Tired Soldiers of the Modern Age
Apes and Androids at Music Hall of Williamsburg
Thomas Mann once said, “Only the exhaustive is truly interesting.” That may be so, but exhaustive things don’t have to be exhausting. They can be invigorating, anthemic, sex-crazed rock shows that incorporate Dance Dance Revolution contests, 3-D versions of “Thriller,” and traditional Korean rhythm sections from NYU as well.
The members of Apes and Androids, a widely celebrated six-piece from Brooklyn notorious for its bizarre live shows, are among the most tireless explorers of pop music styles, genres, and poses in recent memory. They can sound like Queen, Beck, the Carpenters, David Bowie, the Cars, Radiohead, Of Montreal, the music from Blade Runner, and sometimes three or four of these in one song. Trying to classify them is futile. They make the rock critic’s arsenal of descriptors (glam-rock, sci-fi pop, flamboyant space opera) seem hopelessly narrow.
Apes and Androids released their first album, Blood Moon, last March, and have been performing in and around Brooklyn for several years. On January 30 they played a sold-out show at Music Hall of Williamsburg with the Phenomenal Handclap Band and Bonnie Baxter. The crowd was as diverse as the songs on Blood Moon: hipsters, frat dudes, teenage girls, middle-aged music nerds, hippies, all mingling and cavorting in a haze of pot smoke and good humor. It felt right in this age of post-partisanship.
After the show, David Tobias, who is twenty-seven and formed the band with childhood friend Brian Jacobs, said, “We enjoy bringing people together who wouldn’t normally be in the same room.” Tobias and Jacobs both play guitar and sing; they also wrote, recorded, and performed all the songs on the album themselves. “Every show is bigger than the last show,” Tobias continued, “so we’re just starting to tell that some type of thing is going on.” He guessed that, since almost every song on Blood Moon is stylistically distinct, people came to the show for different reasons. “If they were into ‘Riverside,’ they might be a music nerd who’s into Queen. If they got into ‘Nights of the Week,’ they might be a teenage girl.”
Like a teenage girl, I was hooked first by “Nights of the Week.” It’s an instant time-warp leap into the past—the ’80s, specifically. In addition to being a perfect parody of the earnest dramatic comedy soundtracks of the Reagan era, “Nights of the Week” is strangely moving. “I want to lay down in my bathroom/And feel okay at last,” Tobias sings, unable to resist a slight British inflection. The song manages to balance the competing senses of doom and comic levity that go with the decision to move back in with one’s parents. Moreover, it forces you to reexamine the prevailing mood of ’80s pop music. Take Sparks’s “Music That You Can Dance To” from 1986 (which appears during the dance-off scene in the BMX cult classic Rad of that year). “Cracks you like a whip but it feels so right,” the Mael brothers hiss. “Outside the world is colder/Every single night it’s another fight.” I’d always thought this was straight-faced. But it turns out there’s a wink in there, buried beneath pulsing synthesizers and silver face-paint.
Carefully balancing irony and sincerity in this way may be nothing more than exquisite taste. Tobias admits as much when discussing Queen, his favorite band. He was thirteen when he first heard “The Prophet’s Song” from A Night at the Opera. “It was exactly what I was looking for,” he says. “At the time, I was into Metallica, Korn, Tool. And I thought, ‘Damn, this is pretty ballsy.’ Heavy guitars and drums and crazy bursts of emotion, mixed with weird classical, jazz, opera, metal. It went all over the place, and they seemed unabashed in their demonstrations.” He added, “Brian May is my favorite guitar player of all time.”
At Music Hall, keyboardist Morgan Whirledge, wearing gold Lycra and white running sneakers, limboed and pranced around, occasionally rocketing confetti into the crowd. In lieu of the Korean drummers (see “Apes and Androids at Knitting Factory” on YouTube), the entire band banged on tom-toms during “Hot Kathy.” Midway through the set, two dozen glow-in-the-dark beach balls were dumped over the balcony, and started zipping through the air like so many valence electrons. Perhaps inspired by the libidos on display, a bespectacled girl beside me texted her friend, “So I was right. I have a crush on Chris.”
The combination of primal sexuality and technical competence (the apes and the androids, respectively) on Blood Moon translates perfectly to the stage. Part rallying cry, part victory celebration, the spectacle recalled the way major sporting events have co-opted “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions.” Apes and Androids have an appeal as broad and charming as Queen’s, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see them embraced in the same way.
JED LIPINSKI used to play tambourine in the band Hexa.