Bad Past Gone Away: NewVillager’s New Album in Chinatown


photo from kxsc

I’m on the floor of Human Resources, a performance space and art gallery off Broadway in Chinatown, and NewVillager‘s Ross Simonini is taking me on a physical tour of his band’s forthcoming debut album. In one room (called “Cocoon,” after the first track on the album) Simonetti has been sleeping amidst his sketches and illustrations, the embryonic foundation of an unnamed artistic concept. In another room (“Say the Code”), a dim yellow light reveals a floor covered by shards of craft paper, meant to evoke the helplessness of being lost in a forest. The rooms grow brighter and airier, and we arrive at the final room (“Bad Past Gone Away”) just steps away from the first.

Due in August on IAMSOUND, NewVillager tells the story of a character named the Black Crow Boy, who experiences a Fisher King-inspired cycle of death and rebirth. It’s an appealing metaphor for the artistic process. Inspired by ambiguous pop artifacts like Michael Jackson’s gradual crafting of his own face, the “hints of something deeper” on later Beatles albums, and especially the four hand-drawn symbols on the cover of Led ZeppelinIV, Simonini and Ben Bromley have sunk their story deep in their own NewVillager mythology. It’s an obscure code, represented through costumes, colors, geometric shapes, and the number ten, found in their live performances, and their indexical music video for lead single “Lighthouse.”

With Temporary Culture, their weeklong installation at Human Resources, the mythology has expanded to included physical space: something of a shantytown, with ten rooms unfurling from a central stage. I’m reminded of Deb Olin Unferth’s description of a factory town outside Mexico City, where makeshift homes suck electricity from a “flower of cords” bursting from a central location.

It’s a gamble the New York-based multimedia duo hopes Los Angeles can step to.
“In the music world, if there’s something difficult, it’s easy for people to immediately respond and say, ‘I don’t get it,'” says the New York-based Simonini. “But in the art world, you’d never hear that. There’s a process of engagement.”

NewVillager bears the crisp, clean stamp of digitally produced synthpop: that is to say, songs that sound great on computer speakers. Yet in their physical incarnations, these clattering grooves bring to mind the so-called new primitivism aesthetic that was recently professionalized by Yeasayer and Animal Collective. The undeniable chorus of the latter’s 2009 breakout “My Girls” — “I don’t mean to seem like I care about material things, like our social stats / I just want four walls and adobe slats for my girls” — feels like a mission statement for the communal vibe found in Temporary Culture.

Sam Bloch
The kinetic art party vibe in the fourth room (“Say the Code”).

Like the ephemeral pop-up structures of Thomas Hirschhorn, the different rooms are bound together through common, often discarded materials: crinkled blue tarps, plywood, electrical tape. But in the NewVillager myth, they assume extraphysical properties. As we walk past a papier-mache shrine to the Black Crow Boy, Simonini points to three polyethylene strips stretching to the center stage. These, he explains, represent the three breaths taken during a transformation. But they’re also a neat visual parallel to a cord running to an overhead projection room, where Luke Fischbeck‘s low-power station radio KCHUNG (1700 AM) is transforming the sounds of the installation into radio waves. (“There’s a seven-second delay,” says Fischbeck, “so we can take out any profanity.”)

KCHUNG, and the presence of a dozen friends and collaborators, tips me off: over the course of the week, Temporary Culture has become less about the iconography of NewVillager, and more of a site of artistic experimentation. People have slept in ad-hoc bedrooms, cooked on hot plates in an outdoor gravel lot, and continued to modify and reshape rooms in anticipation of Tuesday’s closing party: an interactive performance from NewVillager, with each room hosting a different nonmusical event, be it salsa dancing or motorcycle repair.

Sam Bloch
Julia Holter

On Sunday, singer-songwriter Julia Holter played a set of languid folk for a dozen attendees, periodically flipping between canned orchestral settings on an enormous synthesizer. Her words were echoing back to her: it was KCHUNG, playing from a small handheld radio under the Black Crow Boy effigy on the other side of the gallery. “It makes me feel real,” Holter said, laughing. She let out a gentle, dulcet ah, and Simonini beamed. Playing in between red and blue flags that symbolize past and future, Holter had for a moment seemed to bridge the gap. “Into time I come, and into time, I call,” she sang, the echo from the radio phasing her voice like an old Judee Sill song.


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