“This is obscure music that defies niche genre appeal: melding the slow, brutal weight that will draw metal fans; the shards of sculpted feedback to catch the ears of noise enthusiasts; and the meticulously crafted assembly and earnest delivery to grab admirers of left-field pop. It’s music with no reason to remain obscure… We look forward to seeing the following this attracts.”
More than a year has passed since our last contact with California’s Wreck and Reference, and it’s with relief that we can say the duo followed through on all our bold claims regarding their debut. Things really took off for the band in the wake of our manic praise; a slew of equally avid reviews appeared and they inked a deal with Music Ruins Lives to release the demo on CD, then on vinyl through Mr Flenser. Then silence. The post-punk gloom and squealing electronics had faded from memory, the intensely philosophical approach behind the lyrics and doom synthesis of the percussion an obscure footnote within LURKER’s vaults. But now, rocketing back to life, Wreck and Reference deliver a full-length, Youth, and live up to all the promises made by that innovative first record.
Naturally, it became very easy to bang on about the “OMG! No guitars!” aspect for a band that quietly professed a metal influence, but with the advent of their new album Wreck and Reference really come into their own. Youth quickly put paid to my personal fears that the “electronic doom” shtick would have little more to offer, so perfectly formed was the Black Cassette. But no, this latest statement only builds on everything laid down by the first release – amplified, refined and vastly improved. Within a single play through, the underlying concepts outlined in the band’s moniker echo even clearer. Recalling our introduction to this eclectic duo, Wreck and Reference are less about reconciling disparate genres than they are about destroying the music you hold dearest, all the while writing some charming goth tunes in the process.
This pop sensibility is most obvious in early tracks like ‘Spectrum’ and ‘The Solstitial’, where a quivering, defiant voice darts around catchy melodies over a dense backdrop of constructed noise. But the feigned accessibility is always short-lived as the hasher aspects of the band’s sound take over without warning. Crooned vocals become screeches more familiar to the nastiest of sludge bands; howling electronics are distorted and warped beyond reason to adequately stand in for a fleet of droning guitars. After all, it’s safe to assume people are lurking here actively seeking these classic vehicles of metal.
If metal is what you want, most of its influence can be found concentrated in the percussion, played on an acoustic drum kit to offer some organic shelter from the whirling mass of electronics that form the melodies and textures. Whether it’s the slow thud of a bass pedal, elaborate phrases on the toms, or a full-on blast-beat attack, the drums borrow from all the best parts of extreme metal to give Youth its extraordinary weight and power. The performance climaxes on ‘I Am A Sieve’, where the rumbling fills reach heights reminiscent of Isis or Tool, backed by shimmering synthesised drones and groaning, slurred vocals. ‘Nausea’, on the other hand, appears to be a maudlin shoegaze ballad until it’s pushed into pseudo-black metal territory by the competent blasting.
Wreck and Reference sound utterly unlike anything else to emerge over the past couple of years, and for that reason alone Youth comes highly recommended to all lurkers. It’s simply unclassifiable. Any fan of left-field music, regardless of their personal obsessions, should find plenty to uncover and enjoy here. Inspired by their thoughtful approach, LURKER asked Ignat and Felix a few questions about the new album and their development as a band…
When we last spoke, you mentioned that the lyrical and conceptual outlook of the band is rooted in existential philosophy and psychology – fields that LURKER has more than a passing interest in. For example, your moniker is a play on Gottlob Frege’s Über Sinn und Bedeutung (On Sense and Reference), although the music itself is not necessarily bogged down by these concerns. How have the thought processes developed through Wreck and Reference’s music since the Black Cassette?
Felix: Black Cassette largely dealt with the angst and disorientation that accompanies accepting a hard determinist view of reality. Youth deals more with the consequences of this view on the self and relationships with others, particularly in situations in which the narrator is deeply dissatisfied with the particular pulp that reality’s gears have ground out for him. The hopelessness and immorality that hard determinism is often charged with facilitating also pits Youth‘s narrators against feelings of corruption, self-doubt, alienation, and all the other discomforts we tried to cram into the record.
Ignat: There was a personal element in the lyrics of Black Cassette which is greatly amplified in Youth but, in a manner similar to the approach on the first record, these experiences were reinterpreted in the context of abstract concepts. Songs like ‘Nausea’ and ‘Inverted Soul’ carry an extremely personal burden for me to the point that if someone asked me what and why I probably wouldn’t tell them. ‘Nausea’ is a Sartre reference and this contextualises the story somewhat, but it was written in deep reflection on the negative aspects of myself, just as several songs on Youth, and I can’t say the same for Black Cassette. Despite the reference to Sartre, it might be important to add that we aren’t existentialists in the classic sense and I don’t particularly agree with the Sartrean conclusion. Some of the tenets are attractive but the derivation of meaning from matter is contestable.
This time round, on Youth there appears to be a recurrent lyrical theme of seasonal decay, hopelessness and loss. Where do you draw the inspiration for lyrics from?
Ignat: Seasons are a motif on the album. There is a paradoxical duality in them as they are cyclical but tend inexorably towards a finite number in one life: an analogy to living as a cyclical but terminal process. In retrospect, the seasons have been done ad nauseam artistically and poetically, but unlike Vivaldi all the seasons on Youth are sad ones. At least for me, Black Cassette drew a lot from literature and philosophy, but the new record drew most of its inspiration from life events. I think that might have to do with my reading pace, which slowed to a crawl during the time of recording Youth.
Felix: A possible justification in hindsight is that the interplay of celestial and atmospheric processes that defines the seasons is as complex, unrelenting and beyond our direct control as the circuitous interaction of molecules and electrical impulses in our skulls. However, and quite appropriately, the inclusion of this motif in the album wasn’t a conscious choice between us, just an emergent property of the process.
The album’s name also challenges me. I regard my youth as an incredibly important period of my life and, to some extent, I feel as though I’m still living it now. I find it desperately sad if someone is denied their youth – it’s something to be celebrated and held onto for as long as possible. What does this “denial” or “rejection” of youth mean within the context of the album? Is Youth referring to your own childhoods or a certain life experience at all?
Felix: As pitiful trend-gazers we noticed around the time we were recording this album a resurgence of popular music whose singular purpose is the expression of youthful exuberance. While we wouldn’t deny that we’ve sometimes found something like joy in the crowd of some sweaty, drunken house shows, that’s simply not what we’re trying to achieve artistically. The themes that pervade our music (hopelessness, death, immorality, etc.) exist only on the opposite side of youth. I suppose then we’re not denying youth and its trappings, so much as ruminating on its inverse.
Ignat: This album is a reflection of our personal experiences childhood and current since we are young, both 25 – still young, right? When it comes to youth, a few things stand out for me: freedom and happiness. We tend to be sad people, sad young men who write songs. To be honest, our environments shouldn’t create the level of desperation that is present on the album but since we focus on it artistically, it becomes a billowing black cloud of emotion. In that way you could say this album is a work of fiction. And someone’s got to play songs for when people are sad. I think Carey Mercer put it well: “Not all kids scorn uneasiness. And not all music is made for kids.”
While I’m usually a sucker for painted or illustrated sleeve art over photography, I feel strangely drawn to Youth’s cover. The skinny guy sat in a bath, assuming what appears to be a “suicidal” position… But there are no lacerations on the body, and even then the water is black. I have to ask, what the hell is going on here?
Felix: The artwork can be interpreted in several ways. In line with our record, we have a struggling figure submerged in a blackened world staring despondently at his hands as he doubts his own agency and questions his mortal existence. Alternatively, those of a different philosophy could just see a self-obsessed young man deliberately wallowing in darkness, a description that could easily fit the two of us.
Ignat: I don’t believe there was ever an intention to make Karl appear suicidal or as having committed the act. Our first idea was to put him into a very tight space looking very desperate but a good space was hard to find. For me, the idea was that Karl is constrained, or wallowing in filth, by his own will yet against his wishes. This opposition represents the complexity of agency that exists when discussing a probabilistic or deterministic view.
I’m a guitar guy myself, so I have absolutely no idea what is involved when making noisy electronic music like this. What sort of gear do you use to attain your sound? There are some interesting parts in the song ‘Winter’, for instance, where one can hear a high-pitched sound similar to a violin. What other instruments were involved in the making of Youth, or are you more reliant on sampling?
Felix: In addition to live drums, the primary instrument to our sound is a Korg PadKontrol, which is programmed to trigger different samples and softsynths in Ableton Live. For a while I used a gutted USB keyboard as a footswitch but recently upgraded to the much more sturdy and versatile SoftStep. The sounds triggered through these devices are then fed through two channels into two stacks of amplifiers.
All the instruments on the album are produced digitally with the exception of a few instances of processed microphone feedback and other experimentations. As we’ve said in the past we have no gripe with guitars, we simply made it a personal challenge to record the album without touching one. Although samples are used heavily throughout this album, a great deal more softsynths were incorporated into this album than our first. ‘Winter’ is an interesting track for this because Ignat wrote the song on guitar and we both really wanted to keep some element to that when we transcribed it for computer. The main chord progression was created by routing the midi signals of the PadKontrol to function like OmniChord such that running one’s finger across the X-Y pad triggers notes of multi-octave arpeggiated chords. This signal was then run through two distorted piano softsynths to achieve that wall-of-sound strumming effect. The high-pitched violin sound unfortunately has a less interesting origin story, just a heavily processed softsynth.
Ignat: Youth contains some analog synthesizers too. And there are several noises that were made with the voice and heavily processed digitally. They were meant to give some of the songs a power electronics aspect or a droning harshness, even if only in the background. I have written several W&R songs on the guitar and some of the fun (pain) has been the challenge of adapting them to Felix’s pad. It’s natural to write songs on a guitar because fluidity comes easy, but the W&R sound in part is the abruptness that is inseparable from music created by samples.
There are a few pictures of Wreck and Reference playing live scattered about the internet. It looks like something you guys try to do often. Are your songs easy to recreate on stage, or are you forced to alter things slightly?
Felix: Playing shows is probably the best justification for all the time and money we’ve thrown into this project. Through playing shows we get to travel to new places, meet great people, drink free beer, and edge our way closer to inevitable deafness. We normally choreograph everything as we’re writing the songs to ensure that what we record can be recreated in a live setting. There are a few subtle elements that would require an extra limb to conjure, but we normally try to make up for those with volume and intensity.
As mentioned above, Wreck and Reference is ultimately unclassifiable music, and this is definitely a good thing. So I’m fascinated to know what you count among your influences. We can hear things as disparate as Current 93, Menace Ruine and The Human Quena Orchestra in it, but what acts actually inspired the founding of the band?
Felix: When we first started conceptualizing Wreck and Reference back in early 2010, we were both really stuck on two records that had just come out, Ben Frost’s By The Throat and The Body’s All the Waters of the Earth Turn to Blood. We both have a compulsive hunger for novelty in music, so our listening since then has followed a convoluted path, veering towards and away from the many influences we think are manifest in our music. This aversion to the derivative also steers our writing in spirals. We often have a clearer conception of what we don’t want our music to sound like than what we do and as a result end up scrapping or rewriting the bulk of our material until we distill it down to a product we can actually tolerate.
In terms of more recent influences, we’ve both been listening to a lot of Burial Hex, Demdike Stare, Prurient, Clams Casino and other artists of that ilk. If you tallied our most played artist of the past six months, though, it’d probably be Danny Brown.
Ignat: And Lil B. He is more of a personal influence rather than a musical one though. I also want to add that we both really enjoy and respect Death Grips. I think they are pushing the boundaries of music and have without a doubt captured the contemporary atmosphere of diarrheal internet and hyper-stimulation culture. Also, Stefan’s lyrics contain some desperate and dark imagery which decorates their technological vision with humanity.
Felix: Fun fact, the third Death Grips show ever happened at the house we recorded Black Cassette in.
There’s also been a huge leap in recording quality on Youth. To me, Black Cassette sounds like you stood a single microphone in a small room and just went to town on it, live. Am I far off the mark? There’s a real lo-fi charm about that record. How did the recording process differ for Youth?
Ignat: Black Cassette was recorded digitally with about eight microphones, mixed digitally, and then mastered the record onto crappy cassette tapes, pushing the input gain to get that lo-fi sound. Then we ripped the tapes back onto digital, removed some of the tape hiss, and uploaded onto Bandcamp. The original 50 tapes, though, were packaged right after getting the mixes onto the tape and were dubbed by us using a thrift-store tape deck. Given all that, I’m guessing no two tapes are identical.
Felix: The recording of Youth was a much more deliberative process, taking up most of our free time over the spring, summer and fall of 2011. We recorded it ourselves; holed up in a practice space we’d rented out in a depressing industrial park in Sacramento and after a few months emerged with a prodigious number of tracks. Fortunately, Colin was able to make sense of it all and turn our clusterfuck of instrumentals into a rich and balanced mix. When it came time to master, we debated attempting to recreate the lo-fi sound of Black Cassette, but understood that doing so would result in a loss of clarity to an already very dense record. After all, the lo-fi thing was never a stylistic decision, more an attempt to recreate the overwhelming feeling of playing way too loud in our tiny garage. I think Colin’s treatment of Youth achieves that overwhelming intensity even in its clarity.
Of course, having Colin Marston at the helm for mixing and mastering duties has improved Wreck and Reference’s delivery no end. He’s also had a hand in many projects we see as important (Zs, Kayo Dot, Sailors With Wax Wings). Considering you’re a relatively young band, having someone with these kind of references behind your production always helps. How did this partnership come about?
Felix: Colin is a tremendous individual and we hold both what he does as a musician and a producer in the highest regard. We got in touch with him through Jonathan at Flenser and fortunately he was happy to work with us. We’re both highly neurotic and together that element of our personality is compounded, so we were virtually peering over Colin’s shoulder throughout the entire process. Fortunately, he didn’t seem to mind (or was too good a guy to say so) and we ended up with the album sounded exactly as we wanted it. Honestly, after working with Colin, I don’t think we’d want to work with anyone else.
Ignat: I didn’t want to sound redundant in this interview, but I cannot express the gratitude I feel for Colin. He is a great engineer and we are very happy with the sound of the record, but maybe more importantly we respect his outlook on the industry and his motivations. He seems to have a very pure ethic when it comes to doing music and his ideas guided us through some tough choices we had to make. Colin Marston is surely of presidential caliber.
At the moment, you’re offering Youth as a pay-what-you-want download. Are there any plans to release a physical format?
Felix: The perhaps strange definition of success we hold for this project is that as long as we can end up on the floor of some crusty house playing for some people who were excited to see us after hearing about us on the internet, we are happy. The less money in our pockets, the better. From our influences to our samples, our music quite literally would never have ever come to be if it weren’t for freely accessible music on the internet. It would be more than a tad hypocritical for us to deny people sharing our music online, and it feels even a bit egregious to even ask for money. We’ve been overwhelmed by the support we’ve received both in terms of people sharing our music with others and donating to us via Bandcamp. All of this furthers us towards our goal of passing out on some floor as soon as possible.
That being said, we – like many of our fans – have a deep, almost fetishistic appreciation for the physical format. Releasing Youth on vinyl was something we always planned on doing, but we needed support, and we didn’t want to wait to find that support before we released the album. We are thrilled then to have found that support in one of our best friends.
Youth will be released on Flenser Records. We expect the records to be ready for pre-sale around June 1. We will be offering a special discount for those who have already donated to us via Bandcamp.
Anything you’d like to add?
Copies of the LP should also be available during our brief summer tour. During the first two weeks of July, we’ll be hitting most of the main spots on the US West Coast with our good friends Doctorshopper. Lastly, we’d like to thank Jonathan “The Flenser”, Colin Marston and Andee from aQuarius Records in San Francisco.