It’s weird how these things play out. Sam Brown had already done stints drumming for seminal Columbus garage punk bands Gaunt and New Bomb Turks when he joined pop-minded alt-rockers the Sun on a whim back in 2002 days before their showcase with Warner Brothers. The Sun inked a deal with WB that would unfold as one of the more horrific major label horror stories, a series of discouraging foibles that culminated in the release of debut album Blame It On The Youth as a series of music videos on DVD. The band never quite recovered from that failed experiment, but the core membership did stick together long enough to record the swan song Don’t Let Your Baby Have All The Fun with Spoon producer Mike McCarthy in 2007, forging a relationship that would come in handy four years later when Britt Daniel and Wolf Parade’s Dan Boeckner were seeking a drummer for their new project. McCarthy suggested they give Brown a shot, so the drummer flew out to Austin to jam with Daniel, and before he knew it he was in L.A. writing and recording with the newly formed Divine Fits. That band emerged in 2012 with a hell of a debut album and traipsed around the globe a few times before Daniel headed off to work on a new Spoon record. Boeckner and Brown saw no need to put their creative chemistry on hold, so they met up in Boeckner’s adopted hometown of San Jose, cooked up an aggressively melodic synth-driven project called Operators, and quietly played a debut show there.
That’s how Brown ended up with Boeckner and their bandmate Devojka crashing at his home in Columbus, preparing to record a debut EP in his basement, and playing a tiny club show Thursday night at the very small, very dark Double Happiness. Like I said, it’s weird how these things play out.
Also weird was seeing this configuration of musicians with nary a guitar in sight, but that’s 2013 indie rock for you. Instead, Boeckner and Devojka huddled around a table packed out with plentiful keyboards and sundry other electronic equipment while Brown held it down at his drum kit as ever. When word of this project first broke around Coachella time, Boeckner promised guitars and a distinct Fugazi influence, but Operators never once resembled Fugazi’s righteously antagonistic post-hardcore Thursday night. This was dance-pop, pure and simple — hard-hitting dance-pop, but dance-pop nonetheless.
As such, Boeckner’s other name-checked influence, New Order, was in abundant supply. There were touches of LCD Soundsystem in the mix too, and of course any keyboard-driven Boeckner project is going to echo his own Handsome Furs to an extent. But Operators is its own beast, and that beast is formidable: a flurry of funky keyboard riffs, rumbling programmed beats, incessant low-end, and pelvic thrusts, all set to the classic rock chord changes and gravel-throated melodies that have become Boeckner’s signature. It’s a natural progression from Divine Fits, especially in today’s stylistic climate, but who’d have thunk it back when Boeckner was first howling “Shine A Light” with Wolf Parade?
Connections, one of our 40 Best New Bands Of 2013, began the night with an almost perfect set, one of those opening sets you can’t ignore. They began with “Tough City” (which you can and should download here), a frenetic conglomeration of so many hooks and so much “Woop!” From there it was one basement pop rager after another, every instrument weaponized, frontman Kevin Elliott palpitating with combustive force that could only be vanquished by occasionally battering an otherwise superfluous tom and snare. His brother Adam, late of Times New Viking, was handling primary drum duties, and on the final stretch of songs in particular his slapdash bombast served as a reminder of the indie-pop bottle rockets his previous project used to launch.
But if any comparison has dogged Connections thus far, it hasn’t been TNV. The reference these dudes can’t seem to shake is Guided By Voices. It’s a reasonable comparison: Connections are Ohio natives (three out of five of them from the Dayton area, even!) channeling classic rock anthems under the guise of lo-fi pop, each song bursting with melody but encased in fuzz. Plus Kevin Elliott and guitarist Andy Hampel’s former project, the criminally under-recognized 84 Nash, was signed to Bob Pollard’s Rockathon Records in the ’90s. That said, as I stood in awe while Connections did their thing, I kept thinking of another band that was in a similar situation a decade ago. When Interpol first emerged, it was hard to find a single writeup that didn’t compare their gloomy, angular post-punk to Joy Division, but eventually there was a tipping point where the band’s music stopped registering as a Joy Divison clone and simply sounded like Interpol. Connections made a similar leap in my mind Thursday night. Like Operators, they are their own band with their own sound, one worth examining for yourself post-haste.