Artist Profile

No Wave or Not, ESG's Legacy is Alive and Well

Cara S. Greene

As a genre, “no wave” is best characterized by what it isn’t, neither affirmative of music’s status quo—mainstream punk, disco and new wave—nor fixed in its method of defiance. Though no wave is a negative categorization, its constituents have some similarities: their music is stripped down, repetitive, clever, and skeptical—in a word, cool. Some no wave is rough and distorted. No New York, the Brian Eno-produced compilation featuring bands James Chance and the Contortions, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Mars, and D.N.A. is arguably the genre’s defining album. Other no wave music is more ambient, or centers around jazz-inspired improvisation, like the music of Rhys Chatham or La Monte Young. A possible third camp emphasizes danceability and rhythm, à la Konk, Liquid Liquid, Bush Tetras, and Lizzy Mercier Descloux. These stylistic motifs rarely occur at the same time—no wave’s cynicism comes through its simplicity.

No wave is also associated with a particular moment in New York’s artistic history, in which a jaded, post-Vietnam underground fostered a cadre of writers, performers, and artists like Laurie Anderson, Bill T. Jones, The Wooster Group, Keith Haring, and Mabou Mines Theater Company, among others. There has been a resurgence of interest in the genre, with young musicians releasing rhythm-driven noise music to audiences of their peers. For a genre that emerged from the secret basement discos, lawless performance art venues, and greasy dives of the '70s and '80s however, no wave’s contemporary offspring are more culturally and aesthetically homogenous than its variegated musical ancestors. Accordingly, my impression of the genre’s aesthetic scope was fairly limited. Then I heard Emerald, Sapphire and Gold, better known as ESG—a post-disco band led by black women.

At first, the band consisted of the four teenage Scroggins sisters and friend Tito Libran, with Reneé on guitar and vocals, Valerie on drums, Deborah on bass, and Marie and Tito on other percussion. The Scroggins family grew up in the projects of the South Bronx, where they taught themselves how to play their instruments and wrote music inspired by the polyrhythmic and percussion-heavy hip-hop and Latin music coming out of their neighborhood. Ed Bahlman, co-creator of short-lived downtown NYC label 99 Records (Liquid Liquid, Glenn Branca), discovered the band at a local talent show he was judging. Immediately recognizing their originality and potential, Bahlman became the band’s manager.

After a Wednesday gig at Hurrah nightclub in 1980, Tony Wilson of the UK’s Factory Records (Joy Division, New Order) approached ESG and asked if they wanted to make a record. The first two songs on the EP, “Moody" and “You’re No Good,” were finished in one take. With the three remaining minutes on the master tape, Renée suggested they fill the time with their tune “UFO,” a bizarre number that would eventually become one of the most prevalent samples in hip-hop. These songs, along with a three-track live recording from a Hurrah gig, made up the 7" EP ESG (1981), released through 99 Records, followed by a 7” of “You’re No Good,” the EP ESG Says Dance to the Beat of Moody (1982), and their first LP, Come Away with ESG (1983), released by Factory in the UK.

The 1981 EP’s opening track, “Moody,” consists simply of percussion, bass and vocals, and lasts a brusque two-and-a-half minutes. A danceable, 130bpm breakbeat is consistent throughout the song—a 16th note hi-hat groove with accented hits, some sparse kick drum, and a snare with slap-back delay. The bass pattern is constant, too. A syncopated single note, vacillating from the root to the third, breaking only for the pre-chorus congas and the occasional octave slide. Candid and nonchalant, Renée sings, "I was feelin’ very mellow / Walkin’ down the street / See, I’m goin’ to see my baby / And it makes me feel moody / Like this / We can go to see my baby / He can make you feel moody / He can make you feel high, feel low / Feeling, feel like / Like this.” In spite of its heavy repetition and compositional modesty, the song is big, and the bassline thumps deep below the energetic snare and hi-hat. These two conduits drive the song forward, but the vocals lift the entire composition slightly off the ground; "Moody" is as agile as it is focused.

When I attempt to categorize ESG’s sound, I tend to fall back on no wave because it situates their music in the experimental milieu with which they were most closely associated. At the same time, Renée herself puts it best: in an interview with Melissa Steiner from The Quietus, she said, “Another term that I don't particularly care for is “no wave,” what does that mean? You know? I really don't define ESG, but if I really had to put a label on it, we consider it to be music that makes you dance. Not dance music, but music that makes you dance.” While ESG helped the genre take shape, their music stands out from the pack.

ESG’s music is like a high-five between punk and funk that shatters both genres. “Moody” is too listenable to be avant-garde, and too edgy to be commercial. While the familiarity of the song’s components makes it accessible, it’s simplicity is conscientious enough to keep it clever. “Moody” is a lively conversation between contradictions: the coy, cheeky lyrics, the span between treble and bass, the hum of the guitar cut by the textural congas... the song contains its own foil. In a lecture at New York's School of Visual Arts, pioneering sound artist Alan Licht explained that the difference between sound art and popular music is that sound art has no boundaries or conventions. It has broken through the confines of music’s form. While “Moody” is far from ambient or concrete, the song’s layering of juxtaposing musical conventions from punk and funk creates something new.

To encounter this determinate-indeterminate synthesis in ESG’s sound is like spotting a newly illuminated blip on a scatterplot map of the world at night: the quality of the music speaks to its significance in the vast lattice of music history. The band’s legacy has been written about at length over the years, due in no small part to the fact that the music they made—and are still making—is, as Pitchfork reviewer Joe Tangari declared, “near perfect.” In spite of ESG’s esteem amongst a small crowd of music aficionados, beatniks and post-punks, though, the band remains unfamiliar to mainstream audiences in the USA.

And yet, many listeners have indeed heard ESG, without recognizing them by name. According to whosampled.com, their track “UFO”—distinguished by its bizarre looped backtrack (rusty cymbal? alien sex?)—has been sampled by 427 artists over the years, including Notorious B.I.G., Public Enemy, Nas, The Beastie Boys, N.W.A., Miles Davis, Nine Inch Nails, DJ Shadow, Liars, and literally hundreds more., many of whom have yet to pay royalties to ESG for the use of their song. Even though there isn’t necessarily a causal relation between financial compensation and a musical group’s exposure or impact, decision makers in the popular music industry have manufactured and sold a consistently formulaic assemblage of rock bands that ESG—a black female rock-funk band—had a hard time fitting into. In this case, the direct appropriation of artistic material without due diligence capitalized on the novelty of a body of work that hadn’t gotten the credit it deserved in the first place… effectively leaving out a crucial chapter of the story of what no wave is and who made it.

 

Get tickets to see ESG live at Baby's All Right in Brooklyn on 9/18

ARTIST PROFILE: Guerilla Toss

Laura Kerry

Revisiting Guerilla Toss’s body of work presents no easy task. First, there’s the problem of tracking everything down—the singles, EPs, LPs, live albums, and split albums; the different labels, including Digitalis Limited, Tzadik, Feeding Tube, NNA Tapes, and the latest, DFA Records, among others; and the CDs, vinyl releases, and tapes. Since their first release in 2010 (or 2012, depending on who you ask), the band in its various incarnations has put out a nearly untraceable amount of music, earning a name for themselves in native Boston’s DIY scene and beyond, in experimental/freak/punk arenas.

Then there’s the problem of spending an excessive amount of time immersed in their sound. In those many releases—particularly the earlier ones—Guerilla Toss is, well, abrasive. In Jeffrey Johnson (2012), GTOSS (2013), and Kicked Back Into the Crypt (2013), singer Kassie Carlson shouts her way through a cacophony of roaring guitars, unpredictable drums, and anxious synths, legible in no other realm of meaning than that of pure energy. Of course, all of that egregiously oversimplifies the complex layers that comprise Guerilla Toss’ hard-to-penetrate noise, but the point is this: Their music is feral and electrifying, and it’s not for the faint of heart.

Guerilla Toss lets you in in their own way, though. With the savage-yet-virtuosic percussion of Peter Negroponte, Arian Shafiee’s screeching and rumbling guitar, and a surprisingly graspable and groovy bass played by an ever-changing list of bassists (currently in the adept hands of Greg Albert), the band plays music that, against your better judgment, gets you to move. Absurd tales of their live shows bear that out. In their early days, at Boston’s Gay Gardens and other DIY hubs (most now sadly defunct), they earned a reputation for their broken guitars, occasional nudity, and ability to incite a crowd to violent moshing with just the four numbers of a count off. Oberlin College once banned them from playing a show on campus. Since then, by their own account, they have settled down. The aggressive jostling has transformed into more civil form of bouncing and booty shaking or, as Negroponte calls it in a recent Impose Magazine interview, the “hippie mosh,” which involves bumping around as one collective audience unit.

That kind of punk-meets-hippie talk is surprisingly representative of a band that falls between many strange intersections. At the surface, their work strikes with the fuck-everything abandon of punk, but it explores with the all-embracing curiosity of jam band music, floating and meandering through trippy landscapes. Sometimes their lyrics match the fiery simplicity of punk politics (“Desire / Try it / Go on and buy it,” from “Multibeast TV” on 2016’s Eraser Stargazer), while others contain the wandering surrealism of the psychedelic genre (seemingly much of 2013’s Gay Disco, if the words were more decipherable). Guerilla Toss plays their instruments and screams like punks, but they talk like slacker hippies, citing old drug habits and occasional continued experimentation as factors in their music. But the band works way too hard, knows their instruments way too well, and creates songs that are way too weird and complicated for the titles “slackers” or “punks” to suffice; they also require the controlled experimentation implied by art rock or one of its many subcategories.

At the start, Guerilla Toss may have shied away from such a label. They treated their skills, along with the music-school training that developed them, as some kind of secret, masking them under noisy music and evasive interviews. But their latest album, Eraser Stargazer, marks the culmination of progress against that impulse. Less noisy and more rigid, it more clearly reveals its distinct parts—weaving synths, intricate beats that remain steady through shifting time signatures, and bass lines that bounce and pop with hooks. Carlson’s voice also comes further into the forefront, mastering a more nuanced spectrum of shouts that includes the prophetic chant of a cave-dwelling oracle on “Perfume,” Betty Boop in a rage on “Diamond Girls,” and your worst nightmare on “Big Brick.” The Guerilla Toss of 2016 remains harsh and a bit wicked (Boston sense of the word included), but with more space for the hardcore averse.

As they tell it, that musical development is a natural result of aging and maturing, a process that has also resulted in a move to New York, the shedding of band members who could not commit enough time, and the reduction of drug use to once-in-a-while experimental trips. The grown-up Guerilla Toss takes itself seriously, but without compromising the deranged humor that has characterized the band throughout their career. It’s just that now, as Carlson’s voice rises into a sharp, twisted “ha ha ha” in “Diamond Girls” and other places, more people will laugh, shake, and gently—lovingly—mosh along with her.

Catch Guerilla Toss at the Summer's End Music Festival in Brooklyn

ARTIST PROFILE: Sonnymoon

Laura Kerry

“We are not Earthlings / We hail from Sonnymoon.”

Harnessing the otherworldly register where her voice often settles, Anna Wise dispassionately chants this line at the beginning of “Soular” as bandmate Dane Orr spins a low, pulsing beat and electronic bass. From the duo’s first album, the self-produced, self-released Golden Age (2009), it offers a good early lesson about the band: In the course of a seven-year career, they have proven themselves not entirely of this world.

Kids (and grown kids) may know that giggle-inducing game in which players add “…in bed” to the end of fortune cookie fortunes; for Sonnymoon, a useful trick to describe their music is to add “…in space” to the end of an assortment of genres. Particularly on Golden Age, which more freely explores a range of sounds (and contains some of the band’s most dazzling tracks to date), this yields fruitful results. “Run Away” is electro-pop in space; “Soft Shoulders” is Amy-Winehouse soul in space; and “Golden Age” reaches the neighborhood of the universe that Portishead has already colonized. In the course of two other full-lengths, 2012’s Sonnymoon and 2015’s The Courage of Present Times, the classification “trip-hop,” which self-contains the appendage “in space,” comes further into focus. But even with its mashed-up and foregrounded percussion, heavy electronic bass, and experimental vocals, the duo often slips away even from that inclusive label.

It’s no surprise that such evasive-yet-controlled experimentation has a scholarly foundation. Wise and Orr met at Boston’s esteemed Berklee College of Music, where she studied voice and he focused on saxophone. Golden Age came out while the two still attended school, and they started on their second album after Wise dropped out of her program in 2010. Even without a degree to show for it, Wise’s voice exhibits the dexterity and power that comes from training mixed with raw talent. While the music on Sonnymoon’s three albums varies hugely in tone and style, her voice remains the focal point of all of it—sometimes lilting softly, as in the self-titled album’s closer, “Just Before Dawn,” sometimes bellowing euphorically, as in the chorus of The Courage of Present Times’ “SNS,” and sometimes humming with an alien weirdness, as in “Nursery Boys” from Golden Age.

As Wise tells it, it’s that last quality of her voice that attracted her best-known collaborator, Kendrick Lamar. Lamar saw the video for “Nursery Boys” on YouTube (while Sonnymoon didn’t have a huge local following in Boston in 2011, they had amassed fans on the Internet), contacted Wise, and she arranged to stop by Compton during the band’s cross-country road trip. From the ensuing partnership came features on Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, and two songs from To Pimp A Butterfly, including the Grammy-winning “These Walls.”

Wise rejects the suggestion that Lamar’s hip-hop might have influenced Sonnymoon’s music, though. In an interview with Billboard last year, she said, “I don't really consider the genre—to me art is art, and I want to work with the greats.” Still, it’s difficult not to read something into the progression of the band alongside Wise’s work with such a legend—if not in the embracing of the trip-hop seeds they had at their start than in the move toward clearer messages in their songwriting. In the second album, Sonnymoon leaves behind a bit of the tongue-in-cheek of “Soular” and “Nursery Boys” and the nebulous poetry of “Gills or Wings” and “Soft Shoulders” for more direct—albeit sometimes mystical—language. “Maybe your head works different than these other fools... / What happens when you toe the line of crazy,” she sings in “Greatness,” reflecting on the mental cost of art. And in “Just Before Dawn,” she croons, clearly and achingly, “Any night you should have someone to hold / Tell you that did okay when your mind’s against you.”

Sonnymoon’s third album takes a step back in the direction of abstraction, but Wise, whose solo career is now inextricably linked to the band, has taken off running down the path of straightforwardness and earthly concerns. Her recent EP, The Feminine: Act I, launches itself into a feminist dialogue with songs such as, “How Would You Call a Dog?,” “Decrease My Waist, Increase My Wage,” and “BitchSlut,” which starts, “So they callin’ you a bitch, callin’ you a slut / ‘Cause you dress up, ‘cause you dress down.” Championing a more unambiguous mixture of pop, R&B, and hip-hop, the EP features cover art that re-creates of Klimt’s painting Danaë, with Wise’s pale knees raised to her forehead, her red hair flowing over her shoulders in a way that renders her both erotic and innocently vulnerable.

Meanwhile, with Orr, Wise continues to favor a style more out-of-this-world. If songs such as “Sex for Clicks” and “Transparent Times” off of The Courage of Present Times engage with the timely topics that their titles suggest, they disguise it with the vitality of their weirdness. Even on the former song, one of very few spare piano ballads in their repertoire, Sonnymoon seems isolated from vulnerability by the distant, supernatural quality that persists throughout their music. But while some of the tunes feel alien and distant—mediated by electronics, experimental editing, and eccentricity—their makers do not shy away from a direct relationship with the audience. In the same Billboard interview, Wise says that live performance is where her band’s music “makes the most sense.” Or, as she explains in “Soular”: “Soon you will find Sonnymoon to you is like a drug / You’ll be like ha ha ha ha give me love.”