An Examination of Intimacy: Kishi Bashi at the Palace of Fine Arts

Photo copyright flickr user Kmeron
Did you know that every Friday night in San Francisco there’s a group of people who put on helmets and neon glowsticks and tiny flashing lights and go rollerskating all over town? I didn’t either, until I saw them at the Palace of Fine Arts last Friday as I was coming out of a concert. There wasn’t much of a crowd — just a few figures circling the smooth marble floor underneath the rotunda’s colossal dome, weaving and ducking, their wheels clacking along to the tinny 70s funk coming from someone’s radio. It was a still night, and beyond the shadowy columns and archways of the rotunda lay the pond, darkly glimmering. If the rollerskaters hadn’t been there the whole tableau would have felt mystic, solemn, occult in that harsh Hellenistic way — all stone and consequence. But there they were, in Velcro wristguards and reflective tape, unbearably small and unbearably human, gliding their way through the night.

It seems too pat to say this, too easy a leap from visual to metaphorical truth, but I honestly can’t think of a better way to describe Kishi Bashi than “neon rollerskater against a classical backdrop.” Billed as a “beatboxing violinist,” Kishi Bashi is the stage name of Kaoru Ishibashi, an engineering-school dropout turned lowkey indie star who’s worked alongside the likes of Regina Spektor and Of Montreal. You’ve probably heard his solo work, even if you don’t realize it. It’s in that Windows 8 commercial, and also that Sony commercial, and probably some other ones — honestly his music is perfect for commercials, and that’s not an insult, because like how difficult is it to produce an emotional atmosphere so dense and vivid it can make you feel something in thirty seconds or less?

Ordinarily, Kishi Bashi works alone, creating lush arrangements with only a violin, a set of pedals, and a voice that swoops easily from clear baritone to bright falsetto. On this particular night, he was joined by a full string quartet as well as Elizabeth Ziman (of opening band Elizabeth and the Catapult, sweetly weird singer-songwriter pop) and Mark Savino (of Tall Tall Trees, whose website cites a headline that reads “Bearded man sings songs, violates banjo” — frankly I don’t feel the need to expand upon that description). Since I haven’t seen Kishi Bashi’s solo shows at any point, I can’t credibly make any distinction from a typical performance, but from the moment he stepped onstage and drew a conductor’s baton from his mauve waistcoat, I knew I was in for something really tremendous.

Although I don’t know enough about the technical side of music to gauge whether or not he’s a good conductor, I do know how it feels to watch someone do something like they mean it, and that’s what happened all night. The string players were impeccable (is there another word for string players, so straightbacked and elegant?); Savino beat his banjo with a drumstick and howled through his copious beard; Ziman crooned. Kishi Bashi himself occupied a space somewhere between seasoned professional performativity and raw nerves — “I’m really nervous tonight,” he said at one point, and then, “I think it’s because this is my favorite city to play. You guys are — what do they call it? My target market.”

Kishi Bashi’s music is made for dreamers. It’s the kind that makes your mind wander, the sort that spirals out and out until the air shimmers with it, almost thick enough to touch. The sounds wrap you up and take you away until you hardly forget where you are or what you’re really listening to. At one point, as the stage lights deepened to moody pink, I found myself fixated on his showy corsage — what a nice thing it is, I thought, to wear a corsage; how strange and lovely that we pin flowers on ourselves on days when we are important, and it happens so often, so many people have pinned flowers on so many others for so many reasons, and we’ve gone walking around feeling the whole universe open up for us.  And then the song was over, and there was a new song, and it began anew, four or five minutes more, another rhapsody.

Joy permeates Kishi Bashi’s sound — some of it is even upbeat enough to dance to, as demonstrated during a three-song stretch when audiences were urged to rise from their seats and bop along to bouncy crowdpleasers like “Carry On Phenomenon” and “The Ballad of Mr Steak.” But often that joy is cut through with a weird delicate sorrow, a note here or a word there that pushes a song from chintzy quirk into something fucked up and believable. Often it’s about love, because I mean, what isn’t, but also just as much about not-love, or what could have been love. Oh in the desert you sucked my finger, goes “Atticus in the Desert,” and then ­— it wasn’t meant to be, it was like water from leather. “Once Upon A Dreaming (in Afrikaans),” from the newest album Lighght, gets to the heart of things in two lines: I need to know this love is real / I want to feel the sadness.

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The word intimate is overused to describe concert experiences — usually as shorthand for watching a solo artist perform in a cramped venue — but it is the word I keep returning to, the only word that feels like it gets at everything I saw and felt last Friday. Intimate is what it is when someone admits to you they’re nervous. Intimate is someone telling you “this song is about vampires,” “this song is about my own idea of a creation myth where the universe was created by cosmic lovers,” “this song is about a dream I had where I was dying.” Intimate is when someone insists on turning the lights on — which happened, partway through the show, when Kishi Bashi said “Can you bring up the house lights? I want to see who I’m playing to — it’s so dark out there it could be anyone. It could be a pack of lions.”

During the show, we lions bore witness to two improvised pieces. First, our fearless headliner alone with his violin, bowing and warping and looping until the air filled with a high twittering noise that sounded like garbled, eerie fey laughter above our heads. “This is really cool,” he said, and then, withdrawing an iPhone from his pocket, “Actually, you know what, I’m gonna record this. God, sorry, this is really unprofessional! I wouldn’t normally do this. This is how I write most of my songs though.” He joked that we could hear it again on the new album, and a ripple of excitement ran through the audience (intimate is hearing something no one has ever heard before). The second improvisation came during the encore, when everyone filed back onstage and stood right at the edge of it, almost too close to the audience, unprotected by chairs or mics or space. “This is gonna be an acoustic set,” Kishi Bashi said, his unamplified voice swallowed up by the room. Gently at first, he began to play, and one at a time his cohort joined in, looking to him for cues. The sounds clashed, skewed, overlapped with one another in a sloppy mishmash of eight notes and sudden high screeches. It wasn’t something anyone would want to record. It was, objectively, bad. But there is something so freeing and delightful and important about watching people who are good at the thing the do as they do something objectively bad, something purposefully messy and weird and unplanned, just for the sake of doing it. Each of them looked careful, concentrating; each person was so visibly trying, so visibly working, without any of the usual polish of performance, that it felt difficult to look at them. And at the same time, it was, ostensibly, a performance for the audience. We were there to look. We were there for them. Intimate is how it feels when you watch someone try, how it feels to look at someone who has asked you to look at them.

At last they segued into the song that is Kishi Bashi’s closest approximation to a smash hit — “Bright Lights” — and the intensity lessened, the whole room relaxed. And again, I cannot find a word other than intimate to describe the feeling of watching a group of people, small and bright under the vast proscenium, play as they might have played in rehearsals: clustered in a ragged semicircle, loose and easy and grinning. The breathlessness of the improvisation still hung over us, and we in the audience mostly stood quiet for fear of overpowering the bare music that floated out into the velvety dark. But there were moments we couldn’t contain ourselves from singing alone, when a kind of deep hum rose up ­— the sort of noise that is felt in the chest rather than heard — and everything seemed to be blending at the edges, air spilling into sound spilling into velvet curtains and violin strings and other humans. That’s intimacy, I think. It really is.

Heyrocco Broke My Heart

I live in South Carolina and I generally don’t support local music. I’m 23; I can no longer bring myself to willingly spend time in cold basements or all age clubs making eyes at boys in bands. So I’m relatively ignorant to the music coming out of South Carolina, but I know a lot of it is dude rock, washed up Edwin McCain fair or infinite reincarnations of Hootie & the Blowfish – not for me.

I work at a record store and we host bands, most recently a three-piece called Heyrocco from Charleston, South Carolina – please flashback to the very broad statement I just made about the state of the SC music scene & my newfound self-respect when dealing with boys in bands and press pause.

Heyrocco is, in essence, an extremely authentic 90s tribute band. I am extremely devoted to the 90s, a true 90s purist to the point that the recent rebirth of the 90s aesthetic often upsets me because I feel it lacks authenticity; it seems trendy, and slapping a choker on doesn’t make you 90s. This being said, I think the front man of Heyrocco (he’s called Nate) dresses exclusively in vintage Tommy Hilfiger. He also has several bucket hats, a Kurt Cobain dye job, and smudgy male model eyes. They talk about Pizza Hut on their Twitter. I’m suspicious.

But then I hear them play and I want to throw my velvet scrunchie on stage in a fit of lust. They remind me of the Cure meets the Stone Roses meets early Arctic Monkeys with the snark & energy of Wavves. They sing about girls & teenager-dom & premature ejaculation. A little bratty, a little self-deprecating, very self-aware – what I wish I was listening to at 17 but can appreciate in my early 20s. The track “Virgin” plays out like the intro music to any underdog gets the girl 90s film & “Santa Fe” sounds very similar to “Just Like Heaven” but I can’t fault them for it because at least their heavy 90s essence stems from the actual 90s (well, 1987, but whatever).

Before hearing them play someone described them to me as pop punk which I won’t contest completely, but I do think one very important distinction should be made – the songs they produce have the longevity of the 90s, a longer attention span than a lot of pop punk. I’m talking 4+ minute tracks. The Stone Roses have a lot of songs that sound like two different tracks wrapped around each other – you start in one place and wander off for a bit for a jangly sort of intermission and then gradually find your way back before the song ends. I feel that is true signifier of 90s Brit Pop and yet here is Heyrocco in South Carolina in 2015 doing it and they do it well. Lyrically they sway between saccharine and apathetic – sour apple, black out curtains & a sweet, clumsy blush.

Heyrocco is a 90s fledgling, nouvelle 90s 101. Their approach is not subtle nor is it refined but the abandon with which they create and play is in true 90s form – they thrive on the fuzz & the twitch. Heyrocco is a pack of Dunkaroos, an eye roll, a fuzzy smiley face backpack – a heart-shaped wink at the 90s. I believe they strive towards an authentic 90s resurrection both aesthetically and aurally with shrine-like loyalty to the total vibe of the decade, and that’s something I can get behind.

a graven image: the fallout of punk idolatry

I haven’t been to the Fillmore since I was very small, so when I step into the blue light and look up at the Banga bass drum I’m a little taken aback by how close it is, how close she’ll be. People are making sardines of themselves already, staking their claim in the splash zone. I take a wide stance. I, too, am a territorial fish.

Patricia “Patti” Lee Smith, godmother of punk and high priestess of my heart is somewhere in this very building. It’s a presence deeply felt: she’s just so much. Like, to culture, to music, to art, of course! But also to me. Just Kids is the best kind of comfort food, it’s a fire under my ass, it’s my favorite ode. I spent the final months of my schooling becoming crow-girl Cavale, a character in a play based on its authors’ (Patti Smith and Sam Shepard’s) tumultuous love affair. She is my work, my wail, my lullaby. Music is never not intimate, but some artists just crawl into your lungs, and sort of by accident, and soon you don’t really know what it is to breathe without their involvement.

That’s really dramatic. But anyhow, it’s personal.

And good lord, is it incredible. Incroyable in the esoteric sense. She is electric. She shakes the ground because we shake the ground because she shakes from inside our bones and vibrates into our feet and we dance because we must. It’s moving. We are moved. Sixty-eight years old singing we explore the men’s room/we don’t give a shit/ladies’ lost electricity/take vows inside of it and I see her, we all do, young and wild and sonically entwined. I’ve never felt so like a witness of such exquisite fervor between a woman and a beloved ghost. Sixty-eight years old and caterwauling EOWROWROWROWROWROWROWROW, turning the crowd into a chorus of stray guitars in heat. Sixty-eight years old and burying Lenny Kaye in the curtain of her silvered hair as they play creature in an erotic rock-out shred dance that takes them both to their knees. She spits. She spits a lot. Maybe it used to be a defiance, a middle finger to the sky re: femininity, re: manners, re: appropriate places to spit, but now she does it because it’s a part of her. Patti Smith spits on the floor and I think Oh my god, I just saw Patti Smith spit on the floor. And then Oh my god, I wish she’d spit on me, because there’s so much history in her saliva and I’ve got this weird faith that her amylase could somehow dissolve my fears, catalyze me to make a grand thing.

That’s not how spit works, but that’s okay. Because she keeps going. She sings love is an angel disguised as lust, and I bathe in it, letting myself have a crystalline moment of belief in a love that will later betray me but it doesn’t matter because here it’s good and pure and in her words I see myself: take me now, baby, here as i am, and for now I escape the sorrow and only feel wonder at what a human can give to another human in a kiss.

We are given a parable. We are given a medium. We cry as wolf all together, and we taste it all, as she tastes it, each epoch of herself. She knights a girl in a turtleneck sweater who clambers onto the stage and takes Patti’s guitar in hand, playing not one song but several, singing backup, fucking rocking. It is a marvel to see a hero make a hero. Some kid from the crowd shoulder to shoulder with veterans and saints and holding her own. (I cry a lot during this show, but especially now.)

So we get all this and we stomp for more and this truly delicious riff is taken up by the band but suddenly I get this woozy feeling because then Patti is snarling baby was a black sheep/baby was a whore and I want to vomit, I want to curl up and die, but I don’t. Patti Smith and Her Band are singing “Rock N Roll N____” and suddenly these, like, 32 year-old white dudes are moshing at me in near-bacchic frenzy, more stoked to rock than they’re ever been in their lil bro lives. The room vibrates in response to the priestess’ call, a sea of ecstatic white faces taking full advantage of this permission they’re being given to say a word that is inherently ugly on their tongues. I push to the edge of the crowd, I disengage and back away from the stage, refuse to let the sheer visceral musicality of the song make me dance to it.

I feel sick. I feel sick because I knew this song existed and I knew she might play it but I came anyway and just hoped that she wouldn’t, that the set list would be clean. I knew it could happen but I wanted to forget, because it is easier to relax into the quasi-deification of an artist you admire if they don’t make shitty things and insist that it’s a compliment. That she, having been othered in her own domain, may call herself revolutionary in using the word, give it to her favorite white men, point us out one by one, giving it to us too, with the lights on so we all see each other, most people’s lips forming shapes of slurs with a grin.

I feel sick. I feel sick because I knew this song existed and I knew she might play it but I came anyway and just hoped that she wouldn’t, that the set list would be clean.

And look, I truly believe that Patti believes that all mutants and the new babes born sans eyebrow and tonsil-outside logic-beyond mathematics poli-tricks baptism and motion sickness-any man who extends beyond the classic are this new breed of rock n roll being, existing outside of society, the most noble-hearted of folk. But it’s wrong! It’s wrong for the white punx and their foremother to appropriate such a word, a poison doled out from white people to black people. Just because you know that black people exist and you think they’re pretty cool and radical doesn’t mean you can straight up position your oppressions and defiance thereof as equivalent. As worthy of so weighty a word.

One hour and fifty-four minutes of punk rock piety made illusion by one song clocking in at three minutes and thirty seconds. This isn’t about my time being ruined or wasted. This isn’t about me much at all. It’s about “how do you negotiate the simultaneity of great love for an artist and great disappointment in a facet of their art and, by extension, their concept of rebellion?” I shuffle out of the venue, and I think about it. I think about it in the cab. I think about it on BART. I think about it when I go to sleep and when I wake up. I think about it on the plane. I think about it while I write about thinking about it, and honestly I don’t know. I can neither escape what Patti Smith has meant to me, nor can I ever even try to want to justify the song and its 37-year tenure as the encore that’ll really bring the audience to its knees.

I hate that we live in a world where an artist feels in good conscience and just power conflating her oppression—as woman, as artist, as captive of capitalism—with the oppression of others, black people whose scars are directly proportional to this country’s growth, both industrial and cultural, who are eponymous to the song specifically because the slur has been hurled at them with such vitriol and accompanied physical and spiritual violence. To survive that? That’s nothing short of miraculous, but to call it a miracle would rob individuals of their ownership of the struggle. It’s artistically irresponsible at best to strip a word of its bearers and assign it to your sanctified self. Black lives matter because they do, not because you found in them a way to (en)title your own. You can’t shock the world out of racism and into revolution. That doesn’t belong to you. Cut it out.

It’s hard to allow yourself to be disappointed in an action and still treasure its overarching experience. I think we’re told that in order to be grown ups we have to know what to do about the uneasiness we feel. But I know no other way than to talk about it. To weave in and out of it. To look at it and call it for what it is. I don’t know how to kill my idols, couldn’t bring myself to burn the book and melt the wax and trash the merch tee. But I’ll be damned if I lionize or hasten to protect that moment of venue-wide complicity in a linguistic assault that got disguised as a moral high ground.