Volume is power, as Pete Townshend once said.
And yet refusing to blare one’s message may be an even mightier move.
With aggressive restraint, lo-fi ponder-rockers American Analog Set have bravely evoked an emotional and tonal palette that seems unorthodox even against the standards of today’s underground music.
Onstage, the nearly decade-old, Austin-based quintet known for playing vintage instruments way before it was cool doesn’t follow the convention of thickening their sound by turning up or playing harder or heavier. And this poses obvious technical challenges. Most of the time at an American Analog Set show, you can clearly make out what’s going on around you.
Namely, you can hear other audience members talking to each other.
Leader Andrew Kenney’s personal response to the chat factor has diminished in urgency, partly because he feels the majority of audiences these days know what to expect of band concerts.
“For a couple of different reasons, it’s gotten a lot easier over the years,” Kenney says with an air of secure ease. (Since 1997, AAS has released eight albums, most successfully 1999’s Golden Band, on Emperor Jones.)
“In the mid-’90s, there wasn’t much going on that was quiet like that, even where we’re from,” Kenney explains. “You could pull out Low or something, but they were from thousands of miles away from us; Red House Painters on the West Coast … that’s who we got compared to.
“We got talked over a lot. It was frustrating at first, but after a while it just became, like, ‘You know what? People are gonna talk.’ It’s a performance, but people also come out to have a good time. I used to root for the shushers up front. Now I kinda think, ‘Nah, don’t shush them in the back. At least they’re in the back.'”
Which doesn’t necessarily mean band members are passive when they feel the crowd’s not being attentive enough. The group just has its own way of fighting back.
“As a matter of fact,” says Kenney, laughing, “we write a set list out, but if it’s a really loud crowd, we’ll just keep playing quieter and quieter, even if it’s songs we don’t know how to play as well.
“Even at our loudest,” he goes on, “we’re still quieter than some other mellow bands, especially stage-volume wise. We don’t have big amplifiers. … We get by with [what we have].
“I like the way that — especially in smaller places — you just hear the sound of the amplifier, and maybe the vibraphone doesn’t need to be mic’ed, because it’s loud enough to carry through the room. That’s a cool way to see a band, instead of a PA amplifying all the music for you, [where] it kind of changes the sound a little bit.”
Kenney feels that natural acoustics paint a more honest picture, even for louder music (which he also likes). The inherent coloration brought by PAs and microphones, he says, works against volume-reliant bands as well.
“The violence in the volume is taken away [by a PA],” he declares. “Even if it makes it louder, it makes it dumber.”
Though American Analog Set does sometimes shorten pieces in concert in order to fit in more songs, the group remains equally steadfast in its commitment to repetition. It’s an integral part of AAS songwriting.
“I promise you, it’s not out of laziness,” Kenney says. “We just like hitting that zone and letting it ride. They’re not just loops, either. Many times, we’ll change things about the way things are played or the way they’re mixed.
“I don’t think we take direct influence from bands like Faust or Can or Neu!,” he continues. “But one of the things that we all listen to and like about those bands is that it sounds like a loop, because things repeat for a long time — but it’s real people playing these things. The things that endear you to the songs are the subtle things — like the way a cymbal is hit, or the way a phrase is rushed one time around.”
If American Analog Set and bands of similar aesthetic temperament are any indication, there’s a growing desire for music that counters the trend of unfulfilled over-stimulation. For AAS and its followers, patience is indeed a virtue.
[Saby Reyes-Kulkarni is a freelance music writer based in Rochester, N.Y.]
American Analog Set plays Vincent’s Ear (68 N. Lexington Ave.; 259-9119) at 10 p.m. on Saturday, April 17. Cover is $7. Bill Coonan opens.