22 October 2010
The archaelogical dig for old press continues. I’m a bit of an old man when it comes to this sort of thing: scrapbooking and assembling my own personal set of memoirs from what I would consider a colourful, exciting and unforgettable set of events over the last 10-15 years. Here’s one that my friend Toby from New York did from some online magazine called Earlash back in 2003 for the band “Radio Berlin”. I don’t even remember doing these things. Some of them were done on the phone. Some of them email. Maybe some of them in person? Who knows. The original transcription is here.
RADIO BERLIN: Vancouver Songs
By Tobias Carroll
For kicks, I downloaded the Measure’s demo the other night. It wasn’t hard; The Hive Studios — the Vancouver, BC studio where most of Radio Berlin’s recorded work to date has been set to tape — maintains a storehouse of MP3s from assorted bands, some defunct, some not. It’s almost frighteningly comprehensive. Spend fifteen minutes there and you’ll get a sense of just how interconnected the Vancouver musical community is. Spend thirty and you’ll be overtaken with an urge to drop large amounts of cash on releases from labels like Ache, Global Symphonic, and Scratch. Spend an hour and you’ll be making headway on a graduate thesis on how Vancouver is an unlikely evolutionary hotspot for underground music.
The Measure, in this case, was the late-’90s band in which Radio Berlin’s Chris Frey and Jack Duckworth first began playing together. In much of Radio Berlin’s recorded output, they trade off vocal duties, with Duckworth generally heard on guitars and keyboards, Frey on bass. During their time in the Measure, Frey handled vocals exclusively; Duckworth was one of two guitarists.
“I actually met Chris in the mid-90’s when he and a few other fellas ran this small record store here in Vancouver called Washout,” Jack recalls. After moving to Vancouver in 1997, he spent a good amount of time at Washout. “One day I was complaining to Chris about getting a different sort of band started and he mentioned that he was jamming with this guy Matt who played in these post hardcore bands Okara and 30 Second Motion Picture (ex-Shotmaker) that got me totally stoked — that project sort of got the years of friendship going…”
The Measure recorded one demo of visceral, riff-driven songs (think the Monorchid or Jesus Lizard) and played together for a year, disbanding in 1998. Radio Berlin’s formation took place shortly thereafter, with keyboardist Warren Hill and drummer Josh Wells (who had been involved with the recording of the Measure’s demo — interconnectedness, you see?) joining Frey and Duckworth. This version of the lineup would remain intact for the next three years.
A demo came first, followed by Sibling (Love und Romance, 1999 / Action Driver, 2003), the band’s first full-length. This album, though it comes off as a bit rough-sounding in comparison with the band’s subsequent recordings, remains an occasionally abrasive, relentless debut, welding post hardcore’s urgency with wary, jaded vocal stylings. You can throw the New Wave tag out if you’d like, but upon closer inspection, it isn’t a perfect fit. Still, it’s hard to deny the influence of the music of a specific era on Radio Berlin. When I asked Jack about this — in relation to both Radio Berlin and his other band, the neo-industrial A Luna Red — his response is level:
“Both bands do draw from certain aesthetics that we like in music that were championed more so in the late ’70s and early ’80s then nowadays. There was so much variety of ‘alternative’ music going on in those days that people don’t realize …
“I think there are a lot of bands nowadays that milk the retro thing a little bit too much — seemingly all in backlash to bad post grunge and bland indie rock or whatever. It’s hard to say what that line is though. I personally just listen to something and I let my gut feeling judge whether or not it’s something that stands out on its own or [is] just too derivative or unable to stray from set structures and formulas already established. I think the bands that balance out influence and chemistry well tend to rise above the field in a natural and respected manner.”
Released concurrently with Glass, Radio Berlin’s latest, is a full-length of remixes titled Sister Sounds (Global Symphonic, 2003). Sibling, Sister Sounds. Is there a running theme here?
“Coincidence,” says Chris. “[Sibling] was titled after a song on that album that is actually about my sister.”
Jack adds, “Sister Sounds was chosen as there’s an old Simple Minds EP called Sister Feelings Call that accompanied the LP that came out at the time called Sons And Fascination. I thought of the Sister Sounds LP as a sort of alternative accompaniment to The Selection Drone with the similar cover design and all, so the title just kind of fell out of that.
“A lot of people pass off Simple Minds as a one-hit wonder but a few of their first albums were fantastic.”
It was on their first US tour in the summer of 2000 when I first came into contact with Radio Berlin, trying to help them book a New York City show. Nothing came of that, regrettably, but I did get a chance to meet the band and travel with them for a few days on their tour through North America in autumn of the following year. The Selection Drone (Your Best Guess/Ache, 2001 / Action Driver, 2003) finds the band’s sound growing cleaner. The album builds, from an almost detached beginning to the penultimate song “Twelve Fingers,” with its anguished shouts of “Something’s breaking/ Can you feel it breaking?” It’s the synth-drenched title track that closes the album, ending things on a moody, cinematic note. (Full disclosure: I was involved with the now-defunct Your Best Guess Records.)
Looking at The Selection Drone’s cover, you’re hit with an immediate cold feeling: within a silver border rests a dark green-tinged photograph of a sparsely lit corridor. In the high-contrast image of the band inside, the group appears mostly as silhouettes, standing on a barren coastline. The layout suits the mood of the record, and vice versa — which is unsurprising, given the band’s extracurricular activities.
Chris takes photographs. Some of them can be seen on the covers of Radio Berlin’s albums; others can be seen in Portraits 99-01, a small book jointly released by the above-mentioned Global Symphonic and Ache labels. From experimental musician Brady Cranfield’s foreword: “Frey’s work represents a certain mode of being in the world, common in our media-smart era”.
The fifty-two photographs contained therein are, according to Frey’s commentary, “a product of my connection to a subculture.” The images range from documentations of bands on tour to snappily dressed kids in clubs, some avoiding the lens, some embracing it. The front and back cover images on Glass — both by Frey — are in a similar vein.
“In graphic presentation,” Jack explains, “the usual way we work is a combination of photographic images developed by Chris … I incorporate them into something design-wise that’s simple, clean, intriguing, and not too heavily leaning on any particular style.” Duckworth calls his own approach to visual design “a weird mix of minimalism, chaos, and high contrast tones.
“I’m really into the early Bauhaus and De Stijl styles as well as music-based stuff like 23 Envelope and Peter Saville … at the same time into the whole reactionary anti-design thing as well that’s been popping up here and there over the last little while. On the new record, Glass, we wanted to capture a grittier feel in the packaging …”
After Radio Berlin’s 2001 fall tour, Warren Hill left the band to attend school in Montreal. Joining the band on keyboards was filmmaker and musician Lyndsay Sung. Sung, a member of the multimedia performance Night Nurse, has also made a video to accompany A Luna Red’s “SLZMK.” Wells would also leave the band following the recording of Glass; the search for a replacement, Duckworth admits, was not an easy one.
Concurrently with his time in Radio Berlin, Wells also played in Jerk With a Bomb, a critically acclaimed group whose lineup has grown, in recent years, from a duo to a four-piece. Though Wells sounded equally at home in both groups, Jerk With a Bomb’s hazy, drifting rock sounds nothing like Radio Berlin — Those Bastard Souls and Calexico work far better as reference points. Wells’ departure was a friendly one: Jerk With a Bomb and Radio Berlin have shared several Vancouver bills this year, and Wells recently recorded Radio Berlin for a track to appear on a Kill Rock Stars compilation.
Rob Zgaljic, formerly of the Black Halos, joined Radio Berlin briefly in the spring. His style “was a lot more frigid and angular … strong in his own right,” Jack says — and the band’s songwriting adjusted to fit that. When the Black Halos reformed, Zgaljic left Radio Berlin, ultimately replaced by Brad MacKinnon, also of Fuck Me USA.
Jack Duckworth: “Brad’s style is quite similar to Josh’s. In the beginning stages we had a tough time finding a drummer to commit as Josh’s style and skill are, in my opinion, a combination that makes him currently one of the best rock drummers out there.
“[FM USA] played with A Luna Red earlier this year and I somewhat remembered his drum playing from that point. Skip a couple of months later and Rob leaves the band due to the reformation of the Black Halos and instantly Brad resurfaced again in memory. When we played our first and last show with Rob in Victoria, Chris proposed the whole playing with Radio Berlin and touring and Brad was in there quick as a flash. He’s a great drummer and a super fun guy. We’re humbled to have him aboard!”
For the band’s recent songwriting, Sung has moved from keyboards to bass, with Frey and Duckworth exploring the interplay between two guitars. Frey had joined Destroyer in the winter of 2001, and spent parts of 2002 on the road with said band, accompanying Calexico through the US. He, too, seems excited about the possibilities afforded by the new lineup: “Brad and Lyndsay are fantastic … the two-guitar and bass sound is something we have only just jumped into so the sound is changing again”.
Jack concurs. “Being in this band for five or so years is gonna see us trying new things and incorporating new ideas. I find the current line-up of this date is a little bit more noisier and brash than our previous compositions.”
On, then, to Glass.
“With Glass we weren’t really consciously referencing anything rather than building on what we had started.” These are Jack’s words concerning his band’s new album in relation to its predecessors. “The songs on Glass took a really long time to write as we’re all meticulous about crafting them. Some of them we’d write most of it and then sit on it for months and months and then come back to it later once the key elements to completion had been figured out. It’s definitely our strongest record yet, and hopefully more to come!”
Glass applies the polish heard on The Selection Drone to a wider musical canvas. Sung’s keyboard playing has a slightly different sound than Hill’s, a focus on different details within a similar overall approach. “D.E.S.” fuses the band’s knowledge of stop-start dynamics with a reverse-engineered, multi-layered pop sensibility: through a series of repeated patterns, a driving, catchy song emerges. At eight songs in length, the album has plenty of weight; you’re left wanting more at the end as opposed to feeling that the band’s overstayed their welcome.
The question arises of the so-called New Wave revival. Posing questions to Jack about the classification of their music, and of any misconceptions that the band may have encountered, yields a comprehensive answer. “We get the usual misconceptions with our music: that we listen to too much Duran Duran or something …
“Glass is definitely moving into its own sound, although in context with the newer stuff we’ve been writing since then it’s definitely a unique record. Sibling and the 1998 predecessor to that were more drawing on other influences mainly due to the fact that we were still young as a band and needed the time to develop into something that was our own. We started writing using different ideas and elements in mind; we got used to each other’s playing and used that to accent our own playing. I think it’s a good album that we put a lot of hard work into.
“[B]ands like Hot Hot Heat and Interpol seem to be of this alien world to us. I mean, we’re longtime friends of Hot Hot Heat and toured with them in our earlier days, but I guess us as people are still more based out of an arts, activity-based community where people more work on a DIY-network and have done things from art shows to activism, etc. over the years.
“I feel the natural push into the bigger arena that is the rock world, but we are guiding ourselves through it in a way that benefits us and the people we work with without trying to get churned into the hype machine. I think between us, Hot Hot Heat, and Interpol there’s a lot of stylistic differences between the three in sound, playing, content, and composition that most people viewing these bands casually as the neo-wave phenomenon could lazily say: ‘Oh yeah — those dudes all sound like Joy Division’ which is like me saying any of the more punk/post hardcore bands all sound like Fugazi.”
Radio Berlin’s involvement in their local music scene — in which a number of disparate-sounding bands share bills, record labels, and members to a degree unheard of anywhere else — is not to be taken lightly. Throughout Glass, references to isolation and the urban landscape are abundant. Has the city itself become the band’s muse?
From Jack: “One thing that we all in the band have recognized about the album is that the album has a genuine ‘Vancouver’ feel to it. I think the lyrics on the album somewhat document the social culture of all the people we know in Vancouver; how they are surrounded. By saying this I don’t want to give the impression that Vancouver is this dreary place where everyone is cold and isolated because it’s not at all!
“But like all people living urban life there’s that thin line between feeling so close to people and then being around a lot of people and not really feeling near to anyone. Vancouver is a pretty extreme city too: you’ve got very wealthy people living in new, glass high-rises on one block and then you have some of the most visually arresting displays of poverty and drug use in North America on another block, so there’s this border between bliss and chaos that kind of is documented. Especially with some of Chris’ songs on the album, like “D.E.S.,” which somewhat directly addresses the issues of drug use and poverty in the downtown eastside, where Chris lived right in the middle of it for a year or so.”
Chris’ thoughts on Vancouver go right for the heart of things. “It’s pretty easy to live in Vancouver compared to a lot of places in the world, [as] there are a lot of people here that lead lives strictly dedicated to their arts. The music and art community are pretty supportive of each other and that makes for a lot of great bands.”
Closing words, then, from Jack: “Since Vancouver kind of sits outside of the turbulent North American indie music scene we’ve had a chance to observe it and its hype and kind of do our own thing in reaction to it. There are numerous bands here that are fantastic and finally making their way into the core of the American circuit: Frog Eyes, Jerk With A Bomb, the Red Light Sting, and Three Inches Of Blood just to name a few.”
With a renewed focus, a steady lineup, and a great deal of hometown support behind them, Radio Berlin is a rare entity in today’s music scene: egalitarian, aware of their influences, and grateful for their roots. Even without the music that they make, you’d want to wish them well. Throw in their musical side and what you have is even more singular: a post punk band with soul to spare.