Photo by Tanja Geiss
The art of the headf*ckDisorientation is a strange word. It assumes that youíre oriented in the first place. I know that when I popped out of the womb, it was a very disorienting experience from the get-go. To be oriented implies a version of experience that is ordinary, habitual. Ifwhen, the very name itself implying whatís coming next, seeks to shatter that ordinariness, shatter what makes you feel comfortable. Headfuck you, to put it bluntly. This is not a bad thing. In fact, itís as fresh as fresh can be because it makes you see the world through new eyes. This should be the goal of all art in a certain sense: to see the world through new eyes.
by Ben Malkin
Ifwhen is not one of those noise bands whose abrasion is offset with the Ďyou donít get ití qualities of the highfalutin pretentious lot, because at heart, Ifwhen is a pop band. That is, Ifwhenís the candy man. They reward ye seekers of providence, with almighty divine ear candy.
On the top floor of the NYC nightclub Pianos, I sit with Merc, Mary, and Kentaro. Esquival blares in the background, and I propose to Merc that in the same way Van Gogh wasnít accepted in his day and now is a hundred years later, we see the world through his eyes. Does he think 100 years from now, people will be walking through supermarkets listening to the music of Ifwhen?
"Yeah, it's like some of the stuff Iíll listen to like that people tell me about -stuff thatís really experimental but still structured- and I canít like grasp it. But then the moments when I do, I can see like this is ear candy. Not like stuff thatís really easy to listen to. Stuff thatís harder to listen to." Merc speaks with a boyish charm and an excited, thoughtful air. You can see in his eyes that music still turns him on. That musicís kind of a journey Merc likes to go on to find himself, and what appeals to him is the ineffable stuff thatís a bit harder to grasp. The stuff that doesnít go down so easy upon first listen, but once you learn how to hear it, is so much richer than the easily palpable.
Which is a good description for Ifwhen cause in a way (like My Bloody Valentine), it's kind of soothing, but at the same time kind of dissonant. Not in a feedback/noise way, but in the actual way the notes are put together. I remember once standing at Scenic next to Mike (from Loveless Music Group, ex-Autumn Thieves), and he said to me about Merc's guitar playing ĎLook! Look, he never resolves. You want his chords to go to the resolving chord but it never does.í And it's true. At least a lot of the time. Ifwhen puts your head in a vice grip and twists. But oddly enough, it feels good. It's not unlike the title of their album, We Will Gently Destroy You.
Another way of saying it is that this is pretty fucked up music. Headfuckers, I like to call these kids. Ifwhen are headfuckers.
"I was a senior in high school and I was kind of being dragged to see Dinosaur Jr. & them [My Bloody Valentine] at this place in NJ called City Gardens... I was thinking Iím seeing Dinosaur Jr. And I remember being on line and being like ĎWhatís the first band called? My Bloody...í you know like not really knowing. I was actually with two of my L&L (All Natural Lemon & Lime Flavor) band-mates and we were just like ĎHOLY SHITí and like seeing the bouncers and stuff (like the guys who worked there, and a lot of the people in the audience), I guess like the Dinosaur Jr. crowd, like holding their ears, and like you could see that some people were actually like pissed off, like people were angry. People were just like Ďwhat the fuĖĎ you know cause they completely felt like violated and we just... it made us love them even more, like, weíd never saw anybody do that and it was one of those moments were youíre like ĎI didnít know you could do this with music.í And thatís great, when somebody makes you think that ĎI didnít know you could do this with music or I didnít know music could be thisí like I think thatís great and I guess thatís what Iím always kinda trying to do- make music out of things that you might not think could be. Iím not saying Iím using weird instruments or weird sounds, but just that the structure of it, the patterns the rhythms, the everything might not be something you would think could or should be music. But it's like, I want to force you to think that it is. I want to make you think 'no no no, just hear me out, hear me out, just listen.'"
Yet again, the My Bloody Valentine flashpoint epiphany is so common in this Loveless scene, but the way it struck Merc was slightly different. With some Loveless bands, itís the textures. With Merc, it was the revelation that you could fuck up peoples' shit with music, completely warp their perception of reality, with music. This is the foundation of Ifwhen. Yes, thereís Syd Barrett and The Beatles and Melt Banana and King Crimson and Air in there, but ultimately Ifwhen are about fucking up peoples' perception, not through volume (although live, they are extremely loud) or noise, but through the actual combinations of notes- the actual way the notes are put together. Sure, there are effects, but in reality, what is blurring the air and warping the sky is very simple: itís the actual way the notes are put together.
In the high school of Loveless Music Group Ifwhen are valedictorians. That's because more than any other band in this Group, Ifwhen understands the way to fuck up peoples' shit lies in understanding the way music works internally, not feeling it all out (as most Loveless Groups probably write, this at heart being a d.i.y. indie mentality enterprise). But it's also actually understanding whatís going on and using the tools at hand (notes) to manipulate reality into something that will... well, something that will gently destroy you.
It should come as no surprise that Merc is a music teacher. What surprised me is the Kentaro, Ifwhenís bassist, is a hair dresser- his boss, at Tosh hair [a Japanese hair salon for all of you keeping track at home] is a huge Ifwhen fan and comes to many of their shows. Mary, the band musicologist, works for an online record store. Both Mary and Kentaro met Merc through ads. Maryís said it started with 'All Natural Lemon & Lime Flavorsí (Mercís former band), who she was a huge fan of in college in London. Merc wanted Mary to sing. Originally, he wanted two female keyboard players, who would both sing beside him- at that time, he fancied himself the Prince of Pallasaides Park. Mary refused to sing. She was however trained in classical piano, and could play two different time signatures with two hands simultaneously. She insists this humbly through muscle memory but, from your humble author who is also a keyboardist, she can do shit I couldnít dream of (so much for your mere muscle memory, madame Mary). Kentaro saw the ad at Mitzuah, a Japanese supermarket off the Hudson River in Jersey that can be seen from NYCís West Side. A shared love of Hanoi Rocks and metal in general brought he and Merc together.
Mary explains "Online, the only thing that caught my eye (from Craigslist or the Village Voice) was All Natural Lemon & Lime Flavors and I happened to be a great fan of that band while I was at University and I bought all of their records in London. And thatís why I answered him although he was quite discouraged I think when I said I didnít want to sing- it was an advert for a singer and keyboard player and I didnít want to sing. I studied music. I did part of a degree but I never finished."
Ben M: It's weird to be doing classical and then be in a rock band.
Merc: If she only played in rock bands, she probably wouldnít be able to do what she does
Ifwhenís first album came out only in Japan in 2003. Merc went over to do some press and had recorded the album fresh out of coming out of the ashes of All Natural Lemon & Lime Flavors. Despite ANL & LF's success [they released two albums for Gern Blandstein records and one for Koombia, while touring frequently (your humble author opening up for them at Purchase in 1997 w/Kitzu at The Cave]), it seems to have been a somewhat stressful endeavor, a five piece band with four song writers. According to Merc, "everybody was fighting to kind of get their voice heard in one way or another." Thus, when it came time to do Ifwhen, Merc would be the songwriter. No more fighting. A bit more of a clear vision. A bit more experimental (as far as time signatures, sounds, to say the least), but, like lots of solo songwriters, Merc discovered after completing his first album (which contained many, many instruments and overdubs), that it was very difficult to perform said music live.
By this point, Kentaro had joined but, there were still plans in the works to perform the first album live. When Mary came in, she learned all the parts off the entire first album, only to have Merc suggest (thrilled with Maryís joining and wanting to play live) they should record a new album, one they could perform entirely live.
Thus, We Will Gently Destroy You (from 2005), the first proper Ifwhen album, and more importantly, the mark of a live band.
Mary: We wanted it to be live in the sense [that] I donít have more than two hands recorded. Like everything thatís on the record, we can play live but we had to kind of like start all over again
"I think musicís just such an interesting thing 'cause all you're doing is manipulating sounds, right? Thatís all your doing is taking sounds, which is just a very natural thing, and just really controlling it and really making it into exactly like something that you think it could be."
Not all would agree with Merc. Some would argue that itís not about control, but rather it's about opening yourself up to spirits and possession and improvisation. But those people have nothing to do with what Ifwhenís going for. The structure inherent in Ifwhenís vision is integral to all that is Ifwhen.
"I just feel like when I want to create music, I want to be able to, you know, really know whatís coming up and when thatís gonna happen, as opposed to like that idea of see what happens."
In answer to the question of why such structure is appealing to him, Merc responds "I donít know, I guess maybe I just have issues."
He laughs. "I was Napoleon in a past life, maybe."
Ifwhen live is a sight to behold. Merc & Mary go into a towering rack system complete with mixing board. Everything is premixed. Every preset for every part of every song. So every sound you hear coming out of Mercís guitar or voice and Maryís two keyboards (save Kentaros' badass bass) is preset. Yet the sounds are all played live. Itís an odd combination, at least for most rock bands, who like to plug and play. Compound this with the fact that all three members wear ear monitors with click tracks in them and you start to get a feeling for just how strange Ifwhen truly is. But then again, that is what we love about them.
Now, it should be noted that your humble author is not a fan of progressive rock. And Ifwhen, when describing itself, says if you combined My Bloody Valentine, King Crimson, and Air, you would have something like Ifwhen. On their MySpace page, the three categories they label themselves are experimental, progressive, and shoegaze. Yet Ifwhen, to me, doesnít come across as a progressive rock band. That is to say, their music, although made up of tons of parts, doesnít feel like parts for the sake of parts. In fact, many of the grooves are badass and the journeys the parts lead into are very repetitious. Perhaps Merc himself has the most light to shed on this apparent contradiction: "a lot of it is very virtuotsic and really progressive." With Ifwhen, it never feels virtuosic. It just feels like long weird journeys- headfucks, to put it bluntly.
"Itís a little bit of like an adventure. I think thatís what it should be like when youíre listening to music you know, where you can get lost in the song and just listen to the song, like thereís some things Iíll only listen to while Iím doing stuff- like while Iím cleaning up my apartment, Iíll put this on. Then thereís other things I can just sit there in a chair and just put it on and do nothing but listen"
And thatís what youíre going for?
"No, but I guess what Iím getting from that music is sort of just to be like that."
A music of ideas. A music for headfuckers. I like that. I like that Ifwhen represents that. It makes all our minds just a little bit richer.
For more info on Ifwhen or to purchase their music, please visit their website
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