On Saturday afternoon Matt Brown—Bladen County Records founder, man about town, and general bearer of good things—sent out the following email:
Subject: Wavves tonite
at bunk bar.
?1028 SE Water Ave. ?they play at 10:30. ?8 bucks. ?just one band.
As the band would later relay, the show came into being only two days previous, and despite some magnificent screen-printed posters, the venue managed to keep the event's existence an impressive secret right up until the final hour. It was a surprise conceived by someone with a talent for creating buzz, and, surprise surprise, Bunk Bar is staffed by droves of such people.
An expansion on what is generally agreed to be Portland's finest sandwich shop, Bunk Bar opened about a week ago on the corner of Yamhill and Water Avenue. The bar is bordered to the West by Water Avenue Coffee and to all other directions by a half-decade of industrial decline. The times, however, are a changin'.
In addition to Bunk Bar and the aforementioned Water Avenue Coffee, the district has recently become home to a remodeled Produce Row Café, as well as a series of specialty eateries, including Olympic Provisions and Beaker and Flask. Warehouses are being remodeled into advertising offices.
The hope seems to be to transform the taciturn Eastside industrial district into a stretch of bars and boutiques—something in the vein of Mississippi Avenue. As of the present, Water Avenue is still marked primarily by shuttered warehouses, but Bunk Bar, and its high-end fare, is betting on a trend. And if the bar itself is any indication, the staff of Bunk is to be immediately trusted on the subject of trends.
At first glance the space bears a close relation to its fellow Eastside watering hole, Rontoms. Lit mostly by candles and concealed sconces, the bar is primly cavernous. Booths line the far wall, and a majority of the space is consumed with a large and, early in the evening at least, notably empty dance floor. Like Rontoms, the mood is stygian, and like Rontoms the clientele is a mix of elegantly professional and fashionably shabby, though in this case things are trending decidedly towards the former.
On the East wall hangs a mural of a man walking down a stretch of train tracks; on the North wall, a menu featuring several of Bunk's greater inventions. The bar seems like an odd setting at present, because while the fare and clientele suggest a restaurant setting, Bunk Bar has itself currently decked out as a concert space, and with very good reason.
Wavves is playing, and Wavves is a story in its own right.
The band was originally the solo recording project of front man Nathan Williams, a sideline to his otherwise thriving career as a Southern California slacker. As of 2008, he was a nonchalant twenty-something whose day-to-day revolved around skateboarding, smoking as much weed as presently available, and recording trashy, fuzzed-out pop songs in his mom's basement.
In 2008, the indie rock kingmakers at Pitchfork Media latched onto Williams' second album, shouldered it with the title “Best New Music,” and invited Wavves to play its Primavera Music Festival in Barcelona. Williams went from tinkering around in his basement to being a major presence in the international festival circuit in less than a month. The transition was less than smooth.
He had a minor meltdown at the Primavera Music Festival, ditched his original drummer, paired up with drummer Billy Hayes and bassist Stephen Pope (both formerly of Jay Reatard), and released a third LP (King of the Beach) on a label founded and run by a soft drink company (Mountain Dew).
The band's appearance tonight comes during a two-day lull in the trio's stint as an opening act for Phoenix. Over the past two years the group (in one of several formations) has played everything from Williams' backyard to Lollapalooza.
And then there's the controversy.
To call Wavves' music “minimalist” is kind of an understatement. The tracks that catapulted Williams to fame were so rustic that it seemed like something had gone fundamentally wrong in their creation; they seemed like the initial experiments from a group that had yet to figure out how to use the volume knob on its four-track.
As it turns out, Williams did record his first two albums on a four track, and he did know how to use the volume knob—he just didn't care to do so.
The cacophony of Wavves' second album (titled, confusingly, Wavvves) was brilliant, in its way, for being unconcerned to the point of dismissive with any kind of polish. Williams' songs were rock and roll stripped down to its barest incarnation, a sort of Heart of Darkness journey into the smirking, juvenile brain stem of pop. Or at least that's the story that Wavves' fans (an uncomfortable number of music critics among them) would have you believe.
The opposing argument was that Wavves was utter, amateurish shite, a laughable byproduct of the blogoshpere's insatiable greed for trends. The whole thing was a case study of not only the emperor but also the cabinet, the military, and the court jester all walking around in the buff.
So which Wavves was going to show up at Bunk Bar? The petulant, self-destructive charlatan, or the avant-noise wunderkind?
The latter, I would argue.
When Wavves takes the stage at just past eleven the trio looks, and sounds, like its shit is thoroughly together. Williams, Pope, and Hayes go about their set with the kind of seamless rapport that can only result from months of solid touring, or years of solid practice. There may be some carryover from the days of Jay Reatard, but when the trio smashes through “Post-Acid” or stretches the end of “No Hope Kids” into a five-minute jam, there's isn't so much as the ghost of Primavera Sound's unprofessional mess. What's more, the band performs like it's actually enjoying the task.
Williams has developed his floppy head bobbing into a goofy piece of choreography; Stephen Pope's sloppily dyed afro is tossed around like a perpetually reoccurring explosion.
It's hard to escape the dissonance that Wavves brings to the venue, as the trio—with its cutoffs and self-styled hair—is easily grodier than anything else gracing the interior of Bunk Bar. But still, there's a mosh pit that starts up during the first song and keeps an active membership clear until the end. Bunk Bar is a moderate to smaller venue, and it's in this space that Wavves shows its strength.
Pumped through Bunk Bar's muscular sound system, Wavves' songs seem like the work of cheerful garage punks, rather than the pure-noise abstraction of Williams' solo work. You don't have to use much imagination to see why some of Wavves' festival performances have been so disastrous. The music is giddy and smirking and seems like it would lose its essential combativeness, were it placed in a larger venue.
Watching Wavves, it's easy to see how Williams' music has caused a critical scrum. Williams himself is a combative figure. His stage patter is dismissive (he talks about how his throat is sore because he's been smoking too many blunts), but when he starts playing he does so with an honest desire to see the crowd engaged. This desire is coated with a heavy lacquer of irony, like he's playing a game of chicken with his audience, trying to see who will be the first to crack and admit that they're, you know, actually having fun.
Wavves' affected nonchalance is legendary, but it's masking a sense, present in both Williams' earlier songs and this summer's more polished King of the Beach, that what the group is striving for is stupid, uninhibited release.
It's part of what makes tonight's show so strange, and so successful.
The crowd at Bunk Bar, and the bar itself, has affected an air of cosmopolitan refinement. From the tastefully disheveled haircuts to the leather-padded bar, the room seems engaged in an effort to carry the adjectives “urbane” and “understated” to their terminal degrees. Into this milieu, Wavves comes screaming like a straight dose of neon-colored id. Williams sneers and challenges and dares his audience to play along as he goes yowling through forty-five minutes of unrestraint. Tonight, at least, it's a bargain to which both parties can eagerly agree.
Maybe it's not surprising that the two work so well together—Williams' posturing and Bunk Bar's atmosphere. It's a pairing that allows both to be seen at what is, probably, their best.