Ampeater Music

Welcome to Ampeater Music. You'll notice that we've totally stripped the design. We were getting tired of the old one, and the best way to force ourselves to fix it was to dive in head first. We've unpublished all our past posts, and we're starting at the beginning, revamping each entry one at a time. They'll all be back up on the site soon enough! In the meantime, we hope you'll take the opportunity to reacquaint yourself with our back catalog. We'll also be making incremental improvements to the look and functionality of our dear old Ampeater over the coming weeks and months. Please be patient, and stay tuned for some really cool stuff. It's coming, we promise.

AEM027 PS I Love You

AEM027 PS I Love You
  • Location: Kingston, Ontario
  • Links: Bandcamp, Record Label
  • Personnel: Paul Saulnier (lead vocals, guitar, bass, bass pedals), Ben Nelson (drums, percussion, backing vocals)

Before this decade, only Canadian artists who had explosive popular appeal – like Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Alanis Morissette, Celine Dion and the rest – would make it in the States, their success having less to do with a homegrown Canadian music market and more to do with the open-armed American music industry’s willingness to swallow any delicious pop morsel whole. Most other bands were left to wither in the lonely, obscure Canadian cold. And then Canada surprised everyone and produced, in one decade, not one but two genuine, sprawling homegrown scenes – based in Toronto and Montreal, really the only two cities in Canada anyway – that led to great art-tinged pop groups who also found immense popularity across the border. Led by the New Pornographers and then Broken Social Scene and Arcade Fire, these groups have perhaps defined the sound of Indie rock in the last decade more than any others, American or Canadian. The explanation for their popularity has little to do with the Canadian scene itself: the burgeoning international indie movement of the last decade has created a larger venue for more experimental artists, and the online democratization of music has made it easier for new bands to catch a break regardless of their location.

There is nevertheless something distinctive about Canadian indie rock. While most American indie rock bands seem to revel in their go-it-alone attitude (only recently with projects like Dark Was the Night has any semblance of an American indie collective began to emerge) Canadian musicians often act collectivity. PS I Love You in some ways epitomizes this and in others throws it by the wayside. They are part of an online community that quadruples as the place to find the goings-on-about-town in their home of Kingston, Ontario, a record label, music video club and zine. And their first pressed single, “Facelove”, came as the B-side on a (physical) 7-inch with their friends Diamond Rings (though the first track got some Pitchfork love, the B-side was largely overlooked).

But PS I Love You is just multi-instrumentalist Paul Saulnier and drummer Benjamin Nelson – who lays down an excellent, feverish set throughout, especially featured on A-side “Facelove” – and is primarily the lifelong musical journey of Saulnier. And yet they might as well be an army. Where the Japandroids, another recent breakout duo from Canada, describe themselves as “a two piece trying to sound like a five piece band,” PS I Love You is a two-piece that actually sounds like a five piece band, with Saulnier on guitar, vocals and (via his seemingly possessed right foot) bass organ.  Not that that really matters. I listened to this song for weeks without knowing that there were just two guys in the band. But it only adds to their mystique: when I offered them a gig (admittedly for basically nothing) they responded that, as “poor Canadians,” they didn’t even have passports (see their video too). For shame. These guys pack more than enough edge and just enough hook to fill whole hipster stadiums – ones that don’t usually serve as most-of-the-time ice rinks.

I’m serious. Why? Turn on “Facelove” and keep reading. This single is pure propulsion. There is no hook or verse, just continual upward motion. Using the wavering, weighty bass organ as a jumping off point as it gains momentum, they briefly toy with a surrealistic love call (“your love is like a giant strawberry (or) a delicious glass of wine (or) a naive dream of mine / thrown in my face.”) but then cascade into a guitar solo that would put Jimmy Page to shame. Yes, there is something distinctly heavy metal about this song: the beat may be post-punk but the guitar solo is more Black Sabbath than Joy Division. The way he doubles the lines, his effortless shredding – Saulnier clearly has some nostalgia for times when guitarists proved themselves by doing more than looking pissed off. And just when you might expect them to pull a 360, to return to Saulnier’s high-pitched hoarse cry, they just keep pushing, turning the bridge into a never-ending solo that makes you wonder if the guitar is going to fly right out of his hands. No need for another verse; that would bring these guys back to earth. They are in outer-fu*king space.

Where A-side “Facelove” sounds like bits grabbed from the last forty years of rock thrown into a smelter and served hot, B-side “Subtle and Majestic” firmly situates PS I Love You in the Canadian indie rock scene. Recalling the more spacious singles of Broken Social Scene’s You Forgot It In People, the lightly picked guitars and delicate chords complement Saulnier’s off-pitched voice and render it as something that is both serene and grubby. He conveys the mix of sincerity and self-deprecation that every musically-inclined dude has experienced when making a mixtape for a significant other (hopeful or real): “I’m not trying to be romantic but I made you this mixtape/ It’s subtle and majestic and I know that you’ve probably heard most of these songs before/ But this time they’re from me/So you can really hear what they actually mean.” He gets at that perhaps ridiculous (or, in the opinion of this mixtape obsessed writer, perhaps not) feeling that, by putting songs in their just-perfect order, you put your unique mark on them and make them real for your obviously floored listener. More, Saulnier’s strained but powerful call at the end of “Subtle and Majestic” (“Let’s quit smoking together/let’s start smoking together”) expresses the familiar longing to undertake shared projects with another, though which particular project is basically irrelevant. What matters is that last part: together.

I think we like bands best that take the familiar and put an unusual twist on it; that don’t so much re-invent a genre as perfect it. With hard hitting beats, sweet guitar hooks, some seriously heavy bass organ and just a bit of self-conscious sensitivity, PS I Love You is able to be both a part and an extension of their scene and sound. Now let’s get them some passports.


AEM010 Ashraya Gupta

AEM010 Ashraya Gupta
  • Location: New York, NY

Ashraya Gupta is a voice out of another era – though exactly what era is up for debate. She most immediately recalls the sweet, delicate voices of 60s and 70s folk singers like Vashti Bunyan, but she sings with the wispiness and tight vibrato of Billie Holiday. At certain points she even sounds even older – in her precise intonation, she sounds something like an imagined popular singer from the 19th century.  All of which is to say that Gutpa has an incredible voice that is immediately loved by most everyone who hears it; describing it is almost a waste of time. But, since one paragraph doesn’t really do her justice, let’s indulge a bit.

Gupta was born in India, raised in England and Cincinnati, and at last settled down in the most un-cosmopolitan of places (Long Island). She’s been playing for years in another band–the Kitchen Cabinet. That band, upbeat and carefree almost to a fault, provided a nice breezy compliment to Gupta’s light alto. But here we get a real treat: Gupta on her own, exploring original ideas with just a keyboard to boot. Though this barebones set-up could prove monotonous or boring in another’s hands, Gupta carries these two songs with her voice alone.

A-Side “Dogwood”, built around a simple and haunting melody, finds Gupta in a near-whisper at points. The deep calm that she conveys here perfectly evokes a mood that is at once lonely and hopeful: “Damp and dim on an empty street/morning light never looked so bleak…but on a clear day from my window/I see the palisades so green like the summer/ on a clear day from my window/I see the days when first you looked at me.” It’s not hard to imagine her writing this song at her window as a kind of self-medication for those lonely cold seasons, and with her warm tone and ethereal arrangements, she welcomes you in. You’re almost right there with her, looking out. I first heard these songs while walking one weekend in the dim, airless hallways of a local housing project. Gupta’s quiet but powerful music was the perfect anecdote to that downtrodden environment.

“Great Expectations” expands Gupta’s soundscape with a minimal drum track. She sounds a bit wounded here, drowned out by the keyboards and percussion around her (if I do have one complaint, it’s that I want to hear vocals, though I suspect this is more an issue of levels than arrangement). When her singing at last rises above the accompaniment at song’s end, it’s to deliver a real kicker: “The echo chambers of this heart/ four empty rooms to tear apart.”

Both songs on this 7-inch are modest efforts that hint at something even greater for Gupta. They’re little songs that pack a tight, quiet punch. Gupta’s modesty – in setup, in delivery, in scope – suits her minimalist aesthetic, and puts the focus of her music where it belongs: on her voice. Where many solo records disappoint, becoming mere shadows of the bands that the artist usually inhabits, these two songs are gems in their own right.


AEM002 Boy Without God

AEM002 Boy Without God
  • Location: New York, NY
  • Links: Bandcamp
  • Personnel: Gabe Birnbaum

Records often become inextricably tied to the place and moment in our lives when we hear them. Music’s power to latch itself on to our memories is truly remarkable: a single song can completely transport the listener back into that mood in ways that mere recollection cannot. They are an easy ticket for re-experiencing the past. But sometimes we associate them with memories that are too painful to confront, and they become unplayable. Listening to records that can arouse such intense emotional memory is a risky business, but it is perhaps that deeply affecting quality that makes music great.

Boy Without God (Gabe Birnbaum) has made one those records, one of those (and we all have our own favorites) that somehow got under my skin and stayed there. The particular moments I associate with it are dark and dramatic, but that’s not to say Boy Without God is a downer. Exuberant and full-blooded, Boy Without God creates music that is so raw that it will undoubtedly hit you hard; in what way, it’s hard to say.

That’s in large part due to his crafting of soundscapes. Boy Without God likes his sound meaty: lo-fi need not apply here. He wraps you in a variety of unusual timbres and creates tension and release by gradually expanding that space. No place is this more in evidence that on “Holy Holy Little Fist”, the no-holds barred opener on this digital 7-inch that showcases Boy Without God at his best: going for broke. Beginning with an arresting organ line and spare drum machine, the song is propelled by layer upon layer of vocals, percussion, a flurry of hand claps, and finally bursts of frenetic horns (all played by Boy Without God himself) that showcase his unique combination of indie rock and free-jazz. Where most rock musicians shy away from such frenetic dissonance, Boy Without God relishes in these moments while using them sparingly to heighten the effect.

Boy Without God” suggests some type of existential searching, and his lyrics reflect this humanistic outlook in “Holy Holy Little Fist”“I know fate is a lead coat/weighin on our/silky ties and dead bolts/ all our exoskeletons/ I know fate is lead, molten/pouring into/forms we cannot understand/ guided by our own two hands.” This rejection of fate, this emphasis on the earthy (in the same song he declares, “We are fields of wise goats defecating joyfully”) can be disorienting for listeners used to music drenched in irony and cynicism. But the conviction with which he sings seems to say: so be it. His deep, growly baritone – which he often over-dubs multiple times – recalls Matt Berninger of The National, but that doesn’t stop him from pushing his voice to the upper reaches of his register until he’s at a full out scream. Sincerity is only revolting when it veers into melodrama, and Boy Without God is anything but that.

“If You” is an intimate, hopeful ballad–the yin to the yang of “Holy Holy Little Fist”Boy Without God adds his distinctive orchestral temperament to an otherwise sparse guitar track, adding smudges of horns and vibraphones to create a warm, welcoming palate. You get a sense of his extreme vulnerability here, but it’s an endearing vulnerability, not a pitiful one. In the same way that Elliott Smith used to turn his sadness into beauty, Boy Without God has a talent for turning his loneliness into something more.

This two track single from Boy Without God gives a small taste of his talent; his other work hints at the epic instrumental genius of Sufjan Stevens but with none of his cringe-worthy sentimentality. With a broader musical palate to work with than most indie rockers and flair for the dramatic, Boy Without God makes music that’s adventurous without being distancing; music that is, in fact, deeply arresting and personal. And memorable.

AEM001 Strawberry Hands

AEM001 Strawberry Hands
  • Location: New York, NY
  • Links: Bandcamp
  • Personnel: Jacob Brunner, Jim Strong
  • Related Posts: AEM004 RAUL

Pop music is a bitch. Once you start listening to it – and listening to it obsessively – it becomes inescapable: you can’t listen to anything else. And among certain sensibilities, pop music is hotter than ever. We appreciate more experimental bands when they go pop; far from looking down on it, we treat pop as a virtue. While a lot of interesting stuff can come out of more left-field bands dabbling in pop, we also fetishize it, crowding out true experimentation. At least this reviewer did. Then a band comes along like Strawberry Hands that makes you think again about why you listen to music in the first place.

Strawberry Hands, then, is not a pop band. They don’t make music for you: they don’t reach out and grab you by the lapels (or the cardigans, or whatever) and say listen. The duo that makes up the band, Jake Brunner and Jim Strong, make music for themselves. And this is refreshing.

Take “The Prettiest Song in the World”, side A of this 7-inch. Whisper quiet, almost burlesque sounding in its rhythm and harmony, with intersecting, cooing falsettos, the group has created a whole new kind of eeriness that is powerful in its quiet way. It is so creepy, in part, because of the conflicting tendencies they convey: on the one hand comforting and intimate, their music is also deeply anxious in a way that’s difficult to identify. You might call it a kind of resigned mourning. You get the sense that these guys should have laid down the soundtrack to one of those post-war European noirs, serving as the house band an empty salon that stubbornly refuses to close.

This is all my reaction to the music, of course, but perhaps my way of reacting to it is the whole point. Repetition – a main theme of Strawberry Hands’s work – leads to hypnotic impressions. Brunner waxed philosophic to me in an email about this:

“But even strict repetition is a kind of illusion. There are lots of composers that play with the idea of repetition and its inherent paradoxes. The thing about repetition in music is that people only think about the musical material, but they don’t consider the interaction of human perception with that musical material. That’s why something repeated many many times can take on a completely different character, like with Reich’s early tape loops, or with Satie’s Vexations which is a page of music played for like 8 hours.”

Clearly these guys have thought about their music. Even the texture of their sound is meticulously crafted. Though you might call the music lo-fi, this is really a misnomer: lo-fi implies some degradation of sound quality, whereas these guys deliberately morph their sound to their own tastes. It takes a little getting used to, but the warmth conveyed on “The Prettiest Song in the World” has a lot to do with the texture they create, which sounds like an exaggerated version of the sound you get from vinyl.

The self-titled B-side to this record is equally as haunting as the “The Prettiest Song”, and it re-emphasizes the importance that Strawberry Hands place on repetition – it is essentially a drum loop with various metallic-sounding samples, modified guitars and what sounds like a organ jumping in occasionally – but also, more importantly, on the way they manipulate their sound to create visuals through their music. “Jim is a painter and I think he really considers fidelity in the way he considers color or light in his paintings,” Brunner told me. “They’re very closely related.”

Attention to sonic texture is nothing new, of course, but usually bands find one they like and stick to it. Strawberry Hands, though, seem intent on fitting the texture to the given song, just as painters change the textures of their work. This can be disorienting – so few bands take these sonic liberties – but it also proves incredibly rewarding. These two songs demonstrate their ability to experiment with different qualities of sound to convey drastically contrasting moods.

I’ll leave with some words from Jake Brunner, who is far more eloquent about his music than I:

“For me I think that there’s something tragic and severe about repetition in music. It can lead to trances, to real ecstasy and a release from the bonds of material awareness, but I feel like there’s also this Sisyphean quality to it, this kind of no exit, eternal recurrence vibe.”