Somewhere in the oughts indie rock/pop lost its way. It became a shadow of whatever was on the radio in terms of production, and more and more like 70s soft rock in overall sound and mood.
The tragedy is not only the early but the late 90s offered so many avenues indie could have taken. Lo-fi to slowcore, math rock to the quirky off kilter rhythms and melodies introduced by the likes of Rob Crowe in San Diego. And we’re just talking about the softer end of rock and the more melodic edges of pop here.
But the publications of the day heralded the coming of the old age. The new Eagles and folky singer songwriters… the shit.
Fortunately for those of us that follow underground music, there’s plenty of great stuff that went the other way, the good way. At their core that’s exactly what Milwaukee’s Brief Candles (https://briefcandlesus.bandcamp.com/) represents. Lo-fi aesthetics, jarring rhythms, catchy crooning and just the right amount of guitar effects. Somewhere between groups like Verses and Heavy Vegetable that we all kinda forgot about; and of course the influence of that never gets tired of recycling shoegaze from Manchester.
There’s some Brooklyn hipster sounds in there, but out of a genuine love for the music that Brooklyn seems to be getting so wrong these days. It’s all grounded in more of a we love guitar music and everywhere it can go; whether it’s simply a really high strung bass line that makes an entire song or Television like interplay of guitars. And, of course, if they’re named after the Zombies song I think they are, they’ve definitely got their references in order.
See Brief Candles tonight at No Fun with Brooklyn’s (yech! jk — or are we?!) Dead Leaf Echo, and Brent Gorton’s Better Pills (https://betterpills.bandcamp.com/album/blood-chant) — if you don’t know who Brent Gorton is, get your ass down to No Fun and find out because he’s a brilliant indie pop legend here in the Capital District and arguably THE best songwriter.
John: (John): Guitar, vocals, dude that reassures k. that he can do this and he’s not just a lame drooling fan (even though k. totally is) to help him make it through the interview
TB: Hello NONAGON! First things first, how many chocolate bars do you think I can eat by the time this interview is over?
Robert: I was told there wasn’t going to be any math.
Tony: I’m going to look up pics of your cheeks before I make my guess
TB: I should tell you that it’s minis…
Tony:: Oh, choco pie
TB: Ok I’ll put all your guesses in the jar. Anything below 4 is already wrong.
So in the interest of pretending to be one of those drunk morning show hosts, let me tell you about my day for no reason. I woke up this morning and really didn’t want to get out of bed, but then I remembered your new album is still fresh in my mind so I put it on, jumped right in the shower, and made it into work! How does it feel to be responsible for the continued existence of losers like myself?
John:: So, it seems to me that you’re saying that we put food on your table? I wish we could say we were doing the same for us.
Robert:: Many people want a shower after hearing our record.
Tony: Losers listening to losers. checks out.
TB: Losers making loser music to make loser music too? (Sorry I was trying to do a clever shoegaze catchphrase parody there. I’ll clean it up in post)
John: I see you’ve read my manifesto.
TB: Ah. So I understand Robert is the group artist?
Tony:: Robert is the group talent for everything
John: By far the most talented person in the band. Don’t tell him we said that.
Robert: I’m great at everything except interviews.
TB: So what’s with the flying fishes?
John: HA! Who wants to tell this dumb story?
Tony: I’m bad at telling stories
TB:Y’all seem to be saying you’re bad at a lot of things…
John: Yeah all of us except Robert
Tony: So you HAVE heard the record
Robert: The record title came before the artwork… it was from a joke Tony invented while were were driving around in the van
TB: Is it the kind of joke you have to be high to get or can you tell me it?
John: I think I was telling a long-winded story about how I used to watch bald eagles hang out near the dam in downtown lawrence when the rest of the river was frozen over… They would fill the trees along side the riverbank. Over-explaining, as usual, I said…”because, you know, they fish.” Tony said: “Nuh uh. They birds”
TB:And Robert somehow transformed that story into a menagerie of strange flying creatures that are fish and birds and reptiles with da vinci contraptions?
Robert: Pretty much. I like stuff from ye olden days.
TB:I did see a reference to Jacques Cousteau I think and in my review said something about turn of the century monographs. But honestly I had no idea what I was talking about
Tony: I asked why they fish always hang out by dams. This particular dam that brought on this conversation is right close to the thundersnow hotel
TB:Oh! I’ve been there!
(Note to our readers; k. and his band Che Guevara T-Shirt paid $300 in 2014 to be allowed to play the annual PRF ‘Thundersnow’ concert with Nonagon, Low, Megamaul, and many other fantastic other bands in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It was the highlight of their career; k. got drunk and fell asleep halfway through their performance.)
John:Where we met! Maybe even the same year Tony made the joke. If you saw me break out into laughter randomly at any moment, that was why.
TB: I did wonder why you stopped singing halfway through every song and started cracking up laughing. Now i know.
So I hear y’all are famous for taking a long time to make records?
John: Heh. “Famous.” Yeah. We move at a snails pace. Our process isn’t efficient but we end up pretty happy in the end
Tony: 1 record every 14 years is our pace
TB:Well given the complexity of the parts it seems as though you go over everything with a fine tooth comb. I mean, why don’t you just take it easy and like, write a part in standard 4/4 time so I can dance to it? how does it usually work? does someone come in with a part? do you jam until something sticks?
Tony: John usually comes in with a riffy thing and we jam and judge
Robert: The parts tend to start with John coming up with a riff or two and we vamp around that for two years.
John: I don’t think we do a whole lot of building and rebuilding. We just keep playing the thing until it makes sense to us. A lot of the songs end up in a pretty different place from where we start, but its organic and slow-going.
TB: When do you decide something is ‘done’ or ‘ready for recording?
Robert: We will play a song out live a few times before it’s truly ready, and then change it up, and eventually it gets set in stone.
John: I can usually tell pretty quick if it’s not going to work. But not really set in stone until it’s recorded. I’m usually working on lyrics until the very last minute. Once it’s on tape, though, we don’t mess with it any more. There’s a very definite vibe when it clicks, and if it doesn’t click quickly we’ve learned to drop it. I have a lot of left over riffs.
TB: Can I have them?
John: HA! I’m thinking I may reintroduce them at practice and see if something happens. Don’t tell Tony or Robert.
TB: Would you say you use the audience as a sounding board at all or just see if you can play it well together live?
John: More of the latter, I think?
Robert: We don’t really get much feedback from a crowd other than, “I liked the new one.” Then at our next practice we kinda do a post-mortem.
Tony: if we don’t trainwreck it too often, then it’s a keeper. There’s an acceptable number of trainwrecks. Right guys?
Tony: I’m fired aren’t I…
TB:Speaking of the recording, you did this one at Electrical Audio but opted NOT to use the great Albini. How was it working with Jon Sao Paolo?
John:Steve is amazing, but I feel like he’s been a hero of mine for way too long.
Robert: Jon was fantastic.
John: Jon is the opposite of intimidating. Warm, funny, talented as hell.
TB:Does he use a method similar to Albini? i.e. hundreds of room mics?
Tony: Albini was suprisingly funny and warm too. but also all business
TB: I hear he’s really tall.
John: HA! Only in our heads, I think
Tony: JSP used the normal amount of drum mics : 147
TB:Is 147 that mystical number the boredoms came up with?
Tony: I believe it was the Ruins
Robert: 147 (a perfect break in snooker BTW)
TB:Did you record live? Was there any isolation or overdubbing at all?
John: ha. because it was all to tape, we only had a finite number of channels to work with, so it didn’t seem that there was ANY random room mic-ing. Everything seemed to have a specific reason. Once it was all set up, yeah… the four of us did all the tracking together at the same time — minus vocals and a few overdubs).
John: It’s pretty much what we heard in the room.
Robert: We did add a few extra noises on a track or two. So this LP was basically the Nonagon equivalent to ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ in terms of production.
TB: Sounds like a challenge. Have you recorded all your albums this way?
Tony: 2 at Electrical (audio), 2 at kerguelen in NYC John We have always done it this way. We never have a budget that allows for excess studio time, so we try to be as rehearsed AS HECK before we get there. Then rip through it.
TB: Did the legendary Mr. Weston do the mastering all after in a quiet room by himself or did you get to hang with him?
John: He mastered our very first CD, and we made the mistake of sitting in the room with him. He would ask us what we think and we would say stuff so he wouldn’t think we were dumb. We ended up stepping on our own stuff.
Robert: We put all our trust in Bob’s ears and left it to him.
TB: That does sound wise. I mean, he is Rusty.Seriously, does anyone know why the fuck he’s called Rusty?
John: Mostly gray now, but a SALACIOUS red as a younger, more vibrant man.
TB: Do you feel like you’re in a sort of chicago boys club? Electrical Audio, Bob Weston, PRF?
Tony: We’re definitely not in the “club” — we may be adjacent? We’re in the JV club– PRF!
John: HA! Exactly. JV.
TB:WTF is PRF? Do you guys know who started it? Who’s in charge? What does it have to do with Jewish space lasers?
John: Bob and Steve and Jon and the like are definitely part of the same community we inhabit, but for the most part the PRF seems to be just a wonderful bunch of scrubs (like us) who kind of don’t care if Pitchfork ever reviews us.
The board itself started as a tech thing before it became social and then “real life.” I wasn’t theree for the beginning, but I’m guessing Greg Norman (another brilliant engineer) and Faiz Razi (a hilarious polyglot) could be blamed for part of it… Those are just two names of many, though. It’s wonderfully decentralized.
TB: By board you’re referring to the Electrical Audio messaging space?
John: Correct. The whole thing started with someone asking about mic placement.
Tony: Yeah- the forum section of electrical’s website
Robert: 147 posts later and here we are.
TB: We had something similar here in Albany called the ‘Wasted Board’ at first which then became the ‘Upstate Ether’. Unfortunately instead of leading to a scene, we just made fun of each other until we all cried. I’ve been told the Chicago scene on the other hand is actually really unique in being very mutually supportive
Tony: Our scene is, for sure. But there are many, many scenes here.
John: Our part of it is. We feel very lucky.
Robert: Yes, our little corner of it seems to be
TB: I’m guessing there must be at least somebands that think they’re too cool to be hanging with you guys. Someone told me Haymarket Riot made fun of your trousers…
Robert: Early on as a band we got paired with bands that were too cool for us, but we eventually aged out of that scene.
Tony: that’s a different scene
John: We’ve played with a lot of cool bands. Haymarket Riot has played BBQs and had a blast.
Tony: side note to nonagon: Izzy just told me that a band that she knows that plays house shows would love to play with us at said house show
TB: hey knock it off! No side band chatter! This is a serious professional interview here!
Tony:back to your regular programming!
TB: Moving on… who do you think would win in a fight, Rodan or the dude from Molly Hatchet? You know the guy with the huge sideburns…
Robert: Rodan the Kaiju monster or band? Or French sculptor?
TB: Yes that one.
John: ALL of Rodan vs. the one guy? Oof. I can’t call it.
Tony:Squirrel Bait or the other guitarist from Nazareth
TB:I’m trying to get an interview with Jeff Mueller who lives closer to me now. Do you guys want me to ask him anything for you?
Tony: yeah– ask him who he is
John: Ha… He used to live very close to me. I, of course, was always too shy to say “hi”. Stuff like that is why we’ll never be in the cool club… I’m too much of a fanboy, but I think it’s super important to hang onto being a dumb fan… otherwise, what’s the point?
TB: I hear that. I didn’t say hi to whats his name when Low played Thundersnow even though we have a friend in common..
Tony: His name is Mimi!
TB: Oh shit I’d never talk to her… I am so scared of her. I requested Sunflowers while they were playing and Mimi was like ‘fuck you asshole!’
Tony: I was too scared to say anything to any of the Low folks.
TB: But you have your own fans now… what’s that like?
John: I’m not sure we have “fans” the same way. I think if someone likes us they become friends before any hierarchy takes place.
Tony: Fun sidestory- my old band played with Low at CBGB
TB: Which band? I’ve been told I’m supposed to ask about ‘Jump Knuckle’
Tony: Correct! My old band was Jump Knuckle!
John: Totally not true.
Tony:Jump Knuckle was awesome
Robert: Tony was always known as “the Cute One” in Jumpknuckle.
Tony: (i was not really in that band)
John: Jumpknuckle was my college band… we took our name from a Boredoms song (2 references!) Tony was in The Blue Meanies back then.
TB:Awesome callback to the Boredoms!
John: The Blue Meanies were a BIG band in the Midwest especially. Toured the world. The whole deal.
TB: Wait, who was in the Blue Meanies? I’m so lost…
Have you all always lived in the Chicago area or are any of you transplants?
Tony: Robert and i grew up ‘downstate’ –john grew up very close. So close he went to ALL the cool shows back in the day
John: Me = Waukegan (N. of Chicago), Chicago, Champaign, Chicago, Lawrence KS, Chicago, Michigan, Chicago
Robert: I grew up in central Illinois. Chicago was always the ‘Big City’ for us growing up. When I moved here in my 20’s I felt like I finally made it. And then reality set in.
TB:So yall are hardcore Chicago/midwest?
John:I’d call that a fair statement
TB: How does it feel to have a bunch of losers from upstate new york being big fans that want to interview you?(and if you think you’re big here now, just wait till this interview airs!)
Tony: How many is a bunch?
TB: Well there’s me, John, Matt, Phil, Michelle…
Robert: As long as you are not from Buffalo, we’re cool.
John: Y’all are TOO KIND. We’ve traveled farther to play shows to fewer!
Tony: I think we need to play albany!
TB: You really do! Have you ever heard of Superdark? They are great at setting up shows and somehow always drawing huge crowds (which was previously impossible in Albany). If you guys play here you will totally cleanup.
Tony:you mean, they will actually make us clean up
TB: Yeah, all the MONEY! Gas money and then some!
Tony: Nonagon/Hungry Man East Coast tour?
John: We would set it up in a minute, but thanks to omicron, the few shows we actually have tried to set up have been disintegrating.
TB:Yeah our first show here after the vaccinations happened spread delta to EVERYONE in the scene.
TB: If the world doesn’t end, I WILL get you to play out here!
John:Even the DRIVE sounds fun right now.
TB:We have a great new venue out here in Troy called No Fun that’s pretty much run by all the cool kids
Tony: We are in! (covid permitting)
TB: Serioulsy though, how long are you guys planning to keep killing it? Word is you guys are all eligible to retire…
John: We are super old. and my back and hands hurt. but, much to the chagrin of my bandmates, I don’t see stopping anytime soon.
TB: Yeah, what is your secret?
John: Beer and ibuprofen.
TB: That gives me IBS…
Robert: Hearing loss.
Tony:I have numb arms and hands when we play.. doesn’t seem to matter
TB: When I first saw you guys 20 years ago you were seriously hardcore… and your records still sound just as hardcore. Seriously. Did you make a pact with the devil in your 20s?
Tony:When we were a younger band, I thought it would be kinda hilarious to be playing shows when we were in our 50’s. And he we are.
Robert:We are nothing if not consistent.
Tony:Wait. you saw us 20 years ago?
John:Speaking for myself, I think I (at least sometimes) want to say that I play in one of my favorite bands. It took a while for me to get here, so I’m not in a hurry to end it. Sorry dudes.
TB:That’s what I tell my bandmates! But they aren’t willing to carry me home anymore… Honestly it’s been great talking with yall and I’d love to go all night
Tony: Still– seriously, how / when did you see us 20 years ago?
TB:I saw you guys when you were in college and I was in the Korean war. I said ‘these kids got somethin!’
Robert: We played that house party at the MAS*H unit
TB:yeah. sad, sad show.
Tony: I made out with Radar’s teddy bear
TB: so many needless deaths…
Tony: ….nonagon is painless…
John:NOTHING SAYS YOUTH MARKET LIKE MAS*H REFERENCES!
TB: Cool cool. Do you mind if I do a j? Any of you guys into Supertramp?
Tony: Well– there is that one song where they sample Mattel Electronic Football. that one’s cool. It was called, “The Mattel Electronic Football Song.”
TB:No wait I had a serious question. Seriously though, thanks a lot for doing this interview!
Tony: This was fun! I only want to do interviews like this from now on
John: Kasrael! This was a blast. And thanks again for taking our record under your wing. It means A LOT.
First off; super geek level esotericism and ages NC-17(?) and up warning. Nonagon is a band forged in the fires between post hardcore, math rock, and screamo in the fertile delta of the Chicago aughts. Since then they’ve adhered to a fiercely dedicated integrity and obsession with writing fantastic short songs with unexpected time signature changes overwrought in complexity so finely worked out they only release about an ep’s worth of these terrific songs every 4 years. As a result, every single production they’ve released since they began warms. our. bones. To hear music that sounds like the constant noise in your head is a transcendent level of empathy that lets you know, there are others just like you! Granted they may be far better at getting those sounds out of their instruments and conveying those feelings, but we’re at least cousins if not straight up siblings. We walk around with a soundtrack of thought in our heads uncannily matched by the music that comes out of specific nearly impossible to discover magical circles and wonder, how’d it get in there too?! Everytime I hear Nonagon that’s exactly what I think (and also fuck I wish I was that good at it but I know I’m not willing to give it as much time and energy as these incredibly dedicated musicians (a term I do NOT use lightly) obviously must do).
Secondly, an important note about Nonagon’s packaging of their releases over the years; stylistically brilliant in the way it… creates a mood (does that sound right to you? Fuck I’m not going to make every word of this article perfect — it’s not like I’M in nonagaon). All of the artwork is produced by bass guitarist and clearly quite accomplished visual artist Robert Gomez. All 3 ep’s and this full album include the signature highly idiosnycratic artwork of Mr. Gomez’s creations. One could write an entire review about the artful presentation of their latest record ‘They Birds’ (wow did it really take me until now to mention the actual title of the record!?) including front and back covers and what appears to be a small hymnal with notes and lyrics all artfully presented alone. All have a late 19th century explorers/biologist’s transcriber vibe that clearly encapsulates a highly abstruse inside joke that only the band themselves understand (for further info read the interview!). Various animals outfitted with rudimentary flying apparatuses (“They Birds”, or the “Magestic Creatures of the Sky”) grace the intricately busy and ingeniously clever cover of the album, aptly foreshadowing what lies on the black circle inside. Point is, if you’re gonna buy this album, definitely buy the record. You won’t be dissapointed. Much as I’d like to write an entire review of the elaborate artwork, you probably want to hear about the music…
This offering differs from Nonagon’s previous releases most markedly in being slightly less harsh and angular. Which, if you’re a fan, you know means it’s still indelibly harsh and angular at many if not most points. However, where previous releases leaned more towards post-hardcore and at times forms resembling what was once called ‘screamo’, the tracks on this album lean more towards more ‘mature’ indie/college and post-rock forms, focussing more on melody than the early ep’s. Passages are often spoken-sung and at times sung, even including parts with harmonies instead of all full volume screams. Which does nothing to dilute the intensity that is Nonagon, but rather increase its dimensions… also the majority of the lines are still shouted at the top of singer/guitarist John Hastie’s lungs.
The album begins with Tuck the long Tail Under, which would definitely be the lead single if they released one. If this were 30 years ago when really good music had an actual chance to make it to late night MTV, Tuck the Long Tail would rival Jawbox’ Savory in its immediate and unique appeal (for those of you under 50, when I and many others saw the video for Jawbox’ Savory on 120 minutes I ran out to buy the album the next day. So what I’m saying is a teenage version of me today would do the same thing in response to hearing Tuck the Long Tail Under, if there were still JUSTICE in the music industry). Similar to all of their works, it’s a beautifully complex piece that really captures opposing harsh and soft dynamics and blurs the lines between them. If you’re a long time punk rock fan this song will definitely make you nostalgic; like a cross between mide period husker du and a midwestern screamo band. Broadly speaking the lyrics describe something that’s been tried and judged wanting. Not that the judges were impartial nor the trial fair; “We misssed the mark. The perspective is slanted”, nor does it stop them in any way “We toe the line to forget what just happened, and tuck the long tail under”. Like a metaphor for Nonagon’s career, unappreciated but inimically brilliant, unceasing, and instead of giving up constantly working harder and getting better.
As much as I’d like to continue a song by song (note by note really) analysis, I’ve been told by my bosses and editors that I really need to stop doing that if I ever want anyone to actually read my reviews. So it’d be fair to summarize Slow Boil as one of their signature unrelentingly complex yet incredibly catchy pieces. I’m guessing the third track, The Family Meal, is going to be a lot of people’s favorite. As touched on previously, Nonagon traffics in a deliciously ecclectic post-hardcore that firmly reminds one of mid nineties post-hardcore DC Dischord groups like Fugazi and Jawbox with fascinating minor key adventures from their regional contemporaries like Minutes. Which sets the perfect tone for this tune about a ‘Family Meal’ at which something, if not everything, is very clearly not right to really fucking disturbingly wrong.
Hack and Salt continue the complex jarring stabbing and sliding motions of intricate guitar and drum work yet contain enough clarity (i.e. not an excess of distortion or redlining in the production) to be melodic and accessible enough to approach June of 44 style post rock (I’m trying very hard not to label them with the largely derided ‘math rock term’, but yeah, that too). Salt in particular has inimitably catchy super complex back and forth series of angular slides.
And whether I consciously or not mentioned June of 44 before getting to the track titled ‘June of ’14’ or whether Nonagon was making an offhand reference to the Chicago math rock supergroup who will ever know? The track certainly bears similairities to a June of 44 song, beginning with a fascinatingly dark and pensive riff on both guitar and bass that spreads out to Shellac/Fugazi like driving rhythms and then proceeds to move quickly and constantly back and forth between the two. It’s also a great example of the unpredictable off kilter drum beats and fills Tony Aimone’s famous for in his approach to odd time signatures and changes.
Jeff(s) is another unpredictable track that begins at a bridge then runs through its many different parts (I lost count at around 6), everyone of which has SO MUCH going on despite there being only 3 members of the band. Boxes is another track which could be a single given how relatively straightforward and catchy the riffs, melodies, and breakdowns are (I hear echoes of, believe it or not, drama club math rock band Faraquet), then ‘Swing Goat’ goes back to the unpredictable type that starts at such a strange angle then transitions seamlessly between complex math rock rhythms and dynamic shouting and slightly sung vocals.
By the Holdouts, it feels as though exhaustion is setting in at a complex beginning, but of course an energetic lift follows. The overall effect is, of course, jarring to say the least. Bells is a perfect closer, “Set aside but still alive” leaving us in a state of exhausted minor key inertia where “no lung can deny the truth in the lie, son” where we “lose on all sides”.
I can’t imagine what has and continues to sustain Nonagon through all these years without anything approaching the international renown and critical lauding they deserve. Perhaps it’s that every note they put together is an intense labor of love, a struggle with the maddeningly complex and unappreciative bitch goddess of music made with so much fervor, vitality, and sincerity it’s criminal that everyone that truly loves music doesn’t know about it. Or that they feel a responsibility to their work as scientists from an elite laboratory where a rich history of thousands of previous and contemporary midwestern rustbelt independent rockworkers ply their signature sounds in deep underground esoteric niches recognizably steeped in fellow precedents in a language known only to those of us that have intensively studied whatever small pieces of it we can get our ears on. And yet we’re a disparate bunch strewn across the western world — my greatest hope in writing this is that I’ll reach a few more of us out there to let them know that Nonagon’s ‘They Birds’ is something so great that if they didn’t know about the group before now, they’re an essential part of the diet of the kind of music that people like us can’t get enough of. Thanks Nonagon for another great record!
One of Times Boredom’s founding members and current ongoing executive producers, k. Sonin has been a huge fan of midwestern (centered in Chicago) math/post-hardcore as long as he can remember. One of his favorite groups is Chicago’s Nonagon, who released their first full length album last spring (and it’s taken him until now to finish his damned review!). Which is why per his demand (lest he pull 25% of our funding), we’ve decided to make today, Friday January 28th ‘Nonagon Day’. Similarly to other holidays of this nature like ‘Mr. Cancelled (Scott’s favorite local post-punk band) day’ which falls on the 19th of April every year, we will be celebrating Nonagon day with the publication of both a review of their phenomenal new record and a lengthy very professional/professorial interview with the group conducted by our benefactor mr. sonin. Suffice it to say, we are all big fans of Nonagon and we highly suggest you check them out if you know what’s good for you!