Discovering a new band in real time


HecubaIt really doesn't happen very often that I find a good new band. When it does happen, I want to slow the whole process down and write about it in real time, just to savour it. Actually, that's why I opened a new document in TextEdit and started writing this column. It's happening to me now. I'm not cheating, I promise -- this really is me discovering a new band, in real time.

The band is called Hecuba, and all I know is that ten minutes ago I hit my LiveJournal Friends List and someone had embedded -- without explanation or commentary of any kind -- a couple of videos by a band called Hecuba.

The first I saw was this one:

The song is called Suffering, and it starts with a roll of kettle-drums. Then a handsome guy -- he looks like the Vincent Gallo type, and though I don't like Vincent Gallo I do like that lupine, intense, beardy look -- sings "when love falls apart more than two people suffer", his voice treated with a 1950s-retro delay effect which recalls Suicide's 1970s records. The video has him in 50s biker gear astride a vintage motorcycle, which, combined with the stripped-down melodic production and the designer beard, evokes George Michael's Faith video.

That could be good or bad, and sometimes that good-bad, attraction-repulsion sensation is a good one when we encounter a new artist. So let's keep watching.

Aha! A shot of the singer on a bed, reading some sort of zine, wearing Terry Richardson-esque 70s glasses! Cool! And then something really quite impressive happens. The music changes idiom entirely, and there's a section which sounds like Kraftwerk, or late 80s Detroit techno. Then it slips back into the Suicide-50s thing for the next verse. Meanwhile, inset boxes show characters suffering because of their partners changing partners, and there's something Miranda July-esque about that.

I don't know where this band comes from, but something makes me think San Francisco. They're probably graduates of the San Francisco Art Institute, I tell myself, (knowledgeably) like Devendra Banhart but more, you know, NOW. I also note that they use Vimeo rather than YouTube for their official video release platform, which suggests they're hipsters. Well, of course they're hipsters! Look at the adeptness with which this video is reviving and clashing styles! You don't do that without going to art school! You don't go to art school without doing that!

The song develops some nice backing vocals, and starts reminding me of T. Rex. I like the way it leaves space in the arrangement, too. The electronic break comes back, sounding more Acid House than it did before, then the track strips down before building at the end with a big chorus of "I need somebody / Do you love somebody?", while the cast, all in black biker gear, waggle about like a provincial production of Grease. I decide it's pretty good.

The next video I see I don't like as much. This time, visually, it seems to be shot in LA and reference Blade Runner. Intriguingly there's a totally different singer, a girl whose voice has been heavily treated with autotune. There's still a nice amount of simplicity and space in the arrangement -- the drums are mostly finger-snaps, with some light electronic percussion and good guitar and vocoder fills. But the melody is weak this time. I suppose Hot Chip might be an influence, I'm not really sure. Also it strikes me that this is a cleaned-up Ariel Pink thing, that Ariel Pink has somehow influenced this. I start thinking about Pink when I hear the sax solo, so 70s! But although I like Ariel Pink a lot, I don't like the idea of his sound being cleaned up. And the song just isn't that strong in this one.

I hit the band's website and find I've just missed their Berlin show -- typical! I note that they have an album out -(I'm assuming it's their first, because they sound like an accomplished band making their first album) called Paradise, and that they're touring with Bat for Lashes, who I've already decided I don't really like, and who are vaguely Goldfrappy.

Next I check the Hecuba tour blog and find that it's mostly visual, and tastefully restrained, consisting of well-chosen photos of details of the venues they've been playing in across Europe. They've been art students, for sure. Instead of boring videos of them onstage, they post interesting, quirky clips of, for instance, a dog wandering the pedestrianised streets of Thoinville:

Then I notice that the guy singing onstage doesn't seem to be anything like the guy in the first video I saw; instead, it's this rather effete, effeminate... hey, wait, is that the girl singer with her hair cut short? What's going on? Oh, okay, the beardy guy is sitting down at the synth while the girl singer stands up and sings. They're a synth duo! Their style looks a lot more... Ladytronic on stage than it does in the videos.

I then search a horrible music bulletin board I used to frequent to see if they know about Hecuba. They do; in 2008 someone wrote "Hecuba is the L.A. gang gnag", which confirms they come from LA as I (almost) suspected. What does "gnag" mean, though?

Apart from that there's really nothing on the horrible music bulletin board apart from a couple of festival listings, one of which confirms that they shared a stage with Ariel Pink. From this "nothing" I confirm that Hecuba are too trendy for the horrible board (which means I'll feel better about adopting them as one of my tastes), and also that they haven't been given the sort of hype which forces people to express an opinion about them one way or the other.

Then I find Hecuba's Wikipedia page (like Momus, they're tangled up in a Greek deity's disambiguation page; Hecuba was a queen in Greek mythology) and read:

"Hecuba is a band based in Los Angeles, California featuring performance artist, Isabelle Albuquerque and musician/designer Jon Beasley. They have toured with Devendra Banhart, Bat for Lashes and Rainbow Arabia... Devendra Banhart was photographed several times by tabloid magazines wearing a Hecuba t-shirt while he was dating actress Natalie Portman."

You see, I knew there was a Devendra Banhart connection!

"They have released two albums on Manimal Vinyl since their formation in 2006. Their latest, Paradise, has received favorable reviews from NME, Pitchfork Media, LA Weekly and XLR8R." Okay, so it's their second album, not their first. It's true, there was something a bit too confident about their sound for it to be a debut.

Now I turn to the Pitchfork review. But wait, I can't find an album review there at all (their search function never works, but even with Google I can't find one)! What I do find is a little news item saying the Suffering video actually has guest spots from Rainbow Arabia, Pit Er Pat and... Devendra Banhart!

I watch the Suffering video again and sure enough, there's Devendra playing a greasy auto mechanic! And could that be... Matthew Barney? For a split second? Maybe not... but this band seems well-respected by the well-connected. I'm surprised that, apart from their famous friends, so few people seem to be talking about them. Because the more I play that Suffering song, the more I like it.

I decide to mention Hecuba if anyone asks if I've heard any good new bands recently. And maybe to write my next Playground column about them.

The last thing I do is run a Google image search on Hecuba. I find them portrayed as Greek statues on the cover of their Paradise album. Nice -- they're re-ambiguating the Wikipedia disambiguation! And now I have a cool image for the piece.

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