The Noisettes Keep It Raw
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..."
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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.
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"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.
"We had gotten a lot of experience recording in the States with really good engineers and that, and we sort of ran out of money," Smith notes. "Later on, we were back in Croydon, in the studio where we recorded our demo — and it's really tiny. We recorded everything separately at that point; we recorded the drums, then overdubbed the bass and the guitars, getting good sounds for that. And I think that was great, those later recordings, because we managed to capture this really sort of explosive sound at the end. We only used about four tracks from [the previous sessions] on the record."
And there are explosions aplenty on Mr. Wolf; "Scratch Your Name" and "Nothing to Dread" are fine examples of an uncalculating brazenness that's sorely lacking in much of modern rock. But that's not to say that the Noisettes are a one-trick pony. There are textural nuances within as well as between the songs, perhaps peeling back the layers of the band's process over the course of the years the act wrote, tweaked and played them. Songs like "Never Fall in Love," a haunting, lo-fi, acoustic-based un-ballad, if you will, are a reminder that as a creative team, the Noisettes are just getting started.
"At the end of the day, we'd been listening to different versions of our songs for such a long time that I think at different times we all kind of lost track of what we were doing," Smith says. "So when we started listening to different people about what should go on the album, it all came down to the individual merits of each song rather than a whole body of work. We didn't really have a consistent body of work; it was done in seven different places. We went for different kinds of moods. It's not something that could really be planned or orchestrated. It's like if you pick up a handful of coins and throw them on the table: Where they lie is where they lie."
No matter how much the songs might diverge in style or tempo, there's nevertheless a certainty that this is definitely the Noisettes you're hearing. Part of that comes from the sense of teamwork that emanates from the core duo of Shoniwa and Smith. The two met in high school, and Smith attributes the fearlessness of Shoniwa — who trained as a circus performer, sang in choirs and choreographed scandalous burlesque routines — with helping to build his own confidence.
"It's like Tom and Jerry," Smith points out. "Before Tom met Jerry, he was quite a different kind of cat. And he met Jerry, and he brought out these different qualities. When we met, this thing came about where we both sort of got confidence out of each other. Like, we used to play these gigs in these nasty little pubs in deep South London, where the crowd is more fixated on the football game on the big-screen TV than on the two people wailing away on guitars. But we had the confidence to do that. We managed to get something magic out of these really drab surroundings, to shake something out of that."
And at least it's never boring.
"I don't think we could do the same thing every day," Smith concludes. "A lot of our shows are very quiet — although a lot of our shows are sort of in need of anger-management classes."
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