This was an early draft of my Music 104B final, before editing to fit the instructor's rubric.
12 October 2016
Poster Children / State to State / Batwings Catwings
Where Sunset crosses over Glendale Boulevard in Echo Park, in the former Nayarit Restaurant building, formerly formerly (circa 1920s) a Western Union office, sits The Echo, a tidy little room with a disco ball and a narrow stage. A booth snakes its way along the back wall of the room providing ample seating on a slow night. The bar down the left side of the room has a wide selection of beers on tap.
Most of the light in the club was reflecting off of the disco ball slowly spinning in the middle of the room. The music playing over the house system before the bands came on was unfamiliar to me, but I enjoyed all of it. I’ve seen a few bands here over the years: Oppenheimer, Kindest Lines; and probably played here myself once or twice. I’ve always enjoyed the atmosphere. The sound is good for live music.
This time I came to see Poster Children, an indie, DIY, progressive punk group out of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois (whose 12 Inch Records label released Hum’s first album). Formed in 1987 by Rick Valentin of Penguin Dust, the band consists of Rick (guitar and lead vocals), Rose Marshack (bass guitar and backing vocals), Rick’s brother Jim Valentin (guitar) and Matt Friscia (drums).
The band is on their “25 or 6 Year Tour” (reminiscent of Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4”) celebrating 25 years since the release of their second album, Daisychain Reaction, which was recorded in 1990 (with producer/”engineer” Steve Albini) but not released until the following year (on the Frank Sinatra-founded Reprise label), thus the ambiguity in the anniversary.
One thing that was common to all three bands that night was the instrumentation: two guitars, bass, drums and vocals. The first band, Batwings Catwings, used the most people to achieve this lineup, with vocalist Dana Poblete doing single-duty on vocal chores alone (State to State and Poster Children both have guitar-playing lead vocalists).
Batwings Catwings guitarists Ray Santillan III and Jeffrey Byron play Rickenbacker and Fender guitars with a distorted rock sound. Bassist Cindy Sukrattanawong played a Precision Bass using her fingers (as opposed to a pick player), and she had a solid, clean sound. Drummer Clay Johnson, who formed the band in 2009, plays a standard acoustic kit of probably 7 pieces. The music was high-energy and precise. The vocals were less precise, but she sounded good for the music. The songs were simple 4/4 and 6/8 rhythms with a lot of barre chords and power. The guitars both played lead, sometimes taking turns doing solos, sometimes playing dual leads a la the Allman Brothers Band.
The second band of the night was local group State to State. They opened with a swirly, ambient sound that, along with the spinning lights, made me dizzy.
Singer Shea Stratton has an intensity that reminds me of Chris Reed of Red Lorry Yellow Lorry and a vocal tone that sometimes channels a Thom Yorke falsetto, other times a Bono wail, and a Rufus Wainwright vibrato and candor. The band’s sound ranges from ambient and smooth to heavy and complex.
Andrew Orvis’s guitar weaves a web of texture on the drive of Stratton’s rhythms. Patrick Morgan holds it down on the bass, and I get the sense that he is the “Ringo” of the group, in that he’s the comic relief. Drummer Feudor Lokshin synchs to a drum machine, giving the music a solid beat. Stratton told the audience he had recently been in a car crash and had some pain in his torso, and was soliciting shots of whiskey from the audience. The 6/8-time “Let Go” (from their Motives EP) uses the line, “Buy the ticket, take the ride,” recalling Hunter Thompson’s Vegas adventure.
Poster Children came on to the excitement of the crowd, including the opening bands.
Poster Children are not full-time rockers. Rick and Rose are a husband-and-wife team who work at the University of Illinois and have two sons. Rose is a classically-trained pianist who began playing bass to join this group.
The group played nearly 20 songs from their catalog, with a lot of favorites from Daisychain Reaction (1991), the Just Like You EP (1994), and Junior Citizen (1995).
“Revolution Year Zero” (from Junior Citizen) is a great one to get the crowd going. “Let’s get lost in the city tonight, drop everything & go for a ride.” Pumping my fist for the “Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!” is the least I can do to help them feel welcome in my city.
They often use a “wall of guitar” sound along the lines of Chevelle (but without the drop-tune to C#), distorted and strummed with full force. Rose, a practitioner of the Brazilian martial art of Capoeira, is very active on stage. When she’s not contributing the marvelous harmonies such as on “He’s My Star” or “Drug I Need” (both from the Junior Citizen album) she’s twisting and jumping in an acrobatic display, engaging all areas of the stage.
The other half of the rhythm section, Matt Friscia, who has been in the band for 10 years, is the 7th drummer the band has had in 8 albums. Matt tried to join the band after Howie Kantoff (#6), about 15 years ago, but he was still in high school and the band didn’t want to derail his studies.
When asked why it’s so hard to keep a drummer, Rose said that the band’s “intense work ethic” and “constant touring” put a lot of strain on drummers. Rick said it another way. He said “we value our drummer,” which to me says that, with the heavy workload, the steady, hard-hitting beats and often unusual “progressive” timing such as 7- and 11-beat measures, the drummer works hard, but is also required to be somewhat exceptional. Rick said that their drummers often want to go on to do their own projects, doing something other than play drums. “If you’re a good drummer, why don’t you just want to play the drums?” Rick muses.
The energy was incredible, the crowd was excited but subdued, and the band sounded flawless. It was my third time seeing the group and I would definitely go out and see them again.
Poster Children formed in 1987 at University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. Indoctrinating Rose Marshack as bassist, Rick Valentin formed the band in order to play his simple, original punk rock songs. Rick’s brother Jim joined the band as a guitarist in 1991, just after the release of their second album, Daisychain Reaction. While Jim has stayed with the band since then, they have gone through 7 drummers in 8 albums between 1989 and 2004. This year the band is touring in honor of “25 or 6 years” since Daisychain Reaction (it was recorded in 1990 but not released until 1991, thus the ambiguity in the anniversary).
Rick told The New York Times in 1991, “When I started listening to bands that weren't on Top 40 radio, I realized there could be music I liked that isn't really polished and shiny... There was this whole other world where people who just like music could just start a band and just play. You didn't have to be great. You could make up for technical talent with energy and directness. It was the realization that 'Hey, I can do this.'”
Referring to themselves as “Post wave” or post-hardcore, indie rock, and alternative rock.
What kind of music do you play?
“That depends on who’s asking,” Rose said. She’s been calling it Punk Rock lately, because the alternative rock on the radio is not what they’re playing.
The atmosphere was great at the Echo. Good music and swirling lights. The first band was Batwings Catwings. They featured two lead guitar players playing a Rickenbacker and a Strat. A woman played a Precision Bass and another woman sang. The drummer played maybe a 7-piece acoustic kit. The music was high-energy and precise. The vocals were less precise, but they fit the music okay. Both guitars used distortion, and one of them used a volume pedal to create a fading-in-and-out effect.
The second band was State to State. They also had two guitars, and a swirly, ambient sound to their opening instrumental. They had a drummer but also used a drum machine some of the time. Lots of delay on the guitar. The bass player was oddly punk rock, with a denim vest with the sleeves cut off, customized with studs, drawings and patches, and hair brushed upward into an almost fauxhawk spikiness. The second song used a 4-measure intro before the 11-measure verse. The third song was called Jackrabbit and it was “about tripping on acid” the singer told us. The parts to Jackrabbit were 10 beats long, like two sections of five swelling and ebbing. The singer told us he was in pain from a car accident and was soliciting shots of whiskey from the crowd. Their last song “Pins and Needles” began with a clean guitar strumming a slow 6/8 rhythm before the band joined in. Jim, guitarist for Poster Children, was intently watching State to State, and as the ballad built toward a strong chorus I saw him smile. I bought the singer a shot of whiskey.
By the time Poster Children came on I had a pretty good buzz. It was the ideal setting to hear one after another of these songs I’ve been enjoying for 20 years. The heavy guitars and often dissonant progressions do not bring to mind the classics. Guitarist and lead vocalist Rick Valentin was inspired early on by the Velvet Underground, specifically the album they did with Nico. “I thought the record was skipping” he said of one of the guitar solos. He was struck by the simple, repetitive nature of the guitar work, and inspired to create simple music without the posturing of gaudy musicianship.
“Sure I listened to the Beatles” Rick said, but he was influenced more by Andy Gill of Gang of Four.
Rick played a Telecaster Custom through a Hi-Watt half stack and an array of pedals.
Rick’s brother Jim started playing at 16, when he was influenced mostly by the Minutemen, as well as Hüsker Dü, the Who, the Kinks, and Jimi Hendrix. Jim played a left-handed Stratocaster through an Orange half stack.
Rick’s wife Rose Marshack plays the bass. She was not a bass player (or his wife) when she joined the group, but a classically-trained pianist. She cites her biggest influence as Billy Bragg. She does not listen to “the classics” and has no use for the blues. She used a Travis Bean bass guitar through an Ampeg rig with an 8/10 cabinet. Her sound is very heavy and loud.
Drummer Matt Friscia played the saxophone in 4th and 5th grade, and his father was a drummer. Matt was in a metal band Team Rocket when he was in high school. He is largely influenced by ‘90s alternative punk.
Poster Children use a lot of odd counts in their songs. Many are the verses using 7-beat measures which makes for unusual turnarounds in the beat. The band has had 7 drummers for the 8 albums they’ve released since 1989. Rose explained the rotating drummers as being due to an “intense work ethic” and constant touring. It’s just a lot of hard work. Ever the DIY group, they often record their own albums, create their own posters and artwork, drive their own tour van, pack up their own equipment, and sell their own merchandise. Rick explained the drummer situation differently. He said “we value the drummer.” With the unusual song timing it is important to have a solid drummer who can be relied upon. Rick said that very often the drummer, if he’s any good, eventually wants to expand to other things. “If you’re a good drummer, why don’t you just want to play the drums?” But they tend to want to come from behind the kit and do more. I see Peter Criss singing “Beth.”
While they have referred to their music as “post wave,” “post punk,” “alternative” and more, Rose says that “it depends who’s asking.” Lately she simply says “punk rock” because the alternative rock that’s on the radio is not what they’re playing.
The set was close to 20 songs, including some favorites from Daisychain Reaction, Tool of the Man, the Just Like You EP, Junior Citizen, New World Record and more. My personal favorites include “Space Gun,” “New Boyfriend,” “He’s My Star” (a song about David Hasselhoff), “Clock Street,” “Where We Live” and the classic “If You See Kay.” They left the stage and returned for two encores.
I had contacted Rose via Facebook ahead of time to let her know I would have some questions for the group. She said “Of course.” I was able to get a few minutes with each of the band members, as well as a minute with Andrew, guitarist from State to State. He was wearing a Poster Children t-shirt (Just Like You) during their set, and I bought one just like it.