Concert Preview: The Mesmerizing Polymedia Mythology of NewVillager
Editorial note: Earlier this week our friend and Live Fix contributor Moira McCormick caught up with NewVillager before their gig in New York to talk about the story behind the band’s ambitiously esoteric and wonder-filled mythological live show — and what awaits Chicago fans tonight at the Empty Bottle.
“What makes it exciting,” says Ross Simonini of his deliriously uncategorizable polymedia band NewVillager, “is that it’s pop music and esoteric ideas traveling together can hold esoteric ideas, and we like both – why can’t they be married?”
Simonini and musical partner/fellow visual and conceptual artist Ben Bromley, whose self-titled debut album arrived last month on the IAMSOUND label, are shortly appearing at downtown Manhattan’s snug, multicolored performance space Santos Party House, not quite a month into their North American tour – which brings them to the Empty Bottle tonight.
The Brooklyn-by-way-of-San Francisco duo, augmented live by drummer Collin Palmer and human sculpture Eric Lister, melds art (the visual and performance kind) with their rapturous pop-soul music, on scintillating display in the 10 tracks of NewVillager – easily one of the most jolt-you-out-of-your-complacency releases of this or any year.
Their press kit boasts as many features published in art publications as in music mags, and their performances are apt to take place in galleries – many of which involve actual art installations, such as the recently concluded “Temporary Culture” at Los Angeles’ Human Resources Gallery.
The 10-day exhibit centered on the band’s construction of a “shantytown” in which NewVillager lived, eating and sleeping and all; they ultimately performed in ten different constructed rooms, each room symbolizing a song from the 10-track album. The number ten figures prominently in NewVillager’s self-created mythology, a complex entity that, like Hindu, Greek, or any other cultural mythos, “can’t be summarized in two sentences,” as Simonini puts it: “Our mythology is not really a narrative. NewVillager’s mythology should be understood like art” – in that intuitive, gut-level, gestalt way that art is digested.
At the same time, Simonini acknowledges that serious art talk in the music world is often regarded as pretentious. And he notes with a laugh, “When people hear our ideas first, before our music, they think we must be a noise band, very abstract.”
Instead, NewVillager sculpts widescreen, kaleidoscopic, soul-infused pop – and if you listen to their album without knowing anything about them first, you’d swear you’re hearing a multi-vocalist, multi-instrument, multiracial ensemble. ‘We tried to make the album sound that way,” Simonini says modestly.
When you find out NewVillager is just two guys – two white guys – you’re impressed, if not incredulous. And you figure they must hire a phalanx of singers and musicians to recreate that sound in concert – or at least incorporate a whole lotta recorded tracks.
“No tracks,” says Simonini.
He does add that they’d like to tour with a populous ensemble some day, but that “financially and logistically” it’s not possible. Hiring drummer Palmer, however, made a significant difference in NewVillager’s live sound – and appearance.
“It used to be unruly,” says Simonini, “with just me and a guitar and a foot pedal, and Ben and keyboards and bass and a foot pedal.”
As for the aforementioned human sculpture, that would be one Eric Lister, a friend of Simonini’s since his San Francisco childhood, who’s previously taken part in NewVillager’s art-music happenings. In their current show, Simonini describes, “Eric’s in the center [of the audience], in his ‘Cocoon House’ state” – “Cocoon House” being the leadoff track on NewVillager, whose physical imagery is meant to suggest the gestational phase of an idea.
In fact, as NewVillager’s set begins in the Day-Glo-daubed, patchouli-scented, and cheerfully diminutive music room of Santos Party House, Lister has encased himself in a womblike fabric contraption – “a quilt made of our childhood clothing,” according to Simonini.
When the human sculpture emerges later in NewVillager’s set, those concertgoers who are in the know, but who aren’t in the cocoon’s immediate area, can only imagine the give-and-take that’s surely taking place. Before the show, Simonini said that the addition of Eric the human sculpture gave audience members a chance to interact with “the art aspects of the show;” though the interaction isn’t visible to whole swathes of people.
But if some of NewVillager’s visual-art components worked better in theory than in concert – at least in a bite-sized venue like this – the band pulled off something even more rewarding: just these two guys (plus drummer) recreated every delicious texture and nuance of their sheerly edible album. Simonini and Bromley’s vocals particularly amazed, especially the latter’s supple swoops from baritone rumble to soul-sweet falsetto, as in the stop-start strut of “Rich Doors” – and their harmonies struck a rich and satisfying vein, time and time again.
The end came too soon (literally; New Villager were a few songs short of performing their whole album, ending with an encore rendition of the exhortatory “Lighthouse” – with a genius snippet of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” tossed in.
“We’re always trying new stuff out,” Simonini had said before the show, referring in particular to their live set, and for NewVillager, that includes delving deeper into ways of bringing their audience into the experience.
He noted that concertgoers have lately been showing up at their gigs dressed as characters from NewVillager’s wildly artful videos (viewable at newvillager.com.) At their Philadelphia gig earlier this month, Simonini says they asked the costumed fans to interact with Eric – which they did, leading the human sculpture out of his cocoon.
This got Simonini and Bromley thinking that the myth-clad devotees might be willing to arrange with the band, in advance of a particular concert, to wear certain costumes and perform certain actions in the audience, perhaps cued by verbal or visual signals from the band – so that a continuous action would flow around the room. And all of this would be coordinated by a website Simonini envisions them setting up.
After all, he says, why go to a pop concert – indeed, why listen to pop music at all – “and not want to go deeper?”