Photo by Ginny suss
Walls of Soul by Ben MalkinPt. I
Crossover's always been the major source of innovation in music. All genres eventually melt (like the melting pot NYC is), so that our backgrounds cross reference with what we're attracted to, and give birth to something new. Fruitful cross pollination as the botanists would put it. So where the divergent lines of future soul, electronica, dream pop, and shoegaze merge lie Apollo Heights. And for those of us who've loved Al Green and My Bloody Valentine in equal measure over the years, Apollo Heights is exactly what we've been waiting for.
Apollo Heights brings the funk to shoegaze. Lifestyle music for the urban playground. More importantly, spine tingling mind unraveling madness for a new generation of mind melders, at home in with electro beats, wall of sound guitars, & soul drenched vocals dripping with honey Daniel (the North Carolina native and lead singer of Apollo Heights) even sings this: 'your lips they taste like hon-ey.'
Those who deny soul deny sex. And Apollo Heights is not one to deny soul. From bad ass groove to gentle sway, ba-dunk-a-dunk-dunk to waves wash over you, Apollo Heights just wants to get all sensual on your ass. If there's any doubt, listen to their song "Dakini"- it is the sexiest song out of NYC in the last decade. Period.
Let's get the concept down first. Listen to Honeychild, the female mohawked antique-hat-making rhythm guitarist for Apollo Heights: "Well, they were still The Veldt when I met them and they didn't even live in NY but we became friends over the years and like maybe like 3 years ago Danny was like 'oh, you should play guitar with us.' And I'm like 'you don't need me,' they had like 2 other guitars so I didn't really get it then. And then they started telling me about the whole like Afrogaze thing and I'm like 'oh wait, of course, a wall of guitars, I get it now."
A wall of guitars. A wall of soul. Sound enveloping and caressing you, higher & higher, on the wings of a giant butterfly (or, even more specific to Apollo Heights, on the wings of the Phoenix, reborn from the ashes of The Veldt, but more on that later...). Alien as well, insofar as futuristic, foreign, unknown. Yet home. Drenched in reverb. MBV & 4AD and Mute and The Cocteau Twins and all the good things in life. But new too. I mean, this is 2006. And the future calls for soul. What this nation lacks is funk, soul, stone cold truth. Something people can shake it to. Stuck up as we are, a little booty shaking might all do us some good (i.e. loosen us up, man).
OK, but then why Afrogaze? Well, with the exception of Hayato, the band is all African American. Does this matter? No. And yes. The band is shattering conventions. Fucking up your shit of 'suppossed to be.' This is one aspect of their greatness.
Like Jimi Hendrix before them, Apollo Heights will confuse you. Look a bit deeper into the source of your confusion though, & you'll realize your confusion was only a conception that was bullshit to begin with.
When I asked Daniel what he was listening to in 11th grade he replied, "oh man, I remember leaving school, rushing to School Kids Records to buy OMD, Hyena (by Siouxie & The Banshees), and the new Smiths album. And the Jam's Snap. All in one day. I spent my whole $40 check on records." We are whatever we choose to be, whatever speaks to us, not what people think we're supposed to be. Apollo Heights, like most great rock 'n' rollers, didn't fit in. They were outcasts who hated their surroundings growing up.
Q: What made you want to play music? What was the inspiration?
Daniel: Hating people in school. Trying to pick up bitches.
Danny, the identical twin of Daniel & the lead guitarist for Apollo Heights, got kicked out of his church band for playing his guitar too loud. This is what happened next: "I started a band. A bunch of the older guys were saying like I was playing like white boy chords. I came to practice, I was into R.E.M right. And they were like, 'Yo man, I don't want them white boy chords you're playin.' I'm like 'white boy chords?! What's white boy chords I started beginning noticing shit like that that's not right."
It's 2006. And this shit is still around. Shit that Apollo Heights burn to the mother fuckin' ground.
Now, a majority of great bands are created out of tensions, held together by the tenuous thread of music. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and from The Beatles to Outkast, The Ramones to The Velvet Underground, the merging of different personalities is what creates the magic. Pete Townsend, Keith Moon, Roger Daltry and John Entwistle were mega-personalities whose tensions led to the destruction of their instruments, often. I don't want to dwell in the negative here, but it's undeniable to me that the differences between Tommy Ramone, Dee Dee Ramone, Tommy Ramone, & Joey Ramone where what led to the explosive and undeniably extremely exciting elements in their music. And I think anyone who compares Outkasts Stankonia or Aquemini to Speaker Boxxx/The Love Below will see what I'm saying. Here too, Apollo Heights are no different. So who is Apollo Heights?
Apollo Heights live is six people. There are the twins, Daniel and Danny. Formerly of The Veldt, Daniel sings lead, Danny plays lead guitar. Together they lead the way. In the words of Ellis, Apollo Heights coach, spiritual advisor, and all around good vibes point man (the optimist who helps hold the tensions together) "You know, its his brothers voice and his brothers guitar that's leading the way. Not a drum machine...you know what I'm saying. Its kind of gospel in that way."
But there is a drum machine. Or rather, electronic beats, courtesy of Hayato Nakao and Danny. Now, don't get me wrong, the beats are fresh, but Apollo Heights live (and Apollo Heights is most definitely best experienced live) is about the wall of sound. Or wall of soul I should say. The afrogaze.
So who makes up the afrogaze? Well, there's Danny who blurs speed demon Hendrix sixteenth notes, funk, Cocteau Twins-esque arpegiating, and chord explosions ala R.E.M. He's the slash buckler above the beats, weaving his way in & out, of the chord structures, into bliss. Then there's Honeychild, who brings her own brand of Sonic Youth surf to rhythm, power-chords and fattening up the wall of soul, bringing the honey to the paw of the Apollo Heights bear.
And there's a visually striking element here too, no doubt from a lady (aka Honeychild) who came here to study fashion. That was my ticket out of the ghetto. Pretty much. Scholarship to Parsons. I only went foundation year and then I transferred and went to California and changed my major to accessories, started makin' hats. I make twenties style like flapper hats." Honeychild's sense of style hits hard.)
There's Micah Gauge, who's solely live, not heard on record. But oh how live he is. Doubling Daniels vocals on choruses falsetto an octave higher (on album, Daniel does his own backups), and blowing a saxophone like the bad ass bat (& dugout) psychedelic tall Texan he is. Son of a preacher man, of course.
There's Hayato. Straight outta Japan. Wielding a bass groove that brings the funk hard. Like the Dr. Dre he emulates, it's no thang 'cause the twins are both fluent in Japanese. Hyoto also controls the beats. On stage he's the fulcrum upon which Apollo Heights swing. Hyoto also has the good sense to hold out sometimes, not play, so that when the bass drops back in you feel it, hard, heavy, a chorus hitting that much more intensely by giving it space.
Then there's Monk. Yet another guitarist. Groovin' swinging, into it. To me he resembles a bit more distinguished Andre 3000. He's character with stories and stories that deserve their own article, no doubt, but this article is about Apollo Heights.
The voice at the head of the Heights is Daniel. Hands open palmed to the side, moving like a boxer, a non-stop swirl of motion, Daniel sings high. Very high. And he sings hard. How appropriate then that he and Danny grew up in a project called Apollo Heights in North Carolina [before moving to Atlanta for part of childhood. Apollo, the lunar module that first landed on the moon.
(It should also be noted that Daniel pulls off some amazing harmonies on the recordings, just shattering glory prism mist bliss on album, really devastating beautiful stuff.)
"Option [magazine] said, when we did The Veldt record, they said my vocals were too soulful," says Daniel when I present him with Greg Tate's Voice of God theory (how great soul singers [see Marvin Gaye, Al Green, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, etc.] are singing with such conviction that it represents the Voice of God). Now, what does that mean? Too soulful? Too soulful for what? For the style of music The Veldt (who Apollo Heights is simply the logical extension of) were playing. That style of music (reverb drenched, delayed guitars, trippy, dreamy) is most commonly associated with mopey anglophiles. Not quite yet shoegaze (that would come later, as so many in the Loveless Music Group repeat time and again, with seeing My Bloody Valentine live, for Danny at The Ritz in midtown in '94, where he lost his shit). The Veldt in the early '90s were already taking slack for fitting outside the box.
Now, the thing with a lot of shoegaze or dream pop vocals is they are icy, detached, unemotional, pointing to all that is unsaid by virtue of the detachedness of what is sung. Daniel is the opposite of all that. Daniel is heart on his sleeve, let it all out, not afraid to sing inarticulate moans and melodies, like the moaning inarticulate religious songs on the Harry Smith anthology by Rev. J.M. gates or Sister Mary Nelson (the source of the pain being articulated & released (catharsis!) is religious). Open, not closed, not keeping it all in or holding back. Gospel. Emotional. Nina Simone, Al Green, Marvin. Blind Willie Johnson. The fast talking Blind Willie McTell singing in a devestating descending melody 'Lord Lord Lord Lord Lord Lord Lord Lord.' This is new for shoegaze or dream pop. This is evolution through cross pollination. And this too is what makes Apollo Heights so fresh. In dream, delay reverb, walls of guitars, vocals bring emotion heaven soul falsetto.
I guess this would be a good time to bring up the concept of escape. Escape is a strange thing. A lot of us hated our high schools and the people around us growing up and sought to escape through music. And that escape, what you create to try and escape into, can be a really beautiful place. So much finer than reality. Yet coming from the emotions you have towards reality, the reality you create to escape into is a tricky beast. Because on the one hand its so much better than this reality, and on the other it makes this one look pretty drab by comparison. But, as my friend Eddie would say, 'I'd rather live in the invisible republic than the visible one.' Now sometimes, the reality people create out of this reality is morbid and depressing. And sometimes, it's uplifting and lifts your spirits so that you become stronger in this reality. When Curtis Mayfield sang 'People get ready a trains a coming,' it became the soundtrack for a whole civil rights movement. And it strengthened the struggle in the face of insane adversity. This statement is the essence of Apollo Heights ascension.
The sound of new wave and post-punk captured the imagination of two identical twins in North Carolina who really, really wanted to escape their environment, their immediate surroundings through fantasy, through creating these intense fantasy-scapes in order to escape what was happening in front of their very eyes. Now I don't know what was happening exactly. And it doesn't matter. It's personal. What I do know is I felt the exact same way on Long Island. And the same things that appealed to Ellis listening to The Smiths in high school and Danny and Daniel listening to Siouxee and The Banshees and The Velvet Underground in North Carolina is the reason I listened to those same things on Long Island. This isn't about skin color or North/South or any of that bullshit, but about feelings, and how ultimately, we felt the same way two thousand miles away.
In a packed hole in the wall bar on Stanton by Rothko, deep in the heart of NYC's lower east side, Danny, in the midst of my pontificating cultural influences hits me hard with some wisdom: "but realize, right now, we're right here right now. We're alive. We're right here in the midst of all the bullshit right here. We're right here man, we're right here."
Aside from the cultural influences that create us. Aside from the politics that divide us. Aside from all that bullshit, we're just people trying to get through this called life. Everyone's so judgmental all the time, pigeon-holing things or jumping to conclusions and looking for divisions that they forget what brings us together. And, miraculously, the same things that got these Southern gentleman and lady through the day is the same thing that got me through the day, and brings us together now.
The Veldt was the first band your humble author ever saw, in seventh grade at Irving Plaza, opening up for Material Issue. At the time I had no idea why I was even at the show. Someone had invited me for no apparent reason [awkward kids trying to become friends by sharing experiences] to a show with bands I knew nothing about (save a video or two on 120 Minutes). Now, fifteen years later, why I was there is perfectly clear.
To learn more about Apollo Heights please visit:
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