Magic Stick, Detroit, April 10, 2003
By now, the firewall separating IT from DIY has been effectively dismantled. It’s no longer a red flag to step up in the club and see a laptop or a sampler sharing space onstage with Marshall stacks, electric guitars, or a sparkly Pearl drum kit. Version 1.0 of this aesthetic might have been Kraftwerk, even if the laptop wasn’t yet invented in the mid-1970s. But as technology has raced forward, rock and roll has kept pace, and today groups like Radiohead, Stereo Total, Grandaddy, and Le Tigre regularly and without pretense mix monitors with monitors, and PowerBooks with power chords.
The Notwist got into the game late. The earliest incarnation of the Munich quartet was as an angular guitar outfit, mixing jarring punk guitar with hardcore dynamics. But with the addition of electronicist Martin Gretschmann, vocalist/guitarist Markus Archer and bassist brother Micha began to transform the Notwist’s sound into a heady mix of indie guitar sensibilities and burbling, trippy programming. 1995’s 12 marked this metamorphosis on record; by 2002’s Neon Golden, the Notwist was regularly garnering praise for its unique, well-appointed sound. Despite indie rock’s general acceptance of technology as a third man, there was still music being made that didn’t properly align the elements of each camp. Other groups relied on samplers or drum programming as a crutch, hoping that winking irony or a “Sprockets” impersonation would mask a lack of real talent. The Notwist’s take on the new pollution was to keep its components mostly in balance, so that when a keyboard, sampler bank, or guitar did act up with a burst of squelch, it created all kinds of cool tension. But mostly, Gretschmann’s clicks and buzzes blended seamlessly into the song structure, and Markus’ way with a vocal hook kept the Notwist’s music grounded in pop.
This approach was in full effect Wednesday night at the Magic Stick. Appearing as a quintet, the Notwist featured Markus’ guitar and vocals, his brother Micha’s bass, the synths, programming, and sampling prowess of Gretschmann, the half-processed, half-traditional drums of Martin Messerschmidt, and a guy who looked like my friend Matt doubling on lead guitar and additional keys/programming. Often resembling a remixed version of the Wedding Present, the Notwist reveled in a late 80s, early 90s indie sound, but draped its poppy melodies in dub tapestries and glitchy IDM. For some reason, the Pet Shop Boys kept coming to mind. This might have kept happening due to Markus’ passing vocal resemblance to Neil Tennant. But while the Notwist’s material isn’t exactly danceable, its synthesis of pop structure and electronic ductwork does bear a certain similarity to groups like the Pet Shop Boys or even New Order.
While Markus’ polite little first-person pop songs were full of plaintive descending chords and lovelorn lyrical couplets, numbers like “Pick up the Phone” and “One With the Freaks” (both from Neon Golden, which was recently re-issued domestically by Domino with bonus tracks) established a pretty melody only to make it fucked up with the electronicized sound of chairs moving on a roof above you, or squalls of guitar that suggested the art-punk of the late, great Chavez. The band would also shift gears every few songs to delve into heady, driving, largely instrumental pieces that found the musicians frantically dipping their heads in unison, or hopping around in a weird, German sort of way that made their funny haircuts shake. The jams kept making me imagine a scenario where Stereolab would cover Pearl Jam’s “Corduroy”.
The Notwist’s engaging cross hatch of electronic texture and indie rock structure isn’t groundbreaking anymore. But it’s a very well done approach to a sound that will only become even more prominent as Pentiums get faster and cameraphones become commonplace. In a digital world, it’s comforting to know that good rock and roll never stops working for you.