smaller venue
‘Nah, hey, c’mon girls we’re only thinking about you’
Well, see how far we’ve come not listening to you!
“‘Yeah, just get a female opener, that’ll fill the quota.'”
— The Opener”

Thompson is a bit like the tough mom of the group. (Her bandmates sing her praises and also say lots of people are “scared of her.”) About a decade older than Maq, who just turned 24, Thompson is a long-time employee of their label, which puts them in the empowering position of not needing a manager or agent. Instead, Thompson is the manager. On tour, she does everything: playing, managing the band, advancing shows. “And people will still come in and be like, ‘you should do this, you need someone to do this, you need someone to do that,’” says Hellmrich.

With Thompson’s expertise, they’ve stayed staunchly independent even as they gain mainstream attention in Australia: from airplay on major radio stations to attention at national award ceremonies — winning Best Emerging Act at the Age Music Victoria Awards and the Heatseeker Award at the NLMAs, and nominations for the J Awards and the Australian Music Prize.

“We’re in a super lucky position,” Thompson says. “We’re a fully independent band. We’ve never had a cent of debt. We’re in a much better position than most people we know. They appear to be doing so well, but they probably owe fucking $50,000 to somebody. In ten years time, when they’re still paying off their debt, I’ll be like, ‘Oh, well, I’m glad that you tried to tell me what to do.…’”

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The band is critical of music business in general. “The way the industry works is backwards,” says Hellmrich. “Art isn’t valued, artists aren’t making money.” But mostly they want to exemplify that artists have choice — that quickly signing away 20 percent of your income to a manager “doesn’t have to be the only way.” 

“It was super important for me to see people like me playing music in order to make me feel like I could do it,” says Hellmrich, who last year was inspired to release some solo music of her own, under her nickname, Kelso. It’s a collection of dreamy guitar-pop, self-described “cute weird songs for cute weird people.”

We carved our own path of what we wanted and what we wouldn’t accept from people,” says Maq, who these days also fronts a more aggressive five-piece rock band called Würst Nürse, harkening back to her nursing school days. (First single: “Dedication Doesn’t Pay the Rent”.)

“I feel like this is meant to happen in our lives. We were put on this Earth for each other,” Maq says, looking at her bandmates. “We’re soulmates. We were meant to start this band. We were meant to change this little bit of the music scene.”

January of this year, Camp Cope filmed a session playing “The Opener” at the Sydney Opera House. As Maq belts out her lines about not listening to shitty music industry men, the ones who worked so hard while her band was just “lucky,” her expression says it all: she scrunches her face, rolls her eyes and screams it all out. This week, the band returned to the Opera House to play its iconic, 2679-capacity venue. And they weren’t the openers — they were headlining.

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Against Me!

After a few early complications with the loud sound at Rough Trade (I’m sure we can thank the venue/record store’s condo location for that one) the shows must go on, and tonight’s Against Me! gig is one of the first of the new year. Those following the band’s triumphant tale know of trans frontwoman Laura Jane Grace (born Tom Gabel) and her public destigmatization of gender dysphoria. A process that is unbelievably brave for everyone, given voice through good ‘ol Florida punk rock. Go to this show and leave inspired.

Thu., Jan. 9, 9 p.m., 2014

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Laura Jane Grace

As the trans lead singer of the folk-punk outfit Against Me!, Grace has brought to light both an issue that is often overlooked and the biases of a punk community thought to be more progressive than it actually turned out to be. After the cancellation of the band’s spring tour, the singer will sing the blues—the “The Transgender Dysphoria Blues,” per the title of her band’s upcoming LP—and continue to tell a story that needs to be heard.

Fri., Aug. 16, 9 p.m., 2013

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The Cult+Against Me!

ast month, the Cult released their ninth full-length, Choice of Weapon, full of hard-rock guitar riffs, trippy psychedelic touches and, of course, frontman Ian Astbury’s deep bellows. Perhaps just as big of a draw tonight, though, is the openers, Florida punks Against Me!, whose frontwoman, Laura Jane Grace recently came out as transgendered. With the Icarus Line.

Fri., June 8, 8 p.m., 2012

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Britney Spears Runs on (American) Idol

Britney Spears doesn’t need to say anything of consequence to be relevant—after all, she hasn’t yet and her career is thriving, 13 years in. She doesn’t even need to bother with dancing (the closest thing she has to a formidable talent)—her minimal movement in this year’s “Hold It Against Me” video has not stopped the clip from grabbing 25 million VEVO views in a month. Even her off-the-clock extra credit has dried up lately. There have been no new men with crotches to grab publicly, no new children to endanger, no new public meltdowns to keep both our hands full (one on our pearls, the other on our trackpads). There’s something Zen or minimalist or just plain lazy about Brit’s recent public profile, but it matters not, just as long as she periodically shows up. There are people who are famous for being famous; Britney Spears is almost that. She is famous for being a famous singer.

In this respect, her seventh studio album, Femme Fatale, is a perfect snapshot of her current public life. It is expression from the expressionless, and it will do nothing to mar Brit’s consistent track record (the first two singles are already hits, and get ready for highlight “I Wanna Go” to score your summer). Britney does very little over the course of Fatale—it’s the first album since her debut on which she has not a single writing credit. Even more telling is her frequently blank-eyed delivery: She’s never been a great vocal interpreter, but on Fatale she sounds about as present as she did on Blackout. In case you need reminding, that album was recorded and released at the height of her public self-destruction, so that there was a legitimate question as to whether the album title described her overall state of consciousness.

If Femme Fatale were merely an album of innocuous pop, Britney’s distance from it might not matter, but it’s problematic for an album whose subject matter is hedonism and how being hot facilitates it. The lyrics say, “Id!” while Britney says, “Meh!” And it’s amazing the difference a little bit of effort makes—her most spirited vocal turns occur on Femme Fatale‘s best tracks. The forgoing of her usual derpy bleat for a dramatic upper register nicely complements the camp lyrics of “Trip to Your Heart” (“Spread my wings out into the dark/I’ll fly away on a trip to your heart”). She straight-up squeals during the aforementioned and perfect “I Wanna Go,” drawing out her e’s (“Shame on meeeee!/To need reeeleeeeease!/Uncontrollableeeeey!”). Even better, at one point we hear her chuckle. Suddenly, the joy she sings about is palpable.

But even that track relies heavily on the manipulation of her vocals—Brit’s longtime collaborator Max Martin and Shellback stutter out her words (“I-I-I wanna go-go-go”) to maximize the chorus’s earworm potential. (They succeed: The New Order–esque drum fills and Bob Sinclair–does–Frankie Knuckles whistles don’t hurt, either.) Her voice is even further manipulated on another winner, “How I Roll”—it goes high, low, and also drills (“Speakerrrrrrrrrrrrrr!”). It’s just one component of Bloodshy, Jonback and Magnus’s head-spinning design that includes glitches, pops, claps, heart-beating sub-bass, a Charlie Brown piano, and a lyrical reference to ODB’s “Shimmy Shimmy Ya.” Maybe Britney didn’t even need to show up to this gently frenetic monster, but by the time she purrs, “You could be my fuck tonight,” you’re happy she did.

“How I Roll” is the rare forward-thinking moment on Femme Fatale, an album that otherwise is content to revel in today’s dance sound. Sure, wobbly, dubstep-inflected bass lines pop up occasionally (the underrated first single, “Hold It Against Me,” includes an entire half-time breakdown) but they don’t do anything that Blackout‘s “Freakshow” didn’t already do years ago. It’s tempting to compare the dance-mindedness of Fatale to that of Blackout, but be careful: Blackout came at a time before dance music reclaimed U.S. radio to the degree it has in 2011. As an exploration of all things electro-pop, Blackout played like a gamble a bunch of enthusiastic producers were able to take given their (probably) catatonic conduit. Femme Fatale is, in contrast, an album almost solely reliant on the 4/4 stomp of house music (its second half is particularly monotonous).

Britney’s voice doesn’t add much to the conversation, but neither does her music. Maybe her enduring relevance says more about us than her. As someone who’s never been forced to mature publicly, perhaps she is this generation’s Peter Pan, a vicarious fountain of youth. It also could be a rare case of our culture collectively getting it right: We don’t expect Britney to unleash great insight because we know that early fame probably arrested her development so much that she is unable. Whatever it is, there is something preternaturally intriguing about Britney Spears, and there always has been. Her team got a decent amount right with Femme Fatale, but nothing more so than its title.

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Against Me! Make Their Blue Album

“The revolution was a lie” is my current favorite of the many realizations to escape through Against Me! frontman Tom Gabel’s (very) clenched teeth. And he’s pissed about it, which befits a reformed punk anarchist who has mellowed enough to embrace major-label compromise, acoustic-guitar-plus-harmonica solo EPs, and the blissful Dorito bite of an oft-repeated “Whooo-ooooo-oooooa” chorus. If the Western world has to choke on its own gross national product, the sound might as well be catchy. The revolution was supposed to be catchy.

What’s so jarring about Against Me!’s new record, White Crosses, is how nothing in 2010 sounds quite like it: It has as little in common with 3OH!3 as it does with Vampire Weekend. And yet it’s one of those incredibly useful anomalies, like Weezer’s blue album in the midst of grunge, or Los Lobos roots-rocking over new wave. Ten years ago, we would’ve called it generic (though like all punkoid upstarts, 10 years ago, Against Me! were generic). But today, it’s nothing short of a revelation, a strong message to Lady Gaga and, um, chillwave that not only will power chords never die, but at least one band will always be around to prove they don’t suck, either: The Gainesville foursome offer those chords in comforting order at an unchallenging tempo, coaxing out your chorus-singing impulses. 

And with Nevermind producer Butch Vig in tow once again to follow up 2007’s Spin year-end-topping masterpiece, New Wave, they detonate one such chorus after another: “Suffocation! Modern life in the Western world!” “Do you remember when you were young and you wanted to set the world on fire?” “What God doesn’t give to you/You’ve got to go and get for yourself.” They all burst from Gabel’s throat with the crack of a line drive, and, this time, he brought back-up: The “Badlands” pianos and glockenspiels that propel “Because of the Shame” punch as hard as anything this deeply guitar-centric band has forced through an amp. As for those guitars, they now boast greater variety: The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” on “Spanish Moss,” jangly Cure action between Robert McNamara critiques on “High Pressure Low,” and Billy Zoom–joins-Queen glamabilly on “Rapid Decompression” all adding color and granularity to the sheer thickness that overtakes eight spotless rockers and two earned slow ones.

The lyrics survive the usual signs of growth, like specific Floridian signifiers in a title track that apparently refers to headstones for aborted fetuses (“I want to smash them all”) and complex-for-punk compassion in “Ache With Me” (“I’ve got no judgment for you”). The real story is the harmonies, the almost touching dedication on display to overstuffing these tunes with melodic ideas, a largesse we thought was exhausted back when a&r guys could charge bowls of coke to the accounts of unrecoupable bands. And yet White Crosses is all shiny and fresh and proudly expedient, without proving a thing except that Against Me! are fully capable of doing it again. One could even see them scoring a stray hit with “We’re Breaking Up” (has there ever been more commiseration appeal than “We used to like all the same bands/We used to have all the same friends?”), though probably not. It’s hard to imagine Gabel’s typically overanalytical syllable count (“The dy-NAM-ic in the re-LA-tion-ship never changes”) catching hold on what passes for radio. To which he can only shrug: “These are the only words I have.”

Against Me! play the Williamsburg Waterfront June 23

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Grow Up Like a Rock Star

DISCUSSED
LCD Soundsystem Sound of Silver (#1 album)
“All My Friends” (#3 single)
“Someone Great” (#14 single)
“North American Scum” (#22 single)

The “rock star,” as we traditionally think of it, is scarce on this year’s Pazz & Jop ballots. The mega-famous icon clutching a guitar and singing about heartache or fucking or partying or escape or revolution; the prophet whom we come to for concrete answers instead of riddles and viral videos and cryptic website codes. Maybe there’s a dearth this year, given the lack of new offerings from Dylan, Beck, Green Day, System of a Down, U2, or Johnny Cash. Or maybe we’re prisoners of our own self-awareness.

The message was clear in 2007: Being a “rock star” is gauche at best, silly and anachronistic at worst. Twenty years ago, Run-DMC wrangled to be the “King of Rock,” but now, the Shop Boyz only want to live vicariously. “Party Like a Rock Star” treated rock music like a cartoon (skull belts, wallet chains, dueling guitar leads, Pamela Anderson, afternoon golf), maybe because the rock stars they name-check (the Osbournes, Travis Barker) are essentially reality-TV stars who sometimes play music. Meanwhile, the supposedly “real” rock stars—seven-times-platinum schlock-sensitivos Nickelback—released “Rock Star,” a quasi-ironic depiction of superstardom in the vein of Joe Walsh’s “Life’s Been Good,” and probably the most self-aware, self-effacing song ever sung by a guy with a beaded necklace and a perm. After a couple rounds of that on the jukebox, everyone went home to Guitar Hero III, a postmodern video game where all of rock’s supposed walls of separation are blurred into meaninglessness: Sex Pistols next to the Foghat songs they were invented to destroy. Sonic Youth’s “Kool Thing” upending the patriarchy, and Poison’s “Talk Dirty to Me” using it to fuck behind the bushes. Shred along to “Holiday in Cambodia” on your Axe Body Spray guitar.

So while being a rock star isn’t dead (hello, Daughtry!), it certainly isn’t cool. Anyone old enough to buy their kids the Hannah Montana 2 soundtrack found out that, shit, she’s a “Rock Star” too! Major-label pop-rockers like Fall Out Boy (#134 album) and Against Me! (#21) can’t act like rock stars: They have to be self-aware “rock” “stars,” using irony and derision to cope with fame, making concept albums about being famous, songs about the rigors of being in the public eye, records about making records—all of which makes them more like hip-hop stars than anything. Against Me! even beefs, since “Piss and Vinegar” is about the success of Panic at the Disco. Fall Out Boy—who do occasionally act like Ashlee-dating, nightclub-opening rock stars in real life—returned from 2005’s multi-platinum From Under the Cork Tree with defensive pre-emptive strikes like “Make us poster boys for your scene/But we are not making an acceptance speech.” Their video for ” “The Take Over, The Break’s Over” ” (note that the quotation marks are part of the title, as if we couldn’t tell) confronted accusations of “sell-out” by filming piss-take skits of their fans turning on them—maybe because punk fans still equate fame with selling out, maybe because the video before it had TAG body-spray product placement. Against Me! frontman Tom Gabel, who’s endured charges of “sell-out” since his anarcho-friendly group signed to a tiny hardcore label in 2002, is equally suspicious of rock stardom, confronting his desires and fears on “Stop!”: “On behalf of our fans we’d like to accept this award/Smile for the camera, boys/Gold record in hand.” These are MTV-level bands whose fans don’t want them to be rock stars.

The rock bands that critics loved in 2007 stifle rock-star urges at the root. Excepting the votes for the aforementioned ironopunx, we only championed rock bands that possess a proper set of David Byrne–style emotional-distancing techniques (he is, after all, where Radiohead got their name): bands that play inward, bands that have cold public personas or inscrutable lyrics, bands that hide behind masks or cryptic imagery, bands full of guys who could never be confused for rock stars. Or, in short, “indie rock.” Compare: Rock-star archetype Jim Morrison lived like he was written into existence by Kerouac; current paragon Radiohead (#2) name their company “W.A.S.T.E.” so you know they’ve all read Pynchon. Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: What did the art-rock band call its chilly, insular, brooding, dread-filled record? In Rainbows. Get it?

Critics love indie-rock bands in spite of their walls, or probably because of them. Battles (#17) treat (unintelligible) lyrics like just another instrument blorping out robot art-crunk; Animal Collective (#29) hide big emotions behind playground eyes and fluttery tales of dinosaur wings and winter wonderlands. White Stripes (#14) still—literally—paint themselves in a tri-chromatic anti-sheen to give the illusion of lo-fi; Spoon (#7) leave in jokey production cues (“Jim, can you record the talk-back?”) that end up being the most memorable part of their record. Okkervil River (#31) wrote a complex metafiction tangle that taught you about poet John Berryman’s suicide and played “Sloop John B” for laffs. Arcade Fire (#5) are stars, but don’t really rock. Of Montreal (#22) had some pretty exceptional rock-star moments—Kevin Barnes Spirographing spectacular heartbreak pop, painting his broken marriage as a Technicolor space-glam opera, transforming into glitter-rock alter ego Georgie Fruit, pulling out his dick onstage. But it’s not populist: The whole thing is coated in that Sufjan-reading-McSweeney’s vibe, pandering to the English majors, sending you to Wikipedia to learn about George Bataille and parhelia.

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Although critics didn’t exactly stump for rock stars, the craving is still there. There was quite a bit of hubbub around Magic, but we weren’t excited about what was on the new Bruce Springsteen record (#9), just that a new Bruce Springsteen record existed. And all those times we compared glock-rocking geeks Arcade Fire to the Boss? We were more or less just projecting our secret dreams onto their black mirror. No, our best hope for a Real-Life Rock Star in 2008 is Pazz and Jop’s big winner, LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy. Yes, the guy who told the Voice last year, “I’m 37 years old. I’m 220 pounds. I’m a producer. I’ve got about as much likelihood of being a fucking frontman as Christopher Cross, for fuck’s sake. I should have my ass wiped off the stage every night.”

When he surfaced in 2002, Murphy was a doughy, stubbly, marble-mouthed, record-shopping anti-star. Lyrics that would’ve been joyous dance-rock slogans spiraling towards the heavens in the mouths of Sly Stone or the Rapture were given a sarcastic poker face, assassinated with an exhausted drawl (“Yeah yeah yeah, yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah!”) or trickled out with a sad mumble (“There’s too much love”) or strangled to death with jagged-little-PiL contempt (“Your favorite band helps you sa-leep“). But Murphy has deaded the deadpan on Sound of Silver, especially the epochal “All My Friends,” road-mapping the existential crises everyone experiences as they lumber from young-adult to adult-adult. While his debut single, “Losing My Edge,” played the same subject for sardonic yuks (is a man not judged by the number of This Heat records in his DJ bag?), now Murphy’s dead-serious and sincere and contemplative. And—surprise!—he’s really connecting with people who didn’t recognize half the bands he was busy name-checking. He’s become the hyper-aware voice of a hyper-aware generation who’d never get within a 100-mile radius of the phrase “Voice of a Generation.”

Here’s how it starts: Although “Losing My Edge” was a caricature, it was still essentially a boast, a press release with a beat that let everyone know Murphy was hipper than your average, a dude into the Fire Engines and Section 25 when all the “dance-punk!” articles of the time were still hung up on Gang of Four. Older and wiser, he’s long past trying to get scene points by whipping out his big 12-inchers. On Silver, seasoned DJ Murphy just opens his heart (and maybe his id), spinning the big records that everyone knows and loves (though in this case, “everyone” still means “modern-rock fans age 18 to 45”). It’s that moment at the party where people stop fighting over the stereo and realize that everyone will dance to “Billie Jean.” The vocals on “Get Innocuous!” lurch just like Bowie’s on “Sound and Vision,” “Someone Great” chugs forward like New Order’s “Temptation,” and “North American Scum” directly lifts Pete Shelley’s “Homosapien,” a song in heavy rotation on VH1 Classic as we speak. Indie-rock fans favor Berlin-era Bowie, New Order, and Shelley because their introverted poses personify the non-rock attitude. But this is really just a rock-star move on Murphy’s part: Know your audience, play the hits.

In a symbolic two-minute crescendo, Silver opens with a Casio-cute pulse that dryly mimics the original boom-bip-bip-bip of “Losing My Edge,” but then slowly grows lusher, smarter, fuller: Murphy’s grown up, and we’re expected to follow. He’s an adult who’s pretty much done thinking about petty shit like scene politics (except on the ecstatic/vicious “Watch the Tapes”). There’s a new party crew in New York called DJs Are Not RockStars, and you can be damn sure Murphy doesn’t care whether or not that statement is true, or even who the hell these people are. Murphy’s thinking about bigger things—his place as a New Yorker, his place as an American, his place as someone who experiences loss, his place as an adult who knows it’s silly to pine for the “feelings of a real live emotional teenager.” His third album will probably get downright metaphysical.

Distancing himself from his quotey-fingered past, Murphy has thrown out all his vocal defense mechanisms: his intentional tunelessness, his Mark E. Smith howls, his droll monotone. A grown-ass man had better act like one, and while his newly assured voice doesn’t exactly hit all the right notes on the heartbreaking “Someone Great,” it’s not for lack of trying. “Someone Great” is a six-minute song about getting a phone call—probably about the end of a relationship, vivid enough to be about the death of a loved one. Murphy’s delicate but confident warble has to balance a crushing emotional blow with the mature, responsible man who still has deadlines to meet and coffee to drink. By album closer “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down,” he’s literally crooning.

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And, of course, there’s “All My Friends.” Taken at surface level, it’s wistful, melancholy, slow-churning—essentially a power ballad, Nickelback’s “Photograph” for people who can’t remember the last time they looked at a photo that wasn’t on Flickr. But dig deeper and “Friends” is a widescreen, decade-long epic about post-postcollegiate uncertainty, working your way into adulthood by tripping balls or tripping over your shoes: “Bob Dylan’s Dream” for people who may have once paid money for grunge clothes or rave drugs. It’s sincere, grown-up rock music for sincere, grown-up folk, people who no longer “set controls for the heart of the sun.” Luckily for the people still worried about their edge, “All My Friends” had the cold heartbleep of indie-rock (Philip Glass piano lines, post-punk icepick grooves), but enough juice to also win the hearts of kids who treat frosty detachment and expressionlessness as their anti-emotional core: the folks who loved Darjeeling Limited, who bought the British version of The Office on DVD, who laughed along to the non-jokes on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, who got goosebumps over Daft Punk’s light show and glowing robot suits. But everything about Murphy’s voice on Sound of Silver—everything sung, spoke, or shouted—was just human, after all. Or only rock ‘n’ roll. But we liked it.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

Kids Arise!

Against Me and the Epoxies both play punk-informed “protest” music for Fat Mike’s Fat Wreck Chords label, but that’s about all they share. At this point punk stretches far enough to encompass way more than just AM’s spewed hyper-verbiage and the Epoxies’ tongue-in-cheek sleekness; at this point also, I despair of any punk finding the right audience to mount an effective protest. But hey, the kids have arisen before! And should they/we decide to rise again (damn right!), Against Me’s Tom Gabel provides one hell of a unifying group sing-along with the “Condoleezza” chorus of “From Her Lips to God’s Ears (The Energizer),” just one of the many songs he titled for your pleasure on Searching for a Former Clarity.

Gabel has an Alanisian knack for shaping word overflows into succinct pop structures, like magma into Jell-O molds. His structures don’t get much more elaborate than verse-chorus-verse, and he rhymes only rarely, so the effect is conversational—and he’s a bitchin’ conversationalist. Funny, artless, employing offhand profanity and exclamation points and words not often associated with pop, Gabel’s lyric sheet is a wonder.

Take this half-verse from the war protest “Justin”: “You know Justin? Well, Justin’s dead. Yahoo won’t let his family have access to his e-mail account.” Gabel goes on to quote the forced holiday cheer of a smoothing- over TV reporter. It’s a rare combo of righteous wit and blunt anger that’s not too full of itself. Allmusic ominously describes AM as “punk-folk,” but they’re saved by the facts that Gabel’s hoarse scream can make anything scan and that he and his bandmates consistently find hooks. They even bust Franz Ferdinand–style punksco beats on two anti-industry tunes, in what may be the first parodies of that genre.

The Epoxies are all parody. On Stop the Future they play X-Ray Spex–style pop-punk with “futuristic” synth lines replacing the sax, and the cheeriness offsets lyrics that are consistent downers, raging against machines literal and figurative. When the things you’re protesting are mind-controlling capitalist illuminati and radiation in TV sets, you’ve either: (a) seen more deeply than most of us; (b) read too many Paco Underhill and Chinese medicine books; or (c) made the whole shit up. They play it totally straight, though; Roxy Epoxy boasts an impassioned yowl that’s Poly Styrene meets Pearl E. Gates, and her great drummer, Ray Cathode, hangs on every word with a seemingly endless arsenal.

In many ways, these two discs complement one another. The live spontaneity of Against Me’s lyrics shows up the predictable 1-2-3 Epoxy structures, but the Epoxies’ complete lack of bad tunes highlights a couple slow AM clunkers. The Epoxies have an instrumental, a couple love songs, and a ’70s Scorpions cover (“Robot Man”); AM’s novelty springs from inventive griping and sardonic verse-chorus contrasts. Today I prefer Against Me because I feel like getting inside someone’s head, but tomorrow I may need the pure wham-bam entertainment of the Epoxies. And if their social concerns end up inspiring no more than their great music, I’d still say both bands have done their part.


Against Me and the Epoxies play Webster Hall December 2.