Photo credit: Mel Andrews
Anchored to the floor by a pair of pristine white sneakers, The Channels’ frontman (almost an oxymoron in a band so devoted to egoless groove-worship) Wes Kaplan weathers the mechanized howl ricocheting between the assembled skulls of the noise faithful like a marble statue. Eyes locked far above the heads of the crowd, squinting and searching as if reading off some ghostly teleprompter, his haunted mantras hack their way through the fearsome sonic jungle-scape of a band possessed. Zombified jazz drum patterns, supplied by recent New Yorker Nick Baker, march the Deep Thoughts basement horrorshow onwards, up and down and up again through a labyrinth of MC Escher-like impossible staircases; razor-sharp fills pile on the disorientation. Ian Kovacs’ bass, decked out in a calculated array of alligator clips, slurps and sludges, an irradiated metallic organism prowling through the mix, detuning and retuning as it hunts. What little animation the statuesque Wes has left he reserves for a prepared guitar that, with a seemingly gentle flick of a glass slide or the delicate nudge of a volume/wah pedal, morphs into intercepted alien radio chatter or an air raid siren spitting liquefied nails. Spliced into a single entity, the effect of the band is downright chilling, dosing up equal parts paranoia and joint-loosening funk. Dance if you can, but hey, what’s that in the corner of your eye?
“We’ve been compared to the Fall.” That’s about all I could get out of Wes the first time I asked him to describe The Channels, and quite honestly, those kind of third-hand accounts are about as far as you’ll get when trying to place them into a genre. Sure, the insistent pounding and needle-in-your-eye frenzy COULD recall noise rock heroes Arab on Radar and the desert-dry rhythm of Wes’ vocal delivery MIGHT ring all the right post-punk bells, but genre tags fail to capture how deliriously FUN The Channels can be. Disposable Camera, their most recent offering, at times feels like an exercise in the primal joy of demolition, of spending all day building up tiny toy cities with your childhood friends, daydreaming all the while of how you’re going to bring them toppling down. Album opener “Pill” rides the steady click of a hi-hat through a minefield of cymbal explosions, rocketing carefree past the dual alarm-clock howl of constantly morphing bass and guitar; it’s all the bliss of a joyride gone (almost) wrong compacted into four minutes. Or take “Wade”, the penultimate track, where Ian’s bass latches onto Nick’s feverish drum groove like a pack of wild dogs, chases after every snare hit with single-minded intensity, corners it, then fiendishly mauls it into submission. On this track, The Channels even recall the wide-open possibility of a band like CAN, where unexpectedly funky grooves are constantly forced to do battle with all manner of ghostly timbres and intentional sonic artifacts. “The Same Thing”, easily the most unabashedly melodic of the bunch, puts Wes’ threatening narration on full display. Couplets like “You can see our finger prints/and you can see our faces” stalk you down every corridor, with ghastly chiming guitar and wall-melting bass never far behind; a horror movie in miniature. If nothing else, The Channels know how to keep you glued to the screen.
Never one to run from a good scare, I sat down with The Channels for a quick bite and brew (minus the bite) at Costello’s in JP for a quick chat.
Phillipe Roberts: Mind if I record this?
Wes Kaplan: No, not at all. Do you mind if I record this as well? For surveillance purposes.
P: How did The Channels come together?
W: Initially, I was looking for a backing band for my solo project, The Craters, trying to find the right people for live shows. Nick and I met at a house show in JP around 2012, and I met Rory [MacMurdo] just when he started going to Berklee. Both of them were drummers, but I wanted a creative way to bring those songs to life, so we went for it. We scheduled a practice to sort through a couple of ideas. I was roommates with Ian [Kovac] at the time. He was playing synthesizer in Guerilla Toss and just happened to be home at our first practice. I asked if he wanted to hop in and it clicked. We had a rehearsal or two of working out tunes of mine, but the third session we started to stretch out and improvise. It was the most fun any of us have had jamming… or I’ll just speak for myself, it was the most fun I’ve had jamming. It was magical, start to finish. At that point, mid song, I thought “this can’t just be about me and my songs.”
P: Who’s the resident metalhead in the band? Some of this stuff gets seriously technical, especially in the drums. You get compared to a lot of No Wave and Post Punk, but there are some pretty flashy grooves all over your songs.
Nick Baker: Probably not a lot of metal, but I try to incorporate bits and pieces of different styles into my own. Most of my parts in the Channels, at least on the first record, were me trying to play like John French from the Magic Band. And there are a lot of Gospel chops that find their way in there too, especially in my fills. I do a lot of fills with the bass drum but I play them pretty straight so they come out sounding a little metal-y.
W: I’d say that Nick is the most lyrical element of the band. The guitar and the bass are very rhythmic, these small cells or blocks that are repeated, but Nick builds up these strange, long patterns.
N: Cyclical is the word I’d use. Almost like a whirlpool, circling in and getting tighter over the course of a song.
P: The guitar sounds on this, in all of your music really, are almost alien. How do you get those tones? Is it overdubs or…?
W: On the new stuff, there’s almost no overdubs.
N: Yeah, I think there’s all of two overdubs on the last one.
W: There’s maybe one song that’s not a first take guitar part. The sounds themselves are all third bridge technique: taking plastic or metal and shoving them between the guitar strings to throw off the ratios of the frets. Without even retuning your guitar, you end up with an alternate tuning, and the plastic or metal radically transforms the timbre of the instrument, drastically exaggerating the overtones.
P: Is that way you do it pretty mathematical? Are you running calculations and figuring out all those ratios beforehand?
W: Not at all. [Laughs] I usually just throw something in there and noodle until it works. What I like about prepared guitar is that not all that many people do it, and but I’ve never seen two people do it the same way. You can only do it by finding your own way.
Ian comes through the door, spots us after a few visual sweeps of the bar, and jaunts over.
P: So, Disposable Camera, is that the newest material you have?
Ian: It’s very dated material actually, from over a year ago. Getting a second revival.
N: It’s getting re-released essentially.
W: We’re recording a new thing at the end of the month. Who knows when that’s coming out.
P: No plans for releasing it?
N: Maybe it’ll come out in another year.
I: And we’ll be sitting in this same bar, having the same conversation about how old it is.
N: At that point, The Channels R&B album will be halfway done.
P: Tell me about your last tour. Any favorite cities?
I: Definitely Allendale. [Collective laughter] We played in some dude’s parent’s basement. He lived in a McMansion. But it was awesome. That show had character. We wandered around his neighborhood for a field to smoke in for probably an hour. It never turned up.
N: Detroit was great. Our show was…okay, but it was a miracle that we even played a show, it came together totally last minute. We stayed with the bass player from Protomartyr. He had this sick house with like 5 pinball machines!
I: He fixes up and sells old arcade games, I think.
P: How about you Wes?
W: There were unique and positive things about every place we played but Toronto was particularly striking. We were in one of the artier districts of the city; diverse crowds of people, just hanging out in the street, really lively and exciting. It felt like a place that really cares about its artists.
N: Lexington, Kentucky was cool.
I: Yeah it was really awesome. It was a smaller show, but the people putting it on were so genuine and sincere. You could tell the community there is super close knit.
W: You don’t get to experience cities with much depth when you’re on tour. So it comes down to who you surround yourself with while you’re there. We were really lucky to have help from Sam Potrykus booking it. We always had cool people to hang out with when we got in.
P: Fair, but not even a little sightseeing?
W: We thought about going to the Smithsonian in DC…
N: We went to see Straight Outta Compton instead.
P: You get a lot of comparisons to post-punk bands like The Fall, which I’d say is pretty flattering. But are there any comparisons you’ve gotten that you hated?
I: We got a lot of Primus comparisons early on. I wouldn’t necessarily say that I hated that but…
N: That was when EVERYBODY was getting compared to Primus.
N: I was talking to Hugo, the drummer for Big Neck Police and Palm, and apparently they get Primus comparisons too. His theory is that Primus being on the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater soundtrack just set them up to be this easy reference point for a band like that
P: Would you guys ever want to be on a Tony Hawk Pro Skater soundtrack?
N: Totally [Laughs]
P: You seem a little on the fence, Wes.
W: I mean, if we can go back in time and be on Tony Hawk one…
I: I was just going to say that. It’d have to be an OG Tony Hawk.
W: People do get exposed to a strange amount of music through extreme sports games.
I: Not just video games. I feel like my whole introduction to underground music was through skate videos. That alternative edge sort of crossed over into games like pro skater I guess. It’s a weird network.
W: That being said, my personal dream would be to be featured in a Fancy Lad video. I like to say that they’re The Best Band in Boston. Some of the most creative people around here. I was talking to Big [Nick Murray of Fancy Lad] once, geeking out, saying ridiculous stuff like, “What you’re doing with skateboards, we’re trying to do with our guitars.” [Laughs]
N: We used to rehearse in their house too.
I: So there’s definitely a little influence going between us and them.
P: What’s the post-show routine looking like for you guys tonight?
N: Well, according to SPIN magazine, we’re on tour right now. I guess one show date is a tour. But they also said that we have a didgeridoo and lasers or something.
W: I think they were trying to describe how our instruments sound.
P: So you don’t have a didgeridoo? Or lasers?
I: I’d probably be the closest to sounding like a didgeridoo. I wasn’t going for didgeridoo. ALTHOUGH, in a way I am, in the sense that my principles are the same. A didgeridoo has a low root bass, but has all of these odd harmonics, and what I’m doing with the bass is all about splitting the harmonics with the wah pedal and such. Might as well be a didgeridoo.