Saturday, March 06, 2021

No Neck Blues Band redux: my 2006 (or 2007?) interview with Dave Nuss

One of my earliest major interviews was with Dave Nuss of the No Neck Blues Band, in late 2006/ early 2007. I was barely getting published by magazines or newspapers at that point; it ran in the underground zine Bixobal. My lack of experience with "professional" writing (later something I would be sort of schooled in by the Straight) may have appealed to the band, who also didn't really do many interviews. I haven't read this piece in fourteen years - probably very few people have - and times sure have changed, but there is, in fact, a relatively new release by the No Neck Blues Band being put out by the record label associated with that magazine, Ri Be Xibalba - see here (or also here, for a previous 10"). 

Since this is an interesting conversation, not in print anywhere at present - with the permission of the Bixobal publisher and Dave Nuss, I'm posting it on my blog. I have no photos of the Vancouver show, or photo credits for the images used (provided by the band at the time of the interview and miraculously saved on my computer). Thanks to Vancouver New Music for permission to reprint the flyer from their Vancouver show, which is where this started, and thanks to Dave Nuss and Eric Lanzillotta for supporting this republishing. It has been mildly edited for errata and such. 

No Neck, No Bullshit

An interview with Dave Nuss of the No Neck Blues Band

By Allan MacInnis

No Neck Blues Band played a single Vancouver gig to a sparse crowd in November 2006. They weren’t that unusual to look at, if you don’t count the giant walking mattress that staggered around the peripheries of the stage, fell off, and made its way into the audience, eventually to disgorge a bandmember. Really, though – their music – trippy, multifaceted, and strange, at times building up into something resembling an intense Krautrock jam, at others creating utter (subtle) chaos for the listener’s mind to assemble into whatever order it liked – was best appreciated with ones eyes closed, anyhow. It’s the shifting coloured map of interior space the sound provokes that merits contemplation, not the mattress, even if it walks.

Now that Ri Be Xibalba have issued a recording of the Vancouver concert on vinyl [note - this has not been done, but portions of the full-length linked above may me drawn from parts of the Vancouver show], it seemed an opportune time to present a lengthy (rare) interview I did with Dave Nuss, in early 2007.

Allan: I know No Neck tend not to give interviews. Have you had many articles about you published in papers like The Wire or Signal to Noise before?

Dave: No, no. Those guys usually stay away from us, for some reason. I mean, they usually do reviews, but somewhere in the past, there was some place where we went one way and they went another way. We had some difficulties with the Wire around the time we did the Revenant album. They wanted to do a feature story about us, but that was at a time when we were very much not doing interviews, and we said, “We’d be happy to do something for your magazine, but it has to be sorta on our terms,” y’know? Issuing more of a statement. And we didn’t want to have photos, and – you know the Wire, they’re kinda a little tabloidy. They’re really big on personality stuff, I always feel, and at that time, we were very much into anonymity.  

Allan: I see.

Dave: So let’s see what it turns into, but... You’re talking with me, and I don’t want to tell you so much about where I grew up and what makes me tick as a person. We can definitely talk about the band, and keep it more general about that kinda stuff. Or maybe about upcoming plans or something. We try to keep No Neck Blues Band as an entity unto itself, and not my name, or Keith’s name, or anybody else’s name. We try to keep it as general as we can.

Allan: You seem to be the contact person – is there a reason for that?

Dave: I guess nobody else wants to be, and as with any kind of undertaking, everyone goes into the role that they’re comfortable being in, y’know? From the beginning – the band was already going when I first met these guys, back in 1993, and it was Keith and Jason and Pat, and this other guy named Dave, who left the band when I joined it. I saw them play a show, and they were real underground guys – like, they didn’t talk to anybody. They all grew up in Brooklyn, and they had their Brooklyn scene, but – I’d moved to New York thinking, “Oh, I want to be involved in the music scene!” I was much more outgoing and more social in those regards, so just naturally, when I joined the band, I went into that role.

Allan: Right.

Dave: But I also never wanted to be the kind of guy – like in a jazz sense, I never wanted to be the kind of guy who’s putting my name out there, like, “the Dave Nuss Group.” I never responded to that so much. But I ended up, because of personality stuff just [adopting a spokesperson’s role], and some of the other guys are a bit more introverted or whatever, so it’s not really in their nature so much.

Allan: Is that the reason why the band prefers to keep a low profile? Is it because of introversion, or because – like, it doesn’t sound like you’re that fond of the current state of music writing.

Dave: No, no, no – I don’t want to give that impression at all. I think the low profile probably just has to do with the music itself. It’s just not a pop kind of music, so part of our sense is that there’s just no reason to run around ramming this down people’s throats, with a kind of promotional attack... It’s not (laughs) – we’re never going to sell that many more than maybe a couple thousand CDs, and we don’t really have aspirations to do that, because it’s not really appropriate... So the low profile comes maybe as much from that. It’s not so much a deliberate statement, or that we have a problem with these certain things. I think it’s just not, um, appropriate for what the project is about. Does that make sense?

Allan: It does, but... I’ve read some of the band’s stuff online, and this thing that was in the Intonomancy CD case. “Hell exists on earth? Yes. We won’t play in it. That’s us.”

Dave: Oh yeah! (laughs).

Allan (laughs): Which I think is brilliant. I mean, you guys seem to have put yourself in a certain position in regard the marketplace, where there are certain forms of success that you’ve decided you definitely don’t want anything to do with.

Dave: Like what? Like Britney Spears? I’m trying to think of someone in our scene that got more popular. You mean like Animal Collective or something like that?

Allan: Or, well – John Zorn, without doing a whole lot of press, seems to have managed to become sort of a celebrity in his own way.

Dave: I think that goes back more again to the jazz question, where you get your name out, you write lots of insane music, you appropriate lots of people’s styles, and you regurgitate it out your own thought process... and then you make a name for yourself. Thurston does that, O’Rourke does that. They use other people’s things, like David Bowie or something. I kind of think of all these guys in the same way, all these personalities. O’Rourke is a perfect example, because he’s such a musical genius. He could hear any kind of music and play it, or reproduce it. So there was a certain period where he was into this AMM stuff, then he was into his Fahey stuff, then he was into something else, and he could do it all perfectly! And you see these shows, and you think, “Wow, this guy’s really great.” I think guys like O’Rourke or Zorn or Thurston, those guys, they use other people’s stuff, and they’re always feeding off other people’s scenes, but they make it their own, they have their own thing...  And so, by the time that whole process happens with No Neck Blues Band, it comes out as No Neck Blues Band. It doesn’t come out as Dave Nuss. It doesn’t come out as somebody else, you know? It’s like – that’s the entity that we want to take the foot forward into the public eye.

Allan: Okay, I think I get it.

Dave: So therefore - because it’s a collective, it’s not the project of a single person – it stays a bit looser, and less defined, and sometimes maybe more difficult to pin down. Although I think we have a very defined aesthetic, and I think it’s quite recognizable. It is comparable to the Zorn thing – No Neck Blues Band has a sound, John Zorn has a sound. But he made it into, like, an empire. And I think that we know him because he had a certain intention to be that way. It has not been our intention – not because we’re against cats like Zorn, it’s just not what we do.

Allan: Yeah.

Dave: It’s a bit more esoteric. And I think because of that, we wanted it to be a little bit more shadowy. Or it just is much more shadowy.

Allan: I like how with the CD packaging there’s very little there to respond to, other than the music.

Dave: We usually try to get a singular iconic graphic. Like, Intonomancy has that diamond, Qvaris has the eggplant... little things like that, one image you latch onto. And yeah, of course, I think what you’re saying is right. It’s about the music. With John Zorn, you’ve got his music, which spans a gamut of about a zillion kinds of things – and then you have his personality, you have his biography, and you have his image –

Allan: It’s almost a brand recognition thing.

Dave:  Yeah. Like, when Sonic Youth did Washing Machine, I remember reading interviews around that time, and that was what Thurston talked about a lot. He was like, “It seems like our band name has become sort of a brand name, a reference point that you put down,” and he was making a comment about that. I don’t think that that’s ever happened with us, or will happen with us. As much as there are some other bands that we have an associated sound with, I don’t think it’s really going to happen that way.

Allan: How successful are the CDs – you sell a couple of thousand?

Dave: Yeah, it depends. Like, the Revenant or the 5 Rue Christine stuff, those sold maybe three to five thousand, or something like that, and then if we put something out ourselves, its more like a thousand to two thousand. And then the records, we usually keep them limited to around a thousand or so.

Allan: Who does the art? It all seems like it’s comin’ from one guy...

Dave: Keith does all the art. The music is all selected and chosen and obviously played collectively, but then we leave it to him to sort of conceive it. Just because in the beginning, he naturally took on that role. And we all like his aesthetic, and feel it represents pretty well what we do. Jeff Ryan (aka John Fell Ryan), who split off earlier to make Excepter, used to be involved with Keith, and they used to collaborate on some of the earlier stuff, but that’s already been six or seven years...

Allan: In terms of money –

Dave (chuckling): We don’t make any.

Allan: You guys have to support yourselves with other things.

Dave: Yeah, yeah, we all work.

Allan: And you have jobs where it’s flexible enough that you can take time off to tour.

Dave: Yeah, sure. In New York, it’s pretty common to land these kind of jobs. And it’s a bit of a stress – a couple of us have kids, different things come in – but we have not really ever thought of the band as something that’s going to put food on the table. But now when we tour, we actually do come home with money sometimes, and we usually just put that back into our rehearsal space, paying the rent up there for a few months, depending on how much we have. But basically we’re not thinking of it that way.

Allan: You guys just got back from the Netherlands. Is the European reception way different?

Dave: Oh, yeah. I mean, you notice we don’t tour in America. I mean, we tried one time a year ago – it was exactly a year ago, I guess. Before that it had been five years. In general, though, we can go from town to town all around Europe. Last year, we did a six week tour all around Europe, from May til June. People just come out, they’re interested, they respond. It’s always a wide variety of people – old, young, different races, men, women... There’s a community there that seems to be in place, ready to embrace the kind of thing that we do. America? Not at all. I mean, we can head to Chicago, we can go to San Francisco, Vancouver was cool, Montreal and Toronto... And then everything else, we pretty much can’t play. It’s not feasible economically. Because these cities don’t really have subsidized things, the way they do in Europe, it’s just not feasible to move seven people around and make that worth our while. I mean – as much as we aren’t in this band to make money, we also don’t go into projects which will deliberately lose money!

Allan (laughs): Right.

Dave: We’re not that stupid.

Allan: What about Japan – you have a Japanese member. How did that come about?

Dave: Michiko? Okay. So, on our first, Letters from the Earth, there’s this guy playing on it called Shiraishi Tamio. He’s a saxophonist, he’s from Japan; he played a lot with Keiji Haino – I think he was in the first incarnation of Fushitsusha. He came from that scene, but he was living in New York, working this regular job. He used to come around to some of our early shows, and he used to ask, “Can I play before you guys?” I remember the first time he came and did this, it was like, “Well, who is this guy?” And he said, “I only have to play for like, fifteen seconds,” y’know (laughs). And we’d be like, “What?” And he’d get up there and he’d just blow the highest note possible on the saxophone, and then he’d be like (adopts a formal tone) “Thank you very much.” And that would be it, and it was completely devastating and bizarre. That kind of eccentricity is the kind of thing we really respond to.

Allan: (laughing).

Dave: So anyway, he eventually was doing shows with us, and you can hear him on the second CD, blowing that one note that he blows. And his girlfriend is this woman named Michiko, and so he was doing stuff with us and eventually she started coming around. And she’s a trained Butoh dancer from Japan, and she started coming around with the idea that, “Sometimes I’m gonna do weird performance while you guys play,” and we had some really, really intense shows with her early on, where she was more in that kind of role, as the Butoh dancer who was doing stuff with No Neck. And y’know, Butoh, you can do anything. It’s not like you walk out and do some kind of interpretive dance; she was doing really weird shit with the audience and with props and all kinds of stuff, and making everything very challenging, and really took things to the next level. We were always really excited about her, but then as the years went along, she kind of got a saxophone of her own and she kinda started throwing pots and pans around. Before you know it, she’s more like a musical member. And she still does some performance oriented things, and we’re always happy when she does, but many times she participates just as a vocalist or as a fellow musician.

Allan: She seemed to have a more – I don’t know how to put it – a more musical approach; watching her play, when she was on saxophone, it sounded more like she could have come from a jazz background.

Dave: Yeah, she’s classical, she’s a classically trained pianist. When she sings, and, I don’t know about the sax, but when she does piano especially, where the rest of us often work with textures and really simple rhythms and stuff, she often comes in and plays a melody or something. It’s just a different element to factor in.

Allan: It worked beautifully –

Dave: It’s interesting, that Vancouver set. What I’ve been doing over my Christmas break is going through all the recordings that we made out there, number one of that show. Number two, we stayed an extra couple of days at the Sun City Girls’ studio, and recorded on their ethnic instrument collection. I’ve been going through that stuff – we’re making an album for that guy, Eric Lanzillotta in Seattle, and man, that show in Vancouver was good. I just listened to it last night with Keith, and we were really happy with the way that show came out. I think we’re probably going to use it and make a whole record just out of that show, because there was something special about it: the sound was really clear. What happens with our band sometimes is that, if someone is coming in with a certain kind of energy, it makes shit go completely haywire, and it becomes quite chaotic. And that’s really great, and that’s part of it, but that show somehow, there was a certain kind of carefulness. Not tentativeness, but a care, I guess, is the way I would say it, that we heard in that music, that allowed all this amazing stuff to happen. It was quite a quiet show. It wasn’t like blown out noise at all, and the clarity of it and everything was just really lovely to us. The recording off the board also came out super, super good, so – yeah, you’ll be hearing that again, probably on vinyl.

Allan: I thought it was an amazing experience, myself. I’d eaten a pot cookie before I came out, and that always changes things, but it was an incredibly organic experience to me, it was one of the shows where I was struggling: as interesting as you guys are to watch, I was trying like hell to keep my eyes closed, which seems to be the appropriate way to listen to that sort of music. 

Dave: That show was not about some crazy performance, but it was more about making this music which embodies all the sort of things that we value. A lot of times when we’re playing a show, and the music isn’t getting there, somebody does something wacky from a performance standpoint, but I don’t think it was as much about that. I think you’re right – it was about closing your eyes and checking that out. Because now just to listen back to it without any visual element, it’s really complete. It’s all there.

Allan: Although, you know, there was the walking mattress.

Dave: Oh, the walking mattress! (laughs). I forgot. Okay. Well – he wasn’t miked.

Allan (laughter): It created quite a conflict in me: I just want to close my eyes and listen, but there’s a mattress walking around!

Dave: Thanks for reminding me about that. I totally forgot about that. The mattress eventually sat down at the drums, right?

Allan: It sat down on the floor. I don’t remember which member it was.

Dave: It was Matt.

Allan: Of course. Matt the Mattress!

Dave (laughs): Exactly.

Allan (chuckling): Okay, well... I’m curious about critical reception. One of our local critics, Alex Varty, was there, and what he has to say is just so fucking different from what you’ve said, what I’ve said, what – like, everyone who I talked to really got off on the show and we all seemed to feel the same way, but Varty, who writes for the Georgia Straight, was just really really harsh. Like, I can read you some of it, but I don’t want to hurt your feelings.

Dave: Yeah, please! I love to hear bad reviews! What was the nature of his critique?

Allan: Okay. I’ll go through it quickly here (thanks to Alex Varty for permission to quote):

Let’s get right to the point: in its Vancouver debut, in front of an undersized crowd in the capacious Arts Club Theatre, the No Neck Blues Band stunk out the joint.

Dave: Wow! Holy smokes!

Allan (giggles): Yeah, I know! (continues reading):

It’s unclear whether the members of this near-legendary New York City collective are normally this unfocused or whether they were merely dismayed by the poor turnout, but in any case they delivered little of the visionary noisemaking on which their reputation has been built.
Dave: Whoa!

Allan: It’s so strange, because I mean, he knows your music, and he didn’t enjoy the show. It’s like – what weren’t you on that night, Alex? (Note: Alex wasn’t on anything. We chatted later, and he agrees that that might have had something to do with our very different perceptions of the night. Anyhow, his review continues):
Consider yourself lucky you weren’t there.

Dave: Heh-heh-heh.

Allan (quoting still):

Now, I should explain that I’m not entirely opposed to studied incompetence as an aesthetic principle. The current vogue for performers who can’t really play their instruments is a perfectly valid and understandable reaction to an overabundance of machine-tooled sexpots and clinical virtuosos...
Dave: Hmm.

Allan (quoting):
—but what No Neck peers such as Wolf Eyes or the Nihilist Spasm Band lack in technical command, they supplant with collective intensity.
Both intensity and any sense of communal purpose were lacking from the No Neck Blues Band’s set, however. The evening’s high point was a long drone-rock rave-up that sounded like a clumsy imitation of what German avant-rockers Can were doing circa 1974;

Dave: Right, right.

Allan (Varty):
...the rest of the time, the performers wandered in solipsistic circles, blind and deaf to each other’s input.
Dave: Interesting.

Allan (finishing off):
It is possible, I suppose, that their disconnected twanging, banging, and clattering is intended as an extended metaphor for urban alienation, but that’s a stretch.

Allan: So, that’s the meat of it.

Dave: Is that online?

Allan: Yeah, I can send that to you.

Dave: Yeah, please do – I’d love to send that around to the band. It’s really not often enough that people step out and say that we’re complete bullshit, so it’s really nice when someone does that, because – you know, it’s more helpful to hear something like that. I’m really stimulated to hear what this guy has to say. It’s interesting to hear that impression.

Allan: Going back to Intonomancy, there’s something here in the notes about bullshit, too. “What is that sound? Intonomancy. Intonomancy? Bullshit! – And maybe that’s true, and that’s what we said, but listen here – what is this? This is a piece of sound. Listen to what we’re going to tell you now.” 

Dave (laughing): It’s also funny, this bullshit thing, because when we played a show in Haarlem, in Holland, just a couple of weeks ago. It was in this little classical music recording studio – a very intimate space. It was a sold out show, meaning like 70 people, I think, was the capacity; it was a very small room. Interesting set, you know – maybe not as good as Vancouver, but maybe along those same lines, and as soon as the last note rang out, someone from the audience just yelled, “BULLSHIT!” (Laughs). And we were like, whoa, that’s a pretty strong response! That never happens, you know? So we stopped the music, and we just said – because it was so small and intimate – “So, the person who said that, let’s turn the second half of tonight into a discussion. We’d like to know why that person thinks this is bullshit.” And we weren’t being confrontational at all. We’re curious about it, y’know? We were really trying to be like, “We’re not trying to start a fight, but this is really interesting.” But the person didn’t step forward and say, “I said it.” So now it’s nice to have to have this writer coming out...

Allan: Yeah, Alex steps right up.

Dave: One important thing about our band is that it’s not that we’re non-virtuosic. Each one of us knows how to play our instruments really, really well, and we each have our own side bands, aside from No Neck, where we completely play our instruments in the way their supposed to be played. With No Neck, we have a different approach to it. I would say it’s not – we’re not being deliberately being non-virtuosic, we’re just playing the sound that has developed that seems to work in the context of that group. We’re not being deliberately anti-music or something.

Allan: Is that true, though? Because I remember you doing things like playing your cello upside-down...

Dave: Ohh! That’s a good point, so... One of my things I sometimes like to do is to create a situation wherein it is difficult to play an instrument in a normal fashion – like, put the drum sideways, or the cello upside-down. Yeah, so what’s that about? I guess maybe you just nailed me on that!

Allan: (laughs).

Dave: I’m not thinking of, “I’m going to do this so I can’t play like Yo Yo Ma,” or something – it’s just kind of more fun to do it that way.

Allan: It seems like you guys want to challenge notions of what music is. There’s stuff you really don’t want to do. Like, in anything I’ve heard, you tend to stay away from is singing, say, although there’s some on the Sticks and Stones CD...

Dave: Well, one of the things we do try to stay away from is frontman-ship, you know? And that was one of the issues we had with Jeff, who left for Excepter, because he naturally was this figure – do you know who I’m talking about? Jeff Ryan. He was in our band from ’94 to ’99, and he left and he made his own band called Excepter, which is a really good band. They’ve got a bunch of albums out, it’s worth looking up. But in our band, he wanted to be a frontperson. He used to take off his shirt and grab the mike and be like a lead singer – he wanted to be Robert Plant or something. And he was crazy, so I really liked what he did, because it was always really bizarre, but then when we went into the studio to do Sticks and Stones, he was kind of saying, “You guys lay down the backing track and I’ll go in and overdub my vocals on top,” and that was – suddenly we all realized that’s not what this band is about, you know?

Allan: Hm.

Dave: This band is about doing something as a collective in that moment, but it’s not about going back and revising and working on something, to create something else, other than what happened originally. So he was always stepping outside the collective a bit to be in that role of center of attention or frontperson, and that eventually was something that we said, it doesn’t really work for this band as much. And it’s great that we parted ways; he’s the only person that’s ever left the group, and it was a great thing for him, because he started his own band. He controls it, he gets to be that person that our band was resistant to allow him to be. And we’re really good friends and we play shows together and there’s no bad blood, because it was totally appropriate that he left. 

Allan: The singing on Sticks and Stones is actually his, though. 

Dave: Yeah, most of it. Like, there’s one little track – the last track, I think, is kind of like a little hidden track, and he’s lead-singing on that. Yeah, and there’s other stuff which is more wordless vocal, that we all do – chanting things and stuff. And Michiko often sings now, too, wordless chant-style vocals, and that stuff is cool because it’s all in the music. But I think if someone grabbed the mike and started doing a hip hop rap or heavy metal thing, putting words to it and stuff like that, it wouldn’t be appropriate.

Allan: I’m curious. Musically, you’re very dissimilar, but do you ever get looked at in light of the post-rock thing, with bands like Godspeed You! Black Emperor and such?

Dave: Not that I’ve read – what do you think?

Allan: I’m just wondering, because – for the longest time, what I saw them doing was totally not trusting popular music, not trusting the whole rockstar personality-centered egocentric bullshit that’s out there. I saw them play, and Efrim Menuck – who is sort of the frontperson now, for Thee Silver Mount Zion, his hair was like, hanging down in his face – you couldn’t see his face through the entire performance. And there were no vocals at all, nothing like that – they tried to keep a great deal of distance between themselves and that kind of thing. In some ways it makes sense to look at both you guys as a reaction to the marketplace and the state of music now.

Dave: I suppose so, yeah. It’s interesting that you say that. I don’t think I or any of us have a problem with the idea of that, of someone being a frontperson, of someone engaging with the audience, or singing, or becoming, like, a star. I just think we all just felt for what this thing was. It was not how the No Neck Blues Band developed. But now look at Jason on the side, he’s got his band called the Coach Fingers, and it’s Jason singing and playing his guitar, and he plays live and he’s like the frontman who sings all these country songs. And Dave, also from the band has a new group that’s the same thing, and I have a metal band on the side that has, like, two female lead singers – more traditional stuff. I don’t think we’re against it.

Allan: Oh.

Dave: It’s interesting about the Godspeed thing. We played a gig in Austria last year with Thee Silver Mount Zion. Maybe there might be some philosophical thing, but musically I don’t think there’s any relation (to No Neck).

Allan: No, no. And what they do now is radically different from Godspeed, because now they are singing and presenting themselves as people.

Dave: That’s what was funny – we played first, and then they played, and we had a friend who was backstage; it was, like, a common backstage area. And he was telling us later that, “Oh yeah, while you guys were playing, all the Silver Mount Zion people were in the back being like, ‘God, this band is such a bunch of bullshit!’ (laughs). ...To get back to the bullshit thing, saying it about us. ‘Cause we had a really whacked-out show that night, dragging instruments across the stage and throwing shit into the audience. Fake blood, and – it was a very theatrical show, and I think those guys were like, “We really can’t relate to what’s going on onstage right now.” And by the same token, when they played, too, we were like, “Well, this is kinda a nice friendly sound, but it’s not really speaking to us.”

Allan: Do you guys have any affinity for Dada, or art movements like that?

Dave: Absolutely, yeah! Now we’re talking – that’s much more of an essential influence, Dada and early Surrealist stuff. Yeah, for sure – that’s the kind of performance and art that I and a lot of the other guys look at and find a common sense of purpose in. There was a great Dada show here at the MOMA here, I don’t know if it travelled... I’m sure you’ve seen a bunch of that stuff.

Allan: Not as much as I should or would like to. But, uh – so – a couple more questions – I want to ask you about John Fahey, and then I want to talk about Krautrock a little bit. How did you get hooked up with Fahey?

Dave: The Fahey thing happened – let’s see, I gotta rewind the tapes a bit. He was around, let’s see – he started doing those shows again, when was that – in the late ‘90s, and he was hooked up with Thurston and O’Rourke and those kind of people, and we were all hanging out with those guys too at that time. Keith and a couple of other guys in the band – Jason – are huge Fahey fans, and Thurston was like, “Yeah, you guys should come – I’m gonna be driving with Fahey to do this show in Philadelphia,” or DC or somewhere, and me and Keith just like drove around with Fahey and Thurston doing stuff. Eventually it came to the point that he needed a place to stay in town, so he stayed at my apartment. I had kind of a big loft at that time, where our rehearsal studio is, so he stayed there. And we had this building in Harlem called the Hinthouse, and I was on the top floor. The place was filled with these amazing, beautiful women all the time, for some reason. We were close to the art community... Fahey fell in love with the place. He fell in love with Michiko, first of all. Then he fell in love with the woman downstairs, this photographer. And then he fell in love with somebody else. And so he was just in hog heaven in this place, and he would hang around while we rehearsed. He just sort of became part of the community. And then from that point, all that stuff, mixed with the common sense of musical purpose – when he was checking out what we were doing and how we were living, and what the whole scene was about, he just said, “This is what I’m into. We’re the same.” It was a great, great meeting. And then from that point, he said, of course, “You guys should do something for Revenant, and we should travel together.” So of course we did all that stuff.

Allan: Was there a conscious attempt with the Revenant recording to make something that had a connection to primitive folk music? With the singing on it, it sounds like more of a roots album – and I think a banjo pops up at one point –

Dave: That’s what’s funny. We said – we made that album with Jerry Yester, who’s a great producer. We went down to Arkansas to record there for three days in his little basement studios. Jerry made these interesting records in the ‘60’s – you might look him up. He played in the Lovin’ Spoonful, he produced Tim Buckley albums, had an album under his own name for the Straight label – Zappa’s label – so he’s an interesting figure. But we really went down there pretty blindly. We sent him some demos of our stuff, and he was kind of like, “I don’t know what the hell you guys are doing” (laughs). And we said, “Look, just trust us, we’ll come down – we don’t know what you’ve got, either, but we’ll see what happens.” And we showed up in his studio, and everything was there – banjos, dulcimers, a piano, a drum kit, which we had never used before in the band. Y’know, stuff like that, and it was like, “Whoa, let’s see what we can do with all this stuff!” It was very much unpremeditated. But it was the first time we’d been in the studio, so we could hear each other for the first time – which was kind of an exciting thing – and then second of all, there’s all these acoustic instruments. It really came about quite spontaneously and unpremeditated.

Allan: Huh.

Dave: But then what came out was this kind of weird, kind of folk, “American Primitive” thing, because we were not virtuosos on those instruments at all. We could only play them in very rudimentary ways.

Allan: It works perfectly for the Revenant record to sound that way.

Dave: I think so, yeah. If we were gonna do one, that’s the one we should do it for. And it’s interesting now, I’m mixing the one we recorded down at the Sun City Girls’ place on all their ethnic instruments, and I was thinking, “Whoa, this is kind of a mix between Sticks and Stones and the Embryonnck record.” It’s kind of got that feel because, again, we’re playing on a lot of acoustic instruments which are unfamiliar to us, so it’s quite primitive. But it’s not related to banjos and dulcimers so much as it is gamelans and other kind of things. So I think it’s going to end up being somewhat related to both of those records, but hopefully the next step beyond, because I think we’ve just gotten better at playing together since then.

Allan: In terms of premeditation, when you guys sit down to play, do you have themes or ideas that you’ve discussed? Just how improvised is what you do?

Dave: It’s all 100% improvised. That’s the main premise or thrust of the group since its inception, is that there will be no discussion. Very, very rarely, we’ve said “Okay, start with two drums.” Maybe once every two years, somebody says something like that. And everybody else looks at that person and says, “Why don’t you go fuck yourself? I’m gonna start however I wanna start!” (laughs). It just doesn’t really work. The personalities in the group don’t allow for someone to tell someone else what to do. You know, every band has a dynamic: there’s someone who writes the songs, and there’s someone else who’s really good at playing a lead solo, but is not the guy who writes the chords. Everybody has a different role, but not everybody can be a Bob Dylan or a big leader-figure, or it’d just be a pile up. No Neck is very close to that, because everyone is our own sort of leader and type of personality. It doesn’t ever go very well, for someone to try to dictate how things should go. So we never have, and that’s how we’ve figured out how to get along, is just show up and play. We don’t know how long we’re going to play for, we don’t know if we’re going to do a second set, we don’t know who’s gonna play what instrument – nothing. We didn’t know Matt’s gonna come out with a mattress on his head. It’s totally 100% improvised. If we had a rule, that’s it.

Allan: So there’s never an attempt to replicate anything?

Dave: No no no no no. Never. That was the one thing, also, in the studio, with Revenant, that was the only time that came up. First off in the studio, Jeff said, “Let me overdub some vocals,” and we were like, “no overdubs” – which we still have never done – and second of all, there’s that little kind of rock tune at the end, the last piece, and we played that just by accident, and I sort of said, “Gosh, if we tried to play that again, we could probably do it a lot better.” And everyone just said, “What the fuck are you talking about? We can’t try to replicate that again!” That was the last time that ever came up.

Allan: And the vocals on that aren’t overdubbed, he did that live?

Dave: He did that live, but – it’s kind of half-ridiculous, in a way! And that was the thing: are we gonna be this kind of band, that’s going to do this sort of stuff? If we are, we definitely know how to play a lot better than this. But it happened spontaneously in the moment that we just started doing that thing. The point of the band at that time was more a documentarian thing: we’ll just document it, and let it be that.

Allan: Okay.

Dave: And then eventually you have Keith and Jason and Dave breaking off to make that band called Suntanama. I don’t know if you know those records on Drag City.

Allan: I don’t know the solo side projects at all.

Dave: They had two records on Drag City that are much more like, rock-folk songs. From the Revenant thing, some people got really interested in doing that, but not to do it in No Neck: to make a different band that would do that.

Allan: What’s your metal band called?

Dave: It’s called Under Satan’s Sun. We’ve only been together for a year, we’re just starting to get out an do gigs. There’s another – Pat and Matt have a black metal band that’s called Malkuth, and they have a record that’s about to come out on Hospital. And then Dave’s band is called D. Charles Speer. So we all have these solo things going on the side...

Allan: Metal, huh?

Dave: I really love metal, Pat really loves metal, but it’s not really appropriate to start bringing out the bar chords in No Neck – it just doesn’t sound that good. Although hearing the Vancouver thing, it’s funny to hear back, because there’s a certain part where... Pat’s a singer in a black metal band, and you know what that singing is like, and there’s a part in that Vancouver set where he starts singing like that, but it’s not over a heavy metal guitar chord, it’s over a thumb piano and a cello. So it’s really weird, you know? So people bring that stuff into the band, but it stays non-idiomatic, because there’s not a backing band that’s in the same style. Jason is playing his folk stuff, and someone else is doing something else, so it gets to be a weird conglomeration. And I think that makes it something really entirely new, which is exciting for us.

Allan: So, Embroynnck (I pronounce it “EmbryoNeck.”) Or (I remember his pronunciation, and correct myself: “Embryonic.”). Sorry. How did that come about?

Dave: Yeah, it’s okay, it’s not really clear how to say it. It’s kind of like a play on “Embryonic,” the word, just spelled a little differently. Embryo has always been one of my favourite bands, personally, and a couple of the other guys in the group really liked them too. Some of us liked them for their music, some of us for the legacy of just who that band is, and what they represent over their 35-year plus history. Early in the 1990’s, when No Neck started doing vinyl, I started sending records to Christian Burchard, the main guy, and just kind of saying, “What’s going on? Here’s our calling card – what have you got?” Not expecting anything; they’re this totally untouchable thing. Amazingly, he wrote and started sending records back, just as if you would send a record to the Double Leopards or something. And that’s part of their thing, although they’re quite well-established, in some ways – historically, at least – there’s no kind of pretension; there’s always a will and an interest and a connection in what’s going on in the underground. And our early records are pretty fucking weird. They’re a lot of long-tone, like, drone shit and scuttling percussion – pretty esoteric stuff, and he was definitely writing back, being like, “this shit is great, what are you guys up to?” And so we just kept a communication over the years, and we talked sometimes about trying to get together, going to Europe... but this was before email or any of that kind of stuff. Everything just seemed such an impossible dream, you know? You remember the days before the internet?

Allan: (chuckles). Not well, to be honest with you. It changed things quite a bit. What time period are we talking about?

Dave: This is like, ’93, ’94, ’95. I think I’d just gotten an email account, and maybe he did too, so maybe we did that, but mostly we were writing letters and trading records and all that. But the idea of booking a tour in Europe was just, like, inconceivable. And they had also never been to America before, so it just seemed like our relationship was going to be by mail only. And then as time went on, we did a few tours, we got used to that – then we started talking about Europe as a possibility. We said to him, “Hey, can we do some stuff with you?” The first year we went to Europe, we couldn’t put it together, but the second year, we did, and toured together for a week over there, and then he booked a couple of days together in a studio in Nuremburg, and that’s where that album was recorded. Do you know their music?

Allan: To be honest with you, I always though of Embryo as one of the more obscure Krautrock bands. Like, they’re one of the ones a lot of people don’t seem to know.

Dave: Yeah, what I like about them is that they made some quote-unquote “mistakes.” They made kind of one interesting definitive record, in ’68 (Opal), that, you know, you could be, like, “Oh yeah, that’s as good as Ash Ra Tempel, that holds up against all the other ones.” But then they made all these really completely ridiculous albums where they’re writing strange pop songs. It sounds a little bit like Steely Dan or something... And then they did all these weird records where they travelled to Afghanistan, and India, and recorded with Indian drummers and Moroccan whoever, and they made this whole smattering of stuff like that, then they came back and made some jazz records. They’re all over the fuckin’ place! And again, I like that. I think that’s why they’re not referenced as much, because they’re just so hard to pin down. They’re so constantly creative, and so constantly seeking out new things – it’s about the lifestyle, for them, and the product is sort of an afterthought. It’s like something that kind of gets spit out of the machine, rather than being a deliberate attempt to portray a particular thing. It’s like, “Oh yeah – record! Here it is.” ...And so now, they tour all the time – they have this ambulance that they drive around in. They never stop, they’re just – from one city to the next, playing in front of three hundred people or playing in front of three people, it doesn’t matter. They’re just out there, and he just records his shows on cassette, puts them into his computer, and makes a CDR; makes a black and white Xerox cover and puts it in there and just sells CDRs out of the back of his van all the time. It’s just funny. It’s like some kind of strange entity, but I have a lot of respect for it, not because everything they’ve ever done is the best shit ever, but because the whole project is just so overwhelmingly ambitious and dedicated to this kind of esoteric and abstract music and exploration. That’s what I like about it. Christian is constantly inspired by stuff that he sees and hears, and constantly wanting to be a part of it, and constantly wanting to make more music and connect with more people. I’m just so inspired by that guy.

Allan: Yeah.

Dave: And so our record with them was just another blip on the radar screen for him. For me it was like, “Whoa, this is the most amazing thing that ever happened to me!”

Allan: It’s an amazing album, and it had an amazing affect on the way I listen to your music, because I didn’t hear a whole lot of Krautrock in it, when I first started listening to your music. But somehow listening to Embryonnck, it’s really upped the amount to which I’m conscious of Krautrock in your music.

Dave: Great.

Allan: It’s an amazing recording.

Dave: Well, what they did for us is, they brought in melody to what we do. The Krautrock stuff is great, because it’s psychedelic and freaked out, but there’s also this incredible sense of melody. That’s always what I feel about Ash Ra Tempel, and Can and everything – you can go back and sing those songs and you can really latch into it. Although they’re not constructed in a typical popsong format. Playing with Embryo really did that. We were there kind of scratching and scraping along and doing stuff that we usually do, and then there was Christian playing the vibraphone. No matter what you do to a vibraphone, it always sounds like a melodic instrument! Or there he was playing the dulcimer, and there’s this other guy playing the oud, and – it just brought in a certain thing. And they had these melodies that they’d rehearsed. They’re 100% improvised, too, but because they play all the time, there are these melodies they latch into, and when they’re in the van, Christian plays for them African music and whatever and says, “Let’s try to do this kind of melody tonight.” So that’s what they brought in, and I just think it makes that record more listenable than the average No Neck record.

Allan: And has it has an effect since, on Qvaris, like?

Dave: . To me it was interesting because we got into 16-channel recording, and so I really like Embryonnck because it had a really clear sound. But other than that, no. I think it was a particular moment in time, for us, that we did that, and Qvaris was more sort of back to our thing. And the Sun City Girls recording, some people will say this is another version of Embryonnck, but it doesn’t have those kind of ethnic melodies in it. Maybe the answer to that is probably no

Allan: Qvaris, what does it mean? Is it just a made up word?

Dave: Yeah, it’s just made-up.

Allan: Okay. How about playing on wharves and in odd public spaces – um, is that like, an apocryphal story, have you done that, do you still do that?

Dave: We have this guy that has a lot of footage, and we made a DVD out of it, because it’s all that – it’s us playing outdoors and all that stuff. He needs to put it out! We love to do that. For whatever reason, we don’t seem like we do it as much anymore. It’s quite a lot of work – New York really changed, let’s start with it that way. New York in the 2000’s is very different from New York in the ’90’s. The ‘90’s is when things kind of started to change... The city really went into a lockdown when Giuliani became the mayor. And it was like, you couldn’t do anything without having a permit or some official statement saying, “You can do what you’re doing.” New York before that was very free – which is why there was more crime, but also you could just take your instruments into the middle of the park and play. Now if you do that, the SWAT team comes out and says like, “What’s going on around here,” and searches your pockets for pot and makes you disperse.

Allan: Ah.

Dave: As I’m saying that, it’s sounding a little bit like an excuse. I mean, I think, also, we found other outlets for our music. The way our band originally was, we tried, in the beginning to play in clubs a couple of times, and literally, the clubs would be like, “You can’t play here anymore,” you know? And so we had to think: where can we play? We want to present our music to people. We did some stuff in little theatre-type spaces, and then we said, lets try taking this out of doors. So between ’94 and 2000, we did these yearly things at this boat basin on the Hudson River, and we did stuff in this park in Chinatown. It became this fascination for us, to do this in public places.

Allan: Were these promoted gigs? 

Dave:  Kind of. Sometimes they weren’t, sometimes they were. We would let our friends know. And then other than that – we didn’t put it the papers, because you never quite knew what was going to happen. We couldn’t really promote that stuff, because it wasn’t quite official. There was one of these years where we did it in this boat basin, and there was a restaurant nearby and someone called the cops, so there were a few interruptions like that. We couldn’t exactly take out an ad in the Village Voice. And also, we didn’t ever charge admission, so there wasn’t a budget.

Allan: What about audience members screaming bullshit?

Dave (laughs): We didn’t have too much of that kind of stuff! It’s funny – in the outdoors, our music kind of drifts away, sometimes – like if you’ve heard some of these recordings, The Birth of Both Worlds, and there’s another one – Parallel Easters – they kind of document some of our outdoor experiences. Our first CD, Letters from the Earth, was recorded on a rooftop, and so was our second CD. The sound doesn’t fuck with you. Even if you hate it, it’s not directly confrontational. Whereas if you go see, like, a noise show now, often noise musicians assault you with a high treble or a low bass. Sometimes our music was like that, occasionally it still is, but when you’re outside, the frequencies don’t operate on the listener in that way. Sometimes people would just walk past and be like, “We don’t really know what that is.”

Allan: (laughs).

Dave: More often than not, we’d have curiosity seekers who would say, this is kind of interesting. I don’t think we got new fans from it or something, but I think people would say, this is interesting, that this is happening in a random public space. And even if someone’s playing a high pitched feedback, that sound is just going up to the clouds. It doesn’t really confront people like that.

Allan: The Taj Mahal Travellers, the Japanese band, were also famous for playing in odd public spaces.

Dave: Yeah, they got around. I saw some film about them recently...

Allan: Any other antecedents? I sometimes think of Don Cherry as a distant affinity, because he was very bohemian and primitivist and getting away from established structures...

Dave: Yeah, when he went to Scandinavia, I love all those records – the Gamelan stuff, and there’s one record called the Organic Music Society, and everyone in the band was like, “Oh my God, that’s the greatest record.” And in fact, it’s interesting, at the Sun City Girls place, they had a piano that Michiko played a lot, and I was saying, “This is a little bit Don Cherryish.” For sure. So more names like, antecedents?

Allan: Yeah!

Dave: Well, we toured with that Swedish Band, Trad Gras Och Stenar - do you know them?

Allan: No.

Dave: They have a site, I think it’s, like, or something like that. They’re an old Swedish band from the late ‘60’s into the ‘70’s that kind of still exist, kind of communal rock-style stuff, really great inspiring music. Fahey of course. In terms of New York, in the early period, we were influenced by some jazz things – Charles Gayle, and William Parker. Although we never got asked to interact with jazz festivals. They kind of ignored us. But we were very inspired by that kind of music. That’s such a staple in New York, the free jazz scene.

Allan: Do any of those guys seek you out or listen to your music?

Dave: Well, there were these two guys early on that we interacted with a lot, Daniel Carter and Sabeer Mateen. Both those guys – like, me and Matt used to live together with Sabeer, and we made some records with him and Daniel early on, free jazz-oriented stuff, when I was playing drums and Matt was playing acoustic bass. Some of the other guys were more into rock stuff, like, a band called Circle X, that was a weird New York rock outfit, kinda damaged rock stuff. And I really like that guy Rudolph Grey, who had this band, the Blue Humans. He was pretty interesting. And of course, the first No Neck concert I went to, when I wasn’t even in the band, they were playing with Borbetomagus.

Allan: Oh cool!

Dave: So those guys were on that scene too.

Allan: Okay. Two final questions: do you guys ever alter your consciousness before playing or when playing?

Dave: We – I think we only attempted to actually take acid and play music once. It was not necessarily successful. We played for hours and hours, but it ended up being kind of just throwing shit all over the place, not really very musical that much. Oh. There was one other time, too. Actually, there’s a 7 inch, that’s inside this one record we did called Ever Borneo, an LP – the green one – there’s one of two different seven inches in each record, and there’s one, I think we used the bandname Montana Morning, but anyway, we were on mushrooms when that was recorded. So not so much. Sometimes people smoke grass before, but we usually agree that even that doesn’t work. We try as much as we can to have a pretty strong awareness of what’s happening. Of course, in the earlier years, we were trying to experiment with that more, because you think, definitely the way to play great music is to get really fucked up and do it. But I think that things just kind of started sounding the same after awhile, and people wanted to be more active and aware. You know, people will have a few drinks or something, before...

Allan: This guy Alex Varty, who didn’t like what you did, who used the term “solipsistic” – “the players wandered in solipsistic circles” –

Dave: I like that, yeah.

Allan: It’s a good turn of phrase. But you guys do really listen to each other, right? Or in a backwards way, is he onto something – do you guys sometimes try not to listen to each other?

Dave: Well, the whole notion of trying doesn’t really come into effect so much. And it’s interesting in hearing that show – I was thinking a lot about that. He liked the part where the drum jam comes together, and often in our music, a repetitive rhythm is the kind of thing where we get united. But that’s also the kind of thing that puts you in chains, as a performer, you know what I mean, because you’re like, “Oh, I guess I gotta play along with that drumbeat now.” So I think it has a certain role, but what happens the rest of the time – when the music is more abstract and free, I think “solipsistic” would be a term that would be wholly inaccurate. We are listening to each other, but we’re creating, quite consciously, a different kind of vocabulary for music to use. So the interaction is not in a familiar way. We’re not playing in the same key, we’re not playing in the same scale, and generally we’re on the same dynamic. It’s more about – I actually don’t know, that’s why I struggle to define it, but it’s definitely not “Oh, I’m just going close my ears to what Matt’s playing.” I mean, it’s impossible to do that, it’s not there. I don’t think any of us exercise any kind of will, when we’re onstage, to do something with or against someone else. We’ve played together for so many years and so much, it’s like a natural way of being right now.

Allan: An organism.

Dave: So when I heard back the Vancouver recording, I was so happy, because we seemed completely linked up, but not because someone was playing something, and everyone else had to play along to it. It was completely linked up in terms of that weird No Neck thing, and I don’t know what it is, and I don’t think anyone will ever really quite describe it. But I think it’s our own particular way that we’ve figured out. That’s why I’m excited that he said “solipsistic,” because if it seems that way, I feel – oh good! He doesn’t understand it, I don’t understand it, it’s not the right term: but it’s moving in the direction that I like! It’s implying that we each get to maintain our own individuality as performers, as musicians, but at the same time, we’re together as a collective. It’s walking that tension, you know?

Allan: The Nihilist Spasm Band, of course – they can’t play anything, conventionally.

Dave (laughing): Yeah, we played with them once. I noticed that. I liked it, but yeah...

Allan: They made a statement that when you get rid of sort of notes or chords or keys, when you get rid of all that stuff, the only thing you’re left with is each other.

Dave: Ohh! Uh-huh. Interesting! Nicely said, yeah, nicely said.

Allan: Okay, well – last question. Why do you think some people do say, “Bullshit?” Where does that come from?

Dave: Well, I wish the guy would have said. That’s why I’m happy to hear what your writer said, because I’m as curious as anybody else. Sometimes I can understand saying “bullshit” if something is deliberately confrontational. I don’t often think that our music is confrontational. So they’re making a clear thing, saying, the art that you’re making is shit.

Allan: The emperor is naked.

Dave: One of the obvious things is that it’s not hanging together in a familiar way, so they might be just like, “Well, it’s unfamiliar, and I don’t get it, so therefore it’s not good.” Which is a valid reaction. It’s all I can really think of. It sounds like your guy said, “What they’re doing didn’t fit into the definition of a band,” ‘cause we’re on our own trip. Something else I’ve heard, reading our reviews, is that “These guys should edit themselves a bit more, it goes on too long, it’s a bit noodly,” or something. And I think sometimes that’s a fair critique. Because we play together, and it’s all improvised, not every moment is the magical moment it all hangs upon, and the earlier years, we were always putting out double CDs and double albums because we just loved it all. Looking back, maybe I would have edited some of that stuff a bit more. But it serves a certain function.

Allan: And noodly parts are unavoidable.

Dave: What’s interesting about that Vancouver set is that I didn’t hear any noodly parts. It was right on, the whole time. I’m going to listen to it again today – maybe I was crazy.

Poison Ivy: a remarkable, underappreciated (lesbian/ feminist?) thriller

I have owned the DVD of Poison Ivy for maybe ten years, with the intention of someday seeing it again. I bought it in Maple Ridge at a thrift store, I think, maybe because I was spending a lot of time with my mother, sharing a lot of genre films with her. She favoured classics and/or revenge thrillers with clear-cut good guys and bad guys - she would, sweet little aphasic lady that she was, sometimes holler "kill him" as the former faced down the later - and tended to hate moral ambiguity. We never got around to Poison Ivy, though. That may be for the best, because this film is far more complex than what she'd usually go for.. In any event, since picking it up, I have kept it through dozens of purges and mass trade-ins of physical media - including a video garage sale and many, many trips to Videomatica - solely because Erika and I both like Drew Barrymore. In fact, I had low expectations. But Corolianus, our other discussed film for the night, was seeming a bit too daunting, so I went to the pile of films I keep that I plan to watch with Erika once and then get rid of - the "I don't know why I have this really but we should watch it before I give it away" pile, all films that have accumulated and remained unwatched to now because I really, really don't expect to care much. There it was: Poison Ivy. Well, let's clear it, I thought, scratching my ass and poking through the shelves, remote control in hand. It could be fun. And like I say, Erika likes Drew Barrymore.

I think I might just have seen a great, much neglected film, one worthy of serious reappraisal. I don't remember anyone praising it much back in the day, where it no doubt was regarded as a lesser sexploitation film - the kind about sexually predacious or otherwise dangerous women putting family units in jeopardy, the 90's film equivalent of a Femme Fatale movie, but with more sex. Roger Ebert's dismissal at the time was pretty thorough: 

There is scarcely a moment in the movie when the story works as fiction; I was always aware of the casting, of the mood-setting devices, of the stylistic borrowings from Hitchcock... [it's] a movie that never really convinces us it's anything but a lurid wind-up machine with lots of rainy nights and lightning flashes, split-second double-crosses and hysterical upheavals.

By contrast, I remember a certain amount of critical respect - likely even by Ebert - being accorded films like Fatal Attraction, The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, Basic Instinct, and even the very interesting Single White Female (more of a good sister/ bad sister film than a femme fatale film, but more relevant and valuable than any of the others on that list). That last - a Barbet Schroeder film, from his Hollywood period, is actually pretty interesting, as commercial fare goes, and is almost as psychologically rich as Poison Ivy, but not quite. And you expect complexity from a European arthouse filmmaker from Iran, slumming it; you don't expect it from a former Roger Corman filmmaker whose first film was called Stripped to Kill. I mean, this looks like something Robin Bougie might gush about. Wonder if he's seen it?

As you might expect of a film made by someone who made the above, Poison Ivy, at the time, was sort of regarded by critics as inferior to any of those aforementioned thrillers. Even today, it holds a mere 34% on Rotten Tomatoes, which is pretty sad, compared with Fatal Attraction (76%) The Hand that Rocks the Cradle (63%), Basic Instinct (a mere 54%, but still) and Single White Female (53). What film Poison Ivy really needs to be compared with is probably Heavenly Creatures (made two years later, R/T score of 92%), but I think it may be an even better (or at least more interesting) film than that one, in that it is far less overt about what it is doing. Peter Jackson declares high intention from the gitgo, but Poison Ivy could be mistaken for a failed attempt to make a trashy exploitation film (which I think is the standard Mr. Ebert has judged it against).

Holy shit, Poison Ivy: I never knew ye. (I do actually think I saw the film when it first came out in the days of VHS, but I didn't make much of it at the time and had very little memory of it. I certainly don't remember the feeling of having my jaw hit the floor, which it did last night; this is not a failed genre film, it's a very adult thought-piece disguised as a genre film, with a lot more going for it than any of the above movies). 

Here's why the film is so remarkable, best as I can muster:

Let's start with the Bechdel Test - a feminist ranking system for film, which finds its origins in a lesbian comic strip (I never knew that part!). From the Wikipedia page linked above:

The rules now known as the Bechdel test first appeared in 1985 in Alison Bechdel's comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. In a strip titled "The Rule", two women, who resemble the future characters Mo and Ginger, discuss seeing a film and one woman explains that she only goes to a movie if it satisfies the following requirements:

The movie has to have at least two women in it,
who talk to each other,
about something other than a man.

The other woman acknowledges that the idea is pretty strict, but good. Not finding any films that meet their requirements, they go home together. The context of the strip referred to alienation of queer women in film and entertainment, where the only possible way for a queer woman to imagine any of the characters in any film may also be queer was if they satisfied the requirements of the test.
Later on, said page explains, the significance of the test widens, and we get refinements that have nothing to do with the queerness of the original context: "According to Neda Ulaby, the test resonates because 'it articulates something often missing in popular culture: not the number of women we see on screen, but the depth of their stories, and the range of their concerns.'" 

Well, not only do women talk to women in Poison Ivy - about their backgrounds, their lives, their dreams, their fears, their unexpressed emotions, their occasional self-destructive thoughts - and many other things besides men, but in fact, they almost never talk about men in the film. Not at all. In fact, men don't talk about men very much in this movie, and they barely ever talk to each other. Other than Tom Skerritt's cold-fish horny dad character, who is necessary to the narrative and not entirely unsympathetic, but also not very interesting, there are, really, no significant men in the narrative at all. 

Grasp that: compared to all those aforementioned thrillers, many of which revolve around their male characters, fall very low on the Bechdel scale, and often are rooted in fear of the female, even when women are very much present in the narrative - Poison Ivy has one guy in it, who barely says anything. The actor playing him, Skerritt, gets top credit, somehow (and even Sara Gilbert gets credit over Drew Barrymore, for reasons I cannot grasp), but the narrative is entirely driven by three women, their desires, feelings, fears and ambitions. The film is about a nerdy girl, the "bad girl" she looks up to and maybe loves, and her embittered dying older mother (an almost archetypal range of feminine stereotypes, maybe - a virgin, a slut and a mother who doubles perhaps as a crone - but all well and believably played). Everything important that happens in the film stems from their interactions, and from the Gilbert character's growth into womanhood. Tom Skerritt - maybe at his career best, actually, and I'm not taking the piss - exists only to get a hard-on that he fails to control well. He is a plot point, not a hero. The narrative in particular is commanded by Roseanne's Sara Gilbert. She would have been about seventeen at the time of the film's release. She wears glasses, is homely, and announces in the beginning narrative that she might be a lesbian (and is definitely a feminist).

When, in the cinema of the 1990's, does a geeky, maybe queer teenage female feminist command a narrative? Ghost World wasn't til 2001, and again, is not presented as a straight-up sexploitation thriller, but a quirky indy movie, is vastly more overt about what it is. How many mainstream movies made in 1992 had teenage girls who might be lesbians as their main characters?  

Who really needs to see this film? LGBTQ+ movie lovers. Fans of New Queer Cinema. People who loved Carol. Has anyone claimed this film for the LGBTQ film community? Katt Shea, the director, is not mentioned (by Wikipedia, anyhow) as being queer; in fact, she was married for 13 years to a man (Andy Ruben, who co-wrote this film). Yet the film has a fond and accepting eye on Gilbert's girl crush, and has frequent moments of sexual tension between its two main female characters. There does seem to be a possibly trite "theory" of lesbianism at work - that it has something to do with Gilbert's character's unresolved feelings toward her remote and unhappy - indeed dying - mother, but neverminding that bit of pop psychology - which does pay off in one pretty startling kiss - it doesn't judge Gilbert's possible queerness. It is a remarkable thing to understate: it suggests it's entirely normal. 

That's why the film needs a new appraisable by queer cinephiles, I suspect, but only one element in why it is so interesting and unique. The really odd thing about the film, for me, is how sympathetic it allows all its main characters to be. An almost universal convention in thrillers is to have clear cut good guys and bad guys. While the things Ivy - Barrymore - does are often immoral and motivated by unstated self-interest -- while the film could have gone a far more typical route and made a monster of Ivy -- she remains sympathetic throughout, even after (spoilers!) she's killed Gilbert's mom, fucked her father, and  almost killed Gilbert in a car accident. Not even the best film noirs suspend judgment that long: we almost always know the femme fatale is a monster whose seduction of the protagonist will lead to his downfall. You can see them coming, even if the protagonist can't. But by extreme contrast, we can sympathize with Ivy, understand her reasoning, even celebrate it through much of the film, and (just like the main character) never come to hate her, though what she does sure does seem, uh, blameworthy.

Why don't we blame her? Ebert, in his review, sees this as a weakness - that Drew Barrymore is just not able enough to come off as a villain - but like I say, he's clearly judging this film against the standard of conventional thrillers of the day, which it isn't. He's right there with my Mom, wanting to shout, "Kill her!" at the screen, and being non-plussed that the film, unlike the vastly more typical mainstream misogyny of movies like Fatal Attraction, does not allow that. It's actually vastly more thought-provoking to have a thriller that DOESN'T fully let you see the "bad" character as truly bad: it gets you asking questions that more conventional thrillers don't, like, why are we watching her do these bad things, and yet somehow sort of accepting her rationalizations and feeling a bit bad for her, even? 

The film is smart enough that it gives as a possible answer to that question. Ivy's machinations are explained in part via mechanisms of class, which the film seems very aware of. We are told again and again of her childhood and we fully understand how she could come to be the way she is. Why wouldn't she use what she has, after what she's been through? 

There are more reasons to like the film, including very effective cinematography from Phedon Papamichael, who does some beautiful stuff with Ivy on a rope swing at the start of the film, being scrutinized and described all the while by Gilbert's narrator (yes, the narrating voice of the film is female, too). 

It also represents a very early credit for Leonardo DiCaprio, but unless he's in a scene other than this one, it becomes puzzling why he appears in the credits at all, since he's basically an extra. (Erika and I couldn't be bothered to go through the whole film again and try to spot other scenes with him; we certainly didn't notice him the first time through or realize he was in it, til the credits rolled. In fact, we're not even sure which kid he is in that scene. Why is he even mentioned in the credits? It's weird). 

I wonder what other films I've been neglecting in my I'll-get-around-to-it-someday stack? Poison Ivy is vastly better than I expected it to be. Lest you think I am a voice crying in the wilderness or that the intensity of my scrutiny is due to my having smoked something before the film - I did, and so what? - Peter Travers also writes well and interestingly about it, too, in Rolling Stone, touching on some of the same observations and a couple I didn't make it to. See here for more on that, but trust me: this film deserves to be re-evaluated in exactly this way. It's one of those films after which you go to the shelf, take down your copy of Robin Wood's Hollywood From Vietnam to Reagan... and Beyond and flip to the index to see if he mentions it. 

(He doesn't). 

Oh, and it also works as a thriller, too, and Drew Barrymore is amazingly sexy. I've never been remotely jealous of Tom Skerritt before. So there's that. 

Y'all should see this movie, really. The next question for me is, should I see Stripped to Kill?