Friday, 14 February 2014

Live review: 2 nights in the company of Marijuana Deathsquads and Poliça

Night 1 - 11th February - Our Black Heart, Camden

Walking into the Black Heart you can see that it's aptly named - it's one of the darkest pubs I've ever been in. But if you squint through the gloom you find a great selection of 'proper' beers, as well as what certainly smells like good food from the kitchen, which is currently run by Smoke'n'Roll. Perfect then for a few drinks before you head upstairs to the venue, which I think holds around 150 punters.

If you've not heard of Marijuana Deathsquads before, they've variously been described as a 'noise collective' and 'Poliça's older, uglier brother'. Both groups are put together and overseen by Ryan Olson (who also formed GAYNGS and various other acts in Minneapolis), with shared members on record and live, so it's no surprise to see a tweet early in the evening to see a tweet from Poliça to say that they are heading to Camden to join in with MDS. Both acts also have (at least) 2 drummers live, and as we walk in we notice that there are actually 3 drum kits set up on the Black Heart's stage. In fact they take up the entirety of the stage, meaning that the remainder of the MDS kit is set up in front of the stage and, in effect, in the audience.

What's better than 2 drummers? 3 drummers of course - the MDS stage set up
The allotted time arrives and 6 members of MDS appear - the three drummers (Ben Ivanescu, Drew Christopher and someone I haven't yet identified), head man Ryan Olson, Mark McGee and 'vocalist' Isaac Gale. After a couple of track they're joined Chris Bierden, and then later Channy Leaneagh emerges, a slight figure dressed in a hoody who seems as completely into the music as the rest of the band. When they're not joining in Channy and Chris stand next to us (which is nice).

After a while I notice that although Olson is constantly talking into his mic, his vocals aren't coming through the speakers. It becomes clear that he's talking to, and instructing, the drummers, all of whom wear headphones as they drum along to the electronic sounds. His role is almost that of a conductor - encouraging the others, telling them when to start and stop etc. I don't know how they concentrate with the constant dialogue, but while he's even laughing and joking with them at some points the drumming is a powerhouse of awesomeness throughout the show.

(l-r) Mark, woman in audience, Ryan, back of Isaac's head, unnamed drummer
During a few conversations these past few days we've been trying to work out exactly what genre you'd fit MDS into if you had to pigeonhole them.'Drums and shouting' was suggested by Tuesday night's companion, but that doesn't do their sound justice. There are layers upon layers of drums, music and vocals, producing a proverbial wall of sound that completely absorbs and envelops you. And an (unwanted) scientific experiment on Tuesday has confirmed that 3 drummers in unison can produce enough rhythm to vibrate an almost full pint glass completely off the shelf you've carefully put it on, splashing its contents (Neanderthal ale since you asked) down the back of your legs.

Having had the chance for a quick chat with Isaac and Ben after the gig it's apparent that as well as being an awesome band they're thoroughly nice blokes as well. I bid them goodnight and head home, the sounds of 'Ewok Sadness' and 'Wave' still reverberating through my brain. I wouldn't be surprised if in years to come this show is like the Sex Pistols at the Free Trade Hall - hundreds of people will claim to have been there.

Channy and yours truly after the show, 11/2/14
Night 2 - 12th February - The Troxy, Limehouse

It's blowing up a storm as we walk down the Commercial Road to art deco venue The Troxy, an ex-cinema then bingo hall which has been well restored with a great sound system, and which is metaphorically a million miles away from the Black Heart. I'd seen other acts here before (Jarvis Cocker, The Flaming Lips, Nick Cave, New Order) but had never been right down the front on the barrier, something that I was able to achieve for this show. Only 2 drummers for MDS this time, but the sound was great through the bigger system, and with smoke and lights they looked to be a band easily capable of filling a bigger stage (I reckoned the Troxy stage to be the size of the entire venue from the the previous night).

A pretty good visual representation of the MDS sound (l-r) Isaac, Mark, Ryan & Ben onstage at The Troxy 12/2/14
Channy still joined them for a couple of tracks at the end, and while it might not have been as intense and full-on as the previous show it still seemed to convert a fair few people standing near me. I snatched 90 second of 'Ewok Sadness' before my phone ran out of memory which you can see below.

On to headliners Poliça, who to me are a much more appealing prospect live than they are on record. Their first album in particular never really achieved what it could have (to my ears), although good progress has been made with the second. Live though, the presentation of the songs with 2 drummers, a bass guitarist and Channy on vocals gives them a new dimension. I think she's a captivating and powerful frontwoman with a real style and voice of her own, and it's pretty mesmerising to watch her.

Channy Leaneagh, Polica at The Troxy, London 12/2/14
Over the course of 90 minutes they played nearly all of the songs from the 2 records, as well as a cover version. Ryan Olson joined them to twiddle knobs a couple of times, and I spotted Isaac Gale taking photos and filming from both sides of the stage - one of his other jobs is as a video director for the likes of Bon Iver and Dark Dark Dark.

Accidentally arty photo of Channy and Ryan
Overall I've had 2 great nights out, and I get the impression they all did too. There's a sense of camaraderie between them, they're like an extended family or a gang (or maybe a Gayng?). I hope MDS come back to London soon, and in the meantime if they pass anywhere near your door make sure you go and see them.

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