Texas duo with a post-punk
edge that’ll have you dancing, yeah, but it’s a brainy stew they concoct.
BY FRED MILLS
The BLURT staff put our heads – and ears – together and we
have the latest pick for our Blurt/Sonicbids “Best Kept Secret”: it’s Dirty Dancing, from Austin, Texas.
Coming across the duo’s EPK in our folio of Sonicbids
submissions was like the proverbial lightning bolt strike. Their music – an
angular cross between the Kills and the Velvet Underground,
with touches of dark wave and classic Joy Division residing uneasily beside
vintage ground zero punk, all rammed through a contemporary post-punk sieve
that’s simultaneously shouty, sinewy and sexy – immediately stood out. To be
perfectly candid, it was totally different from any other we’d ever received
(to dates, several thousand). And even though we faithfully dug through the
200+ submissions in our latest folio, we kept returning to Dirty Dancing’s EPK;
by the time we had to make our selection, there was simply no contest.
Multi-instrumentalist Eric Schoen
previously fronted Electric Pants in Milwaukee, WI, before moving to Austin a
few years ago. Meanwhile, over in New York, Lauren Mikus sang for The Midnight
Hours, but that group split up and the rest of the members went on to form
Vampire Weekend while Mikus set into motion her own Austin relocation. As the
duo advises us, they met, by chance, at “a crappy, soul-sucking tele-marketing
job,” and since Schoen had already begun work on what would become Dirty
Dancing’s debut, Mediocrity Is The
Strongest Inevitability, he soon drafted Mikus to push the project away
from the realm of a home recording affair into a full-blown performance outfit.
The music on Mediocrity is certainly eye- and ear-opening, demonstrating an
impressive versatility while maintaining the requisite shake-those-hips factor.
Among the standout tracks, there’s the brittle, hypnotic “The Merger,” powered
by serrated riffs and finger-snap percussion; with its chanted/shouted vocals,
it suggests a glam-slam meeting of Love & Rockets and Gary Glitter. The
drum machine kick and low, dark melody of “Atlantis” brings the above-mentioned
Joy Division vibe to the fore (Interpol fans won’t be disappointed either). And
“Here and There” is like a minimalist, space-age take on vintage chain-gang
blues, right down to the handclaps and shuffling rhythm.
We caught up with Schoen and Mikus recently to get the
details. Read on, and meanwhile check the band out at their
MySpace page or Facebook page, where you can hear the album and get details
on how to order it. They’re one of the good ‘uns, trust us.
easy questions first. Tell us some of the records that were favorites of yours
Lauren: The first album that I knew inside out from linear
notes to copyright information was Guns N Roses’ Appetite for Destruction. I
think all of my on dance moves have a little AXL in them. Other than that I was
heavy into the Beatles, Motown, T.Rex, ’70s New York stuff like Television, and
the ’70s cosmic cowboy music like the Byrds country stuff and Gram Parsons.
Eric: These are
literally the first five albums I owned, in order, though the first three were
actually my mom’s, but I listened to them so much they might as well have been
Slippery When Wet – Bon Jovi
At Budokan – Cheap Trick
The Cars – The Cars
The Chronic – Dr. Dre
Use Your Illusion 1 – Guns ‘N Roses
Lauren: The first
concert that made me want to seriously be on stage was probably Iggy and The
Eric: Probably the
most life-changing show was seeing Guitar Wolf at Concert Cafe in Green Bay,
WI. I was like 16 and had never seen or
heard anything like it. They wore all
black leather, were as loud and raw as fuck, and the only English they seemed
to speak was swear words, which they would yell between songs as they posed
real tough and cool as if they were at some photo shoot. It was punk theater appropriated by a
Japanese fetish of coolness, and I was in awe.
Kinda like the first time I saw Iggy, except there was no appropriation,
and of course Iggy was a lot louder and a lot more raw.
How about any random heroes and/or villains who’ve shaped your life to date?
Lauren: For heroes,
Laura Ingalls Wilder taught me to be tough.
I don’t have any villainous enemies that I know of…maybe traffic cops.
Eric: Heroes: Joseph VanEss (my Grandfather), Iggy Pop,
Marcel Duchamp, Bob Dylan, Indiana Jones, Magnum P.I., Ferris Bueller, Andy Kaufman,
Bill Murray, Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, Lou Reed, James Brown, Prince, Leonard
Cohen, and Marshall McLuhan
both in two previous bands, Electric Pants (Eric, in Milwaukee) and The
Midnight Hours (Lauren, in New York). What were those all about, and how did
you wind up moving to Austin?
Eric: Electric Pants
was a band I started after I had really gotten into old punk, blues, and garage
music. I really wanted to make music, in
the beginning at least, that anyone of all ages could enjoy and dance to. I was making a conscious effort to not be too
avant-garde or artsy. I don’t think I
was completely successful at that goal since I was really, really, really into
Iggy and The Stooges at that time, which is why every vocal part is screamed or
yelled, not sung. But when my
grandmother told me that she liked our first album and that it reminded her of
Elvis, I knew we had done something right, even though I really can’t listen to
any of it now without wincing, mainly because of my vocals. The end of that band was part of why I moved
to Austin, or at least out of Milwaukee.
I really just needed a place where I could have a clean slate and start
fresh. I was also tired of the
incestuousness of Milwaukee, and I was a fish who wanted a bigger pond to swim
in. I was thinking about Seattle and
Austin both for a little while, but once I found out that Austin supports its
musicians enough to offer them their own healthcare just for being musicians,
that definitely helped to seal the deal.
Lauren: My first band was an alt-country garage kind of thing I
started with one of my best friends from High School, Michael, and friends from
Columbia. We had a good run, but the
Midnight Hours parted ways right around the time I finished college in New
York, so I decided to look for other creative avenues in Austin and to be
closer to my family living in Texas.
Then I met Eric. He had songs
that needed a partner and I needed some songs to play. I wasn’t the best live guitarist in the world
at that point – I co-wrote and sang in the Midnight Hours only – so he helped
me become stage ready and it just went on from there.
Lauren, I have to ask, what was your reaction when your old bandmates from
the Midnight Hours started blowing up in Vampire Weekend?
Lauren: I don’t think that when anyone starts a band that they
expect to blow-up like that, even if you secretly hope to blow-up like that, so
I think we were all equally surprised!
It was strange at first to witness people you know achieve one of your
own dream/aspirations, but it was harder to lose Chris and Chris as band
members because they are great people and great musicians to be in a band
with. Sometimes I wonder what would
have happened to the Midnight Hours if we had stayed together, but I am happy with
what I am doing now so it seems to have all worked out.
bio indicates the two of you met doing telemarketing: what unique areas of
intersection do the talents of a telemarketer and a rock musician share?
Lauren: Dexterity of the fingertips: quickly dialing phone number after phone
number made me a better guitar player.
Eric: The funny
thing is that most of the people I’ve met at the many telemarketing jobs that
I’ve done are musicians or artists of some type. I guess it works well – and I use the word
“well” cautiously – for artistic types because you don’t have to look
or dress any particular way and you usually work from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. But it’s still an awful, internally painful,
and demoralizing gig. I guess I would
say that the most significant similarity is the ability and strength to submit
yourself to constant rejection over and over and over again. I always thought of telemarketing as an act,
a really fake act. I think that music,
especially performing it, is a type of act too, but it’s the exact opposite of
fake. It’s not just true; it’s more than
truth. It’s divine truth. Super truth.
True truth. It’s yourself and an
extension of yourself that you don’t even know exists yet. That is, if it’s good, if it’s real. I don’t know if that makes any sense. It’s hard to verbalize. There’s also a lot of repetition as well as
improvisation involved in both. But I
hope I never have to do that kind of work again.
Dancing, did you have a specific sound in mind initially, and how has it
evolved to date? How would you describe the chemistry between the two of you?
Eric: Well, the
music that became Dirty Dancing was just me fucking around on Garage Band after
I finally got a computer, and I could actually hear what these different parts
for songs and sounds that I had in my head would sound like when I could
actually put them all together. I had a
drum machine, two hands that could clap, a guitar, my voice, and no one to get
in my way. After being in a band that
became dysfunctional, I was reveling in the ability to make what I wanted by
myself with no one to hold me back, no one’s schedule to have to work around,
no one else’s ego, and I could try out any idea the second it came to me. Of course I realize there is a lot to be
gained in any art by group participation and outside input, but at the time I
was really focused on making and playing music, and I was tired of waiting
around for other people catch up and be as dedicated as I was. My plan was always to just start playing
these songs by myself, and if anybody wanted to come aboard and they fit right,
then there would be band members. I
really didn’t and don’t want to go through the hassle of searching for people
to play the different instruments needed for the songs. I would and will just let them come to
me/us. I want to make sure they have an
appreciation of the music before they get on board.
When Lauren joined the band she
definitely added another dimension, especially live. And she has some really great songs of her
own that we’ve been working on, and I’ve had a lot of fun figuring them out
together. I mean, most of the stuff on Mediocrity I had already
written and already recorded. I would
just show her which parts to play, so she didn’t really have the chance to add
much or collaborate on those songs.
Except for “Atlantis.”
Most of what that song became just happened spontaneously during a
practice. I was playing this bass line,
and she played a short piece of a riff – from a Carter Family song, I think – that
worked really well over it. So I
recorded one run-through of us just playing around with it, and that was
basically the song, besides all the extras like the clapping and whistling and
the lyrics. Now that we’ve started
working stuff out together there’s more of a sense of discovery and
For Mediocrity, how long did it take to come together – you’re self-recorded and
Eric: All self-recorded. All self-produced. All self-released. All self-packaged and designed. All self.
Some of the songs on it go back to 2006, specifically “Black Blood,”
“Delicate Chains” and “Never Take Me Alive.” Probably the newest song on the album is “Here
And There,” which was written and recorded about 9 months ago. So, I guess it took about four years to come
together, but there are a lot of other songs ready for release that weren’t
included and many more still in progress.
The songs are or were generally written and recorded at the same
time. I just play around with different
ideas and sounds on Garage Band until I’m happy with a song or idea. But now I hope that Lauren and I can do more
collaborations in the writing process and am looking forward to more of that.
We have to
know why you chose the name Dirty Dancing, too. Most people reading this will
make the obvious assumption…
Eric: My choice for
the name has absolutely nothing to do with the movie. I was going through a few different possible
names and they all either involved some sort of dirtiness or body movement. I was also thinking about how when I first
started going to punk and straight-up-rock-and-roll shows, like The Mistreaters
and Bleed, in Milwaukee, everyone would dance, and we wouldn’t just dance. We would dance from our hips. We’d really let loose and put on a show. We danced completely uninhibited and with
complete abandon. It was dirty
dancing. So I thought maybe that should
be the name. At first I hesitated
because of the movie, but then I thought, “Fuck it.” The term “dirty dancing” existed
long before the movie, and it’s a cultural expression of physical freedom. It’s the movement of youth in revolt.
your music been received locally to date? Is Austin a tough town for a
non-roots band to get noticed and get gigs?
Lauren: It has been a little hard to be the kind of band we are,
but I think Austin can handle it. They just don’t know it yet!
Eric: I haven’t
heard any negative responses yet, but of course people usually never say that
shit to your face. At every show we’ve
done we’ve had really positive and exuberant feedback. We’ve gotten some attention from some local
blogs like PartyEnds.com and some out-of-town ones like Future Sounds. We’ve also been getting some airplay on
European radio stations. WOXY [Austin
commercial modern-rock station] invited us to do a show for them, and we’ve
gotten some airtime through them, which is great, because they’ve got a big
audience and they support really good music.
I wouldn’t say that Austin is a
tough town for a non-roots band; there a lot of really good non-roots bands
here that are doing pretty well and have a good following, bands like
Custodian, Puff Puff & The Receivers, Many Birthdays, Coma In Algiers, TV
Torso, The Young, Missions, Milky Way Arms, Neon Indian, Ringo Deathstarr,
Woven Bones, Ume… I would say that
Austin, just like any town, is a tough town to start from scratch, with no
contacts or connections, but that’s just something that every musician has to
build on and work for. The only really
frustrating thing that I’ve noticed is bands and particular venues not
responding to e-mails or messages about doing shows. Not every band or venue is guilty of this,
but there are quite a few, or at least enough for me to get annoyed by it. I’m just used to at least a reply from venues
and bands in other towns, and I find it really disrespectful, lazy, and
unprofessional when an entity doesn’t give you the common courtesy to respond
to a message. But if you’re hungry and
good enough there are a lot of opportunities for musicians in this town.
successes to or screw-ups to date?
Lauren: We once played a show we didn’t really play. Haha.
A bar in Austin booked us without ever telling us, so we missed the show
entirely, despite it being advertized in The
Eric: Yeah, that was
kinda funny and weird. We’ve had a few
really great shows and of course some disastrous ones too, but probably my
favorite was the last one Dirty Dancing did for WOXY and Future Sounds. It was the kick-off of the first Rumble in
Austin, and we were honored to play.
Unfortunately Lauren couldn’t make it because she has been abducted by a
cult known as “The Film Industry”.
They took her away to Hollywood and are still holding her captive even
as I write this, but I have a plan to rescue her.
Anyways, I did the show solo and was
actually pretty sick, but of course that goes away when you get on stage. I had a great time, and everyone there really
dug the set. Got a lot of good feedback,
and I had fun hanging out with Paige and Shiv from WOXY, even though I
basically had no voice left and didn’t get it back until like three days
Eric: Just keeping
my eyes five feet in front of me. It’s
an old long-distance running trick.
Keeps you going without realizing the distance. So right now Im just trying to set some stuff
up for SXSW. After that, we’ll see.