Rooting for Ruin: Les Savy Fav at the Black Cat, Discussed
New York art punks Les Savy Fav have earned a reputation as one of the most unpredictable live bands around. Frontman Tim Harrington—all beard and belly—is known for kicking up a ruckus, so Ryan Little and I headed over to The Black Cat Saturday to see if its low ceiling could withstand Harrington's assaults.
Ryan Little: How many times have you seen Les Savy Fav?
Matt Siblo: I've seen them about five or six times; each one has been an experience. Highlights that readily come to mind: a Brooklyn warehouse show with Q and Not U and El Guapo sponsored by Four Loko pre-cursor Sparks, a bizarre MoMA event where they supposedly inflicted thousands in damages, and, uh, the time singer Tim Harrington kissed me on the mouth during "The Equestrian" at ATP NY. How about you?
RL: I am a virgin to Tim Harrington's live antics. Ever since I missed a LSV show in 2002 because I was reading Greek literature (the one and only time in my college career that I got distracted by and not from studying), I've been hearing hyperbolic praise from friends. Yet, for whatever reason, I've had something going on nearly every time they've come around since...and they come around a lot. I'm trying to keep my expectations low, despite the endless stories I've heard about Christmas trees thrown into crowds, microphones shoved into boxer shorts, etc. I'm guessing Tim was a little fresher back in '02, but I sure hope he's got some crazy left in him. Do you think their material has aged well?
MS: For the most part, yeah...I think so. In terms of their early aughts post-punk contemporaries, albums like Go Fourth and 2007's Let's Stay Friends sound remarkably fresh. I will say that its last, Road to Ruin, is a bit of a slow burn and I'm curious to see how much of that makes into the set. Were you a big fan of the dance-punk revival when it was at its peak?
RL: I've not heard Road to Ruin, so that will be new to me. I listened to a reasonable amount of dance-punk in its heyday, but I wasn't obsessed...a !!! mp3 here, a Bloc Party record there...you know, I kept abreast of the situation, but it wasn't an addiction. I'm glad things have generally diverged from that point though, and I think LSV stands above many of the tropes of that scene. Alright, I'm grabbing a video camera.
RL: Well, after about a decade of misses, I can finally cross that band off my list. It was a long time coming, and it was inevitably less thrilling than it would've been without the years and years of build-up. Still, it was a good time. Tim Harrington's antics did not disappoint, in that everyone who was at that show walked away with a good story to tell their friends. Did it match up with the previous sets you've seen?
MS: After chatting with you and some friends prior to LSF taking the stage, it was interesting to hear a counter-narrative to why I had assumed everyone sees this band: to watch Harrington flail around like an art-damaged professional wrestler. That people would go to hear actual songs hadn't occurred to me. For the unintiated, live LSF plays upon a dynamic in which the band gamely plays its songs while Harrington finds unsuspecting members of the crowd to scream at, which as you know Mr. Little, happened to be me at one point this evening. I've always felt that the songs were somewhat incidental. Hearing this perspective was interesting since tonight's set heavily consisted of mid-tempo Road to Ruin material that's not nearly as spazzy as the older stuff. In this context, his antics felt a bit incongruous.
I'll also cop to the fact that, while fans did their part to keep up with Harrington's craziness, the seemingly half-filled room made the performance seem less immediate than previous shows. I've never really thought of LSF as a New York band before tonight but as I write this, I realize this was the only time I 've seen them outside New York. Are they more of a local/regional band? Who knows. It also occurred to me that LSF's shtick—a formidable, interactive lead singer known for their entertaining tantrums—is a bit more commonplace these days with the advent of bands like Double Dagger and Fucked Up.
In terms of the hijinks, what was your favorite moment? Was it the crowd surfing lawn ornament or the custom-made Les Savy Fav Heinz ketchup given away at the end of the set?
RL: Gave away?? Matt, the ketchup cost precisely one penny minted before 1984—that's hardly free. Though, someone gave Val from DCist a penny so she could buy one; I guess it was free for her. Between pouring beer on his sailor's cap, starting off the evening with celery in his mouth, fingering a fake snowman, and just generally looking like a maniac, it's kind of hard to choose my favorite Tim Harrington moment. After he screamed in your face and picked up a few drinking straws from the bar, I was pretty amused by his claim that they were sponsored and marketed by Old Navy. In a way, everyone's Les Savy Fav story sounds pretty much the same. They all sound totally unbelievable and absurd if you weren't at the show—a pretty strong selling point for the band. You pretty much can't leave their show without an "inside joke" of sorts, and you are guaranteed to witness another bizarre chapter in the bands ongoing mythology. Whether or not you enjoy yourself in the moment, you still win in the long run.
To your other point, while there are definitely more crazy overweight frontdudes now, LSV definitely patented that tradition early. And I did notice the incongruity you mentioned. When they encored with "Who Rocks the Party?" it made total sense that Harrington was in a full-body spandex suit, and his sporadic yelping fit perfectly within the context of a weird, abrasive punk tune. There are some good, straight-up rock songs on their newer albums that seemed to get a little lost in the spectacle. Earlier in their career, they came across like an art-punk band through and through, whereas now they sound like a rock band on record and look like performance artists live.
If you simply look at the whole night as a weird performance piece that happens to be soundtracked by some Les Savy Fav songs, then it works out wonderfully, but if you go looking for faithful representations of their recent work, you may be disappointed to see entire verses without any discernible vocals. However, I will say, there were likely a fair number of more middle-of-the-road indie-rock kids there that may not have seen anything remotely like Harrington—I can only imagine how mind-blowing that would be. I'm trying to picture friends who largely listen to The Decemberists that might've been drawn there by a single off of Let's Stay Friends seeing a band like that without any preconceptions...
MS: I'm glad you mentioned that outfit, since that coupled with his weird southwestern vest made him look like an ersatz Mr. Body, a look that come to think of it, I think I've seen on him previously. Moving forward, I think his efforts would best be served by collaborating with professional weirdoes Tim and Eric. Okay, so now that you've checked out the goods, would you go back for more?
RL: Good question. I mean, considering they mostly played songs off their new record, which I haven't even heard yet, there were quite a few tracks I wanted to hear but didn't. I'd still like to see them play "Blackouts" and "Reprobate's Resume" and "Adopduction" sometime...but I'm in no hurry. Let's just say, if I find myself at a fest where they're playing, I'll most certainly wander over to the stage they're destroying, but I'm not about to drive any great distance to catch another chunky strip tease.