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Out of the Echo Chamber

There’s nothing redundant about Severe Severe’s sophomore LP Break Up the Dance

by Josh Potter on August 24, 2011 · 1 comment

“It’s a fixer-upper,” admits Mike Capritta, bassist for Albany postpunk band Severe Severe, standing in the kitchen of the apartment where he and guitarist Nico Jordan have lived since moving back to the region in 2006. A missing ceiling panel reveals exposed beams and black mold, but Capritta isn’t referring to the house. It isn’t his van either, which he uses to clean pools in the summer and took to the Midwest and back on a tour to support the band’s latest record Break Up the Dance earlier this summer, and now sits broken down in the driveway. He’s talking about the classic Street Fighter 2 arcade machine that looms in the corner, along with at least a half-dozen others. Capritta taught himself to fix the cheap, busted consoles and now has become something of a collector.

Photo by Julia Zave

But he might as well be talking about his band Severe Severe, a project that has undergone a dizzying series of permutations, geographic relocations and technical setbacks since he and Jordan started playing music as kids. Theirs is both the classic American underdog story and a study in hard luck—actually, it might be a compelling case that you can’t have one without the other. Straddling the fence between the experimental boutique and club rock, Severe Severe have long floated on the periphery of the local scene, accumulating quiet reverence from the musicians who directly surround them but only recently gaining the audience they deserve. They draw heavily from early ’80s postpunk, new wave, and no wave, and there’s a fraught and slightly paranoiac agitation at the core of what they do, and it’s hard not to attribute some of this to material circumstance.

Their longtime drummer quit the band halfway through recording Break Up the Dance, his replacement quit after the summer tour, and with two high-profile gigs on the horizon—LarkFest and Local Legends Live—the group have enlisted two alternates, each from Northampton, Mass. So, Severe Severe are something of a fixer-upper, just like the house in Troy Capritta and Jordan just bought and the arcade games that may never get there without a cargo vehicle. But never quite settling and constantly having to change the formula has always kept the band creative and open to what comes along. To replace the van, Capritta’s uncle just sold him a (“dirt cheap”) Mustang to tour with. It might not haul a game machine or a drum set—but, shit.

Plenty of Capital Region bands dream of someday relocating to a larger market—namely New York City. Severe Severe’s trajectory, though, has been quite to the contrary. Jordan and Capritta were fast friends growing up in the Saratoga area before Jordan and his mother moved to Memphis, Tenn., when he was 12. The two stayed in touch, visited each other during summers, and started playing music with bands back home. They didn’t get serious until Jordan, like so many young Americans, set his sights on California.

“My band at the time, Stainless, had broken up. And I’d, like, broken up with my girlfriend,” Jordan explains. “I was 21 and was like, fuck it, I need to get out of Memphis. I need to do something different. I was working for FedEx at the time and just put in a transfer.” He convinced Capritta to drive to Los Angeles with him, where they formed the Duration in 2002 with drummer Kurt Amelang.

“We’d originally talked about this since we were like 15,” says Capritta. “Finally we got together. And every time we did it would last seven or eight months to a year.” So began a topsy-turvy set of years when the band would convene in L.A., write, perform, and disband with Capritta and Amelang heading back east before anything ever really got off the ground. “Tensions exploded I guess,” says Capritta. “I don’t know. We just kept getting back together because Kurt is an amazing drummer. It’s such a dysfunctional band.”

It was during this time, though, that Jordan came into his own as a songwriter. Severe Severe are commonly (and rightfully) situated in a stylistic lineage extending from postpunk acts like Joy Division, New Order and the Cure, but for Jordan this development was somewhat incidental. “To be honest with you,” he says, “when I was younger, my girlfriend loved Joy Division and New Order but I didn’t give them a chance when I was 16 or 17.” Capritta sites Chicago-based math rock as an early influence and Jordan names Big Black and Scratch Acid as early favorites. “I dismissed them,” Jordan continues, “and then after one of the first Duration shows a couple people came up to us and were like, ‘You guys sound like Joy Division,’ and I was like, ‘I better check them out again.’ They became one of my favorite bands.”

Ever since, the band’s recording output hasn’t been able to keep pace with Jordan’s writing, full albums of material sitting dormant on tape recorders or released in solo fashion on the band’s Bad Archer Records.

The group moved to Memphis around the middle of the decade, recorded an EP as the Duration, endured the first of Amelang’s several departures from the band and eventually reconvened for a solid year to write their first record as Severe Severe—a named taken from an inside joke and duo project Jordan had in L.A. “We wrote Beyond the Pink, didn’t play one show and broke up before we did anything,” says Capritta. This is when the trio finally moved home to Albany.

“We hear it a lot that our recordings don’t really do us justice,” says Jordan, but Break Up the Dance might change that. It’s true that the band’s live set is the standard by which any audience should judge Severe Severe—and last week’s microblast of a show downstairs at Valentine’s attested to the fact they haven’t lost a step since their recent run of drummer problems—but the new challenge might instead be replicating the album’s complexity of textures in a live setting.

“I feel like we did let ourselves go a little bit on this record,” says Jordan. “We experimented a bit and added some more layers in there.” Most of the material was written in a rehearsal space in Guilderland they refer to as the “murder trailer.” It’s safe to say that much of the record’s dark psychedelic qualities come from late nights in the tiny space, trying to make up for their missing bandmate with drum machines and electronics. On “Adventures in the Sun,” Jordan’s voice emerges from a wall of squalling digital noise to invoke shamanic longings in 5/4 time. “Civilization is gone, communication is gone,” he cries at the end of “Holy Healer” through acid-washed effects and over a beat that sounds more industrial than motorik.

In order to cover the parts, Severe Severe were joined at Valentine’s by keyboardist Alex Wozniak, whose brother Ted recorded Break Up the Dance at their home studio in Pine Hills, and drummer Jeremy Dubs, who plays guitar with Northampton band Bunnies and has a solo record coming out produced by the Pixies’ Frank Black.

There’s still a postpunk sensibility at the core of these tracks, but there’s plenty more packed in there too. “We have this ongoing joke,” Jordan says, “that we’re never going to have any kind of success with this band because we’re influenced by bands that never found any kind of success”—like the Wipers, Snakefinger and Roky Erickson. As Capritta explains, that’s part of the idea behind Break Up the Dance. “It happens every generation,” he says. “Bands go from influence to blatantly ripping stuff off. Now, of course, there’s this ’80s postpunk or new wave—or no wave sound. Every band is popping it out. And we’re just trying to play three-piece rock and roll.”

“We’ve come to not really expect a whole lot,” says Jordan, adhering to the well-worn underdog narrative. It’s the kind of sentiment that feeds back on itself, not unlike the band’s admittedly budget gear: a response to trying conditions that yields new sounds, opportunities and tons of material. Through countless configurations and a handful of locations, Jordan and Capritta have grown up this way, as Jordan says, with “that urgency of wanting to create.”

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