Subtle: overcoming odds in pursuit of silver linings
- Subtle »
When critics make reference to maverick artists operating in the margins of the mainstream, rarely are the musicians in question actually carving niches anew. And that’s fair enough – there are only so many chords, so many variations on an established theme; major diversions, of course, are never likely to engage with a wide audience – but Oakland sextet Subtle are different. They’re a band with a singular vision, whose living and breathing of their chosen art is above and beyond any call of duty.
Adam Drucker is the most recognisable face of Subtle, the one of six whose on-stage vocal and physical performances linger longest in the memory, even after the music’s died; you may also know him as Doseone, formerly a third of influential hip-hop trio cLOUDDEAD. It’s Drucker who answers DiS’s call. Immediately he’s polite, conversational, the wash of some stateside backwater rushing by his van’s window as he describes the radio options.
“We alternate between the ‘80s channel and the bad, racist comedy. Every colour and creed of racist comedian, being racist.”
You’re really selling it to me.
“Where are you right now? Are you in London?”
Yeah, in Paddington.
“I know it – I get the Tube there sometimes. Unfortunately my experiences there are always structured around touring activity. Well, I’ve been to the Tate a few times, the big one, the modern one with the huge ceilings. The few times I’ve been though there’s been some real crap on. Have you seen any of the Brian Jungen stuff? He does all this stuff with Nike Air Jordans. It’s one of the few shows I’ve seen from a not-dead artist of late that was pretty astounding. Y’know, you look at that art and think he’s maybe a little similar to us, with a propensity to make the big-budget things. It’s the use of that funding to get the most out of the whole width of his medium, but it wasn’t completely of the art school mould, with ancient wizards of doctoral nonsense. You could walk in and get chills.”
Video: ‘The Mercury Craze’, from For Hero: For Fool
Drucker enjoys following unexpected arcs, tangents, paths that lead to a place where neither he nor his bandmates can make absolute, immediate sense of. (Okay, he can, but me? I struggle.) That’s one of the joys to be found in Subtle’s music – rarely is it linear, structurally or lyrically. Depths are there to be explored, at your leisure; it sits outside of convenient pigeonholes, dipping a toe in hip-hop and pop waters just long enough for a little residue to stick, yet is as accessible as the sweetest top 40 single you’ve heard this week. Provided you’re willing, of course. It’s as easy to disengage as it is to digest, to feel nourished. Go hungry now and you can always come back. Subtle aren’t expecting you to tap into their collective mindset right away.
Because there’s that magic C-word about their three albums to date: concept. 2004’s A New White, 2006’s For Hero: For Fool and this year’s ExitingARM each follow the actions and reactions associated with the travails of a central character Hour Hero Yes. Drucker’s detailing of this being’s pursuits on record are dwarfed by what he doesn’t tell you to the beat of a synthesised drum; every twist is mirrored by another that’s shifted in scope further and told through the Subtle poet’s almanac, translated into the day’s most accessible medium, the internet. Here, at ExitingARM.com, you can hear Drucker’s voice, read his words; this is the album’s expanded edition extra material, but present and correct for no additional outlay. Buy the records, and dive into the dark when it best suits your mood.
Back on track.
The new album, ExitingARM… much like its preceding pair, it seems the critics are on your side?
“I read your review yesterday, and Pitchfork’s… both include mention of how ‘wide’ it is. All you guys are underpaid to work on our work, and we always need a lot from you guys – where we’re going is very clear, but in the world of music and comparisons, it takes some hype to get there. You guys create the foundations, the moving sidewalk. The only other thing… the people who don’t need you, or us, are the diehard fans, who implicitly understand what we’re doing, our artistic motifs. We’ve added more windows and doors to our work this time – it’s the same straight dope, but with more doors all over it, more levels of accessibility. That was all part of something that we were going to do for a long time.”
It’s quite a deliberate attempt to be more immediate?
“I always knew that this [album] was going to be 20,000 words [long, lyrically], but I know people can’t be fucked to read that much, so we had to work out how to be as creative as possible while not dragging a piano up the stairs to play it because it sounds so much better on the fourth floor, y’know. The feeling is that we’re adding to our palette without adding workload, and this ties into poetic mythology, the new American spirit animal into the Western world; this generation is the ‘I’ generation, all photos of you are at your own…”
And here’s where the groove goes so much deeper than what you see, and hear, on wax. Drucker’s not one to play an orderly Q&A game – he guides our conversation, directing it the way he wants. While Subtle is a democracy, its line-up not comprised of back-up session types playing second fiddle to Drucker’s spilling psyche (while we’re here, the band is completed by: Jeff Logan (sampling drum machine), Dax Pierson (formerly autoharp), Jordan Dalrymple (drums, guitar), Marty Dowers (synths, winds) and Alexander Kort (electric cello)), there’s no doubting his character is the largest, the most dominant; even if he reads and writes via the eyes and mouth of Hour Hero Yes, your decision to connect on that level remains your own, leaving Drucker as the primary point of contact between band and audience. The ‘I’ generation and its accompanying apathy is deeply troubling for Drucker – he sees it, smells it, all around, as he explains.
"Now when major labels stick their finger in the
butt of the world to check its temperature,
they put it in the blog space"
“This ‘I’ thing, apathy comes into the larger man swarm – mankind as a swarm – it takes generations to weed out, like sexism or racism. Big global things – they go in slowly and get so deep below the floorboards that they take generations to get away from. The Information Age with all its little arms of technology, everything’s planting seeds. You know how you can walk into a room and smell a gas leak? You don’t know where it’s coming from but you know it’s happening. I get that, as a poet and a professionally sensitive person – it’s what I get paid to do, sort of. I smell that at the grocery store, at the theme park.”
You think, even though access to art is easier than ever before, that individuals are not working on any collective level? That there’s a selfishness that comes with the spread of the internet, where there are so many voices but not so many ones with purpose?
“It’s the ‘over choice’ thing. A lot of blog writing…
(there's a slight pause)
“I’m very sensitive, so when I put my baby out, it’s like giving a kid back to its foster carers, because I take everything the world and I loved about the last record and everything we wanted to do and we make it into the next work of art. Then you have this child that is totally from your own personal world and you let go of it completely, and there’s this blog writing that’s like: ‘Okay, so I was having my raspberries by the third window to the left, because that’s the city light that I love the most when I’m tempering myself regarding the way I read the world, and I put the new Subtle record on. Then I got a call real quick, so I had to stop it…’ So it’s like how he felt about the Subtle record after he did all this other stuff, and I’m like WOW, that’s it man.
“Blogs are where it’s at. Now when major labels stick their finger in the butt of the world to check its temperature, they put it in the blog space. Everyone’s conscious of this – all the bloggers know, and all the labels know, and the fans are becoming aware of the ones that mention certain bands. So it’s interesting – it’s this wild, winding spread of power that the ‘90s did so wonderfully, with indie artists. It also does wonderful things – where there was once just small light for new bands, now they can go from zero to hero in all the right ways. That’s cool and awesome, and I appreciate these things, but as good gangsters of the decade of hardcore, we don’t benefit from this new hot/cold pan-flash shit. We’re about how this industry is actually working now – we’re in its stomach, not its mouth or butthole already. We’re in there, working, as an organism to sustain our art, which sustains our purpose, which makes it okay to scrounge for rent in all the ways we do.
“We are completely hungry and have had all these struggles and have taken on awesome challenges, like doing this pop version of our completely obscure vision… We’ve taken risks and really embodied what we always will be. On your review we got the lowest number rating you’ve ever given us – but that review does not reflect that numerical score, I don’t think. We talked about you guys, and what’s important is that there’s time put into that review – the guy didn’t blog it up. He didn’t say: ‘Oh, I have this on my iPod, I’ve one earphone in while I’m on my moped, in traffic’. He didn’t do that at all; he very much gave it the shelf that we gave it, and that’s what I want.”
Video: Subtle live at Point Ephemere
Drucker comes across as one of the few artists you’ll meet who genuinely a) cares that critics are writing about his band and b) cares even more when he reads something that suggests the critic in question has given his baby a decent amount of time. Everything’s so very quick-fix nowadays – kids don’t even listen to a whole song before deciding if they like it, if they listen at all – and there’s little, despite the many more doors, immediate about ExitingARM. Although it subscribes to conventional formulas – it is, at its heart, pop music – the final shapes aren’t entirely slottable into your genre-specific store racks. It’s music from the hearts of men enraptured by possibility, by evolution so far beyond the mundane. New, yet not. Drucker picks up the trail.
"Like Biggie said, I am ready to die. After the
effort we’ve put in, we feel the same musically after everything we’ve been through"
“This ain’t no new invention, this is the real deal – good poetry set to good music, set to the ideals of some people in a world that’s always been dangerous and that has been made more dangerous by mankind. I think it’s really cool… So the number thing, what I thought was it’s cool that people see what we’re doing and how we do it our way. We put the burden of proof on y’all motherfuckers: do you trust what we’re doing? Or do you have an idea of us? Will you go where we lead? Does our music challenge? We put that into the writing, into a craft beyond… something that is executed and preserved as a self-produced pop record. That’s another thing we leave out – it’s not an uptempo… all these words are wrong…
“Nobody stepped in and took us to this level, we jumped there from all the exploring we did on the last record. This was something that we did, and then it comes down to you guys to see if we’re in a trusting relationship. Will you guys pull a card on me and think we can’t go do whatever we want on record four? I really like that, and seeing how it plays out.
“I just think that we’re a band that has done everything the right way, so we get to do something cool here that some bands never get the opportunity to do. When we make a pop record it’s not because we’re blowing up, or trying to blow up; it’s because we want to nail that, and still pull the art off entirely, and even more so. If you stop and think about the notion of one of those songs being on the radio, and of you actually digesting this R&B/soul song about all these crows constantly tired with people always ogling at them as omens on Earth that they actually try to choke out the sunset and all become a bunch of forks with wings (that’ll be the song ‘The Crow’ – Ed).
"Y’know, the big thing about this record is that it’s going to take time to unfold, what with the ExitingARM.com… every last word is given flesh within the scheme, which is something not even the downest fan and the most on-it reviewers on our side figured out. Actually, this whole time I’ve known how it’s going to unfold, how it’s going to be explored. That is where I put the ulcer that I am probably going to have pop up in the next few weeks… it’s like Biggie said, I am ready to die. After the effort we’ve put in. We feel the same musically after everything we’ve been through.”
“Everything we’ve been through”: usually an ‘everything’ to dismiss, a couple of band members leaving, or some gigs not selling especially well. Not so with Subtle: back in February 2005, the band’s tour van hit black ice in Iowa while they were promoting A New White. All six band members were injured, but Pierson’s were the worst of all: severely injuring his upper spine, he was made paraplegic and no longer tours with the group. He continues to contribute in a studio capacity, however, and is very much a part of the band to this day.
Fast-forward to the end of 2006 and again lightning strikes. Subtle’s van is broken into in Barcelona and, as well as a lot of cash, Drucker’s many thousands of words of writing for his albums and beyond are lost as his laptop is stolen. It’s almost, almost, the end of the band.
"After three days of the deepest depression ever I snapped... There is a silver lining in all that horrible grey"
“This bad God lightning we’ve had: that stuff is all power to the people shit. I hope it inspires other bands, and young people to love stuff. To know that things can be taken away but you don’t lose it – that’s the morale of Dax’s story. You can take everything up to the neck… that cuts through. That was the only glass cutter I’ve ever known, there is no God for me. Only that. A smaller version of that was losing all that money, and my computer and my art. Another anecdote…
“The morning we got robbed in Spain, the morning before that I had one paper copy of the almanac, and it was about eight or nine thousand words long. There was one copy on my laptop that I had printed out to go through. When you look at the lyrics on ExitingARM, every song references the songs before and after it. While I took away some of the verboseness of the songs, I added more diamonds in the dirt. They’ve not been reached yet. So I took a copy of this almanac and put it in my clothing bag. So my computer got stolen, and I’d just happened to have made the only hard copy of the almanac a day before, which to be honest was the only thing that wasn’t replaceable. If I had lost that, I don’t think I would have had any resilience at all… five years of connection and things I hadn’t yet connected… there was so much, I could never walk away from it. I couldn’t be more of a bitch about losing anything than that. It would be too much to take.
“After three days of the deepest depression ever I snapped and wrote the next ten thousand words to reach the end of the almanac, in every margin and on the back of every page. So on that ten thousand words, I wrote the rest. It came to me after being so fucking dark… when I got home and got a new computer, I sat down and opened it up and it became the baby. There is a silver lining in all that horrible grey.”
The silver lining is the new Subtle LP, like the ones before it a record to treasure, to love ‘til it stops loving back. If that day comes, the band will have another offering, another baby, for you to adopt. Horrible grey conquered, obstacles overcome and a groundswell of critical support on their side for the foreseeable, if Subtle are not regarded as an important an act as cLOUDDEAD come any retrospective look over their career – and remember that cLOUDDEAD also spawned the solo ventures of both Odd Nosdam and Why? – then somebody hasn’t done their job properly.
I’ve done mine. Drucker’s done his. I’ve trust in him. Where’s yours?
Find Subtle on MySpace here, and see them live as follows:
20 Belgium Dour Festival
21 London Cargo (tickets)
23 Paris Le Marquinlerle
25 Laval, France 3 Elephants Festival
ExitingARM (review) is available now via Lex.