The title of the new Mobius Band album is The Loving Sounds of Static, and its second song begins with just that — a few seconds of low crackling, a disturbance in some audio signal — before a driving drumbeat and a propulsive eight-note bass line kick in, drowning out the buzz. A voice sings of "newspapers funded by oil makers," "synergistic partners," publicists who tell you what to think, and a "radio coup" achieved by indomitable consolidated media. The singer’s cynicism is depressing; the music his lyrics are set to is anything but. Simple, major chord progressions cradle pleasantly catchy synth and guitar melodies. In the face of being left with "nothing left to choose," as the lyrics put it, the band offer an aural salve. This contrast between alienated detachment and warm, tuneful rush is one key to the success of Mobius Band, who from the tiny Western Mass town of Shutesbury have risen above the white noise of the chaotic world they describe.
Ben Sterling (vocals/guitar/synth), Peter Sax (vocals/bass/synth), and Noam Schatz (drums/programming) have been playing together since 1996, when they met as freshmen at Wesleyan University. But it wasn’t till last week that they had a full-length album to call their own. Four years were spent playing weekend parties in Middletown before they moved to the Amherst area in 2000 and, as Sterling recalls, got a "typical home recording set-up going. It was a good place to sort of figure out what we were doing away from any kind of pressure or scene. We lived and practiced and recorded in the same house." In less than three years, they’d released three EPs on their own dime. "We figured out how to record and mix, and we had this real cottage-industry, in-house operation going."
Following the release of One, Two, and Three, Sterling and Sax moved to Brooklyn while Schatz remained in Pioneer Valley with his wife, and the band signed a deal with the Ann Arbor indie Ghostly International. As a rock band who incorporate synths and samples, Mobius Band were oddballs of sorts on the largely electronic label, and that helped get them noticed when, earlier this year, Ghostly released a fourth EP, City Vs Country, an artistic and critical breakthrough that garnered glowing reviews from the indie tastemakers at Pitchfork. Taking the time to find their sound had paid off in a way no one but Mobius themselves could have predicted.
"There’s a clear progression, I think, from Two to Three to City," Sterling reflects. "Releasing EPs was a way to keep people updated, because we knew that we were changing a lot and that we weren’t settled on some final, definitive sound." Although he says they still haven’t settled on a "definitive" sound ("That sounds boring to me"), City and Static are more focused and refined than the earlier work, which is full of long instrumental interludes and aural explorations. "We’ve definitely gotten much more poppy, much more song oriented. I don’t really know why except that over the years we gravitated in that direction. At this point, I can’t imagine anything better than a three-and-half-minute song with a hook that you remember for years. That’s just where my head is at right now."
Sterling and Sax share songwriting duties, but not in a collaborative fashion. Each penned five of Static’s 10 songs, and whoever writes it sings it. You might not figure that out from the disc because their voices are remarkably similar. "The funniest thing is when there’s some review that talks about ‘Ben Sterling’s laconic vocal style’ and it’s a song I don’t sing."
Every transition, every chord change, every electronic flourish on The Loving Sounds of Static seems carefully mapped out, yet there’s nothing overworked about the album."I think we’re thinking guys. We don’t take it to some forced place, but we definitely think a lot about instrumentation because we have the capacity to do it in so many different ways. It’s like, ‘Do we want to use a guitar? We don’t have to. But we can.’ And if that’s what works for the song, then that’s what we do. But if not, we can sample an accordion or something. When it’s that open-ended, you have to trust your instincts or risk getting bogged down in all the possibilities."
Those instincts have led Mobius Band to fuse traditional rock instrumentation and electronic programming. Distorted guitar chords hobnob with synth blips and bleeps; pounded drums give way to programmed beats. Mobius have been likened to the Postal Service, and though that’s not off the mark, there’s something about them that has more to do with the process than the product. Most Mobius samples, for example, are homemade. In the first track on Static, "Detach," the bass-drum thud is actually a sample of Sterling’s sofa hitting the ground, and the casaba-like scrape is the tweaked sound of a hand wiping the synthetic surface of a Case Logic CD wallet. "It keeps it more personal."
With Static’s samples all stored on disc and the band in a position to support a full-length, the trio will head out on their second national tour. There’s a certain logic to kicking that tour off at T.T. the Bear’s Place: Mobius were gigging around Boston before the national press picked up on City Vs Country, and for a band who like balance, Cambridge is about as close as you can come to splitting the difference between Northampton and Brooklyn.
Fans and friends of Chris Brokaw packed into the Lizard Lounge on Saturday for the first local appearance of what’s being billed as the Chris Brokaw Rock Band. That would be an unexceptional name if it weren’t that "Chris Brokaw" and "rock band" haven’t been uttered in the same breath all that often since Come, the band he fronted with Thalia Zedek, broke up in 2001. Although Brokaw, whose personal discography is miles long, hadn’t given up rock music altogether — in addition to his mostly instrumental acoustic solo work, he played guitar with Clint Conley’s band Consonant and continues to play drums in the slowcore band the New Year — this was the first time since Come that he’d played his own songs with a rock band. The trio — former Karate bassist Jeff Goddard, former Rodan drummer Kevin Coultas, and Brokaw finger-picking a distorted electric guitar — played a short but sweet set, mostly songs from Brokaw’s new Incredible Love, which he says is his best album. After its October release, he plans to tour in the US and in Europe, alternating between solo gigs and shows with Goddard and Coultas.
"I wanted to make a record that was kind of a rock record that had acoustic guitar as the center of it," he explains over a tuna-salad sandwich at the High Rise Bakery in Cambridge, a few blocks from his house. "I like how that works for the album. And then I thought, to promote the record, I really should do some touring with a band, since that’s how it is on the record."
So why the return to rock? "As I was playing solo gigs, I started singing more. I started envisioning the stuff with bass and drums." Also, after a few years of listening mostly to jazz, he rekindled his love for rock through bands like Joshua Fit for Battle, Converge, and Pig Destroyer. "It was just time to start playing rock music again."
Mobius Band | T.T. the Bear’s Place, 10 Brookline St, Cambridge | Sept 6 | 617.492.BEAR
Issue Date: August 12 - 18, 2005
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