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