Saturday, July 13, 2024

New York Noise Band on Debut LP ‘Hex Dealer,’ Live Shows

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icture yourself walking
up to a nondescript brick building in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, on an 80-degree spring night, and through a grimy gray metal door off a narrow hallway. It’s dark inside the room, with candles laid out along the base of the bare white walls and about 75 people sitting quietly on pillows on the floor. Unidentifiable gaming footage loops on a large flatscreen TV while weird sounds rumble loudly through the echoey space. On one wall, a projector is shining the phrase “IT’S THE MAGIC.”

Bret Kaser — the lead ranter and sample jockey in the New York noise group Lip Critic — wanted the release party for Hex Dealer, their stunning, disorienting head trip of a debut album, to feel like a cult headquarters. It’s not far off. Kaser, 25, is hunched over a laptop in the corner now, dressed in all black with bookish glasses and a necklace strung with what resemble Mardi Gras beads. His bandmate Connor Kleitz, 26, is posted ominously at another laptop; Danny Eberle, 24, and Ilan Natter, 26, Lip Critic’s two drummers, are wandering around somewhere in the candlelight.

Kaser hits a button, and a doomy, distorted beat floods the room. The projector displays the lyrics as his recorded voice joins the din. “I thought I’d feel free in my brand-new jeans,” he moans. “There’s something wearing me…”

If Lip Critic were performing here tonight instead of playing back their album, this whole room would be raging. Kaser would be hurling himself into the crowd as he barked out hilariously twisted bars and the other three guys whipped themselves into a frenzy of sampled voices and sick breakbeats. Lip Critic’s unpredictable performances at SXSW were the talk of Austin this year, taking over every venue they played and making it hard for the next act on the bill to look even half as deranged. They sowed similar havoc on a recent tour of the U.K., playing to rowdy rooms full of moshing Brits.

​​“In New York, they’re moving because they know us,” Natter tells me later. “But in London, they’re moving just because the music is making them do that.”

We’re sitting around a battered wooden table at a bar in Gowanus, a few weeks after the release party. The two drummers, who are also the chattiest members of the band, nurse a hard cider and a hard seltzer, respectively. The closet-sized rehearsal space that Lip Critic share with three other bands is a block or two away. “You have to do acrobatics over a kid with a hi-hat,” Natter says. “But I’ve accepted it. That’s our spot.” 

“It’s a ‘country girls make do’ situation,” Kaser quips.

Lip Critic onstage in Bushwick, February 2024.

Griffin Lotz

Lip Critic’s sound and attitude are provocative enough to make them stand out in New York at a time when the city is teeming with noisy, audacious acts like Water From Your Eyes, Model/Actriz, Godcaster, Brutus VIII, Voyeur, and YHWH Nailgun, among many others. In person, they’re as friendly and well-adjusted as their music is utterly demented.

Kaser has been thinking about the lines between performance and confrontation since he was a kid in Connecticut. The son of two art professors, he remembers telling his fifth-grade class that he wanted to be a conceptual artist when he grew up. Around the same time, in 2010, his parents took him to see Marina Abramović’s landmark retrospective “The Artist Is Present” at the Museum of Modern Art. 

“Marina Abramović was just chilling at a table, and you’re like, ‘She doesn’t move for eight hours a day?’” he recalls. “There was that piece where she ripped all the cow meat off the bones…. It was life-changing. Almost not in a good way at the time. It was just so strange.”

At other times, they’d take Kaser to see unsettling artworks by Bruce Nauman and Matthew Barney. They took him to lots of concerts, too, making him one of many young musicians today who cite David Byrne and Talking Heads as a foundational influence. “But as soon as I found EDM, I lost the plot,” he says. “And now I’m here.”

After high school, Kaser enrolled at SUNY Purchase, a suburban New York college that offered unlimited recording hours and a wide range of other creative resources. “I was like, ‘I want to do music, but I want to do eight other things,’” he recalls. “It was the best place to go if you were a distracted person who wants to make stuff.”

He took courses in costume design and sound architecture, and kept honing the printmaking techniques he’d learned from his parents. Most of all, though, he enjoyed making electronic beats. “I would wake up sometimes at 6 a.m. to go to Wonderland, this really rough mixing studio that you had access to as a freshman,’” he says. “Waking up literally before the sun comes up to go mix my absolutely garbage music.”

Lip Critic in New York, May 2024: Kaser, Kleitz, Eberle, and Natter (from left).

Griffin Lotz for Rolling Stone

Kaser’s time at Purchase overlapped with that of the artist soon to be known as Ice Spice, though their paths never crossed. (She was a volleyball star; “I didn’t know that we had a volleyball team,” he admits.) He did, however, meet the other three members of Lip Critic, who were already playing together in another band.

Eberle and Natter are lifelong New Yorkers who met as students at LaGuardia High School, the public performing-arts school in Manhattan whose alumni include Nicki Minaj and Timothée Chalamet. Eberle, who listened to a lot of hardcore punk, preferred playing drums in rock bands to participating in the school’s competitive jazz program. Natter, a guitarist at the time, was soaking up the music and lore of the psychedelic era from his Deadhead father; when he and Eberle played together in a Grateful Dead cover band, he was Jerry. 

When we meet at the bar, Natter has just gotten back into town from Las Vegas, where he saw Dead and Co. at the Sphere with his girlfriend and his dad. (He liked it but found the visuals a little distracting.) Kleitz, who grew up in Rockland County, New York, has a paternal jam-band connection of his own: Back in the Eighties, his father was in a band at the University of Vermont that shared bills with Phish.

All of this led to some confusion when Lip Critic’s four-person lineup coalesced around 2018. “I was like, ‘Cool. Ilan on guitar?’” Eberle recalls. “And they were like, ‘No, Ilan also on drums.’”

The idea of pairing two drummers with two samplers originated as a joke. “We were talking about a massive band with two of everything,” Kaser says. “Two drummers, two singers, two guitars, and then we’d play the same song next to each other. Just two bands in the same room playing the same set. I still think that would be extremely funny. I would like to see it happen.”

“A guy will come up to us and be like, ‘What is this?’”

Griffin Lotz for Rolling Stone

That never quite came to pass, but Lip Critic did end up with an arrangement that bewilders listeners as often as it thrills them. “People still don’t know what we’re doing live,” Kaser says proudly. “A guy will come up to us and be like, ‘What is this?’”

They recorded Hex Dealer across a year of dedicated work, trading files back and forth, cutting and manipulating and mixing and remixing as they went. “It’s like that question of if you have a boat and you replace every part of the boat, is it still the same boat anymore?” Kaser muses. “Is this even the original song we started with? There’s nothing left from it.”

As wildly unorthodox as it sounds in your headphones, most of the album was recorded using entry-level software. “If you have a copy of Ableton Live, you could probably recreate 40 percent of the songs without any extra plugins,” Natter says. “It was an extremely cheap record to make in terms of recording setup,” Kaser adds. “It’s a fun limitation to be like, I’ve gotta use something that’s kind of bad to try and make something good.”

Lyrics are the last part of the Lip Critic process, drawing on an archive of thousands of notes on Kaser’s phone. (“What did I do before this?” he cracks. “Was I carrying around some kind of a quill and papyrus?”) His disjointed words are the final ingredient that brings it all together, frequently tapping into a funhouse-mirror vision of modern masculinity. “In he walks, with his hands behind his back/He’s that Barbie-movie Ken/He seems to have all that I lack,” he raps over the metallic bounce of “Milky Max.” On another bizarrely catchy banger that made Rolling Stone’s list of the best songs of 2024 so far, he shouts like someone who’s moments away from getting kicked out of a convenience store: “Standing in the Wawa, convinced I’m a god/So I’m gonna get any sandwich I want.”

Like many of their peers, Lip Critic cut their teeth at venues like TV Eye in Ridgewood, Market Hotel in Bushwick, and the late, lamented Saint Vitus in Greenpoint. Eberle was there this February when the city’s Department of Buildings shut down Vitus in the middle of a show by the hardcore band Mindforce, citing a laundry list of alleged violations. “They made us line up on the wall,” he says. “It looked like we were all getting arrested.”

Lip Critic’s lineup is unusual: Natter and Eberle (at left) both play drums, while Kaser and Kleitz (at right) cue sounds on a pair of samplers

Griffin Lotz for Rolling Stone

Even after signing with Partisan Records, the indie label behind recent triumphs by Blondshell and Fontaines D.C., Lip Critic have retained a notable DIY spirit. At the release party, Kaser manned a screenprinting station, scrubbing white ink onto the dark-hued shirts brought by fans. He makes much of the band’s merch the same way, printing his own designs in the living room of the apartment he shares with his girlfriend in Sunset Park. “We print for other bands as well now,” he says. “The visual stuff is half the fun to me.”

They took a step toward higher production values on their recent trip to the U.K., stopping by a studio in London to work on the bones of the next Lip Critic album. “We’re trying to take an approach of extremities,” Eberle says. “It’s extreme in the sense of the heaviest, freakiest stuff we’ve ever made, and it’s also extreme on the more melodic side of things.”

In London, they played with a room full of vintage synthesizers and drum machines, a new experience that has them eager to get back into the studio this summer. “We ripped all the samples we could off of an O.G. 909 and a TR-808 from 1982 — shout out to all the nerds that care about that,” Kaser says. “We were in there harvesting heavy.”

“Never really done that before,” Eberle says, smiling. “It was sick.”

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