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Tom Hawking's CMJ Diary: Part Two

19 October 2012 | 12:40 pm | Live From CMJ

I've never ever felt bass like this before in my life. It could be that I'm standing in front of the bass bin, which is actually pushing me backwards every time the kickdrum hits. Good grief.

CMJ Day Two commences with the traditional slice of pizza.

First drink.

Cake Shop, Ludlow St
Day shows are often the way to go at CMJ, mainly because they're not stupidly crowded and there's less chance of running into the "Why no, sorry, despite the fact that you have a press badge we're not going to let you in because we could charge someone else for that spot instead and make money" syndrome. Or that's the idea, at least – in practice, these shows get more and more crammed every year, and it's impossible to get anywhere near the front of the stage to see Prince Rama. They sound pretty great, though.

Helpfully, Cake Shop has a little TV above the bar that shows what's going on onstage. It's like being at the cricket and watching the game on one of the screens in the bar area. Kinda underwhelming, in other words, especially since the TV here is like one of those old ones that rich people used to have in their kitchen during the '80s.

Sadly, the band don't appear to have extended the end of the world concept of their new record to dressing in character.

Conceptual DJ set from Pictureplane!

I nip upstairs to make a phone call and find it physically impossible to get back down to the band room because of the wave of people heading in the opposite direction. Maybe Pictureplane's set isn't going down all that well.

I wander up and down Ludlow a few times in search of action.

Come to think of it, this part of the Lower East Side recalls the glory days of the mid-'00s Ding Dong/Pony/Cherry Bar golden triangle, only with stronger drinks and less distance to stagger between bars.

Botanica Bar, Houston St and Mott St
Quick pit stop with friends who are going to something called Blackout tonight. It bills itself as "the scariest haunted house in New York" and (spoiler alert) involves getting violated by a bearded dentist.

I'm pretty happy to be CMJ-ing, to be honest.

Did I mention how strong the drinks are in the USA?

Um. Maybe it's time for dinner.

Nameless Punjabi Eatery, Houston St and Ave A
Gentle readers, I present to you: the best value restaurant in the entire universe. Where else can you get two curries and rice for $3.50? Let alone in the middle of New York City? This place is genius. Remember it if you're ever in New York.

And chai for a dollar!

OK, right, now the serious business starts. The place to be tonight is Le Poisson Rouge, where NPR are holding their showcase. Flying Lotus is headlining, but your correspondent is more excited about seeing Death Grips, who are – much as I dread to use the word – fairly laden with
buzz at the moment. They're also meant to be jaw-clenchingly intense live.


I'm clearly not the only one to be looking forward to this show, judging by the number of badge-wearing types who get off at Broadway/Lafayette and then make their way down Bleecker St, looking lost and checking Google Maps repeatedly on their phone to make sure they're going in the right direction.

Le Poisson Rouge, Bleecker St
It turns out that I've made a miscalculation, though – apparently "Doors 8pm" doesn't imply the presence of actual music until 10 O'clock. Curses. In the meantime, there's a DJ "entertaining" the crowd. He's clearly somebody famous because he keeps talking over the top of the music. Dude, just play the fucking songs.

"What would y'all like to hear?"

A room full of people shouts out a bazillion different ideas. WHO'D HAVE THOUGHT IT.

OK, so he's Ali Shaheed Muhammad from A Tribe Called Quest. That's all well and good, but still, dude, just play the fucking songs.


ATCQ guy is back on the mic. "Who's here to see Flying Lotus?" Crowd goes moderately wild. "Who's here to see Death Grips?" Crowd goes batshit. "Who's here to see Buke And Gase?" Crowd looks mystified.

A chap from NPR takes the stage to elaborate on the mystery third band. They have improvised instruments and a kickdrum and look suspiciously like they may have asked you for money on the way here.
God help us all.

Oh Christ, and they sound a little bit Ani DiFranco and a little bit Micachu and a whole lot of awful. What on earth are they doing on this bill?

Seriously, crustpunk: what is it for?

I'd vote for Mitt Romney if he made a solemn pledge to abolish bands like this.

In fairness, the bass player's guitar/bass hybrid is kinda cool though. It has two bass strings and four guitar strings, and lets him play both parts on one instrument. That's about it, though.

So, anyway, Death Grips. The roadies are setting up a couple of very expensive looking Apple cinema displays at the rear of the stage, along with a pretty extensive drum kit.

Ali Shaheen drops Rapper's Delight. Yessssssss. Hotel! Motel! Holiday Inn!

The lights go down and Death Grips take the stage. Well, two of them, anyway – keyboardist Flatlander is nowhere to be seen, for some reason. Zach Hill smokes a joint and pounds his way through an introductory drum solo. And then the bass drops, at which point your correspondent's insides start feeling very strange indeed.

Seriously, I've never ever felt bass like this before in my life. It could be that I'm standing in front of the bass bin, which is actually pushing me backwards every time the kickdrum hits. Good grief.

As anyone who's heard Death Grips' album might expect, this is not music that's exactly fun to listen to. MC Ride's rapping along with a reverb-laden backing track, but his live vocals never quite sit quite on the beat, creating a sort of arrhythmic effect that's strange and disconcerting. People will complain later that this is a reflection on his rapping skills, but I wonder whether it's not actually on purpose. The effect sounds like two tapes being played at slightly different speeds or something – it also makes this music impossible to dance to, if you were even contemplating such a thing.


I am actually going to vomit.

OK, so I step away from the bass bins and my stomach stops feeling like it's about to exit through my nose. This is, it must be said, something of a relief. The music sounds somewhat more conventional from the back of the venue, and I wonder how much the crazy bass contributed to the earlier sense of rhythmic disconnection.

The band play for an hour, but it feels like wayyyyy longer. There are some shows that feel like endurance tests. This was one of them. In a good way, of course.

Flying Lotus! Graciously, he introduces our underwhelming host for the evening, the aforementioned Mr Ali Shaheed Muhammad, as a "living legend." Muhammad sounds mildly embarrassed, as well he might, and responds that he's just happy to be here. You should be, dude.

"I want to see you jumping, New York!"

Flying Lotus: wow. The degree of difficulty involved in putting together a set like this live is pretty impressive. Samples and loops weave in and out of the beats, vocals fading in and out of the mix, keyboard stabs and synth pads augmenting the rhythm. The music's constantly shifting and changing – ultimately, everything sits on a 4/4 hip hop beat, and the sound isn't quite as weird and tripped out as FlyLo's recorded work, but it's still a cut above 99% of other live hip hop mixes.

Sadly, we can't stay for the whole set, though – it feels contrary to the spirit of this event to stay at one show all night, and anyway, I've promised I'll drop by the Ghostly showcase at a curious little downtown venue called Le Baron.

To the subway!

Le Baron, Mulberry St
Your correspondent generally hearts Ghostly Records, which is why I've dashed downtown to make it to this show. It turns out to be in a part of Chinatown that smells like vomit. As in, the entire neighbourhood. The five-minute walk from the subway to Le Baron is a continuous exercise in exploring the gag reflex. What the fuck?

Simple pleasures in life: when you're on the list and the snotty model type who's just pushed past you to get to the front of the queue isn't. Ah. Existential smiley face.

There are certain venues that are set up with aesthetics rather than practicality in mind. This is one of them. It looks like a modernist take on a turn-of-the-century Chinese theatre, which is presumably what heaps of cash has been dedicated to making it look like.

Unfortunately, the whole flitting-from-venue-to-venue thing falls down when you miss all the good bands on the bill. Still, we arrive in time to see tonight's headliner, who is a chap from Oxford by the unlikely name of Chad Valley. He's about 20 and rather charming and clearly in love with the sounds of the '80s, which makes perfect sense if you didn't have to live through them the first time. He does have a lovely voice, though. Bless.

We stick out 20 minutes of Chad V and then decide that enough '80s inflected neo-R&B is enough. It appears that it's time for bed.

First, though, another chunderous walk back to the subway. Seriously, what the hell is wrong with this neighbourhood?

We discover the answer: indescribably hideous sludge on the road. It's either something that's fallen off the back of a truck that clears out the most appalling grease traps of Chinatown, or a passing giant who's dined on Subway for a few years and then had way too much to drink. Either way: good god, you don't get this shit in Aus.

But wait, here's a message from a friend – she's drinking somewhere in Brooklyn with several members of an Icelandic band by the name of Sudden Weather Change. Questionable name, lovely dudes. We stop by for just the one. FAMOUS LAST WORDS.

Lesson learnt: Scandinavians can drink.

They really can.

Strategic retreat: beaten.

And finally, a sign that tonight's work is complete... This happened!

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