If Notta Comet’s music seems kind of outlandish, you just need to spend some time getting to know it better.
“We like to play with dissonance and harmony, and going back and forth between the two so you’re not sure which one’s which,” says drummer Eli Kaufman.
“It may not seem like it, but to us they’re like pop songs.”
The Montreal trio’s music emerges from random jams and experiments, letting their chemistry determine whether they jump into some dizzying polyrhythm, or a quiet moment where guitarist/singer Alex Williams delivers spoken word in a state of deadpan wonder.
Then they stop experimenting, and refine what they’ve come up with.
“If you go into the mountains in Vermont or wherever, there are lot of trees that have become fossilized (...) they don’t break the way that rocks do,” says Alex.
“I think of our compositional process like that. At one point they grew organically, and then we decided this is the tree we have. And we let the sands of time turn it into a rock.”
On their latest record Success with Houseplants, recorded by Alex and Patrick McDowell, they manage to hone in on something that seems to pull from all directions — from the catchy weirdness of the Talking Heads to free-jazz prog of King Crimson.
Studio tricks like stacking guitars and panning drum recordings add to the disorientation, but the feeling is only temporary.
Their songs reveal themselves as Notta Comet’s wonky palette settles into your brain.
Eli from California and Alex from New Jersey, they met at McGill because they were wearing the same Pavement shirt.
“Shit just made so much more sense,” says Alex about starting to play with Eli. “I’m not necessarily a good guitarist, but I’m good at this band.”
Along with bassist Crawford Smith ("He's the only one with those writerly theory abilities, which is why his parts are so Motown,” says Alex) they go for the avant garde. They’re a prog band that avoids being tied to any preconceived notion of what prog is supposed to sound like.
The approach they follow is more punk than academic, despite the dense themes embedded into their lyrics.
“My understanding of jazz was a complicated chord shape, without knowing anything about voice leading, how you would use a sharp thirteenth or anything like that,” says Alex.
“I’d kind of grab it and go, and see what worked and what didn’t.”
Eli sticks to “the crazy, noise-meets-jazz stuff” à la Pharoah Sanders.
“It’s really nice that our intersection [of interests] is unique, so that we can make this kind of music,” he says.
“The overlaps that aren’t interesting are that we’re 20-something white males from America wearing the same Pavement shirt,” adds Alex.
“The more interesting [overlap] is West African music.”
Combining West African rhythms and guitar style with bits of prog and math rock, they set the foundation for songs like “Somebody Oughta Burn Down Ray Kurzweil's House,” which casts Varg Vikernes as a mythical demon tormenting sailors, only to be foiled by the use of GPS.
Then the second verse tells the story of someone writing a song about a place they’ve never been using Google Street View.
“That whole song is about personal and real ways of knowing being replaced with simulations,” says Alex.
“I’m really anti-utopian in my political beliefs and lifestyle, and I think it obscures the real work that could be done to make people’s lives better, by providing parts of the world with water, or a health care network [...] as opposed to newer and fancier ways to encapsulate your consciousness on a series of electrons.”
Then there’s “Subways”, a song all about “the kind of hilarious things you can do in the name of labour organizing” — including running though a subway car with your dick swinging.
In “Paradoxical Undressing” the second verse is a parable about homelessness.
“You see all these cats on the street in the summer, and you think where do they go in the winter?” says Alex.
“By phrasing it in the language of cats which people are more amenable to and have fewer ideological preconceptions about, I think you can raise real questions about the ways to deal with homelessness as a civic and social problem.”
But what does this all have to do with houseplants?
The album’s name, and its art, come from a book they found at Patrick’s house when they were mixing the record.
“It was kind of a funny idea, being stoked about your houseplants,” says Alex. “Like, ‘fuck yeah!’ We did it, we have nice houseplants,’ and it doesn’t really mean much at all.”
Their songs, like the impact a houseplant can have on a home, are looking to inspire small improvements.
“We see ourselves as kind of a political band, but not in the manner of yelling “The system has to change! Don’t be a victim! Smash capitalism! End patriarchy now!” Alex says.
“We’re sort of like, ‘there are little tweaks here that we can do, and if we can present a convincing argument for that, maybe things can actually get better.’”