Subtle: Unlikely Rock Shock

By: Dennis Cook

Oakland’s Subtle is sonic and ontological filo dough, crisp and tender layers filled with a cacophony of voices – present and historical – and a quicksilver musical paste. Primal as a rock ‘n’ log cave jam and so forward arching that their music at times seems vaguely speculative, Subtle contains multitudes. Birthed from the off-the-beaten path experimental and hip-hop communities that thrive in the Bay Area, Subtle is a club banger with a PhD, Noam Chomsky shaking his pasty ass to a D.C. go-go throwdown, pulses rising in time to the polemics. Such are their depths that there’s virtually no end to the interconnections and, well, subtle sympathetic vibrations in every aspect of their work. More bluntly, as Prince (an obvious Subtle ancestor) once put it, “Got a big ol’ muffin / Got a lotta butter to go.”

“Our plan the whole time was to have the music this band makes model this central fictional character’s lifestyle where he’s forced to make pop songs for these horrible, vain, empty gods that are omniscient and all-powerful. He has to come with the straight dope AND guard everything. Everything has to feel dumbed down but be twice as loaded,” says lyricist-vocalist-general mensch Adam “Doseone” Drucker. “That’s why everything is direct quotes from the book [an elaborate, exhaustive book/almanac akin to an epic poem spliced with a demented genius’ journals underpins Subtle’s trio of full-length albums], rhyming abstractions of actual truths. What I love is how it’s almost impossible to untangle yourself from the snarl of shit being thrown out there.”

The Subtle 6 – Drucker, Jeffrey “Jel” Logan (sampling, drum machine), Jordan Dalrymple (drums, guitar, synths, vocals), Dax Pierson (vocals, keys, harmonica), Marty Dowers (woodwinds, synths) and Alexander Kort (electric cello) – produce a truly unique set of sounds that resonates on cerebral and emotional levels, a tuning fork for the soul and mind. Dauntingly adventurous but rarely elusive, they are intense, modern and ruthlessly smart but there’s always bone and blood to their creations, an intrinsic humanity that’s humanizing. Their grappling with the modern condition lends fresh moves and muscle to our own struggles, and if they can make you dance on the road to Armageddon then all the better.

Doseone from
“We’re doing this shit with $37 and some house paint and making it pop,” chuckles Drucker before Dalrymple adds, “Adam and I have discussed how our dream band – though not really musically – is Steely Dan, where you infiltrate the pop world with these things you’re not supposed to say in a pop song – cryptic, poetic comments on society that you’re tapping your foot to and then suddenly stop as you realize what’s being said. Steely Dan had their horribly cheesy moments musically but as far as concept, melody and production values, we’re all big fans.”

Subtle’s third long player, ExitingARM (arriving May 20 on Lex Records) is their attempt to “pop it the fuck up,” as they imagine what a band would do if they really sold out. It’s a pathway one can never envision them taking but the allure of fame and the many comforts that come with it is a nifty daydream/nightmare trigger, especially for an outsider ensemble that’s been humping it since 2001, facing “VH1: Behind The Music type shit,” as Drucker puts it, including the theft of most of their gear and raw recordings in 2005 and a devastating tour van accident that left Dax Pierson mostly paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

“When we came off this TV On The Radio tour we did we laid the groundwork for these new recordings by focusing on the drums. Everyone was playing percussion and Jeff was sampling people to make skeletal rhythms. From that we formed loops and interesting parts and found key little basslines that kicked us off,” says Dalrymple. “We were trying to get this really distilled, opaque, concentrated, melodic, pop, rhythm-based sound that would encapsulate these songs in a pop art kind of way. What Warhol did with visual art, we wanted to do to music. We took lyrical chunks of previous records, sort of cannibalizing everything, to make these songs out of different concepts that have floated through this band.”

The result is the first Subtle album you can crank in your ride, the additional bounce to the ounce and pared down structures making more digestible morsels than in the past, but still asking prickly questions like “Would you skin your skull to draw its strength?” There’s a whiff of Autechre, Can, Tricky, Serge Gainsbourg, Babatunde Olatunji, Squarepusher, Bjork, Freestyle Fellowship, Miles Davis and considerably more but without feeling overly eclectic. They are such focused, talented players that each whirr and bang seems carefully chosen, perhaps even vehemently argued over behind closed doors. There are happy accidents but no mistakes in Subtle.

“Adam and I produce most of the music, and I tend to want things to be a bit more glossy and he tends to bring things down a little more so it’s dirty or broken. Adam can see the overall concept, how the lyric will fit and the overall mood. I bring in melody and sonic texture but he sees it as a whole. This band takes a lot of compromise but ultimately it all goes into the soup,” says Dalrymple.

That they’re able to translate these hyper-kinetic, jam originated constructions into the live setting is surprising enough but Subtle is an indestructibly satisfying concert act that mixes theatrics, tough musicianship, Will Rogers style storytelling and chrome plated spirituality. Dressed entirely in white, fully aware of the varying interpretations of the color in different cultures – death, purity, etc. – they have the air of monks or missionaries (sans any monotheistic implications). Each man finds his own place in the all-white theme, from the Buddhist simplicity of Kort to the hobo Fred Astaire flair of Drucker and Dalrymple to Jel’s gateman in Dickie’s Heaven choices. Even in unity there is personality and preference, a character that infuses their music, which is delivered with utmost passion and care live, learned backwards from the finished recordings and then transmuted into something that can be shared in real time.

Continue reading for more on Subtle…

Adam and I have discussed how our dream band – though not really musically – is Steely Dan, where you infiltrate the pop world with these things you’re not supposed to say in a pop song – cryptic, poetic comments on society that you’re tapping your foot to and then suddenly stop as you realize what’s being said.

Jordan Dalrymple

Underneath the phenomenal musicianship and stratospheric intellect, Subtle retains an aggressive, “fuck you” DIY punk core that surfaces in their explosive energy and “what the hell was that” wildness. Try, as many critics have, to wedge them into little boxes, Subtle remains slippery escape artists with a gold key under their tongues and a bottle of KY tucked in their sleeves.

“We’ll always fight being made into a soundbite. It just doesn’t work for us. We get called schoolyard names because they can’t figure out our art and put it into their small man binary,” says Drucker. “They don’t do that with say Jamie Lidell or Bright Eyes, which is interesting. What I liken it to is nerd-on-nerd crime [laughs]. There’s precedent for what we do. Dax recently gave me a bunch of old band Kraftwerk, when they were Kraftwerk and Neu! together. That band is fucking Subtle! They were about to do music that the times surrounding them weren’t really prepared to deal with so they broke into two separate bands. But now, here we come approaching music very similarly – maybe a little different fashion and improv and sound sculpting – but we don’t have to shut it down. We can just explore and shape it.”

In this polyglot age of globalized everything, Subtle makes perfect sense, if you just step back from the incessant need to categorize things. As African high life bleeds into Brazilian batucada and Staten Island Wu, music’s DNA is shifting, rapidly, but people that worry more about iTunes classifications and sales blurbs than the music seem to have seized the candy store nonetheless.

“This whole record [ExitingARM] conceptually is about this. The boogieman is coming for these motherfuckers. Everyone has let choice fall from the center of the choosing mechanism and apathy has taken full stride. I notice with my kid sister, who’s 13, the shows she enjoys the most, daydreams about being in, aren’t Transformers or My Little Pony but reality TV shows with people pretending to be honest. Her imagination and downtime and twiddling her fingers, staring at the sky time is filled with fake reality. I think it will have some kind of very curious effect on the modern imagination,” comments Drucker, a master of understatement at times. “We have the same thing with music. I bet somewhere in L.A., right now, there’s people discussing how a band looks on an iPod first and then working backwards to the actual music. It’s gonna make a thimble where there once was a big, full vase of stuff inside of music.”

ExitingARM is a ballsy title given the aftermath of their tour accident where Pierson has only limited use of his hands. But, like Wallace Stevens’ “palm at the end of the mind,” this album finds him still firmly grasping things creatively in Subtle. Outside of an inability to tour, Pierson has used their golden key to slip loose of normal expectations.

“In a very short amount of time using Abelton Live, pedals he’s modified and other tools, he’s put in the same work, the same contribution he would have before the accident but in a totally new way. He still comes up with basslines but in this new world he’s created. With these new restrictions he’s more focused in melody and sound choice than ever,” says Dalrymple, pointing out a perverse silver lining of an indescribable turn of events. “He’s the heart of the band. We all listen to the music we’re making through the filter of his ears, his tastes. That’s been the stylistic edge to Subtle the whole time, and even more so after the accident. I always ask myself, ‘What would Dax do?’ with each musical decision.”

Dax Pierson
“Now [Subtle’s music] is getting to the point where you could show it to a friend [laughs]. It can work in a car now; it has a new set of legs. Still, I think we put in a lot of complexity that doesn’t always organize itself around its exhibition in the world just yet. Today’s attention spans don’t always serve us well. We’re built for fans and that kind of loving relationship,” says Drucker. “We don’t have slogans where our substance is. Each album is a full-proof effort. When you come back to this music later hopefully it’s only interesting. The method and the whimsy are supposed to be magical. This is not a fantastical world, mysticism is missing and unreality is coming for everyone quicker and quicker. This is one of the battles inside [ExitingARM]. People lack a center, and it is all about meaning. Everything else is a dilution and a bodily flow-through, weather related thought; nothing about the meaning of life, only it’s temperature and loose coordinates. Art should bring you closer to that center.”

“The human mind is the bastion of our evolution. And we’re sitting here naming everything, which is just fucking ridiculous! Eventually the universe starts to enjoy that it’s being named. In fact, it never realized what it was about before. Man brings meaning to the universe because it’s looking for its own meaning,” continues Drucker. “It doesn’t all have to be ‘lifestyle’ choices. I believe there can be a music that affects real life choices, music that fills you with mantra, music that recharges you and is both escape and stone tool. For escape, you should be able to bump it, show it to friends, etc. For stone tool, it’s someone listening to our stuff and then writing a poem or reflecting on themselves or making some kind of art of their own.”

Subtle began a nationwide tour this week. Peep their tour dates here. And you can check out the unfolding world of Dax Pierson on his blog, Breakneck Speed.


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