It's been a wild few months for Thunderbirds are Now! in support of Make History, the youthful locals' third album. Released last October on New York City-based Frenchkis, History was tagged No. 40 on Rolling Stone's best of 2006 list. ("We don't even know how that happened," the band says, sheepish grins intact.) Critic and fogy Robert Christgau gushed over the record and TAN! on National Public Radio's All Things Considered, and Make History has been roundly praised for regulating the group's jones for spazzing out with tighter song structures and real melodies. Thunderbirds have also spent the last few months touring through North America, England, the Netherlands and Germany.
That's all very exciting. But what's even better? Breathing the same air as Justin Timberlake, of course.
In Sarnia, Ontario, of all places.
"Justin ... fucking ... Timberlake, dude, inside the border crossing station at Sarnia," guitarist-vocalist Ryan Allen says, sitting in the Garden Bowl with brother and TAN! keyboardist-vocalist Scott Allen, drummer Matt Rickle and bassist Julian Wettlin. It's late January, the day after their breathless Justin sighting, and they're prepping for a Monday night Magic Stick show with Brooklyn indie rockers Oxford Collapse.
"We played Toronto last night," Allen explains, "and Justin did too. Separately. So we joked on the way into Michigan that we'd see his bus at the border, but freaked out when it was there. Then, inside the station, he seemed really sad that the four of us were reacting to him. He probably thought we were making fun of him. But we weren't. We ran out to our van, and once we got there, everyone whipped their phones out like little girls. 'Holy shit I just saw Justin!'"
TAN!'s reaction is justified, because they're fans of music as well as the places where musics overlap. The sharp corners of post-punk have influenced their own sound as much as brittle new wave and the rush of 1990s indie rock (former Brainiac guitar whiz John Schmersal produced History), while the pop-derived melodies in their newer material reveal an affinity for the sounds of right now, right through to the radio and video hits of the last 20 years.
The band promise that, if Wham! ever reunites, they'll commit to an all-exclamation-points tour. Wham! and TAN! would be on the bill, and probably brazen Bay Area groove specialists !!! too.
Our conversation migrates from Justin, George Michael and indie rock to hip-hop. Ghostface's Fishscale and Lupe Fiasco turn out to be tour van sound system favorites. Later, Allen proudly admits his love for the brash contemporary R&B and dance-pop of Cassie, Amelie and Ciara.
These guys are young enough to have no compunction about digging everything at once, and drawing on whatever influences they wish for their own sound. And, as Make History proves, that's an evolving process. But they're also proud of the quality displayed in what they've already accomplished.
"We've already gone far enough into our career as a band that changing anything isn't really necessary," Allen says. "I don't feel the pressure to live up to some ideal. I'd rather our music end up in a library somewhere, be something my kid can point to one day and say, 'My dad did this.' That's more validating than some fucking link to a great review or a Thunderbirds MP3 on some Web site."
"We get satisfaction playing shows and writing songs together," Allen says simply.
Well, and spying on Justin Timberlake too. There's all kinds of satisfaction in that.
While TAN! is part of the wild-eyed and eager peach-fuzz fringe of Detroit music, veteran electro-punk duo Adult. has stamped its innovative sound on the city with more than a decade of albums, performances and striking visuals. Vocalist Nicola Kuperus and programmer, multi-instrumentalist and husband Adam Lee Miller are revered as much for the dark racket at the heart of their music as the arresting visual aesthetic that's always guided their work, first on their own Ersatz Audio imprint and later on Thrill Jockey. (The Chicago label releases Why Bother?, the duo's latest, on March 20.)
Sometimes, the duo both looks and sounds like it's from the future.
Sitting in their New Center area Detroit home, Kuperus describes the enduring power of their music as "deep tissue massage," which is opposed to the perfunctory "back scratching" people typically get from pop music.
Miller, wearing a boot to support the fractured ankle he suffered in a recent skateboarding accident, then laments the state of current music. He calls it calculated and undercooked, and says it inspired one of the songs on Why Bother?
"'Inclined to Vomit,'" he says. "It's become such that nearly everybody doing music is so slick that it doesn't even seem real. I mean, Joy Division, in recordings from 1978-1980, still gives me goose bumps. The fact is that, yes, you can dance to disturbing subject matter."
Doubters can check the duo's discography, a deep well of original productions, remixes and tracks licensed to other artists, to hear the number of ways Kuperus and Miller have turned dance music on its too-often-complacent ear. By creating a style of music inspired less by Detroit Techno than by the agitated art-punk scenes of London and New York in the late 1970s and early '80s, Adult. emerged as an authentic anti-entertainment project that appealed to smart, nerdy kids everywhere. They built a devoted fan base at home and in Europe. (Miller says that after a recent performance in Moscow, a fan approached him with tears in his eyes and "told me a part of his heart was changed by our music.") And through Ersatz Audio releases such as 2002's Misery Loves Company, Adult. helped expose mysterious artists like Charles Manier (a little-known pseudonym of Ann Arbor's Tadd Mullinix, aka Dabrye) and Skanfrom (a pimply chain-smoker named Roger Semsroth who later blew up under the sleeparchive moniker).
Pop star sightings aren't Adult.'s thing, but observations of everyday life are, and that figures into the duo's music. "People are not really seeing what's around them," Kuperus says. "There is a lot of apathy out there, even though there is a lot to be angry about."
And anger simmers throughout Why Bother?, which Miller calls "an intense mental journey, developing in stages from beginning to end."
The album starts with the miniature symphony "Red Herring," then segues into a noisy 11-second interlude called "Mythology of Psychosis" before an accelerated disco shuffle joins an evil bass line and smack down snares on the LP's best-titled (and maybe best) track, "I Feel Worse When I'm With You." Other standouts include the menacing "I Should Care" and "Harvest," the monochromatic ambient closer, which Miller says "might be the kindest song we've ever written."
Adult. kind? Maybe, maybe not. But what Miller says next seems indisputable. "Quantity has overtaken quality in music. We've always challenged ourselves to be ahead of the times, and still have a long shelf life. I think we've done that. Now we want to bring the quality back."Johnny Loftus is music editor of Metro Times. Walter Wasacz is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]