Wolfing Out

If there’s one sure thing in the life of anyone in a band, it’s that you’ll eventually see all your friends’ bands break up.  It’s sort of the indie-rock equivalent to when other adult-aged people see their friends go through divorces and get promoted to management positions and other real-life things.

One of the stalwarts of what seemed like a steamrolling noise-rock scene in mid/late-2000s just packed it in recently.  You may have groaned at seeing their name in your local alt-weekly a few times – AIDS Wolf?  Chances are you never got past the name, and I probably can’t blame you.  But still, there they were – a pretty great band from Montreal that pursued an unabashedly Arab on Radar-inspired wall of dissonant guitar howls and epileptic screams.  My band played with them once or twice and they were super nice offstage (for real) and some awesome people to meet.

AIDS Wolf – Tied up in Paper

A little while ago, the band’s singer, Chloe Lum, posted some thoughts about it all in a thing titled “End of an Era.” It put forward a number of interesting thought-nuggets about creativity, integrity, artistic purpose, and how come it seems like things aren’t great anymore for anyone trying to pave their own weirdo way.  Keep in mind that they’re from Canada, so watching their artistic support network disappear must have been even tougher for them, given that they actually had one to begin with. The post has several passages worth nothing that go from informative to heartfelt to straight up whiny (not being critical – the thing is basically grappling with some emotions about quitting a band, so whining shouldn’t really be off-limits, right?).

Many of our peer bands had either disbanded , or stopped/seriously slowed down on touring. “I’m in debt and can’t afford the time off work anymore” they’d tell us, or “I want to start a family / go to grad school / get an adult job”. “I can’t face another empty room, it’s futile , pointless , ridiculous , demoralizing”. Same story everywhere and no surprise, we were getting older and so were our friends and what’s marginal at 20-something becomes much more so at 30-something or 40-something. But beyond many of our cohort moving on, there where significant changes in what was deemed “underground,” what could get booked where and under what circumstances. It seemed that as a bunch of 30 somethings in an extended van full of big amps and a loud as hell P.A. had become an anachronism.

True. Though, to be honest, this sort of thing seems like it may have been an anachronism from the very beginning. In economics-speak (which I know basically nothing about), it seems like the market has kind of been saturated ever since those of us who were in middle school when grunge blew up illogically convinced ourselves we had punk cred. We hit the road in tour vans because it seemed like we were born into it. But is it weird to feel surprised when the generation starts to grow up and feel like the thing is pointless when we realized there are thousands other bands trying to do the same thing?

Wait HOW MANY bands have already used this mic today?

On the other hand, lamenting the size of everything, while it might be accurate – 1,500 bands go to SXSW every year to prove it – is kind of unfair to a band like AIDS Wolf. It speaks to a lazy acceptance of some kind of nightmarish utopia where everyone’s suddenly on the same footing.  Socially, it’s cool that everyone gets along more now than ever, but I’d rather not pretend that your cousin’s laptop pop band or some tenth-generation alt-country group is somehow in the same boat with this kind of thing. I’m not saying that “difficult” music and confrontational/oddball stage presence automatically means a certain kind of music is to be taken  more seriously or affords it a little more consideration – definitely not – I’m just saying it’s weird that it’s assumed to have all the same kind of constraints (lost in the crowd) and opportunities (hey you should try licensing that song!) as everyone else. It’s nice that we all grab food from the same taco truck in the morning, but come on now.

AIDS Wolf – Spit Tastes Like Metal

One of my favorite memories from festival land is the night I crawled my way downtown to the old Knitting Factory in New York after a week of CMJ bands softly begging to be checked out, to be blogged about, to have their pictures taken, to get invited somewhere (anywhere!) with free drinks, and to see KRS-One. AIDS Wolf was playing on the big stage at the Knit as part of the Lovepump/Panache/Skin Graft showcase, and oh lord was it the greatest, nastiest, coarse-grain scrubbing ever. Other bands from that show: Ruins, Japanther, Apes, Made in Mexico, Old Time Relijun, Pre, HEALTH, Monotonix, Yip-Yip. In all their ugly glory, this collection of bands seemed like the total opposite from all the kindly music industry reverence that seemed to go down in every other spot in town that week, and it was glorious. Was it glorious in a calculated, this-is-our-role-here kind of way? Aw, don’t be so cynical.

So no, I wouldn’t blame the dwindling ability of bands like this to succeed on the fact that there are millions others like them. There really aren’t.

Moving on, there are some interesting logistics details that bring that vague suspicions that cross-border touring into real focus – Lum says that their US touring visas (I don’t even know what those are) doubled in price and came with new requirements like needing paperwork on shows six months before the show. Given that this band was still doing a fair amount of DIY shows, you can imagine the absurdity in that.

They did finally get their tour together, though. Here’s how it went:

Then the actual tour happened, where by the time we had played to less than 5 people several gigs in a row, being a scroungy jammer seemed less like a fun hobby / challenging art practice and more like an exercise in humiliation. At at least half the gigs, the opening bands would split right after playing, without even acknowledging our presence. In New Orleans, attempts to chat with one of the opening bands got us eye rolls.

Well that sounds like it sucked.  In the end, I’m wondering what else you can expect? I’m an American and raised under the ideals of capitalism and Puritanical “try try again” kind of ethics, so whenever I’d face shows with like five people at them, my instant reaction was always that it’s my fault.

Does the world of underground rock owe AIDS Wolf their continued support? Maybe we’re sick of it and don’t want to hear it anymore. Maybe we just forgot about them while trying to track millions blog posts about other album releases, st(r)eaming tracks, video teasers, and Twitter feeds, and our own “vibrant local scenes.” But at the same time, anybody ought to be sympathetic to a crew that had a dream, saw it build momentum to a pretty thrilling peak, and then just saw things inexplicably evaporate.

As it stands, we’re in the middle of billion bands not making money and still not going away, for better or worse. Maybe it means that we all assume they’re all interchangeable – why invite AIDS Wolf to your town to play when you can just have the local garage rock band play? That’s sad.

Maybe the whole thing of hoping to sustainably run amuck playing music all over the continent was a ridiculous one to begin with, fueled by insane accounting by record companies (and bands as well, who all maintain their own definitions of “breaking even” as long as they can) and the artists that they propped up with flimsy but convincing careers. Maybe all us creative types are just kidding ourselves when we think we deserve a little something for ever having going down this avenue in the first place, especially the ones knowingly making music seemingly designed to as a caustic attack on anything people might accidentally like.  What  services are we really providing society?!! Toward the end, AIDS Wolf recently switched course into something maybe even less popular appeal – playing around with modern classical approaches and techniques. I’m not gonna lie – I didn’t get a copy of their new album, Ma vie banale avant garde (and worse, totally missed the last show on their tour in Boston). But it seems like either an admirably desolate path to go down (wait a minute, aren’t all self-respecting indie rockers turning to classical music now?) or a calculated career suicide. Either way, it seems like the kind of thing that’s harder and harder to justify outrage about not making a living off of. Is that wrong? Maybe this poor kid’s mom has a point:

What Music Worth, According to My Mom

In the end, hopefully there are still a few people who make a real racket and are industrious enough for a little while to take it out to people in far-flung locales.  Even if they have to get a real job later on. You can tell they’re psyched.

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