Little speakers spout tinny country from electrical boxes in Nashville. Downtown, aspirant troubadours crow from the windows of countless burger and beer joints. Their more successful counterparts—pictured life-size next to their chart positions on the exteriors of record label offices—look identical. Every other building is marked historic, but the city center feels overwhelmingly new. In short, it looks as if the music industry’s great unraveling never happened. And yet, it doesn’t inspire nostalgia.
Nearby and a world apart is the headquarters of Third Man Records—founded by Jack White in Michigan in 2001 and based in Nashville since 2009—among a cluster of social services outposts. On Friday, Devil’s Night, the costumed droves await exclusive vinyl releases from the label’s brick-and-mortar record store. A van, dubbed the “rolling record store,” idles in the driveway. And inside, someone styled as a “strolling record store” stalks among dead prom queens and all-purpose ghouls.
Wolf Eyes signing to Third Man is perhaps the greatest trip metal coup yet.
The compound is a monument to dated ingenuity. Live performances track directly to acetate. Restored novelty machines litter the premises. One sign warns would-be phone photographers that they’ll become zombies—then get ejected. Another announces that, by entering the premise, attendees consent to having their picture taken. Film photographers document the proceedings. There’s a darkroom on site. A futuristic flourish: employees clock out via fingerprint.
Tonight, the label’s public face is totally obscured. Jack White is so thoroughly made up as an old man—face caked with wrinkly false flesh and bushy grey eyebrows—that backstage he’s unrecognizable even to The White Stripes’ official archivist, label manager and Dirtbombs musician Ben Blackwell. The party’s practical purpose—a three-way record release event for Timmy’s Organism, Wolf Eyes, and Video—is a transformation of sorts for the record label, too. Long pegged as an archival entity peddling lavish and novel objects to collectors and resellers, tonight it’s styled as a platform for the underground.
First up is Video, the Texan outfit celebrating its second full-length, The Entertainers. Daniel Fried, lanky and clad in black gloves and a frilly leather jacket, spreads his arms akimbo and launches into mock-confident hyperbole about being “the best in the biz.” The band’s propulsive eighth-note gait slots into a post-millennial lineage of Texan garage acts, foreran by The Marked Men, sharpened by Bad Sports and Radioactivity, and wielded with extra spite by Video. Fried is performing arrogance, enacting one thematic component of The Entertainers, an album about amoral degeneracy under the spotlight. The album’s conceit goes that they’re victors, debased, with bristly armor concealing deep wounds. White shakes his cane and chants, “Radio!”
Then there’s Timmy’s Organism, one outlet of the great Detroit bandleader, Timmy Vulgar. There’s a third eye painted on his prodigiously receded hairline, charms dangle everywhere, and the power-trio palpably thrusts songs towards even greater tempos and intensity than on their new album, Heartless Heathen. Vulgar’s guitar sounds practically lewd; queasy, gurgling tones match his mutant croak. Whereas Video cheekily satirizes minor rock celebrity, Timmy’s Organism coolly warrants it. A group of fans don Vulgar drag in the front row.
Wolf Eyes, headlining, take stage in tattered vests featuring a painted and patched bricolage of dissimilar signifiers. There’s belt-mounted machinery and thickets of patch-cables, a trunk of horns and an electric guitar. Nate Young’s aqueous babble textures planes of indistinct scree. They lull for a spell and then settle into a sinister throb. It’s a relatively restrained set, more so evoking the quiet menace of minimal synth than assaultive harsh noise or industrial clamor. And though there’s a somewhat incongruous amount of frenzied crowd surfing, Wolf Eyes’ set best underscores the boldness of Third Man’s new look.
Plus, the risk: earlier in the week, Wolf Eyes took over Third Man’s Instagram. Naturally, the posts were highly trip metal, which meant uncannily edited images coupling Cher and snot-font, Bart Simpson and the Grateful Dead, and so on. Trip metal is the sort of cult byword that proponents argue is better understood through experience than intellect, but it comes down to the poetry of difference: bucket hats and saxophones, say, or Cherie Currie uttering “trip metal” aloud, as the evening’s emcee did in her introduction. And yet, Third Man’s Instagram followers were just vexed. Thousands unfollowed. A shame, since Wolf Eyes signing to Third Man is perhaps the greatest trip metal coup yet.
The obliviousness of Third Man’s main demographic doesn’t discount the potency of its gesture towards the shadowy margins of Michigan music. Wolf Eyes and Timmy’s Organism are regional figureheads for disparate but spiritually akin strains of rock: disemboweled and mangled for the former, classicist and vile for the latter. The resources evident in Nashville couldn’t be better spent.
And further, the party felt like an invocation of Michigan at large, something affirmed by the surprise arrival of the least expected state celebrity, Kid Rock. When he saunters backstage, members of Wolf Eyes remark that he looks like a “real fucking Michigan dude.” Stocky, wearing a logger flannel and a beanie, Kid Rock approaches someone costumed as his younger self. The two embrace. Selfies ensue. Murmurs of trip metal approval resound.