Magik Markers / Grouper / Ed Diamante + Goatgirl
The Hemlock Tavern; San Francisco, CA
I must warn you. It is my belief, shaped after much discussion amongst my colleagues, that Thurston Moore has the touch. If ever a man in the underground could make something out of not much, it would be Moore. Through his label, Ecstatic Peace, Moore is actively cultivating the careers of a horde of musicians who seem to benefit mightily from the association. Take the transients Magik Markers. Magik Markers have entered their proto-famous stage, and they owe their fame in no small degree to the promotional prowess of Moore and his imprint. The legend of their early live shows provides an equally important boost of chatter that has helped elevate the group’s hype to a status that, in the eyes of many hard-working bands and jaded cynics, is way overstated and undeserved. I wasn’t quite sure if all the haters weren’t being too hard on the band. When in doubt, go to a live show.
When I mentioned to Mr P that I would be surfing on the East Bay’s finest warehouse couch for a few weeks in October, he suggested the Markers show at the Hemlock as a potential venue for review. I gladly accepted the opportunity. Magik Markers are at a curious turn in their career, which is evidenced by the latest album, Boss, which sees the band’s old school aesthetic of post-hardcore No Wave nods being eclipsed by songwriting. Curious evolution, perhaps, but then again, maybe Elisa Ambrogio (vox, guitar) got tired of spitting on the crowd. Of course, Leah Quimby (bass) left the band amid rumors that she hated the scene, and for some of us (myself included), she provided a hefty core to the scattered and loose histrionics that characterized the early gigs. To lose her was in many ways to lose the core of the Markers’ sound. For a primer on early Markers vibe, find some of the old videos on the Ecstatic Peace website and watch the chaos as it ensued. Or find some live CDR from a Markers tour with a little banter at the beginning of a set where Elisa apologizes for punching someone in Boston the night before.
And of course, it often goes unmentioned, but I think a lot of the Markers fans (especially those with penises) have a crush on Elisa. The idea of a cute female lead punching an audience member is definitely enough to move a noise rock dude’s cue stick around the pocket pool table. A lead singer inspiring minor-league crushes always helps sell some tickets.
I came to the Hemlock with heightened curiosity. I hadn’t heard the new album, but I had read the reviews and was surprised to see that as the band turned to a more structured and pleasant framework, the reviewers were eating it up. I wanted to see where the band was moving. The last time I had seen the Markers, they were but a duo, and I was unimpressed, or rather, disappointed that there wasn’t more violence or chaos. Pete Nolan’s drumming seemed to have tightened up a bit, but Elisa was just madly mashing pedals and strumming her guitar without touching the fretboard at all. That total lack of virtuosity was pissing off a lot of my musician friends who were practicing arpeggios late into the night, sacrificing their social life in a quest to really play some rock music. I heard repeated statements after seeing a Markers set in ‘06 that went along the lines of “anyone can do that.”
The Markers, it would seem, were (at least early on) relying entirely on a disrespectful vibe and improvised destruction to excite the listeners and viewers. Now that they were going more legit (ostensibly), I figured it was worth checking out, if for no other reason that it was becoming such a big-ass force.
My hosts for the evening, being that I was an out-of-towner with no expectation, made no small effort to advise me that The Hemlock is a place with a strange vibe, a place they detested for shows. Despite the warning, I remained open-minded as we sidled up to the entrance. The guy at the front checked my ID but didn’t take my cover, a curious sign. After stepping through the door, I was immediately sandwiched between bodies and, for the rest of the evening, found it nigh impossible to reach all of the key transit corridors within the venue.
See, The Hemlock has a curious layout whereby the bar, which has a semen-soaked meat market feel, is totally segregated from the venue, which is tiny and shoebox-shaped with nowhere to sit. You can’t sit at the bar and watch the band. To see the show, you pay cover to the second guy, who sits near the small doorway that leads into the music room. Thus, there is no connection between the majority of the bar crowd and the folks crammed into the actual venue room beyond their patronage of The Hemlock and a near-universal appreciation for beer. It makes for a bizarre separation, and frankly, I did not like the feel of the bar area, with its crowded elbow-crashing and claustrophobic bathroom lines. I wasn’t used to seeing so many big dudes in pleated khakis at noise rock shows.
On the flip side, the music room itself was so small and closed off that there was hardly any room to breathe, move, or see the band, unless you crept to the back and stood on a bench. The band was up on a two-foot riser, so audience interaction with the group was prevented. At least most other small rooms put the band right in your face.
When I arrived at The Hemlock, I was later than expected because pizza took priority; my belly prevented me from arriving on time. Through a drawn curtain from the sidewalk external, I glimpsed the opening band but missed the boat. It looked promising, though, at least based on the belly dancing lady. However, by the time I squirreled my way through the beer line and made it past the second door dude, nothing was happening.
After a bit, Grouper took the stage, and I was completely underwhelmed. I recognize the potentially pleasing nature of her music, which would have been nice on a hungover morning on the Cape Ann peninsula with a bloody mary and no desire to move around. However, crammed into the tiny Hemlock boxcar, the flaccid and oceanic vocal lament did nothing for me, so I retreated to the frat room and smoked cigarettes, biding my time by mentally devising innovative ways to exit the venue should a chaotic explosion make escape necessary. I was bored.
After all that was done, I re-entered the place and watched the Markers take the stage. I had heard a rumor (so much gossip about this band) that Ben Chasny and Elisa were ‘dating.’ He had played with them on some other tours, and Ambrogio, Chasny, and Brian Sullivan all just released a less-than-stellar album together. So it was no surprise to see him setting up. At least one of the guitar players that night would be showing off some virtuosity. I’m not sure who the fourth member of the band was, but from what my buddy told me, it’s Pete Nolan’s girlfriend. If all that tabloid-style info was correct, then we had a couple’s band on stage. Weirdness abounds.
The set began with little aplomb. A pseudo-tribalistic build-up transferred into a crooning low volume ballad, with little sonic bursts here and there. Not much hardcore influence peeked through. Instead, the Markers were approaching some kind of Neil Young derivative, with Chasny doing some respectable work on the low-end and Elisa picking out some primitive rhythm guitar and the occasional turtle-speed guitar solo twang. I heard what I thought were Pink Floyd-paced tarmac jams, the kind of thing I like to think airport employees listen to beneath their ear protection. Your AM radio playing a free-form structure from Piper at the Gates of Dawn could approximate the feel. The whole affair stunk of purpose and plans, and I was pretty sure that they were doing something they had rehearsed.
Little sounds here and there caught my attention, like at one point where I was struck by an unidentifiable noise (possibly synth-derived) that was just a little bit more than trippy washes, like plant dew dropping in purple. After that one ended, a break in the band’s volume was met with a shout from the crowd – a request for “Body Rot,” which I am told has the best hook on Boss. That small ignorable moment stood out in my mind, an illustration, if you will, for it showed that the Markers definitely have some fans who are paying Close Attention. The Ecstatic Peace promo machine will have Magik Markers well-positioned, should a couple of rungs on the music world ladder open up for advancement. They have a legitimate buzz and some now-legendary early work to interest new fans, and of course the good looks to inspire celebrity crushes. Teen Beat is waiting.
By the third jam, the tempo picked up a bit and evolved into a garage beat and some surf-town, cop-evading rock vibes. Predictions spewed forth in my estimations of their intent as I studied the song structures, and I fully expected this to break out into some kind of dark pop-rock circuit of Radiohead covers. Elisa has clearly learned more about the guitar in the past few years, and now the Markers seem to be more of a vehicle for her and Pete to collaborate on songs based on her poems. The act is moving beyond an homage to the violent, feminine crowd bashing late-‘70s work of Lydia Lunch that characterized their earlier work, which I must admit totally rocked my world in 2005. I was once totally stunned by the concept but am becoming increasingly dissatisfied with their attempts at maturity. Having Ben Chasny along for the ride certainly adds buttloads of depth to the mélange, but if I want Chasny, I’ll get some Six Organs or Comets. The Markers are in between stages, and their adolescence (mid-life crisis?) is attracting a lot of attention. I’d just as soon wait a few years to see how well they are able to flesh out their new sound. There are other bands to be checking out in the meantime.
Midway through the third jam, my buddies (and ride to the show) were fully disgusted, worn, and tired of the whole parade, and announced it was time to leave. I didn’t get to see the resolution of the Pink Floyd thing (or the other two songs promised) or find out if bottles still get broken at Magik Markers shows. I was disappointed because Magik Markers seem to be concentrating on acting like a ‘real’ band that plays songs that they wrote and thought about, something I never really thought that they were equipped to do. Instead, I had them pegged three years ago as a band under a microscope that would always be plowing the underground with sneers and middle fingers, looking for another dark room to vomit on.
Ultimately, the post-show philosophizing on topics of metaphysical import left more of an imprint on my brain that the Markers show, except for a prime lesson – The Hemlock is a crappy venue and a horrible place to posture yourself amidst psych-rock hopefuls and hype eaters. Why would any self-respecting band put their fans through that kind of torture when there are hundreds of much more enjoyable venues to play in the glorious Bay Area? Could it be $$? Sorry, and for the fans who are saddened to hear such a jaded and cynical appraisal of The Hemlock affair, you need not aim your vitriol any further than my e-mail inbox.