“I have the Sutro’s constellation perched above me
its four red points blinking in the drink of fog and night
like some ethereal port of entry.
The radio says it’s coming up on 4am.”
It’s not. It’s after seven, eight, something. I’m outside, in the cold, with fifty per cent of San Francisco-based Enablers; the above is taken from ‘Glimpses, Audio: Driving Late’, song one of nine on the quartet’s debut album End Note; they’re here to promote number two, said record’s worthy successor, Output Negative Space.
We’re perched on a picnic bench, Brick Lane, London; the evening’s revellers and simple workfolk weaving their way home punctuate the quiet about us. Every so often a hush descends and the tape recorder – seated centrally between the three points, the three mouths, of guitarist Kevin Thomson, vocalist Pete Simonelli and myself – picks up every breath, every stuttered-to-a-stop half vowel. Sadly, much of the final taping proves difficult to transcribe, such is the background interference, indiscernible chatter of a trivial nature, curry house employees’ smiling special offers, drinkers clinking behind and to the side. The remaining fifty, the pair of Joe Goldring (guitar, and actually born in north London; also formerly of Swans) and Yuma Joe Byrnes (drums), socialise inside tonight’s venue, the Vibe Bar’s Red Room.
Enablers are one of those bands for me, one with which I can hear no wrong; the sort of band that, four pints in, I will assure you can change the way you think about rock music. I’ll grab your sleeve, your lapel, and gently rock you, a bitter sloshing about a glass in my spare hand: “Really, tomorrow, go out, buy End Note. Promise me you’ll do it. If you don’t like it, shit, I’ll give you the money you paid for it.” I may not even need four pints, perhaps not even one; I may never be asked for that money back, either. Y’see, this for me is what the word visceral is applicable to, what the word intense describes so simply but accurately. It’s music that moves you two ways: one, the squall, the controlled cacophony of members three two and one will rock your body as if you’d stepped into a wind tunnel, the floor beneath unstable; two, four – Simonelli – has a way with the word spoken and written that can and does reduce stony faces to malleable mugs of awe. Some have compared the vocalist – ‘singer’ would be inaccurate – to beat poets past, others to contemporary intellectuals and authors. Some are right, some of the time; many are wrong always. The best way of describing his approach to lyricism is to not describe it; buy it, hear it for yourself. You won’t ask for that money back.
The now’s not End Note, though – Output Negative Space continues, dramatically, from the cliff-hanger end of their debut. It sees Simonelli deliver lines with a greater vehemence, with an anger amplified; there is menace even in his softest whisper. The band, too – so often referred to as the world’s best power trio on posters and flyers – seem tighter, tauter, about ready to snap into combustive climax. But it’s the control that maintains the drama, what keeps the listener coming back; both albums are sequenced with intelligence, so that a pace rises and falls but the threat never subsides wholly.
So, here you are: the UK again, with a new record to promote. I guess everything’s going pretty sweet?
Thomson: So far. Everything’s been excellent – Manchester (The Star And Garter) last night was a lot of fun. We’re selling tonnes of merch. In Leeds we had about 25 kids in and sold £200 of stuff.
Simonelli: And everybody’s right up front every night. Kevin made a good point the other night, saying that when you have small crowds they tend to gravitate to the corners and the sides, but for us they’ve been right at the front.
Thomson: They were really supportive. Leeds wasn’t the best, properly promoted show, but the kids that were there were there for us in a big way, and I definitely appreciated that.
And are you getting the same feeling tonight? There seem to be a lot of actually quite excited people here… Thomson: There’s definitely a buzz. When we were in Brighton they said that we’d doubled (the size of the venue) every time, so it seems that we’re doing the same here. In Manchester it seemed that way, too. I was really surprised at the turn out at The Star And Garter, and it was a deadly appreciative crowd. He (the promoter) has a good idea about how to do a show. He keeps it down to two, maybe three bands; none of this four band shit. So it was really quite nice, and there was a real juxtaposition between the two bands. I really like it like that, and it’s more interesting for the audience. When it’s two acts, too, everyone can really sink in to what’s really going on instead of having all this hustle – wham wham wham. Y’know, one band after another. That old rock and roll business model of cramming in as many bands as you can, it’s fucking dead. It’s a bummer for the bands, and a bummer for the audience…
Well I guess not so many bands want to really be on first on a bill of four…
Simonelli: And who wants to be last?
Thomson: Who the fuck wants to be last of four bands? The audience is burned out, you’re burned out…
Simonelli: We’re in a land of curfews, y’know.
So the shows here have been doing well, but how do shows back home compare?
Thomson: We don’t play that much in the States, at all really.
Is that because of the size? Because this European tour’s pretty big…
Thomson: Well, we drive ourselves. We do everything ourselves, and kinda wrangle different booking agents, and using things like Drowned In Sound is really helpful too, to find contacts and to see who’s writing about us and who cares. We contact those people personally and that seems to do a good job of things.
So how good is it, then, to see these shows filling up, when you’ve done a lot of the hard work yourself? I mean, you’re signed, but it’s not like the label or PR have gone overboard plugging this tour…
Thomson: Yeah, we don’t really have a (record label) campaign; the campaign that’s being mounted is being mounted solely by us.
Simonelli: There’s a lot of word of mouth…
Thomson: Yeah, from people that give a shit about it.
Simonelli: …Which I kind of enjoy to be honest with you. The word of mouth aspect, in a way, has a nice cache to it because word travels so much faster because of the internet now. I think there’s a lot more stimulation, and people aren’t being told that this is what they should like because they saw an ad in a magazine; they’re having a buddy call them up and say, “I saw this band last night and they were great, they’re swinging through again, let’s go”. I think that carries a lot of weight, and to have that element on our side is great.
But what if this word of mouth builds you up into some huge band?
Thomson: If it grows and grows…? Y’know, I really have no idea to what size it could grow to, considering what we do. I just don’t really know. For me, happiness is being able to work, and I’m more than happy.
So is this becoming your major ‘work’?
Thomson: It’s becoming more and more. Being a musician for years, I’ve learned how to work my life around it so I can always make the rent and the bills. Living in the States there’s no fucking Dole or handouts or anything whatsoever. I mean, you can get on unemployment for a while…
Simonelli: There is a Dole, it’s just dwindling more and more…
Thomson: Yeah, there’s really nothing. I do all kinds of work, and I like to keep it varied.
Simonelli: Kevin’s the renaissance man, man.
Thomson: Yeah, I like to keep it fresh. I can do two or three tours a year, snap up some freelance writing on the side. Then when it’s slow I can clock in with the Stagehand’s Union and do some gigs with them, and work on computers and stuff. I sometimes fix cars on the side, and I used to do that for a living.
I guess that’s pretty handy, what with you driving yourself around while on tour…
Thomson: Yeah, I’m always the one getting underneath, getting greased up… more than ever… ha ha… no, we won’t get into that or this could be our last interview ever!
So are you generally received better in Europe? Is that why you don’t play the States so much? Or is it simple logistics?
Thomson: It’s both. In the past I toured the States a lot, a lot, and I’m a little burned on it, and the response we initially had coming over here just seemed a little more understanding. That, or the audiences were even more willing to put in the time, to find out what we were up to, y’know what I mean? I dunno… I wanna do the States, I do, but the logistics of it are harsher. It’s fuckin’ huge, and this is the only job in the world where the pay rate’s stayed the same for fifty years. Any other fuckin’ job, there’d have been massive strikes, and now there’d be no music being played at all. Somehow we all put up with it, over and over again, and you still go out for a hundred bucks a night on your first tour of the States, unless you get tied in with some bigger bands. Even then, you’re probably only making a hundred bucks a night, but the advantage is that you’ve more people to sell merch to, so you make more money there. So, really, I can’t see myself doing another peanut-butter-and-jelly tour of the States. I wanna do a tour there, but maybe for two or three weeks tops, and regional. Maybe fly to New York again.
Are the coasts generally better to play than the centre of the States?
Simonelli: For the most part I think so, yeah.
Thomson: You can get really pleasantly surprised in the Midwest, y’know, because people do appreciate music there and they want to see it ‘cause there’s not a whole lot going on out there sometimes. I’m not saying Chicago or Minneapolis, where we’ve got something going on – those are great towns to play – but you have these giant holes everywhere else, and they can… well, gasoline and whatnot… yeah, logistics are tough. But I’m enjoying travelling over here now.
And how do continental crowds take to the music, seeing as the English lyrics are obviously a major factor in the band’s appeal?
Simonelli: I think that’s where the performance comes in. I think they see a lot of the emotion that goes into our shows, and what comes across makes up for the lack of understanding. Language becomes… not secondary, like non-existent, but it does become secondary and that’s where these musicians come into it.
That’s something that I find really appealing about the band, how the music mirrors the lyrical drama. ‘Cause anyone can adopt a spoken word approach, and usually – however good your lyrics – the music’s simple, or simply crap…
Simonelli: Well, in terms of the live show we want the vocals to sit and kind of struggle, and fight, with the music, to create a unified sound as opposed to the lyrics being over the top of the music, ‘cause that just gets boring. Who wants to go see a guy reading poetry over twinkling guitars and pianos and drum brushes? So it’s very much a conscious effort to… to not make this milquetoast beat poetry bullshit happen. Y’know, it’s not beat poetry… well, maybe its an extension of the legacy of that, but it’s not. Y’know, I’ve only ever seen that in US reviews, and I think, really, it just seems to me that the person didn’t listen.
But it must be hard for writers to summarise how you deliver your lyrics – your vocal style – without referring to Kerouac, et cetera, right? I mean, do they say you’re just an indie band? It’s what your MySpace page says, ‘indie’ and nothing else…
Thomson: Yeah, well, we had no say over that.
Simonelli: But I think that’s why, in the States, you can’t be pigeonholed so much. They do latch on to very easy comparisons, like beat poets, like… well, whatever the case may be to get the message across.
But can that be positive? Some fan of beat poets reads about you and buys your record, becomes a fan…
Simonelli: What I’m saying is that it’s not easily defined, and as a result of that you start seeing these bad or lazy comparisons… musically, Slint seems to be the big one over here. That, and Shellac.
Thomson: I see Slint more as a touchstone for the reviewer than a touchstone for us. The reviewer reads that into it, and writes about it, and I personally take it as a compliment. They were a fantastic band, and were definitely a landmark for a lot of people. I’m coming from an era pre-Slint, personally – I’m older, and I listen to a lot of stuff from the late seventies and early eighties…
Well I read a comparison to The Birthday Party…
Thomson: Rowan Howard is one of my favourite guitarists on the planet. I mean, that guy is so influential, and I think about Rowan Howard a lot. That guy is amazing… the sounds he gets…
So Slint, et al, definitely not any kind of direct influence…
Simonelli: Well, the way Enablers came about was that I approached Kevin. I wanted a project, a poetry project with some music behind it, and I liked Kevin’s other band, Touched By A Janitor, and he and I were working together at the time. He said something one night, he was talking about Nelson Riddle, and his amazing arrangements. I mean, Rowan Howard and Nelson Riddle, and everything in between. I mean, we all have a very eclectic taste in music…
Thomson: …Joe Byrnes had never heard a Slint song in his fuckin’ life. We played it for him. We went to this house, and he was listening to it and saying, “Whoa, this is them? Whoa, this drummer is, like, my brother… How come I’ve never heard of this band, man?” It was really funny. He was totally into it. Honestly, I’d never bought one of their records until I bought one for my younger brother, to try to steer him in the right direction, but it was a failure.
You give him your own records?
Thomson: Yeah, not that they wind up in his fuckin’ CD player. Well, I’ve no idea. We’re separated by seventeen years. I’m forty-one.
And do you love this, touring, at forty-one?
Thomson: I love it. I don’t really make those kind of distinctions, and never really did. I remember being in my twenties and hanging out with guys in their thirties, and one of my dearest friends was nearly forty when I was twenty-two, and I remember thinking, “I wanna be like him”. Y’know, when I’m fuckin’ forty I wanna be like George, like a guy who’s not living the straight life, but living the artist’s life. A guy that’s doing exactly what he fuckin’ wants to do, and not paying attention to the ladder system or class system or job system, any of that garbage. It’s so fuckin’ flaccid. I’d rather be doing this. A lot of great musicians didn’t hit their stride ‘til their forties or fifties, and if that’s a role model, sign me up. I’d like to follow that path. Just follow what’s your true calling, or whatever makes you happy.
Later, Simonelli enraptures, lulls into love and terrifies ‘til blood runs cool in approximately equal measure; Enablers, as their albums imply, are a live experience. To them each night is not just another gig, another chance to make additional bucks off the back of a few records or t-shirts. As Simonelli - tonight a lithe Lothario of no little loquaciousness - catches the gaze of an attendee some rows from the front, he doesn’t break it, instead weaving between shoulder and shoulder ‘til his nose is brushing that of his chosen individual. The onlookers decide: friend or foe, victim or victor? Only our brief centre-of-attention knows for sure, but chances are he’s first in the queue to shake the band’s hands come their set’s close.