The Manic Highs and Tragic Lows of Life in the Death Set
Ideally, the Death Set's punk-meets-electro live shows are sweaty, zealous affairs in DIY hovels, with crowds perpetually moving back and forth and the band rarely standing still. Dating back to the band's origins in Australia and following developments through Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Brooklyn, lead screamer Johnny Siera says the group's concerts were "pretty crazy from the get-go."
"If you find those great spaces where it's a lowish stage and people are drunk enough and crammed together enough, it's usually a bit of a time bomb," he says. Usually, the singer downs "a couple of vodkas" to psych himself up, but there have been repercussions to his ritual. At a South by Southwest gig last year, he ingested too much booze and ended up barfing on a girl in the front row, later apologizing via Twitter. Siera seems to have forgotten the event, but when he's reminded of it, he begins giggling.
Siera is aware of how integral these shows are to shaping the Death Set's image but wants his band to expand past puking and perspiring in dives. "People think the music is a lot more punk than it actually is because of the live show," he says. "It's always based around craziness and energy. When people listen to the record, they find it a lot different. I'm even more stoked when people are whistling a tune down the street after listening to the record [than them] going crazy at the show."
On a wide festival stage, the Death Set should have no trouble retaining a chunk of its charm, but the real power of the band stems from its peculiar, haphazard feel. The records' production has stepped up a smidge over time, which is fine, but if Siera somehow transformed from an impish fire starter into a virtuosic vocalist or politeness overtook the aesthetic, the thrill would disappear. It's tough to find a computer-based band that feels more wonderfully impulsive and organic.
"We're not a band that will jam out in the rehearsal room," says Siera, who values "ideas over melody and energy over proficiency." The shortage of long-ass guitar solos is more than compensated for by chaos.
Case in point, the video for "Slap Slap Slap Pound Up Down Snap," the first single off sophomore full-length Michel Poiccard, provides some seriously bonkers visuals to match the balls-out electro-inflected punk. While Siera squeals like a mental patient, bouncing around in the back of a moving truck, Molotov cocktails are lobbed, a naked skateboarder rolls by, instruments are obliterated, and the whole thing explodes with pyrotechnics straight out of a 6-year-old's birthday party.
But for all the fun these guys clearly have, the Death Set's tenure has seen one soul-crushing event. In September 2009, guitarist Beau Velasco — the same guy whose name was tagged in the "Slap Slap" video — died in New York City. (His cause of death was never officially announced.) It was Velasco who started the group with Siera in the mid-2000s, and while Siera says that his departed bandmate hadn't played shows with them for a couple of years before his passing, his presence was crucial.
After Velasco's death, Siera felt that he had one of two options: dissolve the Death Set or construct another album that's "more of a celebration." While he ended up opting for the latter, Michel Poiccard is wrapped up in the memory of Velasco. His voice introduces the album ("I wanna take this tape and blow up your fuckin' stereo"), "I Been Searching for This Song Called Fashion" is spun out of a guitar lick he wrote, and there's even a track titled "I Miss You Beau Velasco (feat. Beau Velasco)."
"It was almost therapy writing the record in a way," says Siera. "The whole process was kind of cathartic."
Even with that ugly dose of reality, the Death Set still champions a carefree giddiness. Consider the group's original choice of press shots to promote Michel. Although they're no longer on the Death Set's site (you can dig them up at drivenbyboredom.com, the photographer's page), the shots depict the trio standing around on a rooftop, flanked by a couple of inked-up naked girls. The guys are wearing the joyously goofy expressions of adolescent boys who can't believe they're in the vicinity of actual tits. Even though their label wisely nixed the idea of the band's using those for media, that idea exemplified its peculiarity in the same way the anarchy of "Slap Slap" did.
"Even though it sounds cliché," says Siera, "in every little aspect of the band, we're trying to do something a little bit fucked-up and different."
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