One disorganized museum field trip with Twin Steps

Scott Hunter

Twin Steps

I. For the uninitiated, Twin Steps is a noisy, not-quite-sample-based pop quartet—and I’m using the word “pop” the way people say “Africa” at beauty pageants. Based in Oakland, CA, they are one of the more interesting things to jump out of the cultural blender since, I don’t know, Space Jam.

Samples from Etta James, The Ronettes, Frankie Valli, and others inevitably give the music a nostalgic feel. At moments on 2011’s Serial Parade, this extends directly into the instrumentation: The doo-woppy guitar line on “Wave Of My Emotion” goes right along with the nostalgia of the samples and the catchy, kind of deranged sweetness of the vocal melody. Drop the sampler out and you’d maybe have something like Shannon and The Clams, fellow bay-area purveyors of twisted nostalgia. To be sure, Serial Parade is full of really classic-sounding moments, perhaps explaining why, as guitarist Jonathan Reddick says, they “got lumped into the garage rock thing, which we were never really going for.” But to get stuck in the sweet, nostalgic element of the music is to ignore the really cool thing about Twin Steps, the way their noisiness, energy and humor come up against the earnest, cheek-to-cheek sentimentality of the music they’re sampling.

Listening to their relatively clean studio mix on Serial Parade, it’s sort of hard to resist getting sucked into that sentimentality. The pop purity of the melodies can sometimes obscure the silly, druggy, unglued imagery in the lyrics. You forget that Drew Pearson is yowling about “the bloody bloody red red ocean,” or “sleepwalking ‘til I find somewhere to vomit,” because your brain is eating ice cream at a drive-in theater. But at CD Cellar in Arlington, VA, where a tiny PA makes a good mix unattainable, the emphasis moves elsewhere. Namely, to the punkier, noisier element of the group’s sound. The rhythm section is solid, Nick Cowman flying at the drums with an old man scowl, Brian Hobson playing a really solid, tasteful bass. Meanwhile, the high end unfolds into a delightfully planned chaos—the sampler burping horn sections and background vocals, Jonathan Reddick’s single note runs buzzing around them like a fly on meth. You don’t want to do the twist in a high school gym, or buy your sweetheart a cola; you want to jump around like a hooligan. Drew Pearson encourages this kind of wiling out, in some ways: he’s running around hugging everyone who will have it, crawling at the knees of people who won’t, generally flopping around the room like a fish. It’s confrontational, but it’s also kind of teddy-bearish. I made a note: “the GG Allin of love.”

II.

I caught up with the band after the show to give them a disposable camera, to document their trip to New York. I’d grab it from them in NY, get the pictures developed, and put them in this here publication. But we ended up crashing in the same place that night, at the house of a mutual friend.

We had a séance, which is to say that we drank beer by candlelight. Jonathan methodically told us about every shooting he’s every witnessed in every city he’s ever lived in, which adds up to a pretty staggering number of shootings. Then he told us about a Japanese gentleman who tried to smuggle a turtle through airport security between Hamburger buns. Drew and Nick were playing chess, which I think maybe Nick won. And, following the tendency of drunken interactions to try and explain themselves, we put together the tale of why we all were there on that porch together. Key players included a cult called the Fellowship of Friends, a couple of bummed-out breakups, a fifteen-year-old pothead and his forty-year-old board game buddy, a white lie in the name of getting laid, some dead grandparents, and several gallon-bags of catshit. Somewhere in the midst of all this we decided that when the band was in New York, we’d go to the Museum of Natural History and learn about dinosaurs.

III.

Right as I walked in the museum door, I got a text from Drew. “Runnnnin laaaate.” So I learned about Asian mammals, Ancient Egypt, Bacteria, Africa… “Music often has a prominent role in upholding law in African society. Sometimes litigants sing their case, and the judgment relates to how well they sang, without reference to guilt or innocence.” That seemed relevant. Also, it seemed like everyone there was on a date—I made a note, “museums are where people go to kiss each other next to dead things.”

IV.

The band arrived, but by the time I got up to the fourth floor by the dinosaurs, they’d all split up. So I walked around with Drew, pretty aimlessly, the logic being I guess that we might stumble into the other band members. Meanwhile, as it seemed new rooms were manifesting themselves everywhere we turned, I brought up The Shining, the spatial impossibility of that hotel having all those rooms. “Stanley Kubrick,” Drew said, “is my favorite person ever.” He showed me a tattoo he had of that layered shot of the planets from 2001: A Space Odyssey. “I love how disciplined he is,” how everything in his work is loaded with meaning and intention. He said Twin Steps aims for something similar in their songwriting, which is why it takes them a while to bring out new material.

I hear you have a full length on the horizon… What can we expect from that, soundwise? Is your style evolving in any way that you’ve noticed or can put your finger on?

Jon: The songs are getting shorter. Shorter songs, maybe more thought-out songwriting. It’s always changing.

Drew: Every song is a new thing, for us.

Jon: We manage to keep it a cohesive thing because so many of all of our influences go into it, but it’s always….

Drew: We go song by song, as opposed to record by record.

Jon: There’s a lot more French pop samples and influence going on.

Drew: We’re just going to do our thing.

V.

Before the band had gotten there, I was checking out a display on shrunken heads—the mouths were sewn shut to keep vengeful enemy souls from escaping, which would be totally fucked if you were the vengeful enemy soul. I was sort of horrifically entranced by that thought when a little girl rode by in her stroller and screamed so loudly and terribly that I jumped ten feet. I told Drew this, and he wanted to go see the shrunken heads. That’s one of the reasons I still know nothing about dinosaurs. Somehow, the band all converged on the staircase on the way down. “This is the least organized field trip ever,” someone said, I think it was Nick, who actually had a map of the museum and pulled it out and made a plan that went something like “Primates, Reptiles and Amphibians, Ocean, Space.”

But we still had shrunken heads to see, so we stayed in South America a little longer. Drew stopped at a display of that game the Mayans used to play to determine who would be sacrificed: “It’s that weird soccer where they die at the end! Soccer is my favorite thing in the world.” Someone pointed out that a native fisherman in a picture “tucked his boner in his belt.” We got to the shrunken heads, looked at them for a second, nodded, and moved on to the primates.

VI.

Although the group creates song-by-song, not record-by-record, Plague Songs, the 1-2-3-4-Go! release they’ve been promoting, shows a more modern melodic sensibility, reaching for the pop of the past decade rather than trying to embody a fragmentary dream of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Where the songs on Serial Parade had the band playing with the samples—see the doo-wop of “Wave Of My Emotion” and the RnB of “Pinkie Promise”—Plague Songs’ “Son Of Sam” seems to have the band playing around the sampler. The samples on that song are more loaded, more complete and maybe less tampered with, and the band fills the space around them to make a kind of rhythmic tapestry. The result is no less poppy, no less catchy and melodic, but perhaps more explicitly contemporary. “Century Home” makes less prominent use of the sampler (maybe dumping it altogether, I can’t exactly tell), but bespeaks the same shift in melodic sensibility. The song also offers the clearest example of Jonathan and Nick’s common origins in Sacramento, CA—you can hear the sort of rapid-fire schizophrenia of Hella lurking behind the hook, the Nintendo-ness of The Advantage in the song’s intro.

VII.

What’s the weirdest thing that’s happened on tour?

Twin Steps (simultaneously): Alabama.

What happened in Alabama?

Jon: We played a show that was really great, and then we’re invited to a house party afterwards with some kids that were super into our set, so we went to go hang out with them, and one of the girls was like “I host bands, you can stay at my house.”

What city was this in?

Twin Steps: Montebello.

Jon: What we didn’t know is that somebody brought acid, so we showed up and all these kids were on acid, and we didn’t know that for like half an hour of being there… We really wanted to go to bed, and we were supposed to stay at this girl’s house, but she was freaking out, and we were like “let’s go get a hotel,” and then this guy offered his house a block away. So we walked over there with him and there’s this pretty nice house, and then we walk past it on this little path to this backhouse, and the second we walk in I can kind of feel everybody just slow down, we walk in and all of a sudden, “pffff,” it’s like this black mold crawl space that had flooded hundreds of times and never been cleaned… definitely not the type of environment a human being should be living in. And then he told us about this civil war child graveyard that’s out behind his house out in the woods, like two hundred feet, where all of the gravestones were Mary and Edward because I guess this family during the civil war kept trying to have kids but they were all dying of typhoid. And then he said he was gonna find some girls to bring back, and we all were… I feel like whenever Drew was like “OK, let’s get a hotel,” ‘cause he’s always down to rough it, that’s when we leave. He was like, there’s no way. Nick had already gotten in his sleeping bag. The guy was very sweet and had the best of intentions, but…

VIII.

When I mentioned my “GG Allin of love” note to Drew, next to a display of the world’s tiniest frog, he told me, “I guess I’ve always had a real strong love towards LA punk rock, what I was raised on. If you watch ‘80’s LA bands they’re really confrontational, really stylish—The Germs, Black Flag, Fear, all of those bands. Their frontmen are really unique. But also, I kind of hate the whole bro aesthetic that goes along with that, so if I can take out some of the male aggression, the violence… A lot of our shows get real crazy, but we don’t necessarily want them to become violent. There’s a fine line we’re trying to walk down.”

There was a summer camp group sitting in a circle next to an assortment of stuffed primates in a glass cage, the counselors freaking out because they’d lost a few seven year olds. Jon had just taken a physical anthropology class, so he had a lot to say about the primates. He taught me, for example, that lemurs are “simple minded and nocturnal and shit. And they can’t control their fingers individually.” Then, by the display on genetic similarities among the primates, he started talking about their relative nonviolence. Chimps usually don’t fight, but just put on a display to show how powerful they could be if they wanted to. Bonobos relieve tension by playing games and fucking.

IX.

The Silent Barn was a much more appropriate place to see Twin Steps—at CD Cellar, the space in front of the band had been occupied by CD’s, so that the band was sort of playing to pictures of Randy Newman. Here, the space in front of the band was open for live occupants, but people were being shy, standing back, leaving the front and center wide open. Drew ran to the back, trailing his mic cable behind him. “Fuck this hole,” he yelled, herding people up to the front. “Fuck this hole!”

When the group lurched into “Junkie Song,” a mosh pit broke out in the front. Somebody jumped on somebody else, a beer can sailed through the air. Next thing I knew, the sampler table was broken in half, and Drew was playing the sampler at the 45 degree angle where it came to rest.

X.

What were some of your favorite stops on tour?

Brian: Long Beach was good, but Long Beach is Long Beach.

Jon: I really liked Greensboro, that was really cool. We played with two really good bands and got to hang out with some locals that were super sweet. All the South was pretty rad, there’s a feeling of Southern hospitality there.

Nick: Houston was my favorite show.

Drew: Yeah all we did was stay at a mansion in Houston, we didn’t even play our show, we just went back to this mansion…

Jon: Swam in the pool, ate barbecue in the pool, drank beer in the pool…

Drew: We all had our own rooms and there was like a theater inside…

Voice on museum PA: Your attention please. Your attention please. The museum will be closing in thirty minutes. A security guard will direct you to the exit.

Brian: You gonna put that in the interview?

The museum voice said presumably the same thing in like 10 languages, so we decided to finish the interview elsewhere, after using the last few minutes to check out Space and the Ocean. It turned out Space was closed, and a security guard was sending people upstairs from the Ocean. I did manage to ascertain that Drew had never seen Finding Nemo. We all lost each other again, and I overheard a little girl saying “with teeth like that, you’ve gotta eat small monkeys.”

We met again across the street in Central Park to finish the interview. I could tell the kids were getting grumpy, and although I was too—having just had my mind blown by so many fun nature facts—I did have a few more questions.

So I gave you that disposable camera in DC—what happened between there and here, that I should know about, as far as using those pictures is concerned?

Brian: You’re gonna have to tell us.

Twin Steps' Plague Songs is out now on 1-2-3-4-Go!

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