Photos by Dave Sanders
When I walk into Effi Briest guitarist Sara Shaw's apartment to the sight of five of the seven band members sitting semi-circle on couches and chairs - lounging, looking bored, waiting for the last two to show, mulling over the particulars of their show the next night - I quickly find out they aren't British. Their hypnotic, twelve-minute compositions careen towards a smoky basement in 1970s London, with all the ecstatic escapism, the residue of psychedelia, and the rawness of punk that implies, but they're from Brooklyn. That's as far as that goes. Effi Briest boasts no myth of origin to hypothesize how the seven met (not a seance, not even a vegan barbecue); they don't like to talk about The Beginning. Shaw quickly nods off any need to explain: "It was Corinne [Jones'] idea. There were twelve people at first, then that whittled down to the essential, when Elizabeth [Hart] and Rebecca [Squires] and Nicky [Mao] joined. It wasn't really the band until they all formed."
What I initially interpret as a hesitancy to share personal information now seems more like a natural tendency for any one member to self-describe herself in terms of the whole. When not playing in Effi Briest, Jones is a visual artist with an MFA from Columbia University, but that's compartmentalized into Private, whereas Effi Briest is Collective. "We were just saying, about the song writing," she says, quickly changing the subject...
They're probably not trying to sound like a cult, but they can't help it: there's something unspoken between the members of Effi Briest, whether in their music or their personas (as presented to a guy holding a recording device). Their name doesn't hint at an underlying meaning either (i.e., the shamed adulterer for whom the 19th century German novel was written.) "I really like the idea that the band name is just the name of the band; it sounds good," says Jones.
The collective's roots are thickening. "I was just thinking today that I feel like we're kind of becoming closer," says Squires. "We're just kind of morphing together. I'm less influenced by environmental things and other people around me...I'm just paying more attention to this immediate group of people, and how we're going to grow together."
With a little personal obfuscation and an insistent collective identity, they're copping a classical take on a band with mystique. And with such kaleidoscopic songs that are as comfortably punk as psychedelic, Effi Briest comes off like some cultish, ‘70s polyglot of London. Take a hint of Siouxsie and the Banshees’ rougher edges here, a pinch of Pink Floyd's expansive prog-rock structures there, and you've got, well, a couple of really famous UK bands being compared to a very new group out of Brooklyn. Effi Briest has just begun their long slow dance with an increasingly obsessive press, a dance that will probably continue fruitfully, if not frustratingly, into the future. As such, it's probably impossible to stay mysterious these days. On the other hand, it's not impossible to see more than a shared tune between those ‘70s titans and Effi Briest, whether they (and we) are obsessed with the past, or because history repeats itself.
Exhibit A: 19’70s London flounders economically (recession anyone?) while its population grapples with the loss of an empire. Meanwhile, Vietnam leaves the Western world increasingly demoralized. Flower power gives birth to dark, dense proto-metal and prog rock. Both ultimately lose relevance next to punk's immediacy. Our post-modern appetites make such a clean historical progression hard to imagine, but compress it all into one hipster clusterfuck and you've got Williamsburg.
Exhibit B: I mean, look at us. As Mao points out ruefully, "you look at Williamsburg, everyone's dressed up," and indeed, today's uniform cops a healthy handful of flower power kaftans and dirty punk hair cuts and unisex Robert Plant tiny-vest/skinny jean combos that may come pre-packaged at Beacon's Closet. Ever since Devandra Banhardt channeled Marc Bolan, a whole army of indie rockers have only looked backwards. Call it freak folk, psych rock, whatever: the revivalists have been reviving for nearly half a decade, and probably before that. What's that about? Why would we want to relate to a time period when the UK was economically floundering, reeling from the steady loss of its economic and political empire, and dealing with the global consequences of a demoralizing American war? Strange. Of course, Effi Briest and I ponder these historical parallels every night as we're peeling our jeans off with forklifts. (It's complicated.)
Just kidding. Effi Briest are (surprise!) uninterested in being sized up by their aesthetics. "I've worn this shirt everyday for a month," says Mao. "I think it's just naturally what people are feeling," says Jessica Stathos. "It's never really been discussed," assures Kelsey Barrett. Squires notes that "sometimes it's funny. We all show up and everyone's kind of wearing the same thing."
"I have three t-shirts I wear to shows," Shaw rebuts. "Everyone has long brown hair, everyone has to sign a contract and dye their hair brown," says Hart. "I don't think it would make any difference if I had long hair or short hair," asserts Mao. "Whatever Nicky, you'd be out," replies Stathos.
It's much easier to forget the visual cues when they're playing music. While they do feed on a dense tableau of those UK ‘70s movements, their sound is also heavily filtered through the same "eastern" and noise contexts consumed by contemporaries like Gang Gang Dance and Psychic Ills. Effi Briest's music depends on countless layers ceaselessly scraped away and re-molded, mended and replaced with the skins of other song ideas that are themselves discarded and recycled again into long, lithe bodies that frequently curl past the ten-minute mark. They experiment with "a little of everything," says Shaw. "It's a constant revolution. Someone will bring in beats and it will mutate into other things, then we'll play them a million times." "We'll try and start a new song," says Barrett, "and we'll just take a really good piece from that and put it in the original song."
With the stars in freak alignment, a suitable record deal is only a matter of time (if it hasn't already been decided on: predictably, they're not in the mood to talk about it). "We're just trying to focus on making a really good recording first," says Jones, like an assuring den mother. They've just released a 7" on UK's Loom records called "Mirror Rim", recorded by Charles Burst at Seaside Lounge. They're currently recording in Queens with Matt Marinelli at a ‘30s dinner club turned ‘‘70s disco turned studio with an old mahogany bar, plush furniture and countless relics. "We're sort of surprised that place hasn't gotten broken into," muses Stathos. It's their little secret, but if Effi Briest's track record is any sign, it won’t be for long.
Posted on October 17, 2007.