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Minding Their Own Business: Erase Errata,
The Rapture, and the Return of Post-Punk
by Jenna Alden

Erase Errata
Eighties nostalgia is all the rage, and we've heard plenty about it. Each week brings a new announcement of the most recent 80's relic to be reclaimed, from "Transformers" comic books to breakdancing. And the thing is, it's not just that that the icons of 80's culture are in abundant supply; it's also that the critique of retro culture itself has become inextricably linked to our generation's identity, or lack thereof. Cries of postmodern crisis, of a bankrupt pop culture, of an age of non-innovation have become all too familiar to those of us who maintain hope that maybe, just maybe, our generation could someday contribute something significant to the cultural landscape. With each report of nostalgic returns, it's hard not to fear that we're being locked further into our reputation as a generation of regurgitators.

In music, an explosion of 80's and 80's-style new wave and electro music has garnered major media attention over the course of the past few months. Bands like Fischerspooner, Adult, and Soviet, and club nights like Larry Tee's Berliniamsburg at Brooklyn's Luxx have signaled a return to the hedonistic dance culture of the 80s, one not only obsessed with analog synthesizers and old school drum machines but also committed to camp, theatricality, and the pursuit of pleasure.

What fewer mainstream critics are paying attention to is the resurgence in interest in the musical movement that directly preceded the era of new-wave and electro dance culture. Post-punk, a musical style and ideology born in Britain in the late 70s, stands in stark contrast to the electro ethos. If electro was about synthetic production and palatable melodies, then post-punk was characterized by rough edges and angular noise; if electro saluted artifice and superficiality, post-punk prized political expression and pre-ironic sincerity.

While many a well-versed record nerd can reduce the post-punk movement to a concrete list of essential bands, record labels, and compilations, the genre's best critics emphasize that post-punk has always been, more than anything else, defined by a particular musical approach, a determination to challenge rock conventions and create something new and interesting. According to cultural critic and music historian Simon Reynolds, who gives an authoritative history of the movement in his article "Independents Day: Post-Punk 1979-81," published in the December 2001 issue of Uncut (read the "director's cut" at http://members.aol.com/blissout/postpunk), post-punk was born in England in 1979 out of many musicians' frustrations with the stagnancy of the music scene. Punk groups like the Clash and the Sex Pistols had lost their edge and developed a new set of conventions as confining as those that they once venomously opposed, and traditional 12-bar rock 'n' roll had long since stopped offering opportunities for musical innovation. Post-punk was a commitment to "taking rock 'n' roll cliches and turning them inside out."

In England, bands like Scritti Politti, Gang of Four, Cabaret Voltaire, the Slits, the Raincoats, the Pop Group, A Certain Ratio, This Heat, Public Image Limited (PiL), and Delta 5, and labels like Rough Trade (which released the seminal post-punk compilation Wanna Buy a Bridge in 1980) and Factory Records set the tone for the post-punk revolution. It spread to bands like Josef K in Scotland, Kleenex/Liliput in Switzerland, Malaria in Germany, Friction in Japan; also to the American label 99 Records-which released ESG, Bush Tetras, and Liquid Liquid-and the American bands that came to be classified as No Wave: DNA, Mars, and James Chance and the Contortions. They incorporated the sounds of dub, funk, reggae, free jazz, krautrock, and disco to produce new musical hybrids referred to as "mutant disco," avant-funk, and art punk. Sonically, their music often blended jarring vocals and jerkily angular guitar sounds with danceable beats and more experimental rhythms, and incorporated a new range of unconventional acoustic instruments.


The Rapture

Equally important as sonic experimentation was many post-punk bands' dedication-particularly in England-to political ideologies and meaningful lyrics, what Reynolds refers to as the "Great Idea." Blending dancehall grooves with lyrics about Marxism, Rastafarianism, Situationism, and feminism, they used their music as vehicles for the expressions of leftist politics.

After the dawn of the post-punk movement in the early 80's, many of its bands either slipped into obscurity or signed to major labels and started making music with more accessible pop, disco, and house elements. In recent years, however, the original sounds of post-punk have experienced a resurgence, thanks to a community of DJs, record collectors, and journalists devoted to uncovering obscure post-punk records and making them available in the public sphere.

In New York, DJ nights like the weekly Transmission at Plant Bar (Mondays, E. 3rd St. between Avenues B and C) and the recent DJ set by A Certain Ratio's Martin Moscropp at Luxx have brought together a group of enthusiasts who, several years ago, would have had to resort to playing records for each other in the privacy of their own bedrooms or at college radio stations. Dan Selzer, a DJ and founder of Transmission, traces "a massive increase in post-punk interest amongst many music fans to the last 2 years," and remarks that having seen "this interest brew amongst die-hard record collectors for the last 7 or 8 years, it makes perfect sense that it would finally start to spread."

For those music consumers not dedicated to pouring through records at the WFMU record fair or bidding for original LPs on e-bay, there now also exists a slew of retrospective compilations and reissues that capture some of the some of the landmark post-punk releases: from retrospective compilations like Disco Not Disco, Anti-New York, and In the Beginning There Was Rhythm, to re-issued albums by A Certain Ratio, Malaria, ESG, Cabaret Voltaire, Josef K, the Television Personalities, 23 Skidoo, and Kleenex/Liliput. The sounds of post-punk are alive and well, and clearly resonating with a broad population of listeners now in a way that they haven't for two decades.

With the growing interest in the consumption of post-punk records from the early 80s, there has emerged an eagerness among critics to cite the post-punk elements in the music of contemporary bands, as well. In New York in particular, the press makes innumerable references to The Rapture, the Liars, and Radio 4 as harbingers of the "post-punk revival." On the West Coast, there's Erase Errata, Numbers, the Quails, and the now-defunct Subtonix.

These bands incorporate the post-punk or no-wave aesthetics to the extent that they take more traditional rock music forms and twist them into something different; they may also acknowledge having drawn inspiration from bands like Gang of Four and Fire Engines. To describe Erase Errata or The Rapture by dropping a laundry-list of obscure post-punk greats, however, is shortsighted; and to focus on those qualities of their music that are reminiscent of the past as opposed to those which signal the expansion of musical horizons stands in direct contrast to what they aim to accomplish. The post-punk revival, if you want to call it that, is -at its best-not a rehashing of 80's musical idioms, but rather a return to the experimental mindset that gave birth to a realm of integrated genres in the first place.

For this article, I spoke to Erase Errata's Sara Jaffe and The Rapture's Matt Safer, whose bands are often credited more than any others with reviving the post-punk aesthetic. Neither Sara nor Matt claim to exist in a vacuum free from post-punk influences, and neither objected to critics' use of post-punk references in describing their bands. But both emphasized that they draw inspiration from a wide range of musical influences, and that more than anything, they aim to make music that gets people moving as opposed to music that simply replicates the sound of a bygone era.

Erase Errata formed in December 1999 in San Francisco. The story of the first practice session between Ellie Erickson (bass), Jenny Hoyston (vocals, saxophone), Bianca Sparta (drums), and Sara Jaffe (guitar) has become something of a legend: they wrote ten songs in forty-five minutes, moving furiously from one to the next with cries of, "Ready, GO!" They released their first seven-inch on Sara's record label, Inconvenient Press, in the summer of 2000 and in April 2001, they started recording the full-length LP Other Animals, which was released on Troubleman Unlimited and met instant critical acclaim. In the March 2002 issue of Spin magazine, Thurston Moore picked Other Animals as one of his top five favorite releases of the year; he has since asked the band to play a week's worth of shows with Sonic Youth in August. Last year, cult-favorite Dutch art-punk band the Ex handpicked Ease Errata to join them for one of their tourdates on the West Coast. Troubleman Unlimited plans on releasing an Other Animals remix album in the next several months, and the roster of remixers-which will remain unannounced for now-is more than slightly impressive.

With the release of its first seven-inch, Erase Errata described itself as "organized chaos with a beat," and that description continues to ring true. Their music is at once challenging and accessible. It makes you want to strain your ears to pick out the unusual uses of rhythm and melody, but it also has a groove. Bianca's drumming ranges from disco beats to out-jazz rhythms. Sara's guitar playing is remarkably complex and broad-ranging, with a sound distinct both for its spazzy jerkiness and rhythmic precision. Ellie's bass parts move at the speed of light, weaving in and out of the guitar and drums in a way that makes your head spin. Jenny's vocals are commanding, relentlessly energetic, and full of experimental cadences. Sara now calls their music "Dance Damage" (a term she picked up from San Francisco comrades, The Quails).

From the release of their first seven-inch, critics have cited the post-punk and no-wave influence in Erase Errata's sound. They've referenced Y Pants, the Contortions, DNA, the Slits, the Pop Group, the Au Pairs, Fire Engines, the Fall, and Gang of Four. Sara says that there's truth to the comparisons in the band's "scratchy, somewhat repetitive guitars, dancy, tom-centered drumbeats, vocals that are maybe melodic but not in the ways you'd expect" and says that she's always appreciated post-punk's ability to incorporate "frenetic, experimental elements" into "more danceable, sometimes more pop-oriented-in my twisted sense of the word-songs." The first time she heard a Gang of Four's Entertainment she thought, "Why haven't I heard this before? This is music that makes perfect sense to me!,"

Sara emphasizes that Erase Errata's "literal sound and aesthetic is, I guess, rooted in the post-punk, no-wave genres, but the ideas and structures come from a little bit of everything…all the music in my head, which goes back to the show tunes and old standards I sang with my dad at the piano since when I was three years old, and the classical music from thirteen years of piano lessons." Some of her bandmates have been "influenced as much, if not more so, by classic rock and psych, as by post-punk." In their music, you can hear bits of everything-from the remnants of riot grrl vocal stylings to some of the complexity of math rock and the improvisational energy of out jazz. The next album's songs will, according to Sara, leave even more room open for improvisation and noise.

"I really don't think our music is intentionally nostalgic or referential to a certain era, and I think intentional nostalgia is often mostly boring…If a critic wants to write something interesting, he or she should place it in terms of a musical continuum which has to do with the present (and future) as well as the past. Obviously, any critic who just says we sound like Gang of Four-or Sleater Kinney!-and leaves it at that is not saying anything at all about what it means that we're making music right here, right now, today."

Enter: The Rapture, one of the bands making solid music right here, right now, today. Now based in New York, the band originally formed in San Francisco in Spring of 1998 after members Luke Jenner and Vito Roccoforte stopped playing with their previous band, the Calculators (a band that bassist Matt Safer describes as being somewhat Faint-esque, due to their electro sound, black-shirt/white-tie ensembles, and light shows). Along with keyboardist Chris Relyea from the Calculators and a new bass player, they recorded a seven-inch for release on Hymnal Sound-which was re-released by GSL a couple of years later-and the Mirror CD/12" for Gravity Records before moving to Seattle and continuing to shift their personnel. After signing with Sup Pop and recruiting a new bassist, Jimi Hey, they decided to move to New York.

Shortly after moving to New York in mid-1999, Jimi left the band and The Rapture met up with Matt Safer, who had just moved to New York from Washington, D.C. for his first year at NYU. He played with them once, and it worked, and so they booked some shows and recorded the Sub Pop e.p. Out of the Races and Onto the Tracks in the summer of 2000. More touring ensued, and the band then recorded their eagerly awaited 12-inch, House of Jealous Lovers, for DFA at Plantain Studios. With the aid of DFA producers Tim Goldsworthy and James Murphy, the band aimed to "really try to make a dance record, not just a dance-influenced record, but something you could actually play in a club and have work." They're now recording a full-length album with Tim and James that they expect to be released in fall of 2002.

According to Matt, their current team of producers has been crucial to the band's movement in a more danceable direction. "I think what kind of sets them apart from a lot else of what's going on is that they genuinely like and are interested in both live rock bands and post-punk bands and dance music, and have the background and the knowledge of how to make both, and are interested in bridging that gap." The result is a distinct sound: Luke's screeching vocals and sharp, urgent guitar meet Vito's disco drum beats, meet Matt's more funky bass lines, meet overdubbed drum machine sampling and the occasional dose of energetic claps. Their songs are complicated structurally and full of unexpected shifts, and their rhythms achieve something similar to those of Erase Errata: they keep you moving steadily but also make you feel as if you're being pulled in several different directions at once.

Matt says that lately, "We've been listening in the studio to a lot of acid house and techno, which is good. It's kind of a new influence, and there's definitely some stuff to learn from it if you wanna make people dance." As for other non-rock influences, Matt cites K-Tel compilations of hits from the seventies, the Bee Gees, and "the tape we really bonded over on our first tour, this Philadelphia International Records compilation we bought at a gas station with songs by Lou Rawls and MFSB."

It's no surprise that critics compare The Rapture to Gang of Four and other post-punk innovators like PiL. Their combination of dance grooves and high-pitched, screaming vocals shares more with bands from that era than any other musical era, and Matt says he can understand why people would see some overlap. "Gang of 4, they were four white kids from England trying to play funk, and how it came out was how it came out, and I wouldn't say we're trying to be a funk band or anything like that, but taking that influence, I guess its gonna come out kind of the same way." As Gang of Four attempted to move beyond the constraints of punk in England in the late 70s and early 80s, The Rapture has tried to move beyond hardcore, emo, and the other genres that plagued us in the mid-90's. Their post-punk sound is, in some ways, a by-product of the mission to make rock music that gets people dancing.

I asked Matt what popular descriptions of The Rapture ring true. "When critics just say that we're a really great fucking band, when they don't try to be too serious about the whole thing, that's when they get it right. And when they get it wrong is when they try and compare us to all these other bands from the past or lump us in with NY, what's going on now, or call us the 'Disco Strokes' or something."

Many fans of groups like the Rapture and Erase Errata agree that for the first time in years, the contemporary indie music scene feels innovative and vital. As bands have experimented with musical forms and integrated previously segregated genres, new music has taken on an energy and excitement that was lost through much of the 90's. According to Jon Herzberg, who's making a documentary about post-punk and the post-punk revival, "A lot of it comes down to wanting to get beyond typical indie rock, the typical indie kid, the image you have of a bunch of bespectacled kids just standing there bobbing their heads with their arms crossed. The idea is that these people who are coming from this scene wanna make music that people will move their asses to. That just wasn't happening with the last few movements like emo."

The danger in the post-punk revival lies in the potential for bands to lose sight of musical innovation and succumb to knee-jerk nostalgia in their searches for subcultural capital. Weasel Walter, a member of the Flying Luttenbachers who recently remastered Erase Errata's Other Animals for distribution in Europe on the Tsk! Tsk! Label, insists that "people who are trying to act like it's 1981 to be part of a trend generally won't last too long in any sense. I'm more interested in progression towards the future than revivalism of the past. I don't want to live in some imaginary, bygone 'glory days'-scenario and play New Wave dress-up. There are bands that try to be 'post-punk' or 'no wave' to be part of a style or trend and then there are bands that just do their thing and it can be pigeonholed somehow with whatever definitions that exist."

In the end, Simon Reynolds points out, "The idea of post-punk being revived is a sort of contradiction in terms, because post-punk was a phase in a narrative-it was, like, literally POST punk, what came next when punk 'failed.' But aspects of the post-punk critique are perennial-all those neo-Marxist ideas about consumerism, commodity-fetishism, existentialism, the personal politics and sexual politics. These things are as relevant as ever." If today's bands can seize upon the "oppositional or culturally dissident energy" in the lyrical content of early post-punk of the early 80's, he suggests, we could have a powerful musical movement on our hands.



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