Salem are a hard band to pin down. We recently named them the best band from the state of Michigan, mostly because of growing hype surrounding their particular brand of mysteriously mournful dirge-crunk. Their music kind of slips through your mind’s fingers as it attempts to get a grip on what is exactly going on: murky and gauzy synths, washed-out and elegaic vocals, and oddly whumping and skittering beats. Salem’s music can sound like a hopeless anthem with all human feeling drained out in a rainstorm, or like the most blisstastic vision of redemptive hope, or both at the same time. Moment to moment slips from a menacing vortex to a wash of sun after the rain.
Two-thirds of the group hail from Traverse City, Michigan (John Holland and Heather Marlatt); I got the chance recently to sit down with the one member who isn’t a Michigan native, Jack Donoghue, who had some interesting comments on being in a band with such a decidedly ambiguous aesthetic. Salem are currently gearing up for the fall release of their debut lp, King Night (IAMSOUND)-- and figuring out how to rise to the challenge of presenting their bizarre music in a live setting. After all, most music scene know-it-alls only know the band for having been been boo’ed off the stage twice at this year’s SXSW, and not for their string of powerful self-produced singles and ep’s that stretch back to when the band members were all school-aged.
"His music is reminiscent of tender makeout sessions from 1987. Or how I imagine it would be if I hadn't been six at the time," tweets @billbergstrom. And it's true, there's a lushness and warmth to Pfenning's new songs that is nevertheless anything but sleepy – this is intense, sexual, lush-warm music. Not unlike the man himself.
In 2005 Aaron started the group that would first draw him serious attention, Chairlift. After producing an initial full-length (2007's "Daylight Savings") at Elliott Smith's studio in Los Angeles, the band relocated to New York, wrote & co-produced a new batch of songs ("Does You Inspire You" (2008)), and signed to Columbia Records. Chairlift toured everywhere people like bands, playing with such indie jewels as The Killers, Phoenix, Ariel Pink, John Maus, and MGMT. They did Bonnaroo, Lollapallooza, & All Points West, soundtracked an iPod commercial, and received an MTV VMA nomination for "Evident Utensil." After a vigorous two years working the Chairlift record, Aaron shifted his attention to Rewards early this year.
"Are you 'Rewards' for this bio?" the author wanted to know. "Aaron Pfenning IS Rewards, baby snakes," is what Aaron Pfenning texted back. This is very literally true. Over the last eight months, as Aaron has applied his gentle-yet-assured touch to the crafting of his new album, he has played all of the instruments, produced and engineered all of the recordings. For performances, he has experimented with everything from a solo show to a five-piece (including, yes, a two-piece, three-piece, and four-piece), always anchored by his seductive, leonine stage-presence and utterly unique vocals that swing easily from a croon to a howl.
Brandon Flowers told Entertainment Weekly, "It reminds me of the desert, the way he plays. That’s something that I try to capture myself. I’m a little jealous that he does it so effortlessly."
Slam Donahue is a New York City based band led by singer/guitarist David Otto and bassist Thomas Sommerville. They build their identity out of bootlegged recording programs, department store keyboards, and keen, thoughtful melodies. After meeting as youths, playing in rival bands, and then finally collaborating; the duo’s skills grew to complement each other in their attempts to test pop music’s conventions. Sometimes skirting into new wave, R&B, hip hop, they are after something new and beautiful.
The two ceaselessly try to one-up the other, pushing towards a sound defined by the sharpest of hooks and exactly the right atmosphere. Self taught and studied under the usual cavalcade of your parent’s sixties/seventies icons, John Lennon, David Bowie, Paul Simon, as well as an enthusiastic interest in the history of pop music, idolizing Irving Berlin, Joe Meek, and David Byrne, the band quickly raised attention with eclectic live shows and free cdr mixtapes. Outpacing their surroundings, house parties and dive art spaces, they moved on.
Leaving a trail of short-lived band members and meticulous, though admittedly lo-fi, home demos, the duo arrived in New York in the summer of 2010. Carrying songs that ranged from pop anthems, complete with the requisite big bang chorus, to burners with get busy hi-hats and falsetto acrobatics, the band ran their way through countless back rooms and showcases.
Signing with Cantora Records in 2012, Slam Donahue finds a new, much nicer home to record in. The old place was well documented in those demos; you could hear the bounce of the walls, our feelings at the time. But, the new place has more promise and a bigger backyard.