May is usually a dry spell on today’s live rock calendar. In between the breakout festivals of South by Southwest and Coachella, and with the summer festival circuit approaching, May is usually the month for established acts to fill out holes in their touring schedules, for up-and-coming acts to plant seeds of interest before a summer breakout, and for rock journalists to focus on Billy Corgan and Kanye West gossip for another month or so. That being said, I was not expecting all that much out Marnie Stern and Tera Melos’ set at the Bell House in Brooklyn on Sunday; on a rainy Sunday evening in a secluded club in Gowanus that only got a sign a couple of months ago, the crowd was generally sparse for a set that included not one act who had so much dented the Heatseekers chart recently. That the night proved to be so compelling when it didn’t have to be ended up making me happier for the music industry than I’ve been in quite some time.
Other than the fact that she is a woman and plays guitar with more technical skill and innovation than most of the other boys in rock to emerge since the wake of grunge, the status of Marnie Stern in the role of feminist rock history is more obscure. For one, she never seems interested in the question. Her albums are so personal in their OCD-tendencies and rock-nerd blatancy, she seems more interested in playing her music without outside world intervention. That of course, is a fallacy; it’s what critics have read on her PR rap sheet, and her story is almost as interesting as her music itself.
Furthermore, not only does she make a habit of drunken genitalia references on stage, she constantly deflects all praise for her albums to Zach Hill, her drummer, who, along with his work in Hella, is up there with Brian Chase and John Stanier as one of the more accomplished drummers in modern indie rock. It’s true that Hill’s work on Stern’s fist two albums, In Advance of the Broken Arm and This Is It and I Am It and You Are It and So Is That and He Is It and She Is It and It Is It and That Is That, is extraordinary, as many critics have hailed, but it’s undeniable that the star of the show here is Marnie; no one does what she does; combining finger-tapping hard guitar rock with a deeply grained intelligence of rock past, sing like a strained teenager, yet still make it all sound fun as all hell. Hill merely allows Marnie to be Marnie, and it’s almost as if Stern’s praise of Hill is a litmus test for male rock writer egos refusing to admit that a girl can rock this hard.
I was not a big fan of Stern’s stage banter the last time I saw it, but opening for Tera Melos at the Bell House on Sunday, I saw one particularly useful application; in case of a male sexist heckler, repeat the word “vagina” until he shuts up, the crowd laughs, and you can move on. It was not out of character for Marnie’s stage presence, but it was also one of the best deflections of a “show us your tits” troll I’ve ever seen a female performer use; with a flat, deadpan, immediate response, it seemed to perfect to be arbitrary.
Seeing that, I realized what I had missed about Marnie Stern’s feminist streak; it’s not about an abstractly defined definition of women or assessment of modern gender politics; it’s about Marnie allowing herself to be herself without anyone teling her otherwise—does she think it’s a big deal that she’s a woman and plays that well? No, she just does it. Does she have to worry about being accepted by men (at her NYU show, she mentioned not having had sex for 6 years)? No, it could be nice, but there are more important things. 10 years ago, on “Eau D’Bedroom Dancing,” Le Tigre’s Kathleen Hanna wondered if she could ever enjoy music in public—without worrying about harassment—as much as she could in her room alone. Marnie has brought her own room to music fans nationwide, ignoring expectations while not downplaying them. At NYU, she was dressed in an oversized flannel shirt. At Bell House, she had a dress and puppy straight out of Julia Allison’s wardrobe.But it would be pointless to ask if she was trying to become a sex icon, because that’s not really a game Marnie plays. That kind of humility is rare among any female American indie rock stars today—not the least of whcih is the supposedly game-changing femme rock of the Vivian Girls—but it’s particularly striking for Stern, who has been in the über-vain New York scene all her life. This is self-absorption done right, where going inside your own world explodes a new realm of possibilities outside of it.
Tera Melos had something of a prankster’s reputation, but I was left completely unprepared for what would hit me with their set. My interest in the band was prompted mainly by two things: their blatant Generation Y pandering with their cover of Adventures of Pete & Pete theme song “Hey Sandy” on an EP of covers that also included the Pixies, Rivers Cuomo, The Clash, and the Beach Boys (how did no one else had the balls to do that previously?). Secondly, it was Tera Melos’ their past association with Springman records, label that produced pet bands of mine such as 90s nerd-rock icons Pain, the equally nerdcore Phenomenauts, fostering the career of punk webcomic artist Mitch Clem, and generally maintaining a “friendly punk” aesthetic.
There was nothing friendly in the slightest about Tera Melos’ set Sunday. Turns out the Pete and Pete bait masked an all-out noise assault from start to finish that almost had me vomiting. I was so disillusioned midway in that I could barely tell if they were playing more than one note; kudos must be given when I am burned so effectively.
One of the many forgotten original indie ethics was that notion that live performance was the only real form of music; and the recording was nothing more than a flyer. There was an economic impetus for this in the 80s that is now forgotten; at the commercialism of the recording industry had trumped all major label bands’ resources to tour. That element of the business has obviously changed; no one buys albums like they used to with everything online for free; at the same time, Ticketmaster and LiveNation have schemed to make the live show the new snake oil for bands’ bottom line and fans’ enjoyment. Culturally, however, there was a still-relevant reason for the original indie band’s emphasis on touring; it helped build a sense of community and connection with fans rarely seen anywhere else.
If Tera Melos treated their Idioms EP as a flyer, it was like a flyer for free cake that ended with you broken down, waking up in your friend’s apartment two days later after being given PCP instead. The sense of experience was more like an insane religious trial, one you could help but be affected by. The divide between live show and studio work has rarely been taken so literally. I immediately thought of Throbbing Gristle, who have created a similar effect in their recent revival tour depsite the modern connotations of “rock terrorism.” Less than a torturous experimentation, Tera Melos’ show was more like a Heaven’s Gate brainwashing session; the lights weren’t dimmed, the doors weren’t closed, it wasn’t that crowded, and they didn’t really seem to care if you left. What they did do, however was puncture your bleedin’ eardrums, which was done so immediately, quickly, and without hesitation, that you were intimidated to leave based solely on the fear of the music itself. Rarely have I seen instruments treated as much like weapons, and rarely has anyone attacked their instruments with as much fury as Nick Reinhart or Nathan Latona; one wonders if the guitarist and bassists’ poor fingers didn’t get the worst of the show’s violence. Tera Melos’ previous work has been described as “math rock” but the Bell House was more loud and frightening than innovative. I admittedly lost interest after the first 20 minutes or so, and it will be hard for the band to maintain that kind fact for much longer. In terms of pure shock value, however, mission accomplished.