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There are well-documented differences between the British and us Yanks: They reportedly eat kippers for breakfast, keep the spare tire in the boot, smoke fags, live in flats and drive on the left in tiny cars. It seems they've also mistaken soccer for football.
But when it comes to the universal language of rock and roll, one thing is the same all over the world: In his natural habitat, the drummer is invariably the unruly one. As he attempts to talk by cell phone from a van stop in Georgia, Noisettes guitarist Dan Smith is periodically drowned out by a weird keening sound in the background.
"Sorry, my drummer's a bit drunk at the moment," Smith says in his unassuming middle-class London accent. "He's singing. He's got three windshield washers, and he's trying to use all of them at once, banging them against the van. It's just the monotony; we've been driving for six hours, and he's been drinking cognac. This is a day off, of course..."
Of course. But the antics of drummer Jamie Morrison — who is soon joined in his impromptu wailing by an actual singer, vocalist/bassist Shingai Shoniwa — do have one unexpected benefit: They give Smith a chance to display his notable Southern Cop impression.
"Now all sorts of people are walking up from different cars and saying, 'Boy, what the hell is wrong with you?' And the bottle of brandy in the front seat isn't helping..."
This is a day in the life of the Noisettes. And if a bit of goofy singing and playing around at a gas station scares the south Georgia locals, they should drive up to Atlanta and see tomorrow night's performance. Seeing the Noisettes live is something like attending a Pentacostal snake-handling church — if the pastor were a cross between Howlin' Wolf, Wendy O. Williams and Dusty Springfield. Lead vocalist Shoniwa has a gift for unabashedly releasing her inner maniac on stage with vocals that alternately soar, growl, jitter, seduce and mock, a sweet but completely mad vamp you'd never dare take home to mother.
Meanwhile, Smith's guitar work should serve as an example to anyone who thinks Delta blues and jazz have long since been wrung dry of anything new or interesting. Smith first became interested in guitar at age thirteen, after his dad told him about an impromptu jam session with a friend of a friend named Jimmy Page — after which the elder Smith went out and bought the entire Zeppelin catalogue on used vinyl for his son, the records a bargain at a pound apiece.
"I used to dabble in guitar a little bit before that," Smith says. "But there was this kid who was taking serious guitar lessons at the time, and I just sort of sat him down and pumped him for every little bit of guitar he could teach me. And then I would go around to the jam sessions my dad played in and just listen and work stuff out by ear, really."
Today, Smith the younger plays a version of indie/blues/rock that is wildly ratcheted up, as if the music had been churned through a machine shop and endowed with robot limbs and laser eyes. His guitar acknowledges the ancient, fundamental structures but then careens past them like a runaway train.
Presumably cognac-free on show days, drummer Morrison claims to have spent most of his teen years in his room, drumming for ten hours a day, not emerging into daylight until he was sixteen. To hear him play is to believe him: He is quite simply everywhere at once, the perfect grinning anchor on a boatload of lunatics.
The eagerness with which the trio teeters on the edge of complete madness in a live setting, churning out a strange but engaging mixture of rockabilly, blues, soul, punk and jazz, is what earned the Noisettes their stripes in their native country. They've played shows in lumber yards and squats, on boats, rooftops and in schools, garnering critical praise as well as supporting slots on a variety of European and stateside tours with the likes of Muse and Pete Doherty's notorious Baby Shambles. But one difficulty the band faced when it came time to record its latest effort, What's the Time Mr. Wolf, was finding a way to stay true to its raw, live sound within the clinical walls of a studio setting.
"It was hard enough that it took us about two years to finish this record," Smith says. "It took a long time. We had ideas about how we should get our sound onto a record; we thought immediately that we should set up live and play that way. And we tried that, but it had mixed results. One thing you find in a studio is that if you're playing loud, you can only get a really small sound out of the microphone."
And when you're recording in a top-of-the-line American studio, the learning curve is steep — not to mention expensive. The group soon found its funds running low and returned home. But far from allowing themselves to get frustrated and give up, Smith, Shoniwa and Morrison simply took the knowledge they had gained and used it to their advantage, albeit in humbler surroundings.