Pop. 1280, which formed in Brooklyn, New York, in 2008, is a band whose music is informed by the energy of punk and the eruptive and menacing sounds of the darker end of post-punk and early industrial music. The surrealistic atmospheres are bracing and chilling rather than soothing. Pop. 1280's debut album, 2010's The Grid seemed to have come out of nowhere with its Suicide-esque confrontational otherworldliness, while the band's 2012 follow-up, The Horror, found the outfit sounding more coherent but also honing its edge with disturbing songs like "Bodies in the Dunes," which had video that recalled the film Maniac.
See also: Pop. 1280 at Lion's Lair, 11/10/13
In 2013, the band released Imps of Perversion, an album that further establishes the band as purveyors of electrifyingly nightmarish music that is both futuristic, in the dystopian sense, and tribal. Reminiscent of the archness and intensity of Metal Circus-era Hüsker Dü and the darkly surrealistic sound of late 70s-era Cabaret Voltaire, Pop. 1280 isn't much like anything else going on in rock.
We recently spoke with one of the band's founders, the drily humorous and inspired Chris Bug about how Pop. 1280 was founded on the principles of both wanting to do something new and different in reaction to the lack of inspiration the band found around it so often from when it was founded through to today.
Westword: When you got out of high school, you went to China for a bit. Where in China did you go and why did you go?
Chris Bug: I was living in Shanghai at first. I kind of wanted to get as far away from everybody as I could, and that was the first place that became available to go to. Because I was in kind of a hurry, I ended up there.
Did you speak Chinese before you went?
No, I couldn't speak any Chinese. For the first four or five months, it was kind of like living on an alien planet. I'd walk around the streets, get on the bus and the subway and I'd hear people talking around me, but I couldn't understand a word anyone was saying. It was kinda cool.
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Why did you name your band after that great Jim Thompson novel?
Honestly, we did it because we couldn't think of anything else. You know, we're Jim Thompson fans, of course, but I think at this point the name has become detached from the actual book for us. It was so long ago, that, to me, the name has taken on a different meaning. I don't even think about the book.
We chose it because it had a nice ring to it, and it looks cool. You can write it down in different ways, and you can easily confuse Pop. 1280 and Population 1280, so it doesn't make any sense, especially if you don't know it's a book. I think that goes with our personalities. To most people, what we're doing makes no sense, but that's fine, as long as you understand what we're doing.
The music you did on The Grid is very different from the music you've done since. What was inspiring you then, and what were some of the catalysts for going in different directions.
Good question. I think first of all the recording process was different. The Grid we recorded much more quickly, and it was a more punk approach to recording. After that, The Horror and even more so with Imps of Perversion, we really took a lot more time doing lots of overdubs, and we also spent a lot of time mixing, especially on Imps; we mixed that album like crazy. We became better songwriters. I love The Grid, but I think our songwriting has come a long way.
Did you record The Grid yourselves?
Oh, no. It was the same studio in which The Horror was recorded, by Ben Greenberg, at a studio called, at that time, Python Patrol.
Your song "Population Control" has interesting vocals that sound like you're using a vocoder with some distortion.
Oh yeah, when we went into this record, we wanted to make it a lot weirder than The Horror and experiment more. We recorded the first part of that song on an iPhone -- so like a practice demo. Then it transitions to that part with the drum machines and with the vocoder. We winged it because we went in with a couple of half finished ideas with the goal of challenging ourselves [to do something with those ideas].
At one point in your history as a band, you brought non-musicians into the group. Why did you want to do that?
Honestly, that was a while ago. That was more in the early years. I think at this point, everyone in the band is a musician. I think there's a classically-trained cellist at this point. So the amateur thing in starting this band had less to do with whether we had musical talent or not and more with our having a concept for a band. We thought that if we had a more interesting idea for what we wanted to try to do first, then that would lead us down more interesting paths.
What was your concept behind the band?
One thing that we took very seriously in starting this band is that every band on earth is derivative in some way, but our goal from the beginning was to attempt to do something new and different. I'm not saying that we've necessarily succeeded but I think if you at least try to do that you're going to have a much more interesting band.
With every album, it seems you've shed obvious influences and indeed have ventured into new and interesting territories. Do you feel that has been the case?
Yeah, I mean, I hope so. Our influences were obvious from the early days, but I think in 2013, we've all been raised with all these bands that it's impossible to form a completely [original] band. But I think if you try and make a tiny bit of effort and not follow in the path of this stuff you read about in Pitchfork every day, you have at least a chance of being original. I hope we've done that.
Obviously people reference Cop Shoot Cop, Cabaret Voltaire, Chrome, Suicide, Sonic Youth or whatever when talking about your band. But it seems as though with your new album, you're very much speaking in your own voice, as it were. What kind of effect do you hope to have on people with your music?
Whoa, big question there. I think when we started this band, it was the general concept of kind of disgust with the bands we saw around us. We would look at Pitchfork and see all this indie rock garbage and look at people we know who are swallowing this crap. I think the purpose of this band, for me, is almost a form of activism.
I think we're rebelling against the shit music that is everywhere. I think that shitty music is a bigger picture of a shitty society with zombies wandering around listening to shitty indie rock and shoegaze music when you can rebel and make something loud and obnoxious. It doesn't have to be hardcore or power electronics.
You can try and do something new and weird, even if it's not cool. I think that's, in a way, a form of activism. If you apply it big picture, to the world, I think it means something to live in a boring and asinine society and try and do something weird that doesn't fit in. I don't know if anyone cares, but that's what we do, and we're going to keep doing it.
It seems like enough people feel the same way, and do care, and if you're out there doing that, you will make an impact on more than just the people that immediately get it.
You've fully incorporated synths into a more punk sound from the beginning in a way that we've rarely heard outside of maybe Cop Shoot Cop or Boulder, Colorado's the VSS -- urgent, dark and menacing. What do you feel that combination of sounds allows you to express that maybe more conventional uses of sound don't.
From the beginning, we wanted to use synths. That was part of our plan because if we didn't have synths, I think people would think we're doing a derivative thing. This was way back in, whatever, 2008, when we started this, but we thought there was a kind of artistic gap between punk, post-punk and industrial music. I know bands have done that like Six Finger Satellite and Cop Shoot Cop, but I don't know, we just felt that we had some ideas that hadn't been quite done.
Another aspect, for us, is that all our synths are total pieces of shit. We have such garbage synths we use, and part of that is rebelling, I think, against another scene we haven't talked about, the Goth and synth scene, which is very gear-oriented. I think it's the kind of thing where you have to have a two thousand-dollar synth to fit in. I think we're partially rebelling against that too. I also think that's partially because we don't have any money.
It forces you to be more creative with what you have.
Yeah, I think there's something to be said for that. We also started out wanting to use synth as a bass. We play bass on a lot of songs, too, but we wanted the synth bass. So it was like Cabaret Voltaire style, and using as heavy an industrial a sound as we could get. I think in the past most rock bands were using it more as overdubs like atmospheric stuff. Not a lot of synth bass in rock.
Did you guys do the screen printing and wax seals on the limited edition records?
No, Sacred Bones does all that stuff. We designed it -- we design all our own art. The label usually does limited edition, screen-printed runs of all of its EPs. The cover of the album is a weird image of an angler fish, an outer space kind of thing.
How did you come to work with Martin Bisi, and why did you want to work with him?
We got turned on to Martin because a couple of bands we're friends with recorded with him recently. There was this band from New York called Woman, this kind of scum rock band. We're friends with this band White Sun who also recorded a recent album with him last year or the year before.
Basically we were looking for someone new to record with and thought would be good for us. We visited with Martin, and he gave this tour of his studio. He started coming to our shows and he's just an awesome fucking person. It seemed like he was really excited to record us. I think that was another part of our decision--he seemed like he really wanted to do it.
Obviously the guy's a living legend, and he's recorded some of the greatest records ever. His style of recording ended up being definitely different from what we're used to but really cool. He has this huge studio, and we recorded everything, and it sounded insane. Then we mixed for days.
He definitely recorded Cop Shoot Cop's great album Ask Questions Later and Swans' Love of Life, among many other great records.
Yeah, he did almost all the Cop Shoot Cop records. He's definitely good at capturing industrial sounds, particularly percussion sounds.
Your music, because one must often use words to convey a sense of the sound to readers, is dubbed "industrial punk," probably because of the sound of the guitar and the synths. But your percussion is very tribal and textured. What about that style of percussion appeals to you?
We definitely go into tribal and industrial percussion. I think part of it is that we just like it because it sounds cool. But it's very powerful. Nowadays if you want to be a heavy band it has to be hardcore drumming. I think that shit's really boring. So tribal is our heavy. It was just an aesthetic choice from the beginning. We think of the band as a very rhythmic project. Sometimes we write drums first before we write the other parts of the song. So we think about percussion and rhythm a lot.
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