by Kasey McKee
Originally published by City Pages, 10/11/17 (CP version edited by Keith Harris)
Photo by Glen Jones
A quintet from Minneapolis, Narco States takes a dedicated proto-punk approach to their craft. At their live performances, they conjure up a churning wall of psychedelic sound punctuated by the unpredictable antics of their vocalist, who can often be seen crawling around in the audience or swinging from the nearest rafter. The overall effect is a sort of In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida freakout that would fit nicely in the mise-en-scène of a Kenneth Anger film.
I met with Narco States outside of bassist Nick Sampson’s house, where their rehearsal space is located. The band had just returned from a short tour out East, so I asked how it went.
Aaron Robertson, who plays organ in the band, responded:
“When you’re on tour, some of the shows are good and some aren’t, but we were blown away by Columbus. Saratoga Springs had awesome food. We had a booking agent who laid the groundwork, so that was really helpful.”
“We played in Montclair, which reminds me of West End,” said vocalist Michael Meyer.
“There’s a Starbucks and a Juut on every corner. But the club we played at was a hidden door that led to a theater that was like a secret cabaret stage.”
Drummer Robb Lauer also commented, “When we were in Madison, we did an in-studio performance on the college radio station WSUM, and from doing that show we had this big crowd of young people turn up when we played later that night, which was cool. And they liked it, they were really digging it.”
Lauer is a recent addition to Narco States, replacing previous drummer Justin DeRusha.
I asked him about his early experiences playing with the band.
“It was intimidating because I’m jazz/funk-trained,” said Lauer. “If you play jazz, you can play with anybody that plays that kind of music, but this is definitely not jazz. I wasn’t sure at first, but I got this long rambling e-mail from Michael that convinced me to try it. So these guys gave me a bunch of music to listen to—Neil Young, 13th Floor Elevators, MC5—and I just tried to un-teach myself, to play an energetic, chaotic wall.”
“We basically told him, ‘Play more shitty’,” added Meyer. “He was playing kind of stiff at first, but then there was a show where Robb just broke open, like he didn’t give a shit.”
“I remember that show,” said Lauer, “Nick was doing a bass run, and I thought, ‘just do it’. It might be muddy and chaotic, but as long as the bass is solid…I think Nick’s bass, his mastery of tone, is a big part of the signature Narco States sound. It’s so recognizable.”
I asked the band if spontaneity is an element of the live shows.
“It’s kind of the whole thing,” organist Robertson replied. “I don’t think we want to do, like, a Grateful Dead thing. We’re not a jam band. The songs are short and tight, but we leave room for spontaneity. It’s kind of premeditated chaos.”
Narco States’ second LP Temples Into Tombs, the follow-up to 2014’s Wicked Sun, dropped last August. Their release show featured a six-band bill with their Piñata Records labelmates at the new venue Hook & Ladder in Minneapolis. Eschewing the modern DAW and its potentially-infinite number of instrument tracks, Narco States recorded Temples Into Tombs on a modest 8-track Zoom recorder with band members playing simultaneously.
“Usually no more than two to three takes. Minimal overdubs,” said Robertson, who also doubles as sound engineer and producer. “We tried isolation, recording everything separately, but it didn’t seem to work for this kind of music and the sound that we were going for.”
I asked guitarist Nate McGuire, who seems to be the Quiet Narco, about how he got the distinct lead sound on the album’s sixth track, “Ahemait”.
“It was just a Cry-Baby wah-wah pedal, with the guitar in drop-D tuning. We actually wrote and recorded that song in the same day. Like, ‘We have a riff, let’s do it’.”
“There’s also a theremin on that song,” Meyer commented. “It’s one of the few overdubs. It’s an optical theremin, so you’re supposed to wave your hand over the sensor, but I wave the light on my phone over it to get some pretty crazy sounds.”
I asked Meyer, who also designs the band’s Crowley-esque artwork, about the new album’s title Temples Into Tombs and if there was a significance behind it.
“It’s an existential title about our bodies,” said Meyer, “our bodies as temples.”
“And Temple Of Doom was already taken,” added bassist Nick Sampson.
I inquired if they have any plans for future releases. Apparently, Aaron Robertson has just finished building a DIY record-cutting lathe.
“We’re thinking of doing a limited run of seven-inch records,” said Robertson. “Hand-cut, maybe twenty or so, and we’ll just put everything in the sleeve that we can.”
Narco States will be playing at the Hexagon Bar in Minneapolis on October 11.
[From an interview on 9/13/2017]