A Beautiful Mess
On wrong numbers and Norway's Noxagt
...declares international tour a success, maintains obscurity
by Kevin Crowe
Hello , I say as cheerfully as possible. May I speak with Kjetil?
"Who?" a woman's voice asks, inflected with a strong Spanish accent. Her words sound off painfully slow, each syllable ringing through the phone line as she searches for what she wants to say. One more try: Kjetil?
"No? What?" she says. "I--don't know, what you're saying...."
Kjetil Brandsdal, bassist and founder of the Norwegian noise outfit Noxagt, is nowhere to be found, and I'm left talking to some lady that sounds either incredibly woozy or highly medicated, or both. I've read that, during interviews, Brandsdal can be evasive, obtuse and defensive when it comes to his art. A loner, ingeniously slogging his way through the unmapped territories of freeform noise. I've also read that this self-made mystery man is not without an overriding arc of sarcasm. Short-lived side projects such as University Punx, which have featured Brandsdal's own comic artwork on the album covers, hinted at a devious intellect, a sociological trickster who's always ready to mess with some heads.
Maybe, I tell myself, it's all a trick. I call again. Hello , I say sheepishly, I don't know if I have the wrong number or not, but may I please speak to Kjetil . "You just called," the same woman's voice says, half asleep. "I don't know that name. Don't call again." An hour later, my phone rings. "Hello," a new voice says. "This is Kjetil----from Noxagt." He doesn't know anything about the woman with the Spanish accent. "That's the right number," he insists. "I don't know much about American phone numbers."
Noxagt began humbly enough, as one of Brandsdal's many solo projects in the mid-'90s. 7-inch singles were cut from his home studio from time to time, each documenting a peculiar kind of noise fetishism, each bent on producing maximum uncertainty, as Brandsdal pulled together every trick from his garbled palate.
The sound, from the very beginning, has been something of a Pollock, bespattered with strains of noise and strung together with a meaty drone. And the band grew, first adding Jan Christian Kyvik on drums and Nils Erga on viola. With this lineup the songs tended to find more structure, in a sense, borrowing from the sonic templates of metal and grindcore. The viola was the core instrument of disruption.
The Iron Point , Noxagt's sophomore album, prominently features Erga's unusual drone-work. His bow rips across the strings, as if they're choking on the rosin, all while the bassline and drumbeat keep up with a simple progression. Occasional blastbeats help steer songs toward a heady, mind-numbing crescendo. It's a manic album, no doubt, filled with enough mind-bending melodies that ebb and flow, bleeding together with painstakingly plotted rhythmic changes.
"We don't play those songs anymore," Brandsdal goes on. "We can and we have, but we don't do it anymore." The viola is gone, having been replaced by the high-pitched metallic whine of Anders Hana's guitar. "It's changed a lot for the better. It's given us a lot more possibility, more elements to work with.... Every part of the process is just better."
"The Impious One," the final track on Noxagt's latest, self-titled album, begins with frantic guitar fuzz, a rough, almost static sound that wiggles itself into a hazy drone before Brandsdal chimes in with some of the heaviest basslines he's ever laid down.
"[Hana has] added more variety, a lot more frequencies," he says. "We have riffs and a drone, I guess more elements to work with."
The new sound is much sludgier, less focused on the pure noise of Noxagt's earliest releases, and as a result, there's more room for the drums and bass to take on pivotal roles. The bass in particular seems to find enough space to thump its way through the arrangements. At times, when Brandsdal goes at it alone, it's a grimy, slimy mess, a beautifully unpolished thump that juggernauts itself forward. The pressure builds, but there's no release, no sense of catharsis, just intense pressure. On and on, just oozing with possibility.
"Really heavy," Brandsdal says. "Not abstract." He's nothing if not brief. "I guess we're quite democratic when it comes to songwriting. An idea can come from anywhere."
Who: Noxagt w/ Midnight Bomber What Bombs At Midnight
Musician Goes AWOL...
One look at Amos Lee tells you everything and nothing about him. He could be African, or German, or Phillipino. Whatever his heritage, the folk-blues singer/songwriter and guitarist isn't talking: "I'd have to research that to tell you. I don't know fully." His tone is easy-going, but guarded, and it's hard to say if the Philadelphia native knows more than he lets on. Perhaps, like his musical style, Lee's a mélange of influences.
One thing's for sure: Lee used to be an elementary school teacher, and he seems like it. In a phone call from the Australian leg of his current tour, Lee sounds assured, though tired, or maybe a little weary of this latest series of highly scheduled 15-minute media interviews. He's mellow: "The tour's good. It's great. Amazing." His smooth baritone is just the slightest bit nasally, with a hint of a lisp. He speaks with a micro-efficiency: His words are all consonants, and it's easy to imagine Lee gently coaching children towards literacy.
On the one hand, Lee seems better suited to the confines of the classroom than to the intrusive world of celebrity. But on the other hand, a serendipitous confluence of the right place with the right time suggests that Lee was always meant to live the life he now leads.
Born in 1978, Lee (née Ryan Massaro) was raised in Pennsylvania and New Jersey before moving south to attend the University of South Carolina. While there, he got a job at a record store, received an acoustic guitar from his stepfather, and began writing music more or less privately. Lee's decision to major in English was an intentional step towards a life in music: "I started to really listen to songs and songwriters and lyrics, and I wanted to further that, and I wanted to get more education and understanding of poetry and short-fiction--to learn about character and description, and being able to understand what came before." Yet Lee returned to Philadelphia to teach after graduating.
After a couple years, Lee abandoned the classroom to pursue music. In 2003, his self-released five-song EP caught the attention of jazz label Blue Note Records executives and Blue Note artist Nora Jones who invited Lee to open for her tour. While his speaking voice suits a New England schoolteacher, in song, Lee slowly slides over vowels, and lingers comfortably, as jazz singers are wont to do.
His first full-length album (self-titled, 2005) was little more than Lee, his acoustic guitar, and nearly unnoticeable percussion. The record quickly garnered critical acclaim and commercial success. Lee went on to release a sophomore record, Supply and Demand , last year. It maintains his minimally produced, message-based style, and as with his first album, everyday moments are translated into an observation on something bigger, like relationships or society or valuing people. For example, he sings on "Freedom": Don't wanna be a martyr in this war/ Don't wanna hear the same excuses anymore/ That everything's a threat/ And it's only gonna get worse if we let it/ ... Freedom is seldom found/ By beating someone to the ground . Though some have inferred that "Freedom" is commentary on the Iraq war, in actuality it was inspired by two of Lee's students who got into a fight.
Unlike the first record, Supply offers developed instrumentation: soulful meanderings of piano and percussion supported by unobtrusive bass. What was once guy-with-a-guitar now sounds like a fully developed rock band that's simply choosing a modest approach. "On the first album, we kept a lot of space in the recordings," Lee explains. "On the second album, we really wanted to try some different stuff, be a little less bare bones." And though the resulting sound is denser, it could hardly be called dense. The space within the music is as important as the notes themselves, like silence in a classroom, to allow for reflection and understanding. It's a process that Lee values as a musician, to allow the song to be itself, in a sense, and that he values as a man, maybe for the same reason.
Though success has come easily for the relative newcomer to the music scene, it seems as though Lee is still coming to terms with the accompanying fame: "I try to keep myself out of trouble as much as I can. Living my life normally--well, not normal. I go to the beach," Lee says, almost dreamily. "I love going to the beach when I can." And he's in no hurry to get back to the United States: "I don't miss it too much." It's almost as though Lee is on a walkabout--a quiet, reflective retreat--rather than an international tour: "I'm always writing. I've been rehashing a lot of stuff that I wrote while I was home in January and February," he confides. "Being on the road as much as I've been, it leaves itself to examining where you're from and what you think is going wrong and what is going right. I'm not intentionally writing about politics because I don't think politics is worthy--well, not that it's not worthy--," Lee trails off, then recovers: "I think humanity is worth writing about. For me it's about focusing in on people: what our suffering is, what our joys are. When it comes down to it, if we're not serving each other, then what are we doing really?"
What: Amos Lee