Perfect Sound Forever


Photo by Virgil Porter

By Jose Marmeleira
(July 2003)

First of all I must say can't help myself feeling a little uncomfortable about writing an article on an American underground band. After all, my perspective will be always an alien (Portuguese) one. Detached yes, but also distant. That's what happens when our subject of analysis or commentary is physically separated from you. You hear the voices and the sounds. But you don't see them happening.

Anyway, let's pass over these complaints. I first come across Total Shutdown a couple of years ago when was surfing on the net looking for a musical fix. Disoriented in a local reality that was in love with digital sounds and pop songwriters, I was obsessively looking for something that would fulfil my musical void.

After the grunge hangover I was left only with my '80's records and for a while, I lost interest in rock music. The genre was losing its negation power, I thought. So I went to a hibernating state. But I wasn't sleeping. Around me, a sentence was spreading like a disease. The opinion-makers had found it: "Rock is dying." And suddenly I felt excited. If rock was dying, it meant that it had nothing to lose. It could expand itself; it could commit some kind of ontological hara-kiri, or could find its own limits. After all comics, painting and cinema were doing it. In fact, in some cases, they have done it. And so, it was rock music with all its prefixes (out, avant, noise, post).

I find out, after a short time while travelling in cyberspace. Names like Lightning Bolt, Deerhoof Black Dice, Noxagt, Sigthings, Circle were emerging in the form of powerful lights, within the night of culture commodification, and with a strange and free posture. In these extended rooster of bands I rapidly discovered Total Shutdown, a five-piece from San Francisco whose rush made me come back to two personal experiences: listening for the first time to punk rock and seeing Naked City playing live in Lisbon. The first one made me believe that everything was possible in art and life. The second confirmed my idea that different musical genres were interchangeable (in this particular, case jazz and hardcore); and that the significance of speed was more easy to find in some in musical rhythm that in the highways.

Total Shutdown was formed in 2000 from the ashes of the hardcore second wave. The current line up includes (so their website tells us) Nate Denver (Bass guitar and Vocals), Paul Costuros (Guitar, Clarinet, Bass Clarinet, Alto Saxophone, Keyboards, and Vocals), Bob Linder (Vocals, Trumpet, French Horn, Keyboards, Duck Call, and Harmonica), Pete Nguyen (Drums, vocals, and percussion) and Matthew Hartman (Alto Saxophone, Tenor Saxophone, vocals and Reedpipe). Linked to the San Francisco scene, they represent a true contamination between the "low art" of aggressive music aesthetics with the "high art" legitimatisation of avant, improv music and art performance.

In fact, that was how they started. Contaminated by death metal, hardcore, no wave and free-jazz, they started delivering breakneck tempos, guttural vocals, saxophone spasms and unpredictable sounds. The context was suitable. Bands were exposing sound to each other and transcending boundaries. People - like Paul Costuros, who went to art school and did conceptual and performance art - were looking for different realities. One of the first combos to impress T.S. was Boxleiter, a kind of noise rock, prankster, and performance art self-destruction band. Then, other connections were forged and concerts began resembling parties with different styles being played.

Being part of that, Total Shutdown were assuming a role as the most confrontational but at the same time, a humorous band. In other words there was no macho gimmick, just an ironic perspective that subverts our self-indulgence and self-seriousness (which I believe annoys most of my fellow compatriots). For instance, the 7 inch "Broadcast Performances" unveils some interesting aspects. The images printed on the record have some remote political content. On one side what seems to be Englishman stands aside his car, with a glass in his hand. On the other, an Iraqi man cleans the floor where we see painted the words "Bush is criminal." This is the only punk imagery besides the band's photos- here, they are far away from the Maximum Rock and Roll dictates. And as we listen to the lyrics, we can't resist a laugh. References to icons of popular culture, bizarre manifests and little cryptic narratives surpass the shouts and the grunts of Nate between the sax blows. As if Albert Ayler was jamming with Napalm Death with a punk rhythm section. Go to tracks like the funny and fantastic "Fighting Witches!" No John Zorn could ever come up to such a song where noise, velocity and smiles all come along with a witty death metal recreation.

With this image in mind that's should be no surprise that Total Shutdown´s show are joyous and reckless celebrations of music with some bruises and trashed material in between. It seems that there's no gratuity or anguish, just what I would call a sense of excitement of being in the right place, doing the right thing. In the fringes, yes, but aren't the fringes the most beautiful place to be nowadays?

That's how I was somehow seduced to think that the sentence "Our Band Could Be Your Life" was being - after the 80´s - rewritten. Maybe yes, maybe no. Hey, again let me remind you that this is an alien mind talking here. But as far as I look, that's what I see. Total Shutdown emerged from a unexpected musical interchange of ideas and sound. They have shared bills with other great acts (Black Dice, Burmese, Lightning Bolt, Wolf Eyes) and they are creating the new music of rock (Joe Carducci, please erase White Stripes) in a circuit where flyers and posters are added by the Internet and e-mails (this is the kind of pragmatism that so many Europeans lack).

I defend this last assertion by saying that T.S. manages to mixes outsider musical traditions (hardcore, free-jazz, punk and death metal) with a strong lack of restrain which we can feel in the band's interplays. They do it freely, with enough distance to see where they stand. So we're not talking about a nihilistic kind of music, as say the NY no wave scene. Or if it is so (as Weaser Walter pointed once to me) then it's a more effective - less poseur - one (an optimist one?). And I think we can experience it by listening to its music. They have a so intense live sound that it seems they are playing on my back as the record is spinning. By that, they create a soundtrack that erupts in my everyday life. Maybe it was this live dimension that got Thurston Moore and Byron Coley interested in their sound. Paul Costuros has confirmed for me that Ecstatic Yod are planning to release a live album that will be pressed on vinyl.

Anyway, that's how my comeback happened with Total Shutdown. By seeing photos of live concerts that reminded me of the beautiful snapshots of Charles Peterson or those first times I listened to Black Flag, Big Black or Birthday Party.

Maybe this lacks some fieldwork but it's my interpretation as a guy from a little European country, One day, I hope, I will see it all with my eyes. Until then I hope that South Europe one day can strike back. After seeing Total Shutdown playing live.

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