Band To Watch: Lip Critic

Justin Villar

Band To Watch: Lip Critic

Justin Villar

Lip Critic understand the power of Wawa. Seated in a Park Slope bar a couple blocks away from their rehearsal space, the four-piece explain the magic of the luxury gas station. The broccoli mac and cheese is exceptional. According to Danny Eberle, one of multiple drummers in the band, the iced tea “is goated” — better than both Snapple and Arizona. And their sandwich size options are peerless. “Honestly, Subway are like cowards,” lead vocalist and lyricist Bret Kaser casually proclaims.

Wawa is not only a sandwich-selling pioneer, but the backdrop for the group’s final single off their forthcoming debut album Hex Dealer, which is out in May via Partisan Records. The song is nightmarish, hyperrealistic electronic hardcore in which galvanized steel drums steadily clang as chopped vocal cries harass a bloated bass. The narrator professes: “Standing in the Wawa/ Convinced I’m a god/ So I’m gonna get any sandwich I want.” It’s a chorus charged with a bewitching holy trinity: consumerist control, spiritual narcissism, and hunger. The puffed-chest vocals sound like an entitled, off-the-rails podcast host ready to spout his manifesto. “It’s a song about being in a Wawa, which is something I think a lot of people can relate to,” Kaser offers calmly.

Lip Critic’s music exists in a special domain that is both terrifying and deliriously hilarious. It’s that sweet spot where something is so uncomfortable or confusing that laughter is a natural response. Hex Dealer is rich with absurdities — a woman convinced that her mailman and her son are conspiring to kill her, mutant children produced from animal DNA, sandwich selection fostering a feeling of immortality. But there is a throughline here, centered around the abstract narrative of a failed faith healer who — out of his own narcissism, menace, or desperation — devises faux miracles. Lip Critic lean into the humor of it all and end up exposing a massively fucked up underbelly of America.

Even though Hex Dealer wrestles with capitalistic moral corruptions (“Your belief feeds me/ Makes you go hungry,” goes one line on “Bork Pelly”) Lip Critic aren’t trying to heal anyone’s spiritual woes or chronic health problems. “It’s very comedic in the sense,” Kaser says, explaining their project’s main character whose likeness is inspired by Steve Martin’s Leap Of Faith and a specific episode of Our America With Lisa Ling. He leans against the bar’s sun-drenched window; sampler and co-producer Connor Kleitz sits next to him, while drummers Eberle and Ilan Natter sit across them. “It’s trying to highlight the things about it that are really absurd. It’s humor that I think we’re all attracted to, where it’s these sort of insane people that are really funny, without really meaning to be funny. They become really good masks to put on in the context of a live show.”

He continues: “I can’t remember what the video is called, the one that’s called something anointment? Vicious anointment? Where he smashes people with his jacket, or something. He has this thing where all these people are like, ‘I have diabetes.’ And then he puts his hand on their head and he’s like, ‘I rip the diabetes out of you.’ All that kind of stuff that’s so amazing to watch, and they’re really captivating performers if anything else. I don’t think they’re ripping the diabetes out of anyone as much as I wish they could. It’s really captivating — they have like 20,000 ppl in these stadiums. I feel like there’s a lot to learn from the performing aspect of that.”

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Kaser’s performance is athletically deranged, with the ability to span George Ezra-level croons to demonic auctioneer rants to screams that sound as if Baby Prunes (“They’re selling chocolate?!“) from SpongeBob SquarePants was in a hardcore band. Their music is a corrosive concoction of drum n bass, hardcore, hip-hop, jungle, and pop. It feels part Devo, part Death Grips, part Fatboy Slim, and part JPEGMAFIA, with bits of the Prodigy and MSPAINT. It also reeks of the early internet, bringing to mind the surreal monstrosity “cows & cows & cows” and viral newscast videos. It’s no surprise that when asked about their non-music influences, the moodboard is vast: The Simpsons, Louise Bourgeois, Andrei Tarkovsky, skate culture, clothing designers Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto, and as Kleitz explains, “overblown or eyecandy stuff like Mad Max or the Speed Racer movie.”

Although their music is both tighter and more bulked up, not much has changed in Lip Critic’s creative process since forming in 2018 at SUNY Purchase. Kaser, Kleitz, and Natter studied music while Eberle studied anthropology. Purchase allowed them an interdisciplinary education that they’ve applied to every aspect of their band. “I felt like I wrung every droplet — I was auditing classes because they wouldn’t even let me take more for credit,” Kaser says. His completed course load is a diverse grocery list — printmaking, graphic design, costume construction, sound architecture, live sound audio mixing. He also shares that, at the time, he was interested in writing for dance choreography.

Eberle mentions a sound sculpture class they all took where they made transduction sculptures and created audio based on different vibrational origins. “I knew that I didn’t want to study music, necessarily, but I wanted to be in a place that allowed me to meet other musicians and play music,” he says. “You could get away with trying a lot of dumb things and find out what worked,” Natter adds. These are the operational roots of a self-sufficient band, doing everything from producing and mixing their music to screen printing their merch.

The beta version of Lip Critic launched when members of Eberle and Natter’s previous band couldn’t make an already booked show. Locked and loaded with Weezer and Beast Boys covers (“Tired Of Sex” and “Sabotage”), they recruited Kleitz for bass and Kaser for otherwise improvised vocals. “This is one of the worst shows of all time too,” Kaser says. “It’s like if you ask AI to make Phish music. And then I just screamed about dropping a sandwich and having pants that were too small, and my voice was just completely blown out. But it was really, really fun.” Natter laughs, “People were getting down, weirdly.” Kaser continues, “That’s like my favorite band idea ever — free-associating over jam band music. Hilarious as fuck. It’s still kind of how we make stuff, honestly.”

Their first rehearsal as Lip Critic? “It was a mess,” Kaser bluntly states. “We were trying to play sequence stuff and it wasn’t working. And then, I literally have it on recording where, Connor goes, ‘Maybe this sucks because we’re not, like, playing the stuff. We just have to put it on pads, put it on samplers and play it.’ We did that. We were sampling Beyoncé’s vocals from ‘Partition,’ and it clicked. It was amazing. It was the first moment where you can hear us start to get the idea of it being like a digital-focused band, like a digital hardcore band or whatever that isn’t 100% live playing.”

Now, Lip Critic are near perfecting their highly curated kind of chaos. Their setup feels deceptively simple. Eberle and Natter man their drum sets (yes, two drum sets) while Kaser and Kleitz man their samplers. Eberle and Natter grew up playing music together, the latter on guitar and the former on drums. Their creative chemistry has evolved over the years. “I feel like what we’re doing in the live session almost plays like two guitars,” Eberle says, explaining how the double drum kit setup works. “I always think of the album Marquee Moon by Television. As far as that they reworked two guitars to almost sound not like conventional guitar parts. They’re both bouncing off of each other in such a unique way. In my own perception, I want to transfer that to drum performance.”

Kleitz and Kaser go a bit more in depth on their digital setup. Kleitz offers: “I’m using an Elektron Octatrack, sample-chaining the production that we do in the studio. I’m chopping that up, retiming some of it or applying effects to some of it, modulating it live and playing it rhythmically to the drums. We’re not using a click. I’m pressing buttons in time with Danny’s snare.” Kaser continues, “I’m just playing bass. I have bass notes on an MPD, a MIDI controller that’s structured like an MPC. So it’s got like 16 pads and a few knobs and sliders. I’ll have some granular delay effects but other than that it’s just bass.”

While talking to the band, it’s clear they thrive off open-minded ambition and the thrill of amusing each other. It’s why you might never hear a song played the same live more than once. Actually, you won’t experience anything live verbatim the way it’s recorded either. “The record feels like the Gen one in Pokemon, the base Pokemon. It feels like we’ve evolved a lot of these songs like three times and the record is the base version of that,” Kaser says. “I always think we’re a two-for-one band. We sound like one band on the record and we sound like another one live. You know,” he adds. “It’s a pretty good deal.”

Since their live setup is mostly remixed and improvised, Lip Critic joke they’ve been doing things a bit backwards at the moment. They’ve been living with Hex Dealer for over two years, initially thinking it would come out in 2022. They saw this album as a jumping-off point where they, as Kaser puts it, would go “pedal to metal, being super self-critical, absolutely no fat on it and then we’ll go and make the next thing.” But things changed when their now label home Partisan Records expressed interest. So if you hear a new song from Lip Critic on the road, it is an original but it isn’t the original. “We’ve already remixed everything ourselves and now we’re playing the remixed versions and putting out the original,” Kaser says. “It’s putting out the Skrillex ‘Cinema’ and then ‘Cinema‘ comes out. Where’s the fucking massive dubstep drop?”

Although Hex Dealer is their Partisan debut, it was made not knowing it would be put out on a label. “It’s something we will not have again,” Natter points out. “With this next record it’s definitely worth thinking about. It’s not really affected artistically, but it’s hard to not think about.” This album began as a testament to them trying to push themselves. “We took this album more seriously than anything we’ve ever done,” Kaser says. “I do think we’ve always kind of been held back by our own lack of seriousness. It’s our greatest strength and our greatest weakness. We just don’t take ourselves seriously at all. We try to take the music very seriously. Sometimes we will include stuff because we think it’s funny to include or troll, something that we think is like a gag…But this is the first one where we have to get serious about actually making this record the best record we can and not including something funny to us or something that will be funny in a certain amount of time.”

The support from Partisan doesn’t seem to have changed their creative outlook, other than validating how they were already working. “We don’t really actually need that much. At the end of the day, I’m kind of realizing, we do need some stuff, but we’re a pretty streamlined operation still. A lot of the things we want to make fit within that framework, recording and then working on our computers in our apartments touring with this band,” Kaser says. Of course more money and time open their process up, but Lip Critic are still hungry to do it themselves. “We want more of it. We’ve been able to function with almost none of it for this entire time.”

Hex Dealer is out 5/17 on Partisan.

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