Max Crumbs @ SYN Approved – 17/05/2012
Over the course of two nights, I witnessed two extremes on the spectrum of live musical performance. First came the five-piece British rock band who packed out the Palace Theatre. Then it was the bedroom DJ project from a local grindcore drummer. When presented with such a stark contrast, you learn a lot about the importance of stagecraft.
On Wednesday night, it was the Kaiser Chiefs. Ricky Wilson is every bit the rock star, clutching himself as he’s overwhelmed by the awesome power of his own voice. He plays to the crowd, speaking effusively to everyone in the audience, hyping them up for each song. He gets into the crowd and walks among his people, sharing his body with them. He leaps up onto the balustrade next to the bar. Hundreds of iPhones come up from the crowd like banners of allegiance. In Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, fictional rock star Jeff Bebe describes his role on stage saying, “You know what I do? I connect. I get people off. I look for the guy who isn’t getting off, and I make him get off.” Ricky Wilson was connecting. Everybody was getting off.
On Thursday night, it was Max Crumbs, the latest invention of Max Kohane, who perhaps you know as the drummer for grindcore band Agents of Abhorrence. Crumbs’ narcoleptic glitch-pop might make for an entrancing listen within the confines of one’s headphones but watching it live it was like watching someone check their email. Having listened to the record quite a bit I kept searching for tweaks and flourishes that might distinguish the songs from the record which might make the trip out of the house worthwhile but as far as I could tell, Crumbs was playing the songs faithful to the way they were recorded. The scene vaguely evoked the DJ-era worship of the 80s and 90s in which the DJ was a hero, everyone looking to him or her for what came next, and it was the DJ who had to delight and surprise them. In this case it was almost similar, most of the room was rapt towards the guy on the decks, except whatever came next was totally predictable. For songs like “Choked on Yoga Mat” with its pulsating bass, this wasn’t so unfortunate, but for the glitchier, more mellow majority of Crumbs’ tracks, it felt interminable.
The proliferation of bedroom electronica has been a source of great hope and optimism for me. There’s a shade of the punk ethos in how accessible it is to express yourself musically now, as long as you can get your hands on a pirated copy of Ableton and a MIDI keyboard, and now you don’t even need to rope some friends into making a band! Except because live performance is still such an integral part of being a musician, a lot of these folks are getting out into bars and bandrooms to play their songs, taking it for granted that this is what they’re supposed to do without giving any consideration to the fact that it’s fucking boring to watch someone click-clack on the decks when they’re playing music that’s meant to be heard in private and, in person, does nothing to justify otherwise.
Before you get up in arms over how Max Crumbs triggering loops and samples on an MPC is no different than a guitarist playing a particular chord arrangement, let me stop you and really get to the heart of why live performances of this kind of music are currently in an abysmal state. At the Kaiser Chiefs show they played “The Angry Mob”, and it’s true that Ricky Wilson followed “We are the angry mob!” with “We read the papers every day!” just like he does on record. The drums went boof-tsch boof-tsch and the guitars went na-na-na-na-na-NA-NA-NA-NA-na-na-na-na like they do on record too. Except vocals, drums, guitars – they all sound different live than they do on record. Arrangements need to be changed to accompany the loss of certain studio tricks. Then there’s the crowd, a thousand people shouting and chanting, feeding off the band as much as the band feeds off them. The whole vibe is symbiotic and communal and rejuvenating and unlike any other experience in the world, except maybe rioting. Think about how a great album makes you feel listening to it at home and then magnify that by a thousand. That is a great live show. Even if the Chiefs had played Yours Truly, Angry Mob front to back at the Palace Theatre, a live album of that concert would be just as valuable as the studio record itself. They’re entirely different creatures.
On the other hand, a live recording of a Max Crumbs gig would sound exactly like the studio album. Nobody sings because there’s nothing to sing to. The few who insist on dancing do so in such a morose fashion that it’s almost depressing to watch and vicariously embarrassing to boot, as Crumbs, via the music’s erratic virtue, drops and changes beats, putting people in mid-sway in the awkward position of either continuing their rhythm or trying to keep up with his. The folks I spoke to who were into it told me that they were absorbed by the music, and who am I to decry that as disingenuous, but at the very least it’s an isolating experience. Nobody is sharing the experience with each other, they’re all trapped inside their bubbles, individually participating but oblivious to the experience of the folks standing next to them. None of this disqualifies Max Crumbs as a musician worth listening to but with nothing to watch, nothing to sing and nothing to dance to, one wonders if there’s any kind of point in showing up to see it in person.
by Jake Cleland
(Read our review of Max Crumbs’ debut LP Maidenhair here.)