Cardiacs

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If we really wanted to, we could probably just change the name of this blog to Weirdest Bands of the ’80s and take a permanent wayback vacation to the era of skinny ties, suspenders and John Hughes movies. What was it about that decade that produced so much wackadoodle pop music?

Me, I was all into Def Leppard and chicks with mullets, so I missed the boat on most of it. Which probably explains why until a reader named Eustaquio (seriously, that’s his name) hipped us to a band called Cardiacs, I had never heard of them before. But consider me schooled, Eustaquio! Even for a time that gave the world Klaus Nomi and DEVO, Cardiacs were pretty out there.

Some history: Cardiacs were originally called Cardiac Arrest and were founded by a pair of brothers named Tim and Jim Smith in a place called Kingston Upon Thames, a suburb of London. Don’t you love how British people name their towns things like “Kingston Upon Thames”? It was probably exactly that kind of stiff-upper-lip prim-and-proper shit that the Smith Bros. were rebelling against.

Anyway, early Cardiac Arrest recordings were apparently pretty scruffy, lo-fi affairs, but by the time the band changed its name to Cardiacs, they were getting a little more polished and a whole lot wackier. Much of their spazzy new sound came from Tim’s herky-jerky vocals (compared to him, David Byrne is Frank fucking Sinatra) and the elaborate keyboard arrangements of a later addition to the band, William D. Drake. They also added a chick sax player, which was very ’80s of them, don’t you think? Her name was Sarah Cutts but she eventually married Tim and became Sarah Smith.

The combination of raw energy and spazzy, complex arrangements (and saxophones!) has led some to label the early Cardiacs sound “pronk,” which is apparently short for “prog + punk.” To his credit, Tim Smith rejected this completely retarded label and would usually just say Cardiacs was a psychedelic pop band. Works for us.

Because everyone in the ’80s was a bit of a weirdo, Cardiacs actually gained a decent cult following and even had a hit single in 1988 with a song called “Is This the Life?”—although by this time they were starting to get that bombastic ’80s guitar sound (thanks a lot, U2) and shooting boring music videos in wind tunnels. Within a few years, Sarah Smith and William D. Drake quit the band and their weirdest days were behind them…although they were active right up until 2008, when Tim Smith suffered a series of strokes that nearly killed him. He’s apparently doing a bit better now, but his days of making music are, sadly, probably behind him.

Anyway, here’s a flashback to Cardiacs’ ’80s heyday, when they dressed up in quasi-military uniforms and smeared greasepaint across their faces and performed as the demented puppets of their malevolent overlords, the Alphabet Business Concern. (He doesn’t show up in the clip below, but they were occasionally joined in videos and onstage by an ABC representative called The Consultant who would alternately stand around looking blandly handsome and/or hurling abuse at the band members, particularly Drake. If you were stoned and British in the ’80s, it was apparently hilarious stuff.)

P.S. We must also give a nod to reader Oded, who also recently suggested we add these guys to The Weird List. But sorry, Oded…Eustaquio beat you to it. By 10 days. Was there just like a Cardiacs documentary on the Bio Channel or something?

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Deerhoof

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So Deerhoof have a new album out, which kind of made us go, “Oh, crap. We still haven’t written about Deerhoof. How did that happen?” Let’s fix that right now, shall we?

Deerhoof is one of those bands that’s tough to pin down. Sometimes they don’t sound that weird at all, or maybe just weird in a cuddly, Cibo Matto sort of way. Other times they just sound like your basic, garden-variety noise-pop band, all distorted guitars and herky-jerky rhythms—more quirky than weird, and not all that different from a zillion other Pitchfork-approved bands (although it must be said, no one does herky-jerky rhythms better than Deerhoof, thanks mainly to the superhumanly awesome drumming of Greg Saunier). But then, just when you think you’ve got them figured out, they’ll smack you upside the head with something truly bizarre. And they’ve been at it for over 15 years. So they finally (belatedly) earn their place here on The Weird List.

In its earliest incarnation, Deerhoof was a bass/drums duo made up of Saunier and Rob Fisk. They arose from the dregs of an ill-fated Bay Area metal band called Nitre Pit. When both of Nitre Pit’s guitarists quit, Saunier and Fisk just carried on as a duo, making an extra cacophonous racket to compensate for the lack of lead instruments. On top of that chaotic early sound they eventually added the childlike shrieks, wails and coos of Satomi Matsuzaki, a recent Japanese immigrant with no musical training. Matsuzaki would ultimately prove to be the band’s secret sauce, learning to become a versatile, creative vocalist and a pretty solid bass player to boot. (Fisk switched to guitar, but eventually left the band in 1999.)

Starting with the Reveille album in 2002, Deerhoof added a new guitarist, John Dieterich, formerly of the math-rockers Colossamite. With Dieterich’s help, Deerhoof’s sound became richer and more melodic, although still pretty wildly experimental. Reveille and its 2003 foll0w-up, Apple O’—their first with second guitarist Chris Cohen—remain the band’s most widely acclaimed albums to date. (Next time you’re talking to a Deerhoof fan, just say the words “Panda Panda Panda” and watch them go completely apeshit.)

These days, Deerhoof’s experimentalism is based less on straight-up noise and more on oddball, art-rock juxtapositions: bubblegum pop melodies over lurching math-rock rhythms, or splashes of jazz-rock noodling interspersed with blasts of punk-rock guitar. “Super Duper Rescue Heads!“, the first single from their latest album, Deerhoof vs. Evil, could almost be mistaken for kitschy J-pop until about the 1:25 mark, when one of those weird math-rocky bridges kicks in. Credit (or blame, depending on who you ask) can probably go in part to new second guitarist Ed Rodriguez, who joined the band in 2008. Rodriguez used to play with Dieterich in Colossamite, and their jammy interplay, while still pretty out there, definitely sounds more like the work of two guys in the same band and less like the barely-held-together chaos that was the hallmark of Deerhoof’s earlier material.

We’re tempted to end with something from the earlier, weirder Deerhoof—”Rat Attack,” maybe, or this live performance of the early track “Flower,” which we think dates from around 2003. And we’re sure the label and publicity folks would much rather we post that “Super Duper Rescue Heads!” video (from their latest, Deerhoof vs. Evil—out now on Polyvinyl Records! Order your copy today!). But instead, we’re going to end with this very 8-bit video for “Buck and Judy” off the 2008 album Offend Maggie. Because, well, it’s awesome. Please enjoy.

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Fol Chen

One of the many reasons we love living in Los Angeles (fuck off, haters) is that it’s a neverending breeding ground for some pretty bizarre music. Today’s proof of hypothesis: Fol Chen, a six-piece from Highland Park (Jake’s hood, and also home to the infamous Avenues Gang) who combine the apocalyptic surrealism of Philip K. Dick and Steve Erickson with the postmodern dance-funk of Hot Chip and Prince. Tonight we’re gonna party like it’s…um, 2012? 2017? How far forward do we need to set our apocalypse clocks now?

Fol Chen, who keep their identities hidden behind masks, face paint, and quirky aliases like Samuel Bing (Chandler’s art school little brother?) and Sinosa Loa, first surfaced last year with an album called Part I: John Shade, Your Fortune’s Made. Sure enough, they returned this year with a sequel, Part II: The New December. Both albums vaguely trace an end-of-days storyline that would do Dick proud, but they’re not above the occasional song about a low-rent hookup at a fleabag motel (the fan-fucking-tastic “Cable TV,” a not-too-distant cousin of Beck’s “Debra”) or the oddball cover (they’ve done everyone from Pink Floyd to Mariah Carey to—no, really—the Gin Blossoms). They also hire old actors to do dramatic reading of their songs and write their press releases totally in character. As former theater geeks ourselves, we appreciate this sort of attention to detail.

The band shot numerous low-budget videos for the songs from John Shade, Your Fortune’s Made. All of them are pretty awesome (especially this one), but this video for “No Wedding Cake” gets our vote as the weirdest. We can’t wait for the next chapter in the Fol Chen saga.

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DEVO

devo

Another old-school weird band that probably needs no introduction, unless you’re only acquainted with them by way of “Whip It.” Oh, there’s so much more to these guys!

Lots of bands have concept albums, but DEVO (or Devo, or occasionally DEV-O) are sort of a concept band. Their name is short for de-evolution, a quasi-satiric concept developed by the band’s founding members when they were art students at Kent State University in Ohio in the ’70s. Basically, the idea is that humans are actually devolving into less sophisticated life forms, and DEVO are here to save us from our slow descent into mindless puerility—or possibly speed the process along. Or at the very least make merciless fun of it in the form of catchy yet deliberately mechanical songs with lots of synthesizers and spastic vocals.

Part of the DEVO mythology centers around the group’s matching outfits, usually brightly colored jumpsuits that look like a cross between factory worker and Star Trek alien combined with a round, multi-tiered hat called the Energy Dome. According to band member Gerald Casale, “the Dome collects energy that escapes from the crown of the human head and pushes it back into the Medula Oblongata for increased mental energy.” It also makes you a total babe magnet. (Okay, that last part might only be true at DEVO shows.)

Fun fact: in 2008, McDonald’s released a Happy Meal toy called “New Wave Nigel” sporting the signature DEVO Energy Dome hat. Initially it was reported that the band sued McDonald’s for trademark infringement, but DEVO’s law firm later insisted that no suit was filed and the dispute had been “amicably resolved on mutually agreeable terms.” (Which we’re pretty sure is lawyer-speak for “McDonald’s paid us a crapload of money.”) You can’t get New Wave Nigel in your Happy Meal anymore, but last we checked, he was going for $2.95 plus shipping on eBay.

DEVO broke up in 1991, and although they’ve continued to make public appearances over the past decade or so, they haven’t done much in the way of new material. But they’re going on tour this November to promote the reissue of their two most seminal albums: their 1978 debut Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! and 1980’s Freedom of Choice, the set that featured “Whip It.” So this seemed like an appropriate time to give them a spot on TWBITW.

Good to have you back, guys! Now here’s a clip of DEVO performing on Letterman way back in 1982. Pop music was so much more interesting in the Eighties.

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