Who exactly said “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?” One of the joys of newfound academic parenthood are all the wonderful things you learn from the younger generation. Except one of my academic sons happens to be a twenty-something postgraduate: with music tastes emanating from outside our beloved bubble of the charts, nostalgia and house remixes of Drake and Kanye on a Thursday night. You (and I) may love the warm blanket that is the weekly St Andrews music schedule, screaming our fetid lungs out to Abba in the seventh circle of Lizard hell, or donning Reebok t-shirts and pretending The Rule is a south London club.
This is all very well and makes for a music scene as predictable as Theresa May winning the next general election. However I urge you to try and listen to something, anything outside your comfort zone. It is with this in mind that I come to Death Grips. After being told by said academic son that my usual go to MC, Ghostpoet was “twee shit” I was pointed to the Sacramento group Death Grips. Now despite sounding like a poor man’s nu-metal band on first instance, a quick browse on Spotify told me different. Death Grips is composed of drummer Zach Hill, keyboardist Andy Morin and vocalist Stefan Burnett. The listening experience on albums such as The Money Store (2012) is the equivalent of dipping a toe into a scorching bath, that asks you to commit to distortion, minimal production, disrupted melodies and aggressive paired down drum-kits and synth lines. Nor does full submersion into this metaphorical bath pay off with relaxation and camomile tea: it continues to scorch. But a commitment to listening through the initial masochistic stages reveals levels of innovation putting Death Grips on par, if not above other groups such as Odd Future. On tracks such as ‘Punk Weight’, Death Grips almost completely transcends genre: going from electro pop to sonic sound waves, to old school rap vocals all within 1:27 minutes (they’ve just chucked the camomile tea and some bleach for good luck into the proverbial bath, and are dancing in the unholy mixture.)
Approach the band’s 2016 album Bottomless Pit with caution. The opening song ‘Giving Bad People Good Ideas’ starts with a melodic loop of female vocals before entering into what sounds like remixed heavy metal riffs, that Stefan Burnett half raps, half screams over. Intensity is Death Grips by-word, this is not essay writing music, this is a commitment. Quoting the lyrics of ‘Hacker’ “Gaga can’t handle this shit.” For all their poise of being outside an ‘easy listening’ mainstream, tracks such as ‘Bitch Please’ employ glittering 80’s synth lines, that lift you up and over the dirty, dirty sonic mush of the bass and drums. Death Grips aren’t absolutists, in fact they’re the opposite: mixing punk, hip hop, industrial, and elements of modern pop. They transcend 2008 notions of what a group should be: all fringe and ‘boys in the band’ instead drawing on modern notions inculcated in our thriving house, grime and modern hip hop scenes, all while putting on intense stage based performances.
The band could almost be viewed as an offshoot of performance art: in 2013 they failed to turn up to a booked gig in Chicago: leaving a empty drum kit, pre-recorded music and a projected note at the scene. This may sound pretentious, maybe it is: point being Bowie’s Starman and Lou Reeds’s flirtations with art house and Warhol’s The Factory are now seen as key points in music history despite the initial pretension. The point I’m trying to make here is that it’s worth pushing through with artists that are initially hard to listen to: if our parents (and grandparents?) did it with The Pistols, we can surely do with Death Grips and other artists that stand outside the St Andrews paradigm. I often ask myself where all the St Andrews bands have gone? Maybe they don’t hold such appeal because Rock is seen as parent approved by our Bowie loving folks back home. I can only hope that under the sonic tutelage of groups such as Death Grips, our academic sons and daughters will one day swap the decks for the stage again.