Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Sums of Parts: Nick Sakes from Dazzling Killmen to XADDAX

You often hear about artistic entities that are "more than the sum of their parts," as though it's somehow shameful or inadequate for something to simply be the sum of its parts. What if those parts are each excellent on their own, as in the Brooklyn band XADDAX (a duo with Nick Sakes on guitar/vocals and Chrissy Rossettie on electroacoustic drum kit, pictured above)? I would think that adding them together would be an achievement worth celebrating.

If you're not familiar with the work of Nick Sakes, let me try to put him into a context. There is a certain category of well-known (or even just "known") DIY-rock lifer who's been around forever and has been in a long string of bands. Folks like Ian MacKaye, Tim Kinsella (Cap'n Jazz, Joan of Arc), Geoff Farina (Karate, Glorytellers, etc.), Mike Hill (Anodyne, Tombs), Blake Schwarzenbach (Jawbreaker, Jets to Brazil), J. Read (Revenge, Axis of Advance), Mira Billotte (Quix*o*tic, White Magic), Ben Weasel (Screeching Weasel, The Riverdales), Fred Erskine (Hoover, The Crownhate Ruin), Pen Rollings (Honor Role, Breadwinner), Tara Jane O'Neil (Rodan, The Sonora Pine), Dave Pajo (Slint, Tortoise), Jared Warren (Karp, Big Business), Walter Schreifels (Gorilla Biscuits, Quicksand), Rick Froberg (Drive Like Jehu, Obits), Mick Barr (Crom-Tech, Orthrelm)—even icons like Robert Pollard or Kathleen Hanna fit in this general classification.

That was a pretty long list and sort of an arbitrary one (I worship, say, Schreifels and Read but could take or leave a couple of the others). The point I'm trying to make, though, is that there is sort of generally accepted canon of these types of independent musicians: Everyone would include, MacKaye, e.g., but move down the list and you'll get a different set of names depending on whether the person you're polling happens to be into punk, post-hardcore, metal, folk, indie rock, what have you, and depending on where they grew up or reside. But if anyone's keeping some sort of master ledger of these sorts of folks and Nick Sakes isn't on it, that list is incomplete. And if you, kind reader, are into extreme/experimental-minded rock-based music of any kind and have not checked out Mr. Sakes's various projects stretching from 1990 through the present (including Dazzling Killmen, Colossamite, Sicbay and now XADDAX), you really need to remedy that. In terms of combining raw aggression with unconventional yet totally memorable form, Nick Sakes is one of the most potent musicians I've ever heard.

More than that, though, and this is where I circle back to my initial point about sums of parts and whatnot, Nick Sakes is one of the finest collaborators I've ever heard. I've been following his career since the early ’90s (just after the Killmen's demise), and in a way, my entire view of the American rock underground revolves around him. He's played in bands with some extraordinarily talented musicians—to name two of the more well-known ones, John Dieterich and Ed Rodriguez (both currently of Deerhoof) were both in Colossamite—and in each of those bands, you can hear (A) a whole lot of Nick Sakes and (B) a whole lot of whomever else was working in the project. None of these bands is merely Nick plus Some Other Musicians. Each of them has been a true, start-from-scratch collaboration.

The St. Louis–based Dazzling Killmen (active from the early-to-mid ’90s) was a whole band of master collaborators: the surgically precise rhythm section of bassist Darin Gray (Grand Ulena, On Fillmore) and drummer Blake Fleming (Laddio Bolocko, The Mars Volta), plus the uncategorizable avant-rock soundpainter Tim Garrigan (You Fantastic!, folky solo material) on guitar, along with Sakes's more riff-oriented guitar and bloodcurdling shrieks. Put all that together, and voila:

Colossamite, a late-’90s Twin Cities band, upped the post-Beefheart vibe in a major way, thanks to the free-improv/art-metal pedigrees of Dieterich, Rodriguez and drummer Chad Popple. (Rodriguez and Popple both played in the fascinating post-hardcore fusion band Iceburn around the same time they played in Colossamite, and all three of these musicians have worked together on and off as Gorge Trio for years.) Sakes in Colossamite was not at all the same as Sakes in Killmen; the former project brought out a loopier, more off-the-wall side of his personality. He retained the core of what he did (see: bloodcurdling shrieks) but added a major dose of cryptic humor. Check out his insane Spanish-language ranting on this track:

Sicbay (also Twin Cities, early-to-mid aughts), which made three incredible albums that I really wish were better known, was Sakes's most pop-oriented concern, a perfect channeling of his trademark seething tension into brief, super-melodic and super-memorable—yet still very unconventional—songs. (For a more detailed discussion, see my 2003 Dusted review of Sicbay's awesome second album, Overreaction Time.) Again, we saw a totally different side of Sakes here—his most overtly tuneful vocalizing to date, for one—and that's due in large part to the brilliance of his collaborator Dave Erb, whose guitar playing was sort of like if you took those gorgeous Thin Lizzy leads and scrambled them in a blender so that they were still every bit as gorgeous but also alarmingly jagged and disconcertingly shaded, a concept which, if I'm correctly recalling several conversations I've had with Erb, was very much coming out of a progressive-postpunk (e.g., XTC) sort of place. But again, it's also due to Sakes's willingness to meet his collaborators halfway. Like Colossamite, Sicbay was very much the sum of its parts, not just the Guy from Dazzling Killmen and Some Other Guy. (Sadly, YouTube only has one very blown-out, and nearly pictureless, live clip, but it'll have to do.)

Which brings us to the present day and the band known as XADDAX. Sicbay petered out a while back (’06 or ’07?), and about a year so ago, Nick Sakes from Minneapolis to Brooklyn. (It's probably worth mentioning at this point that I began corresponding with Nick on a fan level sometime in the late ’90s and that we've since become friends.) Right away, he began playing music with the drummer Chrissy Rossettie—who had been in a number of projects, including the Chicago-based My Name Is Rar-Rar (admirably batshit post–No Wave noise-punk)—and after a long gestation period, the two emerged as XADDAX.

It's been wonderful to reside in the same city as a steadily gigging Nick Sakes and to observe his latest collaboration up close. I saw XADDAX for the third time last night—my band STATS had previously shared two very fun Cake Shop bills with them—and I was newly struck by this whole Sum of Its Parts aspect of Sakes's musical career. I guess what I'm saying is that there's no typical Nick Sakes band. Everyone in the Killmen, Colossamite and Sicbay (I should give a shout-out here to that band's succession of drummers, Greg Schaal, Ed Rodriguez—yep, the guitarist from Colossamite and Deerhoof, plus the Flying Luttenbachers—and Jonathan Warnberg, the latter a fantastic and underdocumented player who was also in Signal to Trust) had an equal stake in what was going down, and the very same is true of XADDAX.

Since there are only two members of XADDAX, that division-of-labor vibe is right in front of your face: What Rossettie brings to the table is quite literally half of the band's overall presentation. More specifically, her contribution—as drummer and full-spectrum sound generator—is an inspired short-circuiting-cyborg vibe. As she discusses in this excellent interview, Rossettie plays a hot-wired electroacoustic kit, which she wields like a post-industrial orchestra. On the bottom, there are her driving hypnotic, martial, daringly lengthy patterns. The obsessive detail and emphasis on repetition in her playing reminds me a lot conceptually of what's going on in Obscura- and From Wisdom to Hate–era Gorguts. Go here (skip to about 3:57) to watch Luc Lemay discussing this concept: As he puts it, "The drum was like a riff itself, which loops with the riff." (This idea of a through-composed drum line, i.e., not just an accompaniment to a guitar riff but an actual part of a song's fundamental DNA, as it pertains to Gorguts specifically, came up in my recent interview with Dan Weiss.)

The same sort of thing is happening in XADDAX, but rather than blast-beat-oriented death metal, here the concept of the through-composed drum riff is filtered through a perversely danceable postpunk or No Wave vibe. Furthermore, Rossettie has equipped her aforementioned cyborg kit with various electronic pads and triggers (being a totally acoustic drummer, I'm 100% unqualified to even begin to explain how this all works; see the Q&A linked above for details). Some of these produce "in time" noises, like you might hear coming from a MIDI keyboard (i.e., you press a key and you get a brief, rhythmic sound), but some of them seem to set off bursts of pure chaos (i.e., you press a key and you get a long, arrhythmic string of sonic INFORMATION, like a sample that doesn't loop, or something).

So you put all that together with Nick Sakes, who continues to abuse his vocal cords in various bellowing, hissing manners and contributes a kind of awkwardly-clanking-machine riffage—math-rock-ish in a way, but much rawer and looser than, say, the Killmen—and you get this:

Xaddax - Lives On Nerves by Xaddax

So after hearing that (incredible) track—look out for it and others on a forthcoming Skin Graft full-length—if you check out the various Sakes projects discussed above and check out My Name Is Rar-Rar (there are a bunch of tracks streaming on Bandcamp), you'll see that XADDAX is once again a deeply collaborative, sum-of-its-parts affair. There is no possible way that either Sakes or Rossettie could've or would've made this music without the other, and that no-element-is-replaceable specificity is the key ingredient in almost all great bands.

Again, Sum of Its Parts, simply that and not necessarily "More Than," isn't a negligible concept. It's quite enough for two elements to coexist in pleasing harmony—like chocolate and peanut butter in a Reese's cup—or in inspired disharmony—like Rossettie's haywire beats and Sakes's dire guitar and vocals in XADDAX. There's probably a corny message about the give-and-take of all human relationships buried somewhere in here ("Can't we all just get along, or agree to squabble productively?"), but I'll just say that Nick Sakes's two-decade career, from the Killmen all the way through XADDAX, has demonstrated again and again the huge potential of strong musical personalities colliding in wholly fruitful and mutually respectful manners. You take those parts and you add them together, and that's more than enough.


Check out XADDAX on SoundCloud, Facebook, Twitter and MySpace.


elwuss said...

this is really a great article!
I really like Nick's bands, I saw some of them live (colossamite, sicbay)...
and yes, I agree he's definitely underestimated as an author.
Sicbay is my favorite btw:)

elvis, Croatia

Anonymous said...

Is this old or new?
Can't seem to find a date.

Heard mixed things about Xaddax.

Word on the street is...
Dazzling Killmen reissues in the works via No Quarter records.