Exploring “Empire Records” // Band of Susans

One of the most interesting, if not funniest, elements of Empire Records is the array of esoteric – even absurd – in-jokes and references that its makers – the producers, director, screenwriter and designers – seem hellbent on calling to the audience’s attention without any real explanation. When we’re not digesting the posters, T-shirts, stickers, and verbal music references that are the subject of this feature, we’re witnessing A.J.’s sticky quarters trick or Lucas’ zen-like armchair pseudo-extentialism, antics that, though we as the audience see, never quite let us into their world.

Taken in this context, Empire Records serves in a way to preserve – as a time capsule or visual archive – the existence of its own obscure references. Ironically, the impenetrable nature of the film’s set dressing strangely parallels the little-known histories of many of the very bands it features, most of which have, in real life, been badly preserved over the years. For some bands, this film is literally the only record of their existence, and it’s therefore nearly impossible to write about them.

Fortunately for Band of Susans, whose promotional poster for Love Agenda can be seen many times throughout the movie, that isn’t completely the case. On the contrary, there’s plenty to hear and read about the New York band, which rose to relative notoriety from the infamous No Wave scene of the late 1980s. Nevertheless, this methodical, precision-oriented, mid-tempo noise rock band’s unmistakable presence on the walls and in the echoes of Empire Records – a presence that is strange since I can’t imagine that the filmmakers, based on the other work they’ve done, were ever involved in the No Wave scene – is almost as abstruse as the band’s career itself.

The short story is that Band of Susans is based around the work of composer Rhys Chatham, a man best described as the noise music version of an orchestral conductor, to whom the band has dedicated songs ( “In The Eye of the Beholder”) and with whom they’ve even collaborated (“Guitar Trio”). Oddly enough though, the close connection of core BOS members Robert Poss, Susan Stenger, and Ron Spitzer to Chatham wasn’t the result of being party to the same “scene”.  Although you can find Chatham’s work in the annals of Tellus, a legendary cassette/mail art ‘zine from the 1980s that dealt heavily in the New York No Wave scene while in its earliest incarnation, he and Poss come together under an apprenticeship system of musical collaboration not unlike those found in classical music circles, in which people set out with a specific artistic vision and spend the rest of their lives perfecting that vision. Chatham then, unsurprisingly, served as noise guitar mentor to his student Poss and, by association, the rest of the band.

As abstract as that sounds, it may be the only way to characterize the work of Band of Susans, a band whose discography is, at times, nothing more than entire albums of dense feedback and fuzz with rhythms so mellow they border on slowcore.  Each offering seemed more impenetrable than the one before it, with the band making little effort to display even a modicum of creative growth between recording sessions. Although that usually lends itself to the more common problem of laziness, I’m inclined to say that Band of Susans operated under the auspices of the much rarer avant-garde grand design.

Regardless, it can ultimately be a challenging listen to even the most open-minded arts consumer because, twenty years after the fact and without the benefit of live experiences, exposés in Rolling Stone Magazine, or even simple word of mouth, we’re nothing more than distant historical onlookers when we listen to the incredibly obtuse music of Band of Susans. It’s only on songs like “Throne of Blood” (from 1988’s Hope Against Hope), “Not In This Life” (from 1993’s Veil) or “Pardon My French” (from 1995’s Here Comes Success) that the band’s talent for sprawling, euphoric, multichannel walls of guitar noise meets its rhythm section for a simple, concise, easily-digestible listening experience.

I was reading an article about New York avant-garde icon Andy Warhol recently that discussed the criticisms Warhol faced in the 1980s – specifically that he was running solely on business tactics and surface aesthetics, without any attention to meaning or feeling. By this point, the Factory had long been closed off to the public, and the only thing people – including critics – knew of him was what he chose to show them. In many ways, this isolation was the root of the public’s distaste for his work in the 1980s. In the past, a person could walk into the Factory, check out what Warhol was doing and even get a sincere, albeit vague, explanation about the work from the man himself. But at the end, there was no transparency or explanation; there was only what we saw: art and money.

From what I can gather, the art world of 1980s New York City bought heavily into notions of isolation and the ability to clearly mark the line between artist and listener. Band of Susans is no different. Their discography, while vast, contains no demos, no side projects, no collaborations (outside of Rhys Chatham), and no live recordings (with the exception of a single Peel Session EP). I’d challenge anyone to find even a single cam-quality live video of the band. This is unfortunate because all we have to rely on is folklore that purports Band of Susans to have been one of the loudest band of all time.

Instead, all we can work with is what they chose to show us: impeccably finished noise music: purposely unrecognizable lyrics, triple-stacked amps spilling mammoth walls of fuzzy distortion and drums that intentionally plod with a precise intensity for the six-to-eight-minute duration of each song.

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