On No Age's Unconventional Approach to Noisy Art Rock on 'An Object'

[caption id="attachment_81707" align="alignnone" width="640"]Photo courtesy of No Age Photo courtesy of No Age[/caption]

September 2010: I told myself I wouldn’t nerd out. But there I was, in the backseat of my good friend’s car, being driven to uber-influential grassroots venue the Smell, where me, my friend, and his sister were told on good authority No Age would be playing a secret “friends and family” gig in advance of their Hollywood Bowl show with Sonic Youth and Pavement, a show I specifically flew down from Seattle to see. Being a No Age fan since the music-nerd world-at-large first knew what a No Age even was, I was half-jokingly describing my impending trip to the Smell as a “holy pilgrimage.”

I had seen Smell stalwarts Abe Vigoda earlier in the week -- at a gay club downtown where someone was walking around in a wig and a mannequin mask -- and I would see them again the night before flying back to Seattle. Of course, seeing No Age perform twice in the same week would have been a dream come true for me, as I’ve frequently described No Age as far and away my favorite contemporary band in the world.

Then, someone’s cell phone went off. It was to notify us the secret show would not be happening, due to a promoter who will remain nameless advertised this secret show on Twitter, drawing the ire of both No Age’s label, Sub Pop, and the Hollywood Bowl itself, the latter of which threatened to kick No Age off the Pavement/Sonic Youth bill if they played at The Smell. Disappointment rang in my heart, but we were told No Age would be there anyway, signing copies of their just-released album Everything in Between and hanging out.

So we continued our path from Silver Lake to Downtown Los Angeles, only a little worse for the wear.

***

Pardon the cliché, but things just aren’t the same for artists anymore. Regardless of the field, the act of straightforwardly presenting your work to an audience stands even more reliant upon luck than it already was. That sounds like a total drag, but it’s made the world a far more interesting place for creatives young and old; thinking outside of the box has become refreshingly commonplace, at least more than it was when “industry” was the word of the day. Industries everywhere, especially in the arts, are crumbling fast and the landscapes are opening up to virtually anybody with the wherewithal to put themselves out there. Of course, this is a situation that exists for better or worse. Resolutely in the “For Better” column, there are entities like No Age.

Since forming amidst the dissolution of their previous band, Wives, drummer-vocalist Dean Spunt and guitarist Randy Randall have made a fruitful career out of confounding traditional expectations of a reasonably popular guitar band. They’ve held shows in Ethiopian restaurants and vegan grocery stores. They turned a volunteer gig into one of the most vibrant music communities in America (at least for a little while, there). They’ve performed an incredible live score for a movie that seemed to echo their ideals about animal rights -- an experience I was lucky enough to witness in person. They’ve managed to play a song titled “Male Masturbation” (originally by cult favorites the Urinals) in a public library. Then again, being in a punk band is fundamentally an exercise in seeing what one group of individuals can get away with.

***

By controlling the direction of nearly every aspect of their band, No Age pretty rightfully gained a reputation as “DIY heroes” throughout the worldwide rock underground. Even after signing to mega-indie Sub Pop, the band never changed their modus operandi. In fact, you could even argue that while their sound became more streamlined and pop-friendly, their artistic ideas became even more sprawling. In collaboration with Brian Roettinger -- arguably the band’s third member -- Spunt and Randall created elaborate and focused cover art for each of their releases (including the Grammy-nominated, 68-page booklet that accompanied the CD release of Nouns).

Given their hands-on reputation, maybe it wasn’t surprising when it was announced that the band would participate in the manufacture of their newest album’s initial run of copies. Even titling the album An Object, packaging the album themselves seemed to be not only a conceptual achievement, but also a way to cement their do-it-yourself bona fides.

“It wasn’t really about being ‘DIY heroes,’” Spunt said about the process. “I had just become really interested in the process of manufacturing a record. Like, what goes into both making a record and making a record. It turned out to be a really rewarding experience.”

They’re a band driven by the feeling of experimentation, of discovery. You’d be hard-pressed to find very many more bands who care at all about the manufacturing process, let alone offer to lend a helping hand and learn about it firsthand. It’s been said many times that No Age is every bit as much of an art project as a band, and it shows. There’s also a prevalent feeling of not only fans experiencing a band testing waters uncharted for many musical acts, but the band themselves scurrying out of their comfort zones and learning new things as they go along. No Age are a vital contemporary band for many reasons, probably the most important being their willingness to grow in every conceivable aspect of their band.

 ***

"When we were recording the songs that ended up on Weirdo Rippers, I had no idea how to drum and sing at the same time,” Spunt says. “There was a feeling that we needed to try new things on this record, so I did things like played bass on a few songs. And though it’s not like I sound like a virtuoso playing bass or anything, but I think it turned out well. This record feels a lot like Weirdo Rippers in terms of eliminating conventional song structure and just the general feeling of trying things that were new to us.”

The jingling of pocket change against the buzzing of an amp. The high-pitched, choppy chirping of street rodents underneath blunt, humming bass lines. The triple-time pattering of God-knows-what as an extra percussion track. Fizzing, crackling, pulsating. And the final sound on the album, what closely resembles an industrial-strength tractor beam, not entirely unlike something you might find on a UFO to bring lifeforms of whatever species onto a spaceship. Modulations like these can be heard throughout any No Age album, but it’s profound to hear these sounds -- which may have come from instruments but sound like objects -- on An Object.

For the entirety of their career, No Age have shirked the beaten path in favor of gently pushing the margins of punk music. Weirdo Rippers was a guitar album like few of even the weirdest punk fans had heard before; a record awash with glacial noise, hardcore fury, and buzzsaw guitar lines, sometimes all on the same track. It’s very little surprise that An Object conjures the same feelings as No Age’s early singles compilation (which many are content to describe as the band’s debut full-length).

Of course, just because a few of the album’s songs adhere to no conventional song structure doesn’t mean An Object isn’t full of songs. The record’s entire first side are chock-full of some of the best songs the band has written: “No Ground” is as punchy and catchy as anything the band has recorded, “C’mon Stimmung” is a stylistic brother of the anthemic “Fever Dreaming,” and “Lock Box” could have just as easily been a hit from one of No Age’s heroes on SST. And the album’s highlight, “A Ceiling Dreams of a Floor,” has a build of drone and a release that feels like the musical equivalent of Spunt’s opening lyric, “Where does the body stop, and the soul begin?”

It would be a miscarriage of judgement to deny No Age the title of one of the most musically inventive bands going right now, as they use a world of sound to gently push the boundaries of punk music, a genre not exactly world-renowned for its sonic exploration. The fact that they are foremost a punk band expands on the notion that the genre is still vital and as we approach the half-century mark of the style, there are still truly fresh things to be done with it.

***

"I promised myself I wouldn’t nerd out,” I told Randy Randall as he stood behind the Smell’s merch booth. My eyes darted around, to the browning brick walls, to the concession table which was selling Snickers and Coca-Cola due to the obvious fact that all-ages venues aren’t supposed to have bars. As I was rambling on, Randall kept his beaming smile and seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say as a fan of his band’s music. It was charitable of him, to say the least.

“You see, I’m a writer, and I’m supposed to be a professional. Instead, I’m standing here, being all sycophantic about how you guys are my favorite band. I’ve never heard a group like yours, and honestly, I’ve never seen a group operate the way you do musically, aesthetically and even logistically. You two are a true inspiration to me.”

Then, as an artist who quite obviously never ceases to surprise me, Randall did something I would have never expected the member of a band to do. As an act of being genuinely touched by me unprofessionally gushing about his band, he stepped from behind the merch booth and gave me a hug. Not one of those inauthentic one-armed hugs, or the kind of hug a rapper would give you after slapping hands. He put both of his arms around me and squeezed tightly for a prolonged period of time. It was a hug that seemed to be both truly substantial and last no time at all. Out of all the amazing things their band has done for me as a fan, that was the one thing I would have never expected to happen to me.

It wasn’t the first time No Age changed my life, and I knew it wouldn’t be the last. But it was the initial moment where I had firsthand experience of a band being affected by having changed my life.