By Raymond Simon
“You studied cinema, you said you knew the price of fame,” Glenn Donaldson sings on “Sculpture Gardens,” a tune on the Art Museum’s debut record, Rough Frame. When asked about that song, Josh Alper, the other half of the duo behind the recording, provides some insight into the band’s off-kilter view of the world.
Alper describes the song as a “glorification and celebration of people who present themselves as overly cultural, but there’s a dash of bubblegum, too.”
So far so good.
But he continues, referring to Lancelot Link, an old Saturday morning TV show featuring chimpanzees. “It evokes an image,” he elaborates. “Lancelot Link. The chimps doing a spy/cold war thing. A chimp on a Vespa. The cemetery in Easy Rider. A professor with a pipe.”
Welcome to the eccentric world of the Art Museums, a place where modern art and long-forgotten Saturday morning television shows complement one another; where psychedelia and post-punk co-exist peacefully; and where high culture gets the lo-fi treatment.
The Art Museums have only been together for roughly a year and a half. Alper and Donaldson met when both were playing in a San Francisco area psych folk band, Whysp, but the two had been active in the northern California music scene prior to that. In fact, Donaldson used to run his own record label, Jewelled Antler, where he gained valuable experience in recording music and made contact with other artists, producers, and labels.
The band’s origins actually lay in the duo’s shared enthusiasm for psychedelic music; obscure English band, Television Personalities; and the delightful, literate singles released by the Kinks during their late 1960s heyday. While Whysp was winding down, Donaldson began trying to coax Alper into recording new material with him. “Glenn has recorded people at his apartment and he asked me to come by,” Alper recalls. “I kept saying, ‘I don’t know. I’m not sure.’ Then, in January or February of ’09, I thought, this is stupid! I enjoy hanging out with Glenn and someone wants to record me.”
Once Alper surrendered to the inevitable, the pair set about working on songs. The two have day jobs and live in different cities, so they exchanged ideas and lyrics via e-mail. Alper periodically travelled north from Santa Cruz to San Francisco to record on his partner’s Tascam 388 tape machine, a veritable relic from the 1980s.
The recording proceeded smoothly. Alper claims that all of the songs were in the can by the fall of 2009. Jeremy Earl’s Woodsist label expressed interest, and, by mid-February of 2010, the Art Museums’ had released their first record.
The result is nine weird but catchy tracks, miniature portraits of hipster angst filled with hard-to-hear lyrics and minimal percussion, drenched in reverb, and decked out with post-punk hooks. The two played all the instruments and divvied up the singing, but Alper credits Donaldson with the more ornate guitar runs and with having a more pleasant singing voice. Overall, he claims the band’s sound is the product of deep aesthetic agreement. “Atmosphere is important to Glenn and me. We want these songs to be at home in the rooms, at home in the realities they’re in,” he notes cryptically.
For listeners unfamiliar with the duo’s esoteric taste, Alper helpfully explains that the friends’ cultural touchstones include Syd Barrett, the Mods, the Marble Staircase, Whaam Records, Dan Treacy, and Creation Records, among others. The pair’s taste may lean heavily towards toward psychedelic oddballs and pop misfits from yesteryear, but their lyrics are firmly focused on: bearded dudes in trucker caps and art-damaged chicks.
Take the opening track, “We Can’t Handle It,” for example. In an earnest voice, Alper sings:
“His favorite bands, he wished he played a part/Their first single, an ecstatic work of art/Now he spends all day hiding in his room, Trying to play along with Maureen Tucker.”
The song simultaneously pokes fun at this oh-so-twee youth and unabashedly revels in its own absurdity. Similar themes crop up elsewhere, like in “Paris Cafes” and “So Your Baby Doesn’t Love You Anymore,” which begins: “If you tell the truth, I promise not to cry. So what’s this rain inside my eye?”
The Art Museums’ blend of Aubrey Beardsley and swinging London’s infamous UFO Club would be too precious if the Art Museums didn’t have an ear for melody and a sense of humor. Alper admits that there’s some irony in the band’s songs, but he insists it’s a gentle, self-aware irony.
“There are so many amazing characters in music,” he says with a fan’s enthusiasm. “They assume a persona and just go with it. People like Marc Bolan, or, more recently, Little Wings and Devandra Banhart. They’re like magical creatures. They celebrate the glorified reality of pop, the magic. We don’t want to be overly precious but, if we are, we’re gonna go for it.”
The Art Museums have struck a chord. The band has garnered good reviews and shares a label with likeminded artists. What began as a typical bedsit project has recently been expanded into a touring band. On stage, Alper and Donaldson are joined by Carly Putnam on bass and Virginia Weatherby on electronic drum pad. Live, Alper says, they don’t try to recreate the record but aim instead for more of a Buzzcocks sound.
Sounds like a wise choice. Check ’em out.