Mind Over Matter
John Schmersal is one week out of the studio, on the road again with his newish project, Enon; this time, the mostly Brooklyn-based foursome is touring with friends, the Toadies, Texan arbiters of amplified goodness who are on a well-funded mission to reclaim some of the commercial success they nabbed with the million-selling album Rubberneck in 1997. It's a pretty big tour, definitely a big deal. The crowds will be larger, no doubt, than those that normally show up to see just what Schmersal -- the former Brainiac guitarist/sampler savant/noise chemist -- is up to these days.
Tonight, Enon is opening the first show of the tour, in Tempe, Arizona -- in a venue with a neon theme, a mandala-embossed dance floor and plenty of TVs for sports watching; the space reflects a decor that's equal parts frat-boy bedroom and Guido chic. It's not the kind of place one expects to find a fellow of Schmersal's sensibilities. Arty interiors like the Knitting Factory in his adopted New York City home seem more like it, as do the warehouse-type places he frequented with his band during the mid-'90s, when Brainiac and its peers in bands such as Girls Against Boys, Hum, Versus and Polvo reigned supreme in the indie-rock underworld.
If the kids who come ready to soak up the Toadies' decidedly macho stage show don't initially know what to do with this angular act, no one can really blame them. Enon, which came together last year after Schmersal expanded a solo project to include Skeleton Key drummer Steve Calhoon and percussionist Rick Lee, isn't an easy one to get a handle on. Believo!, the band's first record released on SeeThru Broadcasting, the inspired new label manned by producer Dave Sardy, abounds in subtle samples, warped, warbly guitars and understated, cryptic lyrics; its very essence lies in its unwillingness to commit to any one sound. In a live setting, Schmersal has been known to kill the downtime between songs by performing small bits of spontaneous theater, or dancing like a robot, or creating impromptu sound collage with one of his keyboard contraptions -- devices he creates by soldering together parts of two or three different machines. This kind of thing can seem a little odd compared to the conventional instrumentation -- drums here, guitar there, check, check -- that is one of rock and roll's great comforts.
Schmersal doesn't see what all of the confusion is about.
"I'm crazy, and I'm a terrible critic of myself and other people," he says. "But I refuse to believe that I don't have some sort of grasp of what pop is -- what 'popular' or accessible music is. But you read the reviews or talk to the people, and they're like, 'Oh, that is so weird.' So I guess it is.
"I remember growing up in the '70s and the '80s and being drawn to all the music that was crazy and arty and still really popular -- like the Talking Heads. I mean, 'Psycho Killer?' That song is really crazy, it's fucked up, but it was a radio hit. I guess my frame of reference is wrong, because I think even oddball stuff can be widely enjoyed."
Enon's music will probably never be enjoyed in the broad, Britney/Backstreet kind of way -- thank goodness -- but it may soon be reaching a wider audience, thanks in part to tours like the current one and the band's just-completed studio album, tentatively slated for release on SeeThru in the fall. With High Society, Schmersal has made a straightforward rock-and-roll record -- and he's not the least bit afraid to admit it. After a year that saw lots of touring and some serious lineup changes (Calhoon exited, a move that was countered by the entrance of former Blonde Redhead/Lapse bassist Toko Yasuda and Matt Schultz, drummer for Ohio's Let's Crash), Enon has settled into life as a semi-traditional combo. For the moment, anyway.
"There were a lot of rock songs on Believo! that just got left off for one reason or another," Schmersal says. "The new record is way more straightforward than the craziness of our first one. It's a lot more of a streamlined sound. We're actually really functioning as a band, as a unit. And after we all went into the studio together and played and toured together, we wound up writing a bunch of rock songs."
When Enon entered the studio this time around, Schmersal says, it was armed with a model of what not to do: Believo!, as fascinating a listen as it is, has the consistency of cornbread batter: It's a patchwork collection that can be frustrating for its lack of general cohesion. This time, Schmersal shared more of his songwriting/frontman duties with his bandmates -- Yasuda wrote and sings a couple of tunes, for example -- and assumed a more studious mindset.
"When we recorded Believo!, the band was really new," he says. "We'd done one ten-date tour, and then we went into the studio. A lot of the songs weren't really thought out; we were really kind of precious about the way we approached everything -- the sounds came from a gazillion different places. This time we talked things out in advance. We wanted something that at least sounded like it had been recorded in the same room."
Schmersal says the band's more careful production approach was encouraged by Sardy, who assumed a greater role in the engineering of High Society than he had with Believo! (As a producer and SeeThru's main man, Sardy has the dual distinction of being something of a hero to both indie-punk and metal/hardcore listeners: Though the latter group knows him for his production work with bands such as Korn and Marilyn Manson, Sardy is known in other circles as the former leader of Barkmarket.) And though the album still features plenty of Schmersal's favorite instrumental toys -- digital samplers, video gear and MIDI equipment galore -- the emphasis is on songs that can be reproduced with greater ease in a live setting.
"I have always preferred bands like the Flaming Lips, that try to do something different with each record," he says. "I don't mean to suggest that we are on some trajectory where each record will be more poppy and rock and roll and eventually we will end up like Blink 182. I mean, even this one is definitely not normal."
"Definitely not normal" is a decent characterization of the bulk of Schmersal's musical output. His career began in force when he first hooked up Brainiac, the calamitous, new-age-space-wave indie powerhouse that, like Guided by Voices and the Breeders, hailed from the unlikely musical breeding ground of Dayton, Ohio. Schmersal replaced guitarist Michelle Bodine on the band's Bansai Superstar, a smorgasbord of found sounds, inverted time signatures and blasts of raw noise that is widely regarded as the band's most brilliant. While other indie heavy hitters like Pavement trafficked in aggressive variations on pop constructs -- and heavy doses of irony -- Brainiac was more interested in experimenting with the possibilities of technology and forging a postmodern sonic collage that didn't forsake musicality for madness. The band's most refreshing quality, largely attributed to Schmersal, was the fact that it wasn't afraid to embrace, and fiddle with, the tools of electronic music.
At one point, it seemed that the big, wide world was starting to take notice of Brainiac. The band landed a slot on the side-stage tour of Lollapalooza, released Hissing Prigs in Static Couture on indie kingpin Touch & Go in 1996, and was reportedly being courted by major labels -- including DreamWorks -- who'd caught a whiff of indie's commercial viability. Things literally came to a screeching halt when vocalist Timmy Taylor was killed in a fatal car accident in 1997. Schmersal, a music obsessive who suddenly found himself bandless, not to mention in mourning over the loss of a close friend, had a hard time coming to terms with what had happened.
"I freaked," he says. "It was strange for me, because like a week before Tim died, I had had a similar accident where I totaled my own car. For the month and a half after his accident, I just kind of bottled up in this house in Kentucky I had moved into. I made things in order to busy myself, to kind of push things from my mind."
A large part of what Schmersal made -- in addition to his own hand-fashioned synthesizers and digital equipment -- was music: Recording on a four-track, with little more than a guitar, he recorded a thirteen-song album that displays a confusion and a vulnerability that far exceeded the emotional content of any of his Brainiac work (and, for that matter, any of his output since). When friends later discovered the work and suggested he release it on SeeThru, Schmersal was hesitant. He eventually agreed, but adopted the name of philosopher John Stuart Mill and released the chillingly titled Forget Everything in 1999.
"That record was pretty heavy-handed and pretty sad," he says. "I don't want to be this mopey, songwriter kind of guy. I was just trying to figure things out, and I wasn't sure that I wanted that widely shared. I feel sort of bad now, because the [SeeThru] guys wanted to help me out, and I didn't really want to promote it. I wouldn't tour for it. When I listen to that kind of record, I kind of just want to enjoy it in my room, not go see the person in real life."
Nearly two years after Forget Everything, Schmersal has clearly distanced himself from the sad suggestions of that album; Taylor's memory, and Brainiac's, are now relegated -- safely, if not comfortably -- to that nether region known as the past. Now Schmersal is excited about the possibilities of his new band, one that, under his direction, can either play it straight or go to the weirdest extremes imaginable. (An example of the weirdness can be found on On Hold, a recording he and his bandmates made in the studio with full electronic abandon as a sort of exercise/spoof on hold-button music.) He's also keeping busy with a few side projects: Most recently, he composed the theme music for the pilot episode of a new Disney cartoon.
"It's called Katbot," he says. "It's this cat from outer space who comes to earth to see what humans are all about. She listens to rock bands and stuff, and she has this boyfriend from Catatonia who plays music. If the show gets picked up, they'll hire me to make the music for the boyfriend cat guy."
Somehow, that seems like just the kind of thing Schmersal was born to do.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.