Notta Comet treat chaos like a potted plant

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.’”

Notta Comet kick off their Eastern Canada / US tour April 29 at Casa del Popolo with Kurvi Tasch and Feefawfum.

Caribou plays the sentimental DJ

Photo by Thomas Neukum

Accessibility is a tough art to master.

Writing music with universal appeal can come off as pandering, or be outright bland. But Dan Snaith doesn’t rely on cliché to reach the masses, even if his latest Caribou LP is all about love. The love he’s singing about is complex and human, not some pre-packaged romance.

Our Love is an exercise in Snaith getting outside his own head, sharing his most personal music to date with his voice no longer heavily manipulated or buried under samples.

“I think it is a confidence thing,” says Snaith. “The consideration of ego is to say ‘let’s put in as many things as possible to kind of prove to people that this music has enough going on to justify its existence.”

Snaith’s latest is brimming with confidence while at his most vulnerable, managing to create a sense of space on Our Love that before had always escaped him. He’s shaken the insecurity of people hearing him singing, a byproduct of playing hundreds of shows since the release of his last LP Swim, including a tour with Radiohead.

But Snaith says there’s always a bit of doubt whether he can do it again, despite the mounting acclaim over the course of his last three Caribou releases.

“It hasn’t really made it easier. I still put in long, long hours making loads of tracks that don’t get used, trying to figure out something new and exciting that could form the basis of the sound of this record,” he says.

“One thing that confidence and experience helps with is I kind of know I just need to keep working and something will happen.”

Though he’s been based in London for the past decade, the Dundas, ON native invited two fellow Canadians to collaborate on Our Love. Owen Pallett’s violin can be heard on “Silver”, and Jessy Lanza is featured heavily on “Second Chance”. But their impact on the record expands beyond that, Snaith sending them (along with his friend Kieran Hebden, better known as Four Tet) early demos to get their input.

“A big part of what made the record so special is their input, when I hear those songs I’ll always remember them,” Snaith says.

“I just rely on that so much. When I make something and let it sit for a month I can be objective, but the day after, the week after, I don’t have that distance to judge it. Especially with Owen and Jesse, they’re coming at the music from a complementary but different angle.”

Dan first collaborated with Owen under Snaith’s club moniker Daphni. They were both in Toronto at the time and Dan proposed the two try and make some dance music.

“I said, let’s just book a studio and see what happens. And we had so much fun. We got in there and I was just hitting buttons and jamming away on things, and he was getting out a piece of paper and writing everything out on a score,” he says.

Snaith, who completed conservatory piano himself, says it’s more than Owen’s training that makes him such a great musician, capable of bridging gaps between the classical world and the pop or dance music worlds.

“He has a different way of picturing what’s going on,” says Snaith. “There are plenty of people with classical training but Owen’s one-of-a-kind. His take on music is very, idiosyncratically, his own.”

With Caribou growing out of home recording experiments for the past 14 years, on Our Love Snaith is at his most intimate, singing about his own experiences and those of his close friends.

He’s pulling from what he says have been the happiest years of his life, while also having friends go through divorces and losing friends from his and his parents’ generation. “Julia Brightly” is named after his friend and sound engineer who passed away in May.

On this record Snaith builds an appropriate space for this kind of soul-baring. The record is largely warm, soft and pulling from one of the most sensitive musical styles — R&B.

“The first thing that was aesthetically exciting for me was the production sounds in contemporary R&B. Glassy, synthesized things where everything is very manufactured and glossy [...] with a synthetic frame for a human voice,” says Snaith. “I thought the record would be much more in that way.”

But on the most tender moments of Our Love, like the slow crescendo “Back Home” and album closer “Your Love Will Set You Free”, it’s the classics that come to mind — albeit with a digital palette. Playing Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye records for his daughter crept into his writing in an unexpected way.

“Those records were doing what I wanted this record to do, which is to be warm and generous, to share my personal life," he says. "Those records are the epitome of that, feeling the presence of the person who made the record in the room when you listen to it.”

“Mars”, the closest thing to a typical club song on the record, is the outlier. Originally written a couple days ahead of a Boiler Room set he did with Jamie xx in 2011, there was something about the track that made him want to keep it off his Daphni debut Jiaolong. The treat of being able to hear its propulsive, syncopated drum line played by a live band is reason enough.

DJ-ing gave him a chance to completely base his set off the audience, picking songs as he goes, being a part of the crowd while dictating the soundtrack. It’s the polar opposite of what he does live with Caribou, where he’s an avid multitasker — especially since touring with the more electronic-based, pop-take on Ricardo Villabos Swim LP.

“There are some points in songs when we’re playing live when I can’t pay attention at all to what’s going on in the audience, there’s so much going on [onstage],” he laughs. “I have to be making eye contact with Brad [Weber] who’s playing drums, and John [Schmersal] who’s playing bass and Ryan [Smith], stepping on this, pushing this button, singing, making sure the timing is right.”

Since the release of Swim in 2010, they’ve been playing more dance music festivals too, where they’re the only act hauling guitars onstage. With two hybrid drum kits and a bunch of other tools, they’re able to turn Snaith’s layered studio compositions into something that can only be experienced at his shows.

They change things on the fly, grouped close together no matter how big the stage as images are projected onto their white t-shirts. What they’re able to accomplish live is a testament of how well they know each other musically. Dan has been playing with Ryan since they were 13 years old, with Brad since 2007, and John since 2009.

Having finished Our Love in April, Dan says the last few months have been filled with eager anticipation, waiting for the world to hear the record he made for us. And with the glowing reviews piling up, he has nothing to worry about as far as public opinion is concerned.

“That moment when it’s coming out and you’re just starting to do shows you get this instinctual read of how they like the music, whether they need some time to absorb it, it’s a really exciting time,” he says.

“It’s kind of a fulfillment moment of all those things that you’ve been working on for the last four years.”

Caribou plays Metropolis November 10 with Jessy Lanza.

Saxsyndrum is chasing chameleon grooves

The local duo Saxsyndrum is willing to adapt to any situation. They sometimes go acoustic, adding violin and upright bass. At other shows they’ll be belting out late-night future funk as their core two-piece.

"Saxsyndrum's thing is doing something different every time. It’s kind of tied together by having saxophone, having drums and being weird," says Dave Switchenko, the sax half of Saxsyndrum.

“We change our stuff up enough that people kind of expect it."

The band’s new record SXD_EP comes out November 4 through Art Not Love, a local label run by Charlie Twitch from ¡FLIST!, and true to form it’s like nothing they’ve put out before. Most of the EP is more suited for an ambient set, coming from recording samples Dave and Nick Schofield wrote separately. The first three tracks by Dave use only saxophone, the last three by Nick only percussion.

"A year-and-a-half ago Dave was setting up his studio and working more at recording sounds, hitting the saxophone, getting pops and squeaks out of it in a home setting,” says Nick. “The EP was born out of that kind of experimentation."

The two had been listening to a lot of beautifully arranged, carefully scrutinized music by producers like Four Tet, Pantha du Prince and Jon Hopkins at the time. When Dave came up with the album-opener "Maceonectar", they applied for a FACTOR grant with a demo version. When the funding came through, they were able to pursue the idea.

They recorded most of the sounds heard on the EP in a 12-hour session at Hotel2Tango with Radwan Moumneh, who does audio-visual performances under the name Jerusalem in My Heart.

"It ended up being a really good match. He had a ton of really great ideas about saxophone micing, and just general sound treatment for the drums and the sax,” says Nick.

Using 12 microphones to record the drums gave them a huge range of blending options for the EP. The sounds that didn’t make it will most likely show up on future releases.

"[Radwan] brought ideas that ended up influencing the sound of the EP,” says Nick. “Like putting a microphone in an ISO booth across the way, it has this Phil Collins-esque reverb that we never would have thought to go for because we don't have the means to do it."

The process taught them about mixing together abstract sounds, and presented an opportunity to make more minimal music.

"If you have a guitar trio, or classic bass drum sound, a lot of those will sit nicely together. But if you're using a lot of really weird crazy samples from a saxophone, they're going to be competing with each other,” says Dave. “For me it was a big learning experience giving them a place in the mix.”

"It allowed us to be more selective since we were in such a controlled environment," adds Nick. "It makes you realize what you want the listener to be paying attention to."

While they may cover a whole spectrum of sounds in the band’s many forms, Nick says there is a specific feeling they’re going for. An amalgamation of everything they’ve been working on is set to appear as a new full-length in 2015.

"When I was studying electro-acoustics one of my profs always said 'don't fall in love with your sounds' and that really stuck with me," says Nick.

"Don't make something and just fall in love with it because it sounds nice and pretty. Does it really say something, does it make you feel something? Does it represent the people who made it?"

Saxsyndrum is releasing the SXD_EP with the Hilotrons November 6 in Montreal at Cabaret Playhouse, and November 7 in Wakefield at the Blacksheep Inn.