To Shred Is To Be
Brooklyn's Pterodactyl have been evoking visions of a debilitating post-punk shred-a-tonia for years now. I saw them single-handedly bring down a well-padded house party basement show with nary a song's worth of killer amp fire. The cops came and gave a warning about the noise. The kids on the front porch were encouraged to enter the house and P-Dac continued to forge through a seriously destructive set of music replete with volume-heavy string-torching and the rapid-fire caterwaul of a drum set under attack. Matt Marlin, Joe Kremer, and Kurt Beals didn't get to finish playing their full set that night, for the cops came back mid-way through the third song and attempted to arrest the party organizers. It's a shame really, for even though the volume was considerable, the intent behind the music was not malicious.
Or at least that's what I thought. I guess the neighbors disagreed. Pterodactyl seems to proudly walk the fine line between noisy, loud, obnoxious jagged jams and totally tight, well-meaning harmonic rock destruction. They exist in a prismatic sphere of loud rock music that, to those of us who are too well-acquainted with the noisiest representatives of rock's lineage, stands as a fair and exciting statement about the possibilities inherent in less distorted, well-rehearsed, intentional work. Yet, the trio never loses the driver that it seems will always underpin their work, which is to totally annihilate the auditory faculties of their listeners with precision and popcorn oil.
I ran into them in Chapel Hill during the late evening, not hours before they were scheduled to perform at the tiny art-land vortex Nightlight. Their newest, self-titled album, which is also their first full-length and a mighty fine looking LP at that, was released in April on Jagjaguwar. Carefully crafted with assistance from the pros in Parts and Labor under the umbrella of Brah Records, the album is a testament to the band's rapidly evolving screech song aesthetic. They organized a tour to help support the record and managed to make it to my little corner of North Carolina. The touring lineup included bassist Kurt, who has relocated from Brooklyn to Berkeley in order to earn a Master's Degree. (New Pterodactyl member Zach fills in when Kurt is absent.) The tour-weary band was enthused about the possibility of getting outdoors, so I invited them into my car and we drove to an unpaved parking area near a sizeable expanse of forest. We unloaded from the car and traversed some train tracks and an old, somewhat terrifying railroad trestle, before a trail through pines brought us to a small playground. We all sat down in the sand for an hour and, despite the mosquitoes, explored the motivations and collaboration that drive Pterodactyl's jumping, rough-edged dreamworld, which is awash in frequencies not dissimilar to the insects that come through on the interview tape deck's microphone.
(Joe casually strums ukelele, loud cicadas chirp)
When did your newest album come out?
It's your first full-length, right?
Joe: It is. But the oldest song on there is five years old.
Matt: Which one is that?
J: Safe Like a Train.
M: That was on our first seven inch. We recorded the album with these guys called The Brothers (they're brothers) in Greenpoint. They recently started a recording studio. We gave them a sampler of songs that we wrote, but they really liked that old song off the seven inch. Then…
J: We had a recording of it sped up. We said, isn't this novel?
Sped up? Like from 33 to 45?
M: Not that perceivably, but...
J: The old one goes like this. strums guitar Then the new one is more like this. strums guitar - higher pitched, faster tempo It makes it into a hoppy…
Kurt: Like its trying to get somewhere.
J: Exactly. It's churning along, like a train.
When I listen to your songs, I have these visions of y'all jumping around, wherever you happen to be at that moment performing the songs.
J: Or maybe when you play the record, we start jumping around wherever we are.
Is the record hardwired with special radio frequencies inside that relay to a special collar in your neck that makes you jump around? That's the next generation of performance art.
M: Luckily not too many people listen to our record at the same time. We have a hidden motivation in not becoming too popular.
What do you do to accomplish that goal?
J: Make music that is difficult to listen to.
M: Make music with no bass frequencies that hurt people's ears
J: In the past it has seemed like a really exciting thing, to make music that shreds people's ears apart. I think it does it less so on the record than at the shows. People say “Man, I like those songs but you are hard to listen to. There is so much of that stuff that hurts you.”
M: “I love your Myspace page.”
J: It's a difficult question; whether to shred people's ears or make them pleased to listen to your music.
Do you desire to shred people's ears, or is it…
M: It used to be. We started playing in college in the basement. We were thinking that the music has to sound really tough. Then we realized that we are all pansies.
Will having Kurt in Berkeley influence the way that your sound develops?
J: This tour has been an attempt to try to play the music that we made with Kurt on the newest record.
M: In practice there's not that much difference between what we've done with Zach in Brooklyn, but besides a couple of new songs that we wrote with him that we haven't been playing on this tour, I think the general idea is doing what we know how to do together the best we can.
Which is perhaps shredding people's ears.
M: We do that with Zach too.
J: That's the funny thing. We do that very naturally. I think some of it has to do with the fact that our ears are damaged in that frequency range already, because we've been playing there a long time. Even when things are shredding other people's ears, we think 'Aw, that's not ear-shredding enough.'
M: And we're wearing ear plugs.
K: Yeah. I think that's the thing with our show, and when we write songs. We're writing songs with ear plugs in, and then we listen to stuff on the recordings, and its not turned up nearly as loud as when we play, so we're kind of shielding ourselves from exactly the frequencies that destroy everyone's ears.
M: And the writing kind of necessitates the volume, or at least we make it so that it does. If we try to turn down a lot, it doesn't sound the same. For Joe and Kurt it's a volume issue, and for me it's an energy issue. I feel the way I'm inclined to play the drums is in a sweaty and emphatic way. I'm trying to improve on a more dynamic range and subtlety, so I'm not always blowing it out. It's a constant struggle.
J: Constant struggle.
Where do you think your desire to play loud music comes from?
J: Emotional insecurities. My mother did not hold me enough when I was a child, so I'm afraid to put myself at risk in performance. So I hide behind the noise.
That's totally fair.
J: I don't know about these guys, that's just for me.
M: Exactly the same for us.
K: Joe's mom definitely didn't hold me enough as a child.
J: She's been making up for it, hasn't she?
M: She holds me enough now, whew!
J: Hey oh!
Cicadas: Chirp, chirp
M: Kurt and I were both talking about experiencing vertigo on that bridge
J: Yeah, you guys were clearly having a difficult time getting across that bridge
M: Yeah, I felt that feeling like a feeling in your stomach when death is near, or possible. More possible than it is normally.
K: Well, I just had vertigo.
M: I think that's what vertigo is though. Your brain senses that that possibility is very real.
K: No, there's a difference between things that you're just afraid of abstractly but they don't affect you physically.
J: Were you guys afraid that a train was gonna come?
K: For me, when I am somewhere high…
Like on top of a building?
K: Yeah, I get rushes of a feeling like I am going to fall.
Like a vision of the immediate future?
M: My palms sweat a lot. Not in general, but in those situations.
Owl: Hoot, hoot
I'll put the owl hoot in the interview.
K: You sure it's not just some punk kids? Hooligans?
I got jumped in Philly by some hooligan kids!
J: No shit?
Yeah, they must have been teenagers. Have y'all hung out in Philly much?
M: A little.
What was your experience like?
M: We had a hit and run experience. We were there with Zach (alternate bassist when Kurt is in Berkeley).
J: Someone got hit really hard from the back, and their car jumped forward and hit our car. There was only a tiny dent in our car.
M: The guy that hit them faked them out. He said “Alright, I'll pull over.” He went around our car and pulled over. As soon as the driver of the car that hit us pulled over, got out, and stood up, the other guy in front of us bolted. So they went on a chase to find the guy and we followed and videotaped the chase. It was like a vicarious hit and run.
J: Back to something we talked about earlier, I think there is a chance that our music will get more pleasant, as time goes on. The songs that people like most, on the record, are the same songs that, for example, my sister likes. My sister does not like really noisy junk. I think those are the same songs that we enjoy. What do y'all think? What are you guys' favorite songs?
K: There's a difference between what's fun to listen to and what's fun to play, sometimes. Sometimes we like to get sweaty and obnoxious when we're playing a show. You're not really considering how it sounds.
M: All of the pleasant sounding things on the record pretty much come about because of the recording process, which enables the sound independent from live performance. That divide is sort of artificial in the studio, and then the challenge is to bring that back to the performance.
J: I'm not saying that our performances will become more pleasant.
Do you think you'll end up with two sets of songs?
M: I think we'll just be writing more songs that we can't play live. I think with our next project we'll be less concerned about writing material that translates well to a live performance.
J: Or we'll interpret songs in a different way in order to make them work live, where we can't do the things that make them work on record. This is all hypothetical of course, because none of these songs actually exist.
You still have yet to write them?
M: We've got some things cooking.
Kurt, have you been seeking other music projects on the West Coast?
K: I haven't been yet, since I just started grad school.
M: You've done some super band jamming.
K: Yeah, I guess I jammed with some friends. Dudes from Battleship and Gowns, but so far that's been making noise as one-off things.
Those little one-off noise improv bands can be really fun to be involved in.
K: Yeah - and sometimes its a good way to remember what you like to do when you have an instrument in your hands. I'm not normally making loud noise when I'm playing on my own, so being in that setting again is nice. I imagine I'll start doing something with somebody somehow out there, but hypothetical right now.
Do you ever mail stuff back and forth, long-distance songwriting?
K: We haven't done that. We had all kinds of hypotheticals when I decided I was moving out there.
J: Kurt came out for our record release show, where we played as a four-piece. We had a couple of days before the show where we practiced that line-up, and we screwed around for a little bit. Some of that material has proved very useful.
M: When we get back to New York, we're playing as a four-piece. When we transition from Kurt to Zach or vice-versa we like to pass the torch in some kind of performative way.
J: Usually using "Polio" as a song that four people can play on very easily.
That's the first song on the new album?
What's that sound on the very first track?
J: What do you think it is?
It sounds like a bird.
J: It is a bird.
M: What kind of bird is it?
Maybe a larger bird, I would say.
J: Hmmmm… What do you think is the bird on the cover of the record?
I don't know.
J: That is a blue jay, for the record.
M: That's what we call the album. It's supposedly self-titled because Jagjaguar said…
J: That if you didn't actually put the word blue jay on the cover we couldn't call it blue jay in the catalog.
M: Now we treat it like a really serious album nickname.
K: Like The White Album.
J: There is this story that is true. I promise that it is true. We stayed at our respective homes only one night during the recording process, because Matt lived really close to the recording studio and we would just go and crash at his place and then wake up really early in the morning and go back to the studio. When I woke up after the first night we'd already been hoping to call the record blue jay or something related to blue jay and I don't remember exactly how it started but…
K: You said that one picture…
J: Ohhhhhh yeah. There's this funny picture of a taxidermied blue jay at a natural history museum diorama in Connecticut that looked so awkward and strange, just sitting on the rock. I mean standing on the rock.
K: It's not hard to envision a bird sitting. With its legs crossed. Or akimbo.
J: I woke up to a funny sound after that first night, much like the sound that's on the beginning of the record, I had no clue what it was, and I looked out the window and there was a blue jay singing to me from the fire escape. It struck me so deeply that I had to convince these dudes to let us use that for the album title, at least unofficially. That's not so unbelievable, is it?
No, I used to spend a lot of time at the natural history museum growing up.
J: It's a wonderful place.
M: We also went a little further. At the time we were recording, we were a little loopy, we weren't sleeping all that much. Joe felt that it was something of a mystical experience.
J: I'm easily swayed.
K: Birds have a reputation for telling the future.
M: They are harbingers of news.
K: Auguries and such.
M: We did a lot of research into blue jays and found out that there's this funny Native American story about blue jays. It's about how the blue jay got its voice. The blue jay is a trickster. He has a falling off with people…
K: There was another equally strange story on that website about how humans got wrinkled anuses. Someone fell asleep by the fire. They were farting to try to keep away animals, and they got mad at their anus for not farting enough. So they stuck it in the fire to punish it, and that's why we have wrinkled anuses.
What kind of Native American tribe was this?
K: Southwestern, I think. I can't remember exactly.
M: Anyway, the blue jay was this crazy trickster, and some god punished it for playing a trick on people by taking away its singing voice. So it could only squawk and express itself in an amelodic way.
Y'all felt a little bit of kinship there, huh?
K: Yeah, we feel like its our animal brother.
Squawking mightily. By the way, do y'all know what the kids in… What was the question you asked me earlier about Stand By Me?
J: Oh yeah – the train comes when they're on the tracks in Stand By Me, but they just run fast on the bridge and jump off, right?
M: I don't remember Stand By Me
M: Sorry. Don't look at Kurt either.
K: I've never seen a movie in my life.
M: Kurt doesn't watch movies.
J: The only thing he knows about is Mr. Belvedere for some reason.
What was Mr. Belvedere again? I get him and Benson confused a lot.
J: Mr Belvedere was this portly nanny, who had an attitude.
K: A British nanny butler. Kind of like Mrs. Doubtfire, but only a man.
J: And he wasn't as kind as Mrs. Doubtfire was.
M: Kurt – have you seen Mrs. Doubtfire? I don't wanna give you any spoilers, but that was Dustin Hoffman; I mean Robin Williams. Last night while you guys were asleep, I watched this documentary about an architect, Louis Kahn, who would have had a lot to do with what Philadelphia looks like today, had he not been very avant-garde. Instead, Philadelphia ended up how it is now. He wanted a design for the city where everyone parked their cars outside the city and walked in.
It doesn't seem very likely these days that you'd be able to pull off a city design like that.
M: That was in the late 60s/early 70s that he proposed that.
K: I would have thought he had that idea in the days of the streetcar.
It's my understanding that the streetcar suburbs were the first suburbs of the United States. The suburbs that you could reach by electric streetcars just outside of town…
J: In Philly?
In different American cities, before a lot of people actually owned cars. People were still working in the central city, but living along the streetcar routes. I also have read in various places that bikes were the original intended mode of transportation for what has become some of the main roads or arterial routes of today, not cars. Or in other words, they built roads to make it easier to bike, and then not long thereafter, those roads became converted for use by cars.
J: You mean paved roads?
Yeah, paved, but not paved with concrete…
So where did you get the name Pterodactyl?
Cicadas: Chirp, Chirp