Shriek and Spell
When it comes to centers of power, none in history can approach the hubristic might of Washington, D.C., the seat of the American Empire. And yet, dwelling in the shadow of that city's neo-classical white-marble monuments is a thriving, outspoken punk scene, one that revolves mainly around the independent Dischord record label. The list of bands that have called Dischord home over the years is illustrious: Minor Threat, Rites of Spring, Nation of Ulysses, Lungfish, Fugazi. One of its newest, most striking constituents is Q and Not U. The group is made up of Harris Klahr and Christopher Richards, who move between guitar, bass, voice and synthesizer, and John Davis, who plays drums and percussion. Their mother tongue is punk rock, but as the once-supple dialect of punk has hardened over the years into a rigid paradigm, Q and Not U has smoothly eluded its grasp -- by inventing a new language.
"We kind of rebuilt things from the ground up," Davis explains. "We started in '98, and it was great for a while; but by the third year, it sucked. So we were like, 'Okay, we've got to start this totally from the beginning again.'"
Davis is speaking of Q and Not U's transition from quartet to trio, a move that wasn't an act of subtraction as much as it was a metamorphosis. The group's debut album, No Kill No Beep Beep, was released in 2000 and rang like a manifesto, reinvigorating Dischord and helping to bring a whole new generation of kids into the indie-punk fold. Davis describes his band's sound at the time as "pretty typical post-punk." In a sense, he's right, though the orthodox formula of right angles and spiky aggression had rarely been so compelling. But with the dismissal of bassist Matt Borlik in 2001, the three remaining members decided not to do the conventional thing and replace him; instead, they were going to start deconstructing the syntax of punk rock.
"Matt, at least at that time, was pretty into structure," Davis remembers. "As a four-piece, there was zero improvising. It was very by the book. But now Chris and Harris have multiple instruments that they go back and forth between. When we play shows now, we're all free to try something new. A song might technically end, and we'll just keep on going."
This newfound sense of freedom spilled over into the group's second full-length, 2001's Different Damage. From the cerebrally floor-shaking opening cut "Soft Pyramids" to the somber abrasion of the closing track, "Recreation Myth," the album is a sprawling, half-solved jigsaw puzzle of tones, beats and recursive imagery. Visions of beds, blankets, pillowcases and hospitals crop up often throughout the disc, as do commas, pockets, trees, lungs and, yes, even language. "Who has the nerve to sing 'la la la'?" a slurred voice demands on "This Are Flashes," punctuating the record's halfway point. "This name is a language I don't understand."
"There's something sort of nebulous about the lyrics," Davis says by way of understatement. Lines like "No cognoscenti can stab critique in the back for making me cognizant" aren't exactly Raymond Carver, but they're as lucid as "See Spot run" when compared with the couplet "Avocado in the neckline of the swimming suit/Matched just right with the vitamins in the pocket of the swimming trunks."
"A lot of times when I first hear Harris and Chris's lyrics, I'm like, hmmm, what are they talking about?" admits Davis. "But I like the fact that you have to figure it out for yourself. At the same time, I think there's a place in music for more traditional lyrics about love or work or whatever. A lot of my favorite songs are really simple pop songs."
Q and Not U's music teems with pop as much as it does art. Besides the faint influence of hallowed Dischord acts like Shudder to Think and Jawbox, there are hints of Brian Eno, XTC and even Brazilian music and Afrobeat. The group's brand-new single, X-Polynation, neatly embodies this dichotomy: "Book of Flags" is a catchy, propulsive shot of punk disco, while the title track is a torque-driven pileup leaking a trail of shrieks, squeals and dissonance. The effect is exultantly unsettling -- all according to plan.
"We don't want the act of listening to our music to be a passive thing," Davis explains. "We want people to enjoy themselves and have fun at our shows, but at the same time, we want them to be a part of it. We obviously want people to hear what we're saying, and we want to express ideas."
Davis and company, however, are more interested in forcing their audience to meet them halfway rather than make them swallow wads of sophistry.
"Today it's so common to have everything explained and spoon-fed to you. That gets a little tiresome," declares Davis. "So much of American culture is telling you, 'Relax. Don't Worry. Everything's okay.' People get too comfortable, and I understand that; I'm like everyone else. But as a citizen of the United States, I feel a duty to say what I think and to try to get other people thinking, too. Things are very complacent right now. People ignore the rest of the world and even the other people around them in their own neighborhoods. All through the '90s, there was a lot of that going on. The Cold War was over. The economy was fine. People stopped caring so much about the environment. They didn't think it even mattered if George Bush got elected.
"He's far from infallible," adds Davis, obviously baffled by our commander-in-chief's sustained, if slipping, popularity. "I mean, what is unbeatable about Bush? You just have to give people options; you have to move them. You have to make them realize that they deserve better than George Bush."
To this end, Q and Not U is bringing reams of voter-registration forms along on tour to try to encourage show-goers to participate in next year's presidential election. "There's definitely a contingent of younger people out there who need to vote," says Davis, "and we play for a lot of younger people. We figure this is a good opportunity to get people aware and registered."
As noble and worthwhile as this registration drive is, though, the members of Q and Not U could potentially reach more people by singing straightforward protest lyrics instead of abstruse, elliptical poetry. After all, language can be powerful, as punks since the dawn of time have known. Just hold a seance and ask Joe Strummer about the benefits of Situationist sloganeering.
"It's a good thing to think about: Are we defeating ourselves sometimes by being too insular or too obscure?" says Davis. "That's something that comes up a lot in the band, the idea of expression and toying with the notion of language, what words and songs are supposed to mean. I think that's something we like to mess with, especially in the lyrics. We like twisting these general notions of communication."
This ambiguity even carries over to Klahr and Richards's voices, whose tones are sometimes so intertwined as to be inseparable. "It's hard to hear the difference in their styles," Davis admits, sounding like a dad who can't tell his own twins apart. "They're pretty similar to me, though I'm sure they know the difference."
In the intro to "Soft Pyramids," Klahr (or is it Richards?) tenderly exhales strings of letters grouped in threes: "S-O-F... T-P-Y... R-A-M... I-D-S... E-V-A... P-O-R... A-T-E." Plucked harmonics puncture the air like neutrinos. After the song kicks in with a skittering polyrhythm, the melody is stretched taut between clenched guitars and fluttery synths. Shards of Fela Kuti, Augustus Pablo and Gang of Four assemble themselves into a fractured mosaic. As a melodica wheezes eerily along, the final line, "Clue me in," is sung in a saccharine -- almost sarcastic -- croon.
"Spelling out the words at the beginning of Soft Pyramids was kind of a joke on the people who were mad about the lyrics on the first record," Davis confesses. "People got so upset, saying the words were incomprehensible, so this was like our little response. It was just to tease everyone who got worked up over the fact that they didn't know what we were talking about.
"What we do is not necessarily always deep and meaningful," he adds, sounding just a tad mischievous. "Sometimes we're really just playing around."
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.