Posted in music on February 28, 2013
by Joshua Strawn
Xeno & Oaklander last night at WIERD (instagram by daniellehoward)
You may know Josh Strawn through his work in current projects Azar Swan and Vaura but he was also an integral part of WIERD and, before that, a fan of the music. Strawn has played the weekly party with three separate projects (Vaura, Religious to Damn, Blacklist) over the years, so he was able to add some special insight about last night's final WIERD Wednesday event and it's place in the current NYC scene. Strawn's thoughts are below. - Fred Pessaro
It's only because Wierd existed that we can now look back to the early 2000s and marvel that dark independent music then was basically Interpol. Now you can't throw a rock in Brooklyn without hitting a kid that knows that, even if Pet Sounds was a historically radical record, only the first Clan of Xymox album is real. A lot of them even know who Twilight Ritual is, which is bizarre. When Pieter Schoolwerth, Gilles LeGuen, Glenn Maryansky, Sean McBride (and eventually me, among a few other notable progenitors) all started congregating at Southside Lounge, playing minimal synth and cold wave records and seeing who could still argue cogently about philosophy after fourteen drinks, I don't think any of us knew what it was going to grow into. As far as we were concerned, we were just the black flies in the ointment of an indie rock regime we despised. It wasn't quite right, as far as we were concerned, that it was OK for movies to be brooding, serious and cerebral like Bergman and Tarkovsky but music had to be painfully self-aware, and/or have a sense of humor or self-effacement. It felt like you had to be some variation on Woody Allen with a guitar to be taken seriously by the establishment indie music press. We thought it was time for the chess-playing Death with synthesizers to get a fair audience.
We were all painfully aware of what goth had become throughout the 1990s: spooky dolls, mainstream industrial rock, weak Tim Burton films, and dyed-blue dreadlocked types wearing goggles, platform boots, and cheap-looking PVC to go out and dance to music that basically sounded like La Bouche with an unlistenable male vocalist. In this sense we were elitists, and it would be hard to apologize for having been that way. There are different kinds of elitism. Some focus on the eliteness of people, and and that couldn't be further from what we were about. The Wierd thrived on nothing if not inclusion of people. But it was elitist in the sense of a standard of excellence in art that most people then could have been forgiven for assuming never got anywhere near so-called dark music. It was about creating a space for ourselves and for the like-minded to make a particular kind of music that was basically unacceptable at the time.
What Pieter and Wierd accomplished was, with the benefit of hindsight, nothing short of a radical feat, because what took hold locally spread nationally and in some cases even internationally. In America it amounted to an expansion of the average music listener's palate to include sensibilities of French, Dutch, Polish, German and various other European music that had previously been laughed off as "pretentious." In Europe, it amounted to a sense that Americans were finally realizing that music had a history that wasn't geographically confined to the contiguous United States and Great Britain. It did take years, and having been in the first band on the label, I can testify better than anyone: at the beginning we were still just the new goths on the block. But today, it's just a given that music that sounds like a rip-off of Xeno & Oaklander (because it is a rip-off of Xeno & Oaklander) will get legitimate attention from legitimate music outlets and DJs that are more likely fans of Autre Ne Veut than VNV Nation will spin it. In other words, your music is now allowed to sound like Béla Tarr films look. We didn't cater to the establishment indie music press, we forced them to accept us. Today, you can start a band in Michigan that's inspired by Absolute Body Control and reasonably expect that you might get covered in Pitchfork.
Wierd was a conservationist mo(ve)ment. I say conservationist because to call it conservative would be bizarre and inaccurate, given the libertinism of the parties and creative spirit of the artists. Obviously Wierd wasn't anti-technology or anti-Internet: the label and party ran a Facebook page and website; the bands had Bandcamp pages and sold tracks on iTunes. It was more about having your cake and eating it too, about placing a higher value on the IRL, even if we knew digital abstraction was an unfortunate fact of contemporary life. It thrived on the belief that seeing Martial Canterel's virtuosity while the fog machine filled your sinuses was not only better than seeing the Youtube video, it was downright important.
So why dark music? Who cares, really. Of course there's nothing that binds those inclined towards darker aesthetics to this particular anti-abstraction ideal. It just happened that way. It just so happened that a strange band of heady goths found one another. To the outside detractor, the quintessential image of Wierd will always be some droll spooky kids in black plodding around in the smoke and lights to the The Cure. To anyone who actually came and saw, the quintessential image of Wierd is a paisley-soaked flesh pit of fluid sexualities, toasts for no good reason, fist-in-the-air singalongs, and people hanging on one another either out of love or because they were too inebriated to stand up on their own (but probably both). Something about the fact that the music sounded a little sinister made sense to us. It wouldn't have been the same specific mixture of sensation, emotion, and atmosphere had the music on the speakers been chirpy major key guitar pop. We made your Wednesday nights longer and more dramatic, and we made your music smarter and weirder.
I'm watching anxiously to see what happens next. Because while it may not be readily apparent, Wierd was the jagged spinal column on which the ribs and flesh of the rest of the scene hung. Plenty resented it while harboring unspoken affection and respect for it at the same time -- like how kids are with their parents. And just like those kids, they'll see how it is going out on their own. I predict they'll miss their Mama. Pieter was affectionately compulsive about Wierd and the community of people that grew up around it, and quite often that compulsion was contagious. It spread through a community that interacted in physical space. And it isn't that community online is impossible -- it's just that the kind of community that Wierd was is impossible online. Plenty of music scenes toss around words like "family" but scarcely ever do they keep going for as long, or accomplish as much as Wierd did. Because of it I have a brother Mark in Chicago, a baby sister Jeralyn and a cousin Frankie, and that only gets the list started. I'm still not sure if Pieter's my brother or mom, but therein lies the perverse, incestuous charm of the last decade or so. VERY RARE began as a mantra, but hundreds of shows and thousands friends later, it's also a statement of pure fact. So now we bid IT adieu...