Philip Maier has just returned from a show in Seattle, where he played a gig under his experimental-techno guise LACK. He sits now among mounds of gear, just off U.S. 15-501 in the '70s-style cabin that he shares with Emily Withers, his partner in the askance pop duo VVAQRT. He attempts to explain how people perceive this place—not their home halfway between Carrboro and the Haw, but the region at large.
"It's odd traveling and speaking to people outside of the area," says Maier. "They imagine that Chapel Hill-Carrboro is a flourishing utopia of musicians and artists when, in reality, it's about 25 to 35 people directly and consistently involved."
The electronic-music community anchored in Chapel Hill and Carrboro isn't large, infinitely more intimate than its counterparts in cities like Los Angeles and New York City. Despite the modest scale, its music—from experimental noise and neo-industrial to mutant iterations of techno and house—has earned a reputation as one of the more open and relatively productive communities of its kind in the United States. Record labels have taken notice. The list of imprints, both local and international, that have shown interest continues to grow—Blackest Ever Black, Not Not Fun, Submit, Hot Releases, L.I.E.S., Morphine Records, all highly regarded brands that testify to the scene's strength.
As with most DIY communities in a college-rich region, the size of this niche expands and contracts thanks to a sizeable population of students and other itinerant youth. Notable contributors such as Samantha Vacation, Profligate, Housefire and Lazy Magnet have come, gone and, in some cases, come again. Yet it successfully weathers the turnover thanks to a durable core of artists and show promoters, venues and record stores who make the area their long-term home. Any inventory of such individuals would invariably include Withers and Maier. As performers, promoters and audience members, both are visible fixtures at Rosemary Street's long-standing weird room, Nightlight, or All Day Records, one of the country's better specialty shops for electronic music.
Withers and Maier participate in several solo projects and art endeavors. In addition to LACK, there's Sagan Youth Boys, Inversion-curated poetry readings and GROVL Tapes, just to sample. But it's under the peculiar aliases Mildew Ethers and Mai Phili that they compose VVAQRT, mainstays of the scene since early 2009. And via local label Hot Releases, they've just issued their third outing, Detainee. Not only is the full-length the duo's most fleshed-out to date, but it's also one of the most exciting wax slabs to emerge from their community, too. The music makes VVAQRT the area's resident purveyors of cutting-edge electronic pop, a concept-driven amalgam of coldwave and synth-punk shot through with sci-fi kitsch.
When the word "pop" is used in such an underground context, its definition can turn wildly subjective; one person's pop is another's noise. But compare Detainee's crisp lines, simple vectors and minimalist coherency to the stuff of fellow locals Secret Boyfriend (blurry mazes, lo-fi haze) or Lamb Skin (crusted primitivism, industrial wallop). Suddenly, VVAQRT's knack for arty hooks and their overall immediacy become instantly apparent. It's hard not to think about the thin but essential line that divides them from Sylvan Esso, another local electronic pop duo that's gone far with bigger beats and less overlying gauze.
The historical antecedents for VVAQRT come mostly from post-punk. Withers' intricately pointillist wordplay is woven, like overlapping dot matrices, into Maier's chunky analog pulse and static-smeared pinpricks, both largely the creations of his vintage Korg MS-10. The technique channels the spirits of avant-garde acts like Cabaret Voltaire and Malaria!, plus far more irreverent outfits like Devo. Engaging the past is a necessary component of the group's artistic process.
"I'm interested in pastiche and bricolage of various different influences," says Withers.
But VVAQRT are mindful not to come into close contact with that modern scourge culture critic Simon Reynolds tagged as "retromania"—blind nostalgia that prevents progress or individualism. This allows them to stand apart from projects mining similar terrain. Brooklyn darlings Xeno & Oaklander, for instance, share quite a bit with VVAQRT, but their synth-based music exudes a kind of high-polish allegiance to the past. That's anathema to Withers and Maier. Xeno & Oaklander sound like a group giving itself up to post-punk's past; VVAQRT drags that heritage into its own little local corner of the 21st century.
"The retro impulse misses the entire point," Maier explains. "It misses the reflection of the moment and providing commentary on what's going on."
This emphasis on commentary is why Maier's programming—though something to admire, with its deft balance of melody and rhythm—ultimately serves as a delivery mechanism for Withers' lyrics. Her words are dense, kinetic, dizzyingly staccato. Trying to pick them apart is like trying to read the numbers on lotto balls as they emerge from their air bubble. Once you begin decoding them, however, she proves a gifted poet, a keen-eyed conduit for the anxieties and angsts that mark her generation.
"The stuff I write comments on the particular moment we're in right now, from my perspective," she says with great deliberation. "So, it's a little perverted or even hyperbolized. But hyper-commercialization, commodification, detachment are all very present issues for a generation that is being weaned on the 'technology of the screen.'"
But these aren't diary entries. Withers eschews linear confessionals for Surrealist-inspired role-playing. She combines stream-of-consciousness techniques to the cutting, pasting and re-arranging of user comments pulled from blogs and websites, plus personal text messages.
On the brief and clanging "Anti-Aliased," she dons the mask of a media-saturated suburbanite (a cyborg valley girl?) who finds herself descending into an animalistic fit: "No one can commodify herself more than me/Extra amenities in affluent communities/No one can commodify herself more than me."
The self-titled second cut is more of a hypnotic spoken-word composition than coldwave banger, so Withers morphs into an automated phone message. Persistent to the point of becoming monotone, she satirizes the uncanny tension between American privilege and never-ending recession: "And all the barkers get along swimmingly/And all my cohorts work at Staples, defer on 50k loan debts/And all an hour of my time can buy is a maple-brined turkey, aioli and Swiss/I heard they call this relative deprivation."
The descriptive borders in which underground music is so often framed—insular, anti-mainstream, exclusive—can sometimes be wildly inaccurate, an implicit lesson of Detainee. The music is challenging, yes, but it's also alluring, intimate and meaningful. It's an exotic transmission from two locals attempting to portray what it's like to be young and alienated in modern America.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Popped music."