With more than a decade of playing under its belt, Microwaves is the elder statesman of noise rock in Pittsburgh. But the two- or-three-piece's music hasn't softened or, heaven forbid, become more melodic over the years — rather the contrary.
"It's still the same idea, I guess," says drummer John Roman, reflecting on the band's oeuvre as he prepares for the release of its fourth full-length. "It's just that there's a lot more happening all at once. It's more chaotic."
"Chaotic" is, in fact, precisely the word that comes to mind upon one's first listen to Psionic Impedance, Microwaves' latest. While the band's output has always consisted of dizzying tunes churned out over whirlwind drums, its newest material delves further into the metal end of the spectrum than ever before. It's being released on ugEXPLODE, the label run by Weasel Walter, the conservator of No Wave best known as the main force behind The Flying Luttenbachers.
While Roman and guitarist Dave Kuzy have been at the center of Microwaves since the band's inception, just after Roman's former band The 1985 broke up at the turn of the 21st century, the bass position has been a bit of a revolving door. The original lineup featured Zombi's Steve Moore; he left in 2004. After that, both Jason Jouver (Creta Bourzia, Don Caballero) and Adam MacGregor (Conelrad, Brown Angel) did time in the position. After MacGregor left to concentrate on school in 2007, Roman and Kuzy decided to pick up the bass parts themselves.
"We figured out how to do the duo by using a sampler and maybe a couple other tricks," explains Roman. "I'd be triggering a sampler with one hand while I was playing drums — it's not all automated, we're not playing to a track. But every five seconds or so I'd be hitting a sampler. Eventually, it creates the illusion of another person being there."
It was in that format that they wrote and recorded Psionic Impedance. It was a slightly different process than anything the band had used before.
"It mainly just took longer," says Kuzy. "We came up with the songs in the same way, though — neither of us came in with an entirely composed song or anything."
"It was a lot more difficult," adds Roman, "because we were trying to cover the same ground we had as a trio. We've always played as three different instruments; the bass didn't usually just double up the guitar line, and we didn't want that to change."
The songs on Psionic Impedance are dissonant, often abrasive; at times, they dissolve into improvisation. But Kuzy notes, "There is some improv — but not as much as you might think." Much of the chaos is actually well-planned.
The album is both a noisy, visceral trip and a technical feat. There are the future-punk sounds and tandem vocals we're accustomed to from Microwaves. ("Vampire Me" delivers.) But there's also the dystopian jazz of "Necrocircuitry" and the techy metal of "Hammerspace." And a cover of a song by one of the band's original influences, Devo — "Penetration (In the Centerfold)." ("It just seemed to be something that musically fit in line with the busier nature of the songs that we're currently doing," explains Kuzy.)
The story could end there, and it would be enough: Microwaves perseveres through lineup changes, turns into two-piece, takes care of business. But there's more.
"Eventually, we started having problems with this set-up — the way the technology would work," says Roman. "It would malfunction sometimes. We found out that on certain surfaces — a very resonant wooden stage, for example — it would act up."
MacGregor returned to the lineup on a part-time basis, and will play the band's release show at The Shop, on Fri., June 15. After that, MacGregor, who's leaving town later this summer, will be supplanted by Johnny Artlett — who, oddly enough, previously played under the name Microwaves Killed Johnnie Cochran. Still following?
"He got in touch through some Internet channel, and was interested in playing with us," explains Roman. "Adam was back at the time, so we played with him, but then a year later we found out Adam was leaving, and Johnny was still interested. We played together, and when he came over, he knew something like four songs completely."
That might not be so impressive if this were a pop band, but in most Microwaves tunes, it's tough to ascertain whether there's a time signature at all, much less what it is. Learning entire songs start to finish without a little coaching means a lot of innate talent, or a lot of time spent listening to the record — or, more likely, both. While Artlett is a few years younger than the original Microwaves members, they plan to take him on full time, and already have some out-of-town shows planned over the summer.
In the meantime, they prepare for the official release of Psionic Impedance, which last week got a positive review on Spin's website that was short enough for us to reprint in whole here: "The Bleakest AmRep sludge possible gets noogied by jagged Residents angles: The noise-metal Primus?"
While some records sound best in the car, and others are best listened to while meditating quietly, it's hard to know exactly how to optimize the Microwaves listening experience. So what does Roman recommend you do while listening to Impedance?
"Harm to yourself."