iill Pushes the Limits of Dallas Experimental Music
"Can we help you?" iill specializes in making its fans uncomfortable
It's late on a December night and there's something strange and fascinating happening behind the screen at Oak Cliff's Texas Theatre. The crowd gathered in the tight backstage confines looks on with a mix of shock and masochistic glee as a young woman, known simply as Greer, stumbles around menacingly in front of them. She's an exotic, snow-haired alien with the word "sorry" scribbled in red across her forehead, a billboard on flesh warning those gathered of the impending musical onslaught.
This is the band iill, and there's not another act in Dallas like them. Besides Greer, who delivers tweaked vocal effects, there's Alex Velte on a bank of synths and Robert Gracian on a purely electronic drum kit powered by a Roland sampler. Velte and Gracian are completely focused on their instruments, barely engaging the audience. They lay down the musical foundation and leave the theatrics to their captivating frontwoman.
The environment is similar to an old-school DIY warehouse show, with minimal lighting and no stage. The bands are free to walk right up to the crowd. On this night, the bill is stacked with some of the region's finest experimental acts, but even so, iill pummels the crowd into electronic submission. They're borderline anarchists who buck punk trends through their instrumentation -- there's a notable lack of stringed instruments -- and unconventional musical aesthetic.
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Over the past decade, there's been a resurgence of interest in obscure '80s new-wave and synth bands. Labels like Minimal Wave, Medical Records and Dark Entries have been reissuing albums by the bucketload, recalling the days when labels like Wax Trax and Play It Again Sam were key players. A trend that began with a minority of niche collectors has quickly enveloped the vinyl collectors' market and inspired countless retro acts to re-emerge to pay tribute to their recently unearthed albums.
iill would appear to fit with this trend of synth-obsessed radicals, but that's not quite true. The miracle of iill is that they're totally unaware of these references. Most bands in their family are actively trying to sound like twenty-year-old bands, an effort that condemns them to being retro knockoffs. What made the '80s synth bands interesting in the first place was their use of the latest technology to make futuristic music that was often dreary, and iill came upon their sound in much the same way as those pioneers.
They employ current technologies to create music that is seemingly simple. It's a modern take on musique concrète, by way of a punk-rock aesthetic. Samplers, iPhones, synthesizers and a Roland Aira vocoder all put a sonic timestamp on their sound without polishing it. iill bends the technology to fit their artistic vision, a vision that welcomes imperfection, noise and the unnatural sounds of their environments. "It does not need to be great [sound] quality," Greer insists. "It just needs to be a sound."
Ultimately, it's hard to nail iill down genre-wise, and the band finds the task of explaining their music no less challenging. "We write pop songs," proclaims Velte. Then he hesitates. "We think." Greer is much more confident: "The songs I have written have always turned into pop songs," she declares. "There is really no way I have been able to get away from that." Velte, suitably reassured, helps clarify: "But then incorporating gross noise or something that seems off."
Indeed, theirs is not radio-friendly pop music. It's more like anti-pop. The normal verse/chorus structure is deconstructed into overdriven digital bits, a combative approach that has more in common with the Germs than Beyoncé. Although there are no guitars or drums, the music is punk rock in its ragtag construction of electronic soundscapes and total disregard for the audience's comfort.
"We definitely go for eerie sounds and samples," Velte says, delving deeper into the construction of their music. "Bob will record stuff on his iPhone and [then] records it straight into [his Roland] and he'll just throw them in. It helps us sound full." Gracian concurs: "Sometimes I'll take some of the samples that are already on [my drum pads], like already built in, then I'll cut the wave and edit it a little bit." Nothing is off-limits: samples from old songs, their favorites movies, anime, even porn. One time they sampled a sprinkler with their iPhones and turned it into a drum sound.
This adventurous approach to song construction translates to their shows. "We want to make the live performance something unique from the record," Velte says. "We play songs fast, slow and even change speeds throughout the songs in the live versus the recorded computer versions."
Greer has more ideas for how they can experiment with their performances. "I think with the whole live electronic thing, especially with Bob's gear, it gives us the freedom to decompose music or at least try to," she says. "I think in the future our music will be more sample-involved as far as rhythmic melodies go, but I think it's hard for us to stay away from post-punk and pop melodies too. So we want to try and incorporate that in. Whenever we all write together we always come up with stuff that sounds kind of shoegazey or hip-hop."
Their catalog of songs does not quite crack double digits. After all, iill is not even a year old. They are still getting their feet wet, but unlike a lot of new bands, they have a strong sense of identity. That's partially due to Velte's experience with his other band, Cutter, which has been making waves for a few years already. Gracian did time playing more traditional acoustic drums with Sir Name & the Janes and Sydney Confirm. But the prior experience of two of the members aside, iill are guided by a natural chemistry and unified aesthetic.
Their debut EP will be out in late February and it will feature tunes "Harrownin'," "Surface Friend" and "Mail Female." iill found inspiration for the EP in subjects ranging from transgender crack addicts to mail-order females to tragic relationships -- themes that recall late-'70s L.A. punk more than the ideology of the '80s.
"I like my lyrics to be fucked up and so does [Velte]," says Greer, with characteristic succinctness. What's left unsaid is that, with both their lyrics and the music itself, iill strive to unsettle and challenge listeners. But it doesn't need to be said; those objectives are revealed in the dark, wordless corners of their music.
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