Tim Burton Meets Trash Fire, an evening with Scott Yoder
At Woodland Theatre on the last Sunday night in April, a three band-bill that offered something like a triptych: unified, but with each panel offering its own warnings and celebrations on topics such as gentrification, the thankless trials of being in a touring band, and healing post-emotional manipulation and cruelty.
Standing on the prow of the triangular stage, wearing white gloves, black lipstick, black pencil eyeliner and Victorian cape that looked like it slithered out of a haunted steamer trunk, Scott Yoder encapsulated a look I want to call “Tim Burton trash fire” in the best way possible. With months and months of touring under their belts, Scott and his band delivered a tight and devastating total-art-work of Ziggy Stardust-era camp and balladry with teeth, the latter of which took the form of sickening lead lines that lifted well-loved Scotty tunes like “Ways of Love” off the smoke-machine-misted floor. Arch nonsense about “bloody footprints in Aphrodite’s face” made me giggle and look back fondly on my absolutely fictitious halcyon days in New York City watching Tom Verlaine pick out dapply nonsense on a Fender Jaguar at C.B.s. SIGH. No, but somehow the seedy, glitter-logged, cabaret vibe transported me to an innocent state of mind, and deflated my normal cynicism to the point where I found myself sitting cross-legged on the floor to hear my new favorite sad clown sing a song about travelling from town to town, singing songs to strangers who don’t know your songs, who don’t give a damn about you… at the end of the show, I signed the email newsletter mailing list.
Through a genre-breaking melding of chant-like vocals, experimental percussion (just one floor tom and mallets), and minimalist, electronic production, Wizard Apprentice’s performance addressed, from an almost dizzying array of angles, the painful process of healing from emotional abuse. Watching Wizard Apprentice perform her ambitious song cycle “Dig a Pit” for the second time in less than four days (I saw her open for Kimya Dawson at a house show on Vashon Island the previous week) was an unexpected gift, and also helped underline the ceremony-like structure of the performance (AKA not dizzying but cogently laid out). The ritualistic sequence of self-examination and exposure was formalized by Wizard Apprentice’s use of physical space. For example, the first song, “You Won” found the artist kneeling, center-stage, with palms held out in gesture of offering. Later, during the eerily menacing minimalist beats of “Gloves Are Off,” Wizard Apprentice positioned a single extremely bright LED lightsource at the foot of the audience, where she stood as if to entice would-be lovers with her performed vulnerability while simultaneously daring those same would-be lovers to get close to her.
The fear of internalizing abuse, whereby one adopts the abuser’s strategies of emotional manipulation, was illustrated and acted out by digital avatars of Wizard Apprentice and that appeared projected on a screen. Although the first avatar seemed sincere, the “evil” alter-ego, with blacked-out eyes, pitched-down voice, and a crude 3D iceberg penetrating her head, interrupted and mocked the first avatar’s attempts at trying to win the audience’s trust through confession and sincerity. In presenting this duo of sincere and sabotaging psychological personae onscreen, Wizard Apprentice unsettled assumptions regarding a performer’s emotional contract with the audience, particularly, that in which the artist demands that the audience take their side on the basis that their emotional performance is genuine, which itself resembles a style of emotional manipulation.
“I am invisible / I am free from the pressure of being special / I welcome the potential of being mediocre,” are the lyrics from “I am Invisible,” from WA’s previous release. Likewise, through the carefully choreographed proximities to the audience, Wizard Apprentice destroyed the notion that she be reduced to a single thing, image-like, define-able, marketable. In the essay “The Ethics of Becoming Imperceptible,” philosopher Rosi Braidotti writes that “becoming imperceptible is the EVENT for which there is no immediate representation.” (emphasis mine) In the final coda of the piece, Wizard Apprentice mimed brushing of dust off her body while she paced in front of the audience before disappearing behind a wall, stage-left, her exploration of the nature of performance itself complete.
ManDate is a politically outspoken four-piece excelling in sonics that evoke sprawling, wet North-Western terrain full of twisted tree roots while their lyrics puncture your consciousness with timely warnings and elegies regarding gentrification and erasure. Featuring drummer Marc Mazique, whose resume includes two radical marching bands, cellist Lori Goldston, whose resume includes a band called Nirvana, Corey Brewer, who does freaky alternate filmscores, and jack-of-all-DIY-trades Clyde Peterson (Your Heart Breaks), the band played most of their 2015 album Oral History, supplying welcome “Seattle” notes of punk and “grunge” to the heady mix of genres already on display. With songs that chug intrepidly around frequent dissonant squalls, ManDate offers a densely woven post-grunge tapestry of urgent feelings and calls to action. Insistent is the word, with Lori Goldston’s sustained low-mid and slightly distorted cello notes providing a cool, earth-like foundation for the disharmony and disillusionment located in the songs’ subjects. The instrumental song that arrived in the middle of the set was total ear candy for the permanently wistful and glum: a rollicking Feelies-esque romp that counter-balanced sad and happy chords, Goldston’s kinetic melodies providing a swelling undercurrent that seemed to admonish in an ancient language from the depths below.
The album title “Oral History” is cheeky at face value (and in line with the prank aesthetic of original 1980s and 1990s Queercore movement), but as bassist-singer Clyde Petersen explained, it is actually a reference to his life’s work of collecting as much history on the early gay resistance movements and on gay culture, period. As Clyde explained before the band started the Goo-era Sonic Youth-inflected song of the same name, this mission was inspired by a passing comment made by an older (gay) friend implying that Clyde’s generation was ignorant of the past and took gay culture of the 70s and 80s for granted.
History, time, change, loss, decay, conservation are ghosts that dwell on the periphery of the more nihilistic pop fare of 2019. Likewise, the alleged reward of interiority--getting inside someone’s head--is dangled in front of listeners by writers of purely confessional songs. But relatability, as Wizard Apprentice pointed out, might be emotional manipulation’s Trojan horse. There is no right way to write a song, of course, but ManDate revived my faith in chant-writing. See for example “Bodies in Motion”, written by Marc at the start of the Black Lives Matter movement, and whose final chant goes “We won’t play dead anymore / this is not a fucken game”. Count your blessings, take nothing for granted, including ManDate’s chants. We need them now.