Outside of their home at Oakland's Abco Art Space, Casy & Brian show off their fresh ampersand tattoos. The electro-punk duo's forthcoming album is titled &, but the name isn't meant only to commemorate the duo's five-year tenure. One self-imposed compositional constraint on their upcoming album is that the lyrics to each song were drawn from a single published work, such as a technical manual or a poem. In an oblique way, Casy Marquis and Brian McCarthy consider the authors of those works to be like third members. The ampersand is also a fitting symbol for the evolution of their creative partnership. Like two chemists, Casy & Brian make music by introducing a random variable into their formula. If they're fond of the reaction, it becomes another aesthetic restriction. Such elaborate artistic decisions and contrarian proclivities may sound obscurantist, but they've paid off: The band's raucous and art-damaged dance-rock has been honed to a pinnacle, and it's finally found a receptive audience in the East Bay's warehouse scene.
Casy & Brian didn't begin as a high-concept drum-and-synth duo. When they initially formed in Seattle, it was to stage guerilla performances in the lobbies, bathrooms, and parking lots of clubs and parties where they weren't booked. Neither could play an instrument. They envisioned themselves as “sonic terrorists” pitted against what they perceived as Seattle's contrived musical scene, so they donned bandanas and upset enough sonic sensibilities to be banned from many venues.
Their earliest material consists of chaotic, feral electro-dirges, created in opposition to the vapidity of some Seattle bands. Since then, the fidelity of their releases has become clearer, and their competence as musicians has improved, but they've retained the instrumentation once used to conduct aural assaults. Marquis salvaged half a drum kit from the garbage in Seattle, and it hasn't grown much since. Consciously neglecting cymbals, the rhythmic backbone typically comprises a bass drum, floor tom, snare, and tambourine. Meanwhile, McCarthy plays a Casio MT-40 keyboard from 1980.
The odd instrumentation, which began out of necessity, is now a deliberate constraint of Casy & Brian's music. McCarthy is superstitious about avoiding guitars. He speaks of the instrument with utter disdain. “I won't touch a guitar. If a band needs help loading their gear, I won't handle their guitars.” He prefers a vintage Casio keyboard. His favorite model was introduced as a consumer-grade toy, but its cult appeal was established once Jamaican artist King Jammy used its preset pattern in the song “Under Me Sleng Teng,” which became the basis for 1980s dancehall music. The mythology is appropriate, considering the duo's interest in dancehall, and the MT-40 has become such a crucial facet of their sound that McCarthy has at least four of them available at all times. Given the volatile nature of their shows, it's important to have extras; McCarthy already lost one to a short circuit when a member of the audience lacerated his hand and it bled all over the keys. As Marquis recalls, “Brian smacked a pint glass out of [a heckler's] hand, which shattered everywhere. Then he flipped a table, fell, and went back to the keyboard.”
All of the lyrics on the band's forthcoming album came from published works. As McCarthy observes, “Casy & Brian songs need a bibliography.” In one song, Charles Bukowski's “Roll the Dice” is recited almost verbatim. The poem's insistence on sacrifice for the sake of eventual self-knowledge and bliss resonates deeply with Casy & Brian's many years of urban dissatisfaction. Other lyrical sources relate less directly. One song contains excerpts from Carl Sagan's television series Cosmos. For another, portions of Shel Silverstein's Where the Sidewalk Ends are cut up into lyrical fodder. Besides the pleasure of conducting the necessary research in libraries, McCarthy says their lyrics are also a reaction to the posturing of sensitive indie boys with guitars. “I don't give a fuck how some sap feels,” he says. In contrast with the lyrical content, however, McCarthy's vocal delivery usually conveys the urgent persistence of a party.
The group's aesthetic rigidity evokes the principles of industrial musicians from the '80s, especially their emulation of William Burroughs' cut-up techniques on recordings. On their most recent record, a self-released eponymous EP, the duo combines crude, unconventional percussion and electronics with the immediacy of punk, never verging into saturated oblivion like their earlier work. Instead, frenetic rhythms reinforce trebly keyboard patterns underneath vocals that charge with a flippant swagger. A defiant tenacity permeates the mix. Ostensibly, this is compelling dance-rock, but the recordings contain a certain obstinate charm that's best heard through distressed PA systems at illicit shows.
Non-musicians forming bands have obvious disadvantages, but learning how to play while conceptualizing a group has yielded fascinating results for Casy & Brian. They initially channeled their frustration into violent musical outbursts. Now, their songs are still antithetical to the musical trends they dislike, but their aesthetic is at its most accessible and refined. Contained in these hyperactive electro compositions are years of dissatisfaction, but also exaltation. In Oakland, the flourishing warehouse-centric music community supports their endeavors in a way previously unknown to the duo. Searching to find the words, Marquis says with exasperation, “It's the first time we feel rewarded for doing what we always have.”