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Aislers Set (Puncture, 2000)

Pop: that one small word and all the huge associations it calls up, is the typical starting point writers use when discussing the Aislers Set. And yes, pop(in the indie-rock sense of the term) is probably the technically correct category for the band, but if you really want to capture the essence of the sound singer/multi-instrumentalist/mastermind Amy Linton and her comrades (whom she affectionately refers to as “those kids”) concoct separately and together, the word is far too vague. Indie-pop, “twee” or otherwise, implies catchy melodies, attention to songcraft and arrangements, and a conscious evocation of the ineffable thrills of pop music’s past, and all that applies here, but this music is the product of a singular personality and perspective. No one else has a voice like Amy Linton (critics have fallen all over themselves making comparisons to everyone from the Shirelles to the Primitives, none of which even come close; she herself suggests Stephen Pastel before shrugging, “I think I just sound like me when I’m talking”) and no one else could have possibly written these songs.

The Aislers Set story begins in the waning days of Henry’s Dress, a band of Albuquerque expatriates who moved to San Francisco and made a brief splash before breaking up. Linton drummed and sang with the Dress (moonlighting in Go Sailor with Rose Melberg as well) but ran into problems when she began writing a growing number of songs that didn’t quite fit with that band’s My Bloody Mary Chain crash-pop aesthetic. A little more quiet, intimate and complex perhaps, the new songs largely dealt with the ups and downs of an international long-distance love affair (“You’re a holiday gone well”) that ultimately went very sour (“I slept on the streets of London/I thought I had a friend in London”; “Geography and biology/just basically don’t mesh with me/hey hey hey”) and managed to apply a dry wit to even the most heartbreaking moments. (Which may have something to do with why the irascible Stephin Merritt has embraced this band.) Henry’s Dress weren’t interested in playing these new numbers, and soon lost interest in playing together at all, leaving behind a small clique of disappointed fans. “It was sad,” she recalls. “I loved that band, but we went our different ways, musically.”

Driven by the need to document, Amy acquired an 8-track, set up in an off-garage side room of the big Potrero Hill house the band shared (and still do; as she puts it, “San Francisco these days? Oh I could never move!”) and started recording every instrumental and vocal part herself. What started as a casual obsession became something more when two things happened: Mike Schulman from Slumberland Records (who had put out some Henry’s Dress material) fell in love with the tapes and wanted to release them; and friends from other local pop-leaning bands like Poundsign and Track Star expressed an interest in playing together. Before long the Aislers Set (the mysterious name comes from a weird dream Linton had of hundreds of people loitering in aisles–no apostrophe) were playing live, and a remarkable album called Terrible Things Happen, consisting mostly of the solo recordings as well as a few songs done with the new lineup (including Track Star singer-guitarist Wyatt Cusick’s “Why Baby”, which fits in seamlessly), crept surreptitiously into record stores.

Terrible Things Happen didn’t make many people’s “best of the 90’s” list, but a few years from now I wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes regarded as an influential sonic pinnacle like the Young Marble Giants’ Colossal Youth or an essential rite of passage like the Violent Femmes’ debut. (To name two albums that went largely unheard in their day, only finding their audiences years later.) Both the words and the music take many listens to absorb completely, revealing fresh nuances and unheard lyrics for months, maybe years, afterward. Part of this may be due to the sensuous, reverb-soaked production; Linton’s sleepy, quiet-yet-penetrating delivery, with just a hint of rasp from a bad cigarette habit, accounts for more.

The other side of the Aislers Set experience is the band’s live shows, which sharply contrast the debut album’s lonesome atmosphere with a lovably tongue-in-cheek camaraderie. Linton is clearly the frontperson and musical leader, smiling shyly, picking out countless variations on the “Then He Kissed Me” riff on her trademark 12-string guitar, and singing in that voice, but she’s not one to embrace the spotlight. Her more extroverted bandmates take up the slack in that department, and the whole thing is a joy to witness. Their sets tend to emphasize the more uptempo side of the band, mixing boppier first-album tunes like “Long Division” and “Holiday Gone Well” with a load of dazzling newer material, most of which has been collected on the band’s just-out second album, The Last Match. Containing the same number of songs as the first (14), but running nearly 10 minutes shorter, the new collection expresses another mood: punchier, more outwardly humorous songs brimming with exuberance. The fastest of these, “Been Hiding”, has been a live favorite since I first heard it, sounding like a CBGB’s pop-punk summit meeting between early Blondie and the Ramones, with hilarious perverted-by-language lyrics that play with the absurd sound of words like “thespian” and “magistrate” and end with a silly Wizard Of Oz quote, but crack open for a moment during the confessional bridge: “Please help me/been hiding”. The new songs spin yarns about home, friends and all the weirdness thereof, and further illustrate Amy Linton’s gift for a delicious melody line and a wry observation. (“You got up at 3 PM/and showered for hours/watched porn all alone for the evening/it never really got you anywhere/except back in the shower”, all sung as if it were the tenderest love song imaginable.) And just when you think there might be just a few too many fast numbers, she hits you with “Bang Bang Bang”, a sumptuous keyboard/horns/harmonies ballad that borrows all the right elements from Brian Wilson’s Smile period. And the whole album, once again, was predominantly recorded in that little basement room. Wow.

The first time I talk to Amy Linton, to commend her for the set her band just finished, she responds, “That’s a real compliment coming from a guy wearing a Cannanes T-shirt!” The third time I talk to her to arrange this interview, her eyes light up when I recognize the obscure Fall reference hidden in her e-mail address. Now we’re sitting in her living room at sunset, talking about the beginnings of her current band, and even as she portrays the whole venture as a happy accident that came together almost by chance, it becomes clear that it was her all-consuming passion for music that made it all possible in the first place.

I start by asking if, when she began taping the songs that ended up on Terrible Things Happen, she had the intention of forming a band around them. She thinks for a moment. “I guess I thought it was just gonna be me. I didn’t have anyone to play with after Henry’s Dress broke up, and then when I was about done with it, I met all those kids! So we re-recorded a couple of things, so that they could be on the record!” (The band ended up on four songs, including the sublime “Mary’s Song”, which may be the Aislers Set’s best recorded moment so far, a slow-building ballad of travel and longing that climaxes with a soaring melodic bass part that doesn’t even appear till about three minutes in, which gives it all the more impact.) “I hadn’t really intended to put it out, but Mike asked so I figured ‘why not?’ I was just documenting them and they happened to turn up on a record.”

How much of the music was arrived at spontaneously during the recording process? I get the impression that some songs were fully formed before you began, while others like the opening “Friends Of The Heroes” were more written as you went along, judging by the way the drums stop in the middle of a big climactic chorus. The effect is like a rug being pulled out from under you as the voices carry on for a few seconds and dissipate gradually.

“There’s a few songs where I had this thing where I would just put drums down for three minutes and then write a song on top of that. So yeah, it was totally random that it just happened to be two bars short…but then it sounded pretty good in its little spontaneity, so I wasn’t gonna worry about it.

“‘Holiday Gone Well’ is also like that, because it’s the same ‘ka-choo ka-choo’…” (She starts imitating the frantic 2/4 beat.) “I just wanted to write a song to go with those drums. And that’s why it does all those ‘aways’ at the end because the drums are still going on.” She laughs, describing the reason for what is actually a very stunning climax, where the harmony voices hit a peak, chorusing “Oh my darling, you went away, away, away ,away, away, away” into infinity. Once again, the randomness resulted in something brilliant.

“Most of the songs, though, were completely composed, especially the more upbeat ones, just because I knew what I wanted. There was no guessing; I knew what those were going to sound like.”

Like “California”, for instance?

“That one changed a lot, because it was originally just acoustic guitar and like a big tympani kind of drum, but I played around a lot with the drums and I had two completely different tracks I was testing to see what they sounded like with the rest of the song, but they just happened to both sound really good. There was a lot of hit-or-miss, just trying over and over.

“And then the slower ones were like…everythinggot tried once.” She lets out a huge frustrated sigh and chuckles. “Yes.”

In general, when you started making music was it something you had always wanted to do, or more something you fell into by chance and got used to doing?

“I guess a little it of both. I mean, I started playing drums when I was really small and played in little punk rock bands with my brother and stuff. So since I was a teeny kid I always wanted to play, but I never thought that I’d make records and continue doing it. It was pretty cool, actually. I got to play in bars when I was, like, thirteen. We were definitely a younger ‘groove’ of punk rock. We were like, ‘if we could only just play with the Descendents! It’d be so cool!'”

It still may happen, I suggest, and she laughs loudly.

“Yeah! My tastes have changed a little bit.”

So when did you move here from Albuquerque?

“When I was 20. I went to school here. I guess I don’t regret it! Things are goin’ good…”

Compared to what you might be doing now if you had stayed?

“Yeah, it’s really easy to do nothing there, which is pretty nice, but…” Her voice trails off, leaving the obvious unsaid.

Her artwork, from the evidence of the two Aislers Set album covers and a lovingly detailed rendering of a giant ferris wheel she drew for an article in the fanzine Zum on the band’s recent trip to Japan, suggests an interest in architecture and when I called her at work earlier that day, sure enough, she works in an architect’s office. Always interested in what people in bands do for a living, I ask her about this, and she becomes animated. “Yup! Very much so! Should I elaborate?” Please do, I reply.

“I went to school and studied art, and I was a sculpture major. I just did kinetic-type sculpture, so mechanics, engineering and architecture are pretty important to me. The job was sort of a total fluke, though; I don’t know how that happened. I just applied there and literally a month later I went to design my first house! For some cop who had no idea that I had never done anything like that before…but he seemed to like it OK!

“It’s fantastic. I wasn’t prepared for all the really mundane…structural plans, electrical plans and all that stuff, but all the designing is pretty exciting. I actually got to work on the Gettys’ apartment, this penthouse in the Financial District. All the walls were on tracks, so you could, like remote-control the walls to move wherever you wanted them. In the kitchen there’s absolutely no sign of “kitchen”; everything pops out of a drawer or a counter, their bed has a TV that comes out of the footboard…it was very ugly and very beautiful at the same time! Gaudy and horrible, but…you could film just about anything there. Some really high-class porn, or one of those old 60’s kinda space movies with, like, the egg chairs, you know? They’re selling it…for a mere 20 million dollars or something.”

I make a note to call my accountant later, and we return to the subject of the band. How, I ask, has this group of people changed your writing, if it has? Do you tailor your songs more to the way these particular people play?

“There’s a couple of songs on the record that we wrote as a band; that doesn’t happen often but it does. Actually, I think I write songs in the same way but they’re just arranged differently. You have to be more delicate with five people. In a three-piece there’s a lot of space to fill, but I think we have to do a lot of holding back. I’m still getting used to making sure there’s enough room for everybody and not making it just this big lump of noise, but it’s also great because of the potential with five people. I think some of these songs worked out really well!

“But I guess I’ve also been writing a little more differently because I feel like, we’re a band now, and we play shows, and I feel like we’re boring everybody with the same old songs, so now I’m pressuring myself to write more quickly, which I’m not used to doing.

“So it seems like, especially some of the songs on the new record, they don’t seem quite as intricate in the actual structure but in the arrangement they’re more full.”

Are all the songs on The Last Match recorded with the entire band, I ask. Or were there some things you did more by yourself and then added other members’ parts?

“Yeah, that’s pretty much how it happened. One of the downfalls of recording in the garage is that we feel like we can do it any old time. Yoshi, who plays drums, is on almost everything except maybe three songs, but everybody else is just sort of here and there, I guess. I think maybe three songs have everybody on them.”

I’m surprised. I thought most of the album sounds pretty close to your live sound.

“I think it’s a pretty good representation, but that first song, “The Way To Market Station”, that’s just me.

I comment on how the guitar line in that song reminds me a bit of the Fall, and she becomes ecstatic. “Nobody gets it when I make references to the Fall! I love them!”

The Fall influence on the Aislers Set is definitely more felt than heard; it’s less blatant than on, say, the first Pavement album, manifesting itself more in the mood of the music than anything specific. No matter how sweet and melodic Amy’s songs can get, there’s always a spiky element in the sound that sets them apart from the unabashed sunniness of other pop-identified bands in their circle. When we both reveal we haven’t actually heard any new Fall music since Middle Class Revolt in the early nineties, I recall that it seemed to me that on that album Mark E. Smith was running out of things to say, and she shoots back, “I can’t believe he said so many things!” The Hip Priest may be a little (OK, a lot) worse for wear these days, but we will not be making any disparaging remarks about him today.

Just then, drummer Yoshi Nakamoto arrives bearing a six-pack, which inspires us to take a short break. Like his bandmate, he’s a low-key, friendly sort and a ravenous indie-pop fan, and when he spots a just-arrived mail-order package from Matador filled with oddities by Belle & Sebastian, Solex, and others, everything has to be examined. Talk of Belle & Sebastian leads me to bring up what I’d feared would be a touchy subject, namely the overwhelming sonic similarity of two out of three of Wyatt Cusick’s Last Match contributions to Stuart Murdoch and his crew. (The catchy, lilting “Chicago New York” in particular.) “I don’t know what to think about that”, Amy responds.

“I listened a few times and it was like, yes, that does sound like Belle & Sebastian! He recorded those songs by himself, Yoshi played drums and that was it. I played a lead guitar on one of them. But it might just be that he’s so whispery when he sings; I don’t know. I think they’re very nice songs, but I totally agree.”

“I think they just came out like that”, Yoshi volunteers. “I don’t think he made a conscious effort.”

Maybe it’s just a phase, I suggest.

“I go through phases too”, Amy admits. “I mean it’s pretty obvious I was in my Galaxie 500 phase when I made the first record.”

Before long we’ve all turned to deconstructing Belle & Sebastian themselves and pointing out all our favorite bits they swiped from Love, Carly Simon, Felt, and others. We could go on like this all night, but I still have more Aislers Set questions. I ask about the new album’s cover version, a really nice rendition of the extremely obscure late-80’s twee/noisy UK band 14 Iced Bears’ “Balloon Song”. “I think it fits in pretty well”, replies Amy. “I could have done a better job at mixing. But they’re a great band. Hopefully they won’t sue us or anything.”

We start talking about the recording room itself, and I’m amazed when she reveals how small it actually is. “It’s probably like, 10 by 12 feet.”

So that’s why you tend to not record the whole band at once, I say, somewhat stunned.

“Yeah, it’s kind of bad. I dream of being able to do something completely live. It’s tiny; it’s like a drum set in the corner and then all the recording stuff. It’s probably another reason why I had to put so much reverb on everything.”

I can’t imagine there’s much natural reverb in a room that size.

“No. There’s nothing. It’s just covered in carpet.”

I guess that explains one of the few drawbacks on the new album: the two really full-on punk-pop songs, “Red Door” and “Been Hiding”, seem a bit subdued compared to the way they roar out of the speakers at a live show.

“I had trouble getting them to sound even thatgood. It’s definitely all about the resources.”

When I ask who played the trumpet parts, Amy says, “Oh, I did!”, going on to say that she had only been playing trumpet for a couple of months when those tracks were recorded, and she had intended to learn trombone as well, “but I don’t have the lungs for it”, so their friend Steven played those parts. Pretty impressive all the same.

Though she seems to be able to play almost any instrument she sets her mind to using, at live shows Linton mostly sticks to the 12-string guitar. I ask her what drew her to it.

“I went into this shop, Real Guitars, almost every week for about seven months, and they still had this guitar, and it was like $700 and I just dreamed about it. And finally I bought it. I guess I got carried away, but it sounds so nice! And it’s not something I hear all the time.”

The other members of the Aislers Set, aside from Yoshi, continue to moonlight in their old bands, though both Poundsign (bassist Alicia Van Den Hevvel’s band) and Track Star’s activities have slowed down quite a bit. Both, however, are recording new albums at this writing that are due out later this year. As for organist Jen Cohen, her other band, the Fairways, are very active at the moment. Talking about them, Amy grows excited again. “And their record is gonna be out next month. Have you seen them play? It’s good stuff, very pop. They play their instruments really well.”

“More Housemartins”, Yoshi suggests. “Like, very Sarah Records.”

Not as edgy as you then, I guess.

“No”, Amy laughs. “They’re never edgy.” (As a matter of fact, when I see them a few weeks later, they are quite reminiscent of…Belle & Sebastian. Hmmm, it’s catching. Good tunes, though. I’ll be seeing them again, I’m sure.)

I point out one of my favorite aspects of Aislers Set live shows, which is the way Jen Cohen, through the entire set, looks incredibly amused, as though she’s about to burst into uncontrollable laughter at any second.

“She pretty much is exactly like that,” Amy gushes. “She’s great. I’m absolutely thrilled she’s in the band.”

She didn’t appear at all on the first album, so I gather she came along a little later. How did that happen?

“I think somebody just told me, because I always wanted to get somebody to play organ, and Alicia’s actually a really good piano player but she didn’t wanna give up playing the bass. So I found out that Jen, who is just one of my favorite people, plays organ and so we just asked her. I think we were all drunk, and we’d just played a show at Slim’s.”

“‘You should be in our band, OK?'”, Yoshi mock-slurs, then adds in his own voice, “It’s so nice having her in the band though. It’s really pleasant. On our last tour, everyone got along so well.”

“Yeah,” Amy concurs, getting in the last word.

“She’s the ‘good vibe girl’. And she always takes my side!”