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Destined: Invisible Conga People

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Dusted's Brandon Bussolini fleshes out New York's Invisible Conga People.

Destined: Invisible Conga People

  • Download "Cable Dazed" by Invisible Conga People

    An increasing disassociation between dance music and the indigenous audiences that typically create, sustain, and define them reached some kind of critical mass in 2007. Sequencers and other pirated or bundled software have given rock kids access to previously inaccessible textures, loops, and drum machines; a change consonant with the huge, blog-brokered swell in interest for simulations of genres that seemed garish and unsubtle less than a decade ago. From nu-ugly nu-rave to Kompakt's emo-house, the filter disco offspring of Daft Punk, and even flirtations with new age, consumers of Indie monoculture got a fair amount of musical roughage as Indie rock realized its imperial ambitions.

    "We’re basically operating like it's 1982,” writes Justin Simon, one half of Manhattan-based Invisible Conga People. The band, which also consists of Eric Tsai (regrettably not interviewed for this piece), will be releasing their debut 12” on Mike Simonetti’s Italians Do It Better imprint in February. They make a distinctive kind dance music with an impressive arsenal of gear, most of which is quasi-vintage, some of which is circuit bent, otherwise modified, or home made. Everything, including vocals, is run through guitar pedals. Simon says he’s fascinated with the gray area between house and “noise” music, but ICP makes a calm, carefully textured sound that stands out even among their labelmates: Their setup, made up mostly of mids and lows, conveys a spacious, carefully sculpted paranoia that seems tangential to the label’s usual M.O., its lurid italodisco glamour. “We don’t use laptops,” Simon continues. “I'm really stubborn about this one. I know incorporating a computer would make our lives way easier, but it would feel pointless to me. I like the hum of old equipment, the deep, raw sound of old gear."

    To suggest that ICP not only sounds different but actually approaches the genre question differently because of their refusal to use computers (as composing or performance tools) wouldn’t just be an oversimplification; it would miss the point. Simon and Tsai are both more concerned with the deep grammar of genres and less bound by traditional aesthetics than the great majority of artists working in the overbroad dance idiom. The four songs available on the band’s MySpace profile may be minimal, but it’s more accurate to say that they’re badly served by computer speakers. As Simon explains, "I wanted to make a really practical record, a record DJs could spin and people could dance to." Unlike super-compressed bloghouse tracks that turn aggressively chirpy over decent speakers (Justice’s “Waters of Nazareth,” for example), the dynamic range of ICP’s “Cable Dazed” unfolds beautifully in real space, and gives the duo ample space to weave a languorous, asymmetrical melody around the song’s central theme. Composed of a percolating guitar loop, panning synth arpeggios, and an eighth note bass pulse, “Cable Dazed” is nailed down, like all of ICP’s songs so far, by a muffled 4/4 beat. Simon calls this a “caveman thud,” but it sounds like house music filtered through a wall; the soft, wide quality of the kick drums and toms means the beat, though always present, sometimes gets confused with the song’s other timbres. Something similar happens to genre in their music, with boundaries turning gracefully into points of entry.

    Live and in the studio, Simon generally plays guitar while Tsai handles the drum machines, synthesizers, effects, and mixer. Both sing. “Live shows have been hit or miss so far,” according to Simon, “because, except for what's coming out of my guitar amp on stage, all of our sounds are coming through the house PA. So if a soundperson wants to make us inaudible, he or she can do that quite easily.” The group’s extensive array of gear has led some online reviews of “miss” ICP performances to point out the contrast between Tsai’s kinetic stage presence and the meager sounds leaking out of the PA. (Photos from ICP’s MySpace profile show his setup in detail; tens of settings on various pieces of electronic equipment need to be adjusted between each song.) Simon describes the band’s biggest show so far, opening for Simian Mobile Disco as “a complete disaster.” At the Gramercy Theatre show, “you could hear the sound of my keys jangling in my pocket louder than our music. We put 800 people to sleep. It sucked.”

    The band’s live fortunes have improved recently, more as a result of sympathetic circumstances than an increasing confidence with the material: Simon says that, although ICP composes by combing through improvisations recorded directly to Minidisc for usable riffs and interesting settings, only about 10 percent of any live set is not fully scripted. From the time ICP was formed in early 2006 to last summer -- when they moved from a practice space in a gallery basement with 24-hour access to a “ridiculously expensive” and less comfortable space near the Port Authority terminal on 42nd Street -- the band was able to hone songs out of “endless jamming,” amounting to around 40 hours a week. Although the band had fully developed songs when they started recording their debut with engineer John Fewell in March of 2006 for a Summer 2007 release, it was an unexpectedly challenging experience: "We couldn't record what we do live because the signals coming out of the mixer were giving too much hum, so we had to record each instrument one at a time, straight into a computer. Parts that had previously sounded full suddenly sounded thin. And songs that were satisfying as long jams live sounded unfinished on record, so we ended up doing lots of rewriting.” The band abandoned the recording for around six months and moved on to new songs; Simon credits Fewell’s patience with convincing him to wrap up the project.

    In addition to playing with ICP, Simon also runs Mesh-Key Records, a label focusing on contemporary Japanese psych. Mesh-Key seems primarily a means for Simon to make available in the U.S. records by those artists he discovered while living in Japan and finds particularly inspiring. The label has released 10 records by Yura Yura Teikoku, a band that Simon cites alongside CAN and Phew’s first LP as one of ICP’s primary influences. Mesh-Key’s first release was the Pre Acediasts EP by We Acediasts, a band formed by Simon in 2000 while participating in the JET program in the Tokyo-adjacent industrial city of Saitama. He dissolved the group in 2002, not before recording an LP with production from DFA. Simon, who is fluent in Japanese and currently makes a living through teaching and freelance translation jobs, returned to the U.S. in 2003, having lived a total of five years in Tokyo. “JET wasn't particularly interesting, but it was a totally noncommittal job,” Simon writes of his time as an English teacher, “so I could spend all my free time working on starting a band, making friends, exploring Tokyo (a big maze of a city), and basically immersing myself in my new adopted culture.” Although Simon did more than most foreigners to be accepted as a legitimate participant in the city and culture, he describes feeling “afraid to completely commit to the things that were (ironically) most important to me -- the basics, like personal relationships and work -- because I kept telling myself that living in Japan for too long would mean there was something wrong with me. Many of the foreigners there seemed to be running from something, or at the very least seemed a little too complacent with the various perks you enjoy as a foreigner in Japan, and I wanted to do everything I could to avoid ever turning into one of ‘those people.’”

    Although Simon says that his relationship to Japanese culture is difficult to explain to others, it surfaces indirectly but profoundly in ICP’s music. To my ears, it lies in the aesthetic quality conveyed by the Japanese term shibui, which refers to a restrained, unostentatious beauty. In other words, the kind of music most Americans would try to talk loudly over rather than listen closely to when attending a concert. ICP’s style doesn’t have much to do with currently dominant aesthetic niches: although their music is deliberately accessible while remaining true to their ambitions, it’s one that reads as “quiet” next to the prevailing brash, ugly bricolage aesthetic. Indeed, a live recording of the excellent “Gloop” -- a song that trades off between blissed-out idyll and delay-fuzz riffs -- prominently features a particularly rowdy, slightly uncomfortable bro yelling, “Dude, this art opening rules!”

    ICP is a particularly apt Destined band for this very reason. The styles that presently garner the most attention in the U.S. communicate through re-arranging bright, identifiable bits of cultural information into a fully saturated mind-fuck tableau. Though they convey information as a painful excess, style doesn’t qualify as critique for long before turning into crowd control. At heart, this aesthetic still operates by a familiar mechanism, one embodied by an image Momus has suggested for contemporary America on his Click Opera blog: that of “Garfield piloting a deadly mechanical shark.” It’s ironic that both members of this band, whose sculptural aesthetic seems an increasingly significant alternative to the current regime of total immersion in pop-cultural detritus, live in Manhattan, which has quickly become a very difficult place to be creative without a full-time job. It also speaks for their autonomy from both the pulse of life in their own city, the creatively neutered capital of Late Capital, and the underground hegemony of Brooklyn. (Interestingly, Simon lives in an apartment he literally won in a housing lottery, while Tsai currently lives in an apartment temporarily vacated by his brother.) “There have been lots of bands in this city that have set the bar pretty high for creating something new, or interesting,” writes Simon, who was born in Brooklyn and grew up in New Jersey. “I feel like we can contribute to that tradition, or at least aspire to it.”

    The band plans to follow up their debut with another 12” in the Summer. They are also trying to figure out ways to reconfigure their setup for maximum touring flexibility: they have had to turn down invitations to play overseas because, with their current amount of gear, it’s impossible to travel by plane. Simon’s current obsession, however, is with “making this band better.” He elaborates: “But I like not having any firm calculation of what our identity should be, what genre we should fit into, or what other bands we want to sound like. I think that's kind of a New York tradition, not being concerned about categories and taking risks, making a kind of messy, beautiful noise.”

    By Brandon Bussolini

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