Music News

The Artful Dodger

Justin Warfield is a sonic chameleon, shifting and evolving with the times since the age of 14. He was a teenaged lothario rapper who recorded the cult gem My Field Trip to Planet 9 in 1993; a frontman for various short-lived projects, from the trip-hop group One Inch Punch to a rock band modestly titled the Justin Warfield Supernaut; a programmer with British electronic outfit Bomb the Bass; and a producer remixing tracks for Crazy Town, the Boo Radleys, Kylie Minogue, and many others.

She Wants Revenge, however, is the 32-year-old's unlikeliest transformation to date. Collaborating with hip-hop/R&B producer Adam "Adam 12" Bravin (best-known for his work with Esthero), Warfield resurrects Low-era David Bowie, Bauhaus, the Cure, Joy Division, and other deadpan post-punks.

The duo's music is angular and propulsive, and Warfield's voice is jagged, cold, and hard. On the lead single ,"Tear You Apart," Warfield sings, "I want to hold you close/Salt breath, heart beating hard/As I whisper in your ear/I'm gonna fucking tear you apart." On another song, "These Things," he cynically describes a masochistic relationship — "Let's make a fast plan/Watch it burn to the ground/I try to whisper/So nobody figures it out/I'm not a bad man/I'm just overwhelmed" — over Adam 12's hypnotic, metallic synth beat.

"I was in London for the birth of jungle," Warfield says. "I was watching the Chemical Brothers reach the height of what they were doing. None of that stuff really influenced me or touched me musically. But through working with Tim [Simenon of Bomb the Bass], I was able to go back in and rediscover New Order, Depeche Mode, Joy Division. I realized they were the most important albums to me growing up.

"Without it being an homage or a nod towards the past, we just set about making something that felt really special and timeless to us. We know we're influenced by the past, but we want to take that somewhere new into the future."

Long respected as an underground artist, She Wants Revenge's self-titled debut — which hit number 39 on the Billboard album charts during its first week of release — may be the hottest record Warfield has ever made. "We're pleased, shocked, and overwhelmed," he says.

Unfortunately, She Wants Revenge arrives when discerning music fans are nearly exhausted by '80s-inspired rock, a trend dating back at least four years, to the Rapture's "House of Jealous Lovers." Reviews have ranged from cautiously complimentary ("She Wants Revenge steal from the best, and steal well," Barry Walters opined in Rolling Stone) to rude and dismissive ("She Wants Revenge embrace every cliché with melodramatic fervor," Blender's Dorian Lynskey wrote). Nearly all of them question whether She Wants Revenge is for real or some L.A. band belatedly riding a trend. It's a funny question to ask a musician who has artfully cool-hunted for more than 15 years.

"We didn't make the record for critics, and we didn't make the record for indie-rock snobs," Warfield says. "We made the record for ourselves. We don't really care about the criticism, because we know where we're coming from. We're much more concerned with those kids at our shows who buy our records than critics."

Although he is asked only once about his band's negative reviews, Warfield's tone is both good-natured and slightly defensive throughout the interview. It takes place while he navigates Manhattan during that city's biggest blizzard in decades — walking out of an elevator into hills of snow, then wandering down Canal Street for a cup of Starbucks coffee. Obviously, it's not the best time to talk.

If She Wants Revenge is truly, as Warfield believes, an honest summation of his years of musical adventures, then it may take years of perspective before people can truly appreciate it, well after the dance-rock trend has subsided. There is some evidence of that. The lyrics are cryptic and personal, and Adam 12's production, while familiar, is undeniably tight and solid. If the project eventually fails, it may be due to a conundrum Warfield has faced throughout his career: He's too ahead of his time or too far behind it. "As you get older, you try to shed your influences and find out who you are," he says. "I've had the good luck and/or misfortune of growing up in the public eye."

Regardless of whether people like She Wants Revenge, Warfield continues to push forward. Some will accept only his best-loved incarnation: the rapper who helmed Bomb the Bass' classic "Bug Power Dust" single and issued leftfield hip-hop cuts like "K Sera Sera" and "Season of the Vic." But Warfield won't look back.

"The truth is, I was never motivated by money or anything outside my own growth," he says. "Once I felt like I accomplished what I can accomplish in that, I felt like there was no reason for me to go on. It's like I had met all the greats in hip-hop, I learned what I needed to learn, and I made my statement with [My Field Trip to Planet 9]. And that was all I really needed to say."

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Mosi Reeves