If you have occasional fond thoughts of 90s art rock bands like the Monks of Doom you may also recall, while waxing nostalgic about the dear old 1990s, that there was a golden moment, after the commercial breakthrough of punk/grunge/indie rock in America but before the advent of Napster, when bands that had been toiling in musical nether regions for years finally had their moments in the sun. The MoD were an offshoot of Camper Van Beethoven, the most palatably inventive American band of the 1980s and early 1990s, and like the great Camper Van approached American prog — delegated generally and unfortunately to the backwater of “jam” band categorization — with a firm belief that dumping every damn thing they could think of into the musical kettle and bringing it all to boil would work. And it mostly did. We’re talking about music that went deeply into the spirit of blues and other “ethnic” musics as processed through Roky Erickson, Captain Beefheart and, later, performance art bands like Butthole Surfers and the Flaming Lips, a twisted and distinctly American edge-of-the-frontier wildness that would make a great novel if Cormac McCarthy ever chose to write it. In the pages of Progarchy I’ve before referenced the spectacular Metal Flake Mother out of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, who sailed these same waters and with the same ethic in the 90s, and my notion is that regionally there were many bands following a similar path, nodding to the blues, jazz, European folk, surf guitar, 50s lounge music, Tom Waits, and punk all at the same time, as if the real guitar heroes in the room were Django Reinhardt, Marc Ribot, Dick Dale, and Sonny Sharrock. In the post-punk pre-internet age, these bands sold records, sometimes lots of records, and could sustain careers lasting, well, months.
Pillage and Plunder brought this short-lived and extremely satisfying era to life when I spun up their new record, The Show Must Go Wrong, for the first time. Mixing an eclectic take on Belew-era Crimson with an Esquivel-via-Cake loungeyness, Pillage and Plunder map a journey that’s less highway than exit ramps, and across its 35 minutes The Show Must Go Wrong takes every possible detour, sightseeing on the outskirts of modern music. The breathtakingly inventive “Beetlejuice” opens the record, with its furious and metallic nod to prime Oingo Boingo, and with “Boogeyman” the music maintains its carnival-esque darkness, backed by big riffs and chops. “How Did It Come To This?” follows, and the album turns in mood, which got me to thinking that the precocious musicianship here on display presents a problem for Pillage and Plunder, though it’s not a bad problem to have: while the songs are composed and concise (a big plus), as an album The Show Must Go Wrong comes at times dangerously close to living up to its title, as it suffers at points from a lack of curatorial will in favor of showcasing musical dexterity, favoring breadth over depth. So the promise of sideways-tilting, reach-deep, dark humor at the top of the album — and revisited in such songs as the excellent “Moocow” and “Nutcracker” — turns into an occasionally studied oddball-ness as the record unfolds. But it’s a small complaint for the kind of record this is supposed to be, not to mention that the songs have a way of turning themselves into earworms that simply will not leave the head and hum alone. Check for instance, “I Will Drink The Ocean When I Go There,” which premieres here on Progarchy:
The assured pop classicism and working of the tropes is skilled, while the power trio of guitarist/vocalist Gokul Parasuram, bassist Hsiang-Ming Wen, and drummer Noah Kess flexes its axe-wielding abandon with a kind of Les Paul meets Alex Lifeson glory in big guitars, impossible drums, and killer bass. Pillage and Plunder has the skills to create great music, and while the successes on The Show Must Go Wrong may be qualified by work that is less focused than it could be, the promise of the record suggests we should keep listening.
Hsian-Ming Wen graciously sat down with Progarchy and gave us some answers to our burning questions. I’ll say right now that name-checking Television’s “Friction” alone could sell me on the the band, and I’m impressed with the way Pillage and Plunder sees themselves and their work.
Q: Given your youth, Pillage and Plunder has a long history — what keeps you together and what inspired the new record?
A: Before the band started, we were already best of friends, so making music & being around each other all the time came pretty naturally. Our songwriting almost always stems from whatever is prevalent in our lives at the moment. So, for the new record, inspiration drew mostly from themes of personal relationships, struggles with self-worth, and existentialism. I had just graduated college when I wrote “Summer Days” and couldn’t find a job, and was just thinking, “shit, what do i do with my life?” It was me dealing with the frustration of trying to meet my personal goals, and “Moocow” deals with the idea of self-doubt when it comes to your personal talents — questioning when people pat you on the back and tell you how well you’ve done. It actually has the line, “I’m screaming at the world for tricking me into thinking I had a purpose, a gift that’s rare.” So we ask ourselves if it’s a fluke, or do we/you actually possess that talent?
Q: Who would I find next to Pillage and Plunder on Pandora? What songs would you imagine coming before and after “Beetlejuice”?
A: We’d like to imagine we could tango with the likes of Muse, Deerhoof, King Crimson, and Weezer. “Friction” by Television and “Drug Ballad” by Eminem would be a fun juxtaposition for “Beetlejuice.” We like to think that our music is universally acceptable as we draw from so many different wells, where post-punk enthusiasts, indie-rockers and the hip-hop heads could each find something enjoyable to take out of it.
Q: There are several nods to traditional pop song structures — thinking the tarantella-ish “I Will Drink the Ocean When I Go There,” the music hall of “The Last Date,” and the noir jazz of “Hit & Run” — what took you down these roads?
A: We grew up listening to a variety of music styles, Charles Mingus & Art Blakey, Green Day & Weezer, and traditional pop like Sinatra, and just like learning a language, we started out imitating what we heard until we began to understand the different structures & nuances. Then we start putting our own spin on things and developing a personal songwriting style, the fruits of said efforts being what you hear on the new record; a blend of homage and trying to carve out our own little corner in the musical world.
Q: While this is a very guitar-forward record, the drums and bass really push and pull the songs in a way that makes the musicianship of all the band members clear. What are your musical backgrounds, and how do you find a balance so all the voices are heard?
A: Gokul & Noah are both jazz-trained and listened to a lot of progressive rock & hip-hop growing up, while I was classically-trained and listened to primarily pop rock & folk. Being just a three-piece band challenges us to get creative with our parts, and I think our definition of “interesting” music is instinctively geared towards more acrobatic, spacious, and diverse parts. Like in “Moocow” the three of us play distinct poly-rhythmic time signatures with Noah keeping down the basic beat on drums, me hitting a constant up-and-down bassline, while Gokul plays a series of single note riffs on guitar. And we move together. As the guitar simplifies the bass becomes more complex and vice versa. And on “Hit & Run” we built a weird, offbeat, syncopated rhythm. It almost sounds like it’s tripping up some stairs. It’s so different from most pop-rock songs.
Q: You have a gonzo vocal approach to offbeat lyrics — how do you think about words in songs, and how would you describe the balance of words and music when writing?
A: 99% of the time the music comes first, including the vocal melody, and the lyrics come in to play last, with things like cadence, alliteration, & rhyme schemes kept in mind while we write out the lyrics. However no rules really exist with our songwriting; it changes from song to song based on the mood we take from it. For example “Keep Dreaming” and “The Last Date” are sonically like siblings, but the vocals were written in completely different ways. “Keep Dreaming’s” chord progression was worked out first. Then, the lyrics came more as a narrative without worrying too much about how it fits while keeping things simple and melodic without too many syllables or rhyming. Where on the “The Last Date” I wanted to write a short pop song that adhered to a traditional rhyme scheme.
Q: As a narrative, is The Show Must Go Wrong a novel or a collection of short stories?
A: We’d consider TSMGW more of a collection of short stories about different personal struggles. There is however an overall theme of always moving forward and trying to pick yourself back up when you get knocked down. Even if things don’t go as planned, nothing gets accomplished unless you do something about it.
Q: Do you think of Pillage and Plunder as an Atlanta band? What other bands there hold your attention?
A: We all grew up in a suburb just outside of Atlanta called Alpharetta, but Pillage & Plunder as a collective has lived in the city for years and we definitely considers ourself an Atlanta band. We love this city. Atlanta has seen a lot of exciting developments & growth in recent years, with everything from architecture & film to theatre & food, and we’re proud to be a part of it. As far as the music scene goes, you can find a little bit of everything here. Some personal favorites, in no particular order, include Slowriter, Mice in Cars, Baby Baby, Noel Stephen & The Darlings, Clibber Jones Ensemble, Hello Cobra, Places to Hide, Futo, and SEX BBQ.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: We’re going to keep writing music and try to contribute what we can to this funny thing called life.