"Did you ever think you would be in a touring band again?" "Oh, no." "That must say something special about these guys?"
"Oh, yeah, definitely." That's Dale Flattum, the Raleigh artist known as Tooth, father of a 3-year-old son, Eli, and a nine-year touring member of the eight-years-extinct San Francisco noise-punk trio Steel Pole Bath Tub.
Those guys are The Nein, the angular Chapel Hill four-piece. Together, they've been making local waves since inception, and--with a full-length debut, The Wrath of Circuits, due May 17 on Canada's Sonic Unyon--they stand ready to make major headway outside of the Triangle.
Flattum is the band's newest but oldest member, and--in the company of guitarist and vocalist Finn Cohen, bassist Casey Burns and drummer Robert Biggers--he seems content, energized, enthusiastic.
"They all get along, and we all get along, basically. There seemed to be room for what I do," says Flattum, who wields a boggling sampling system on stage, drawing from a huge collection of samples and what Burns laughingly dubs "a lot of cables." "Everybody seemed to be interested in all this noise coming in."
That noise is upping the ante for The Nein. The blunt force and quick catch of the band's EP was a quick draw for comparisons with the current call to '80s progeny: Franz Ferdinand, Kaiser Chiefs, Bloc Party, to get at fractions. Here, the punch lines have been smeared and the band's razor-sharp incision has been collected against a nearly aleatoric approach to rock 'n' roll.
Cohen has that same howl that made "War is on the Stereo" a battering ram, and every bass note Burns snaps still hangs like a thundering eternity. Biggers remains a snare-and-cymbals monster, fastening tight, timed builds as foundations for thrashing crescendos. But unexpected fragments--Crowmeat Bob's blistering saxophone, a piano pounded somewhere in the next room, layers of fuzz or ambient hum from Flattum and Cohen--fly in and out like aural shrapnel. With Flattum on board, The Nein is reaching for new ground and approaching new models, but without overreaching. They get it.
The matter of exactly what "it" is, though, remains questionable: melodic, spasmodic, elliptical, distended, compelling and jarring, The Wrath of Circuits constructs to deconstruct, presenting chaotic permutations on anthems built with guitars, bass, drums and Cohen's gut-punch sneer.
"I came into it in a different way with this band. It seems from my perspective that there was never a preconceived notion of what the song would be," says Flattum, who joined the band some time after they invited him to cover a Wire tune during a show at Kings in December 2003. "It was always, 'Here's the skeleton. Now let's fuck it all up.'"
Burns, who connected with Flattum long ago over their mutual love of designing band poster art, feels that Flattum pulls the band's sound in disparate directions: "It's not like someone playing a guitar solo over a song or singing backup vocals. It can be really present, or it can just be adding to another sound in such a way that you're not even sure where that sound is coming from. It's not intrusive unless it wants to be."
Cohen realized Flattum was a fit for the band from that first Kings soundcheck, marveling at the layers of noise spiraling from his machines. He admits that he didn't hear anything Dale played later that night, but he was fascinated enough by the person standing next to him, manically "just pushing these buttons." Flattum had no part in the band's several demos or the EP released late last year by Sonic Unyon, but Cohen and Biggers began writing songs with his samples in mind before he had even joined.
While recording the album proper, Cohen spent many nights with Biggers, trying to cut the 40-minute drive from his own house to Jay Murphy's Pontchartrain Studio. One afternoon, to escape constant band worry, he decided to spend some time at home.
"I got back like three hours later, and there were all these parts on these songs that Dale had never heard before," smiles Cohen, remembering that Flattum had never heard "Bleeding Elvis," the disc's defiant, wall-of-sound closer, the day he recorded his tracks for it. "It made it less of 'This is what we have. Let's put it together.' Suddenly, it was like, 'Look at what he have. This colors everything.'"
Even Biggers--always wrapped up in The Nein, Erie Choir, Audubon Park, Cold Sides and "miscellaneous other things"--admires the spirit Flattum has provided for the band and its sound.
"Dale has the role I wish I could have had sometimes," he jokes, just as Dale chimes in that he does indeed have the "total sweet role." "He can be ambient and context sometimes, or he can just be like 'Aaaaaaaaah' and be the part of the song."
Fortunately for Burns, Biggers and Cohen--all relative newcomers to touring--Flattum's influence goes beyond the stage. After touring for nine years, he has an inside track on travel tips for touring. In Canada, he had to lecture on the virtues of knocking snow off boots: "You really gotta knock the snow off of your boots a little better. It turns into water and that ruins your gear. It starts to shift back there, and you get little puddles."
And when he realized the band didn't have a place to lay down, he changed the equipment layout in the back, making room for a mattress on top of bass cabinets.
"But he spends like 75 percent of the time back there in his little nest," Cohen quips.
Flattum has a comeback, though: "Hey, that's just your finder's fee."
The Nein plays a CD release show Saturday, May 7 at Kings.