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Friday, Jan. 27, 2006


A band that plays along with the joke

Special to The Japan Times

Test Icicles have been in Japan for less than 24 hours, and nearly a quarter of that has been spent talking to journalists. Rory Atwell, the band's eldest member at the ripe old age of 25, is still somewhat game, but his younger bandmates, both just 20 years old, have a different agenda. Devonte Hynes, who admits publicly that the shock-metal band Slipknot changed his life, would rather be back at the hotel watching "Twin Peaks" DVDs. Third member Sam Mehran would rather be napping.

Not that the burnout is unexpected. Since forming in the suburbs of London less than 18 months ago, the band has been caught in a typically British maelstrom of super hype. Their first album, "For Screening Purposes Only," has been critically acclaimed, propelled by gloriously thrashy post-punk guitars that hammer out infectious riffs. Songs like "Circle. Square. Triangle." and "Boa vs. Python" seem just as at home blasting from an AM radio as they do in the grotty clubs that Test Icicles have seen far too much of lately.

Devonte Hynes: "We hadn't toured ever until we recorded the album. Our first tour started the day after we finished recording."

Japan Times: "Then how are your shows not completely shambolic?"

DH: "They are. Sometimes it is so horrible."

Rory Atwell: "But sometimes we play terrible and everyone loves it and sometimes we play really well and people will be 'What was that for?' "

JT: "What defines a good show for you?"

DH: "I feel well afterward."

JT: "Like, not vomiting?"

DH: "Yeah, that's it."

RA: "It's happening less and less. That's the other thing. We are always painted as being really happy-go-lucky, but we are the least happy-go-lucky party kids ever. We never go out; we never get f**ked up; we don't sleep with loads of girls on tour. We don't really do anything. We just get on with it."

Sam Mehran: "I've got a curfew now. I haven't stayed out since 10:30 in ages."

The band has actually toured more than they ever practiced (last rehearsal count: eight). And to add to the commotion, just last weekend they broke the British Top 40 with their latest single, "What's Your Damage?," an unlikely fusion of insistent guitars, distorted vocals and a strangely melodic bridge.

Not bad for a band that began, essentially, as a joke.

DH: "Yeah, the punch line was us."

RA: "From the onset, it was for one reason, for one gig."

DH: "It was to get in to see The Unicorns. We wrote four songs and one of them was 'Circle. Square. Triangle.' "

RA: "And we got into the show the next day too because they liked us. They even liked our name. [Before the gig] they had asked us for a name. The other band that went on before us said call it Test Icicles. If I went back in time and saw myself and told myself what would happen . . ."

SM: "What do you think the [opening cut] 'Biggest Mistake' is about? Listen to the lyrics. This is it."

The band's sound, though grounded in an aggressive guitar-driven, punk-derived sound, also melds so many other influences -- Pharrell Williams, Sonic Youth, Radiohead, Pantera -- that it is difficult to fit them into any clear category. The British music press has thus opted for a prefabricated narrative -- DIY-ers just learning to master their instruments -- that makes the group distinctly uncomfortable. Far from punk prodigies that have just picked up their instruments, Atwell and Mehran have been making music in their bedrooms for years. Hynes is an accomplished cello player.

Missing from most reviews of "For Screening Purposes Only," then, is a sense of the album's musicality. Hynes has commented that the band used almost every possible instrument while recording. Peek beneath the howling guitars and vocals and there are complicated song structures and even more complicated layers of instrumentation. In fact, each song was individually recorded by the member who wrote it. The consistency of the album's sound belies again the notion that Test Icicles were somehow just inspired amateurs.

DH: "We knew the [parameters] we had to write in."

RA: "To be upbeat and lively but not set in its way. To be open to a lot of different things, not forcing it to veer wildly from one thing to another but not be scared to think outside of the box. There was a lot of British music and British culture at the time that was really dull. There was a tendency to repeat the things that had come before."

Ten years ago, ambitious young musicians fiddled with laptops, but with the success of Franz Ferdinand, Kaiser Chiefs, and Arctic Monkeys, the pendulum in the British music scene has definitively swung back toward guitar rock. Yet, part of the Test Icicles' appeal is their distinctly unironic, unretro, un-British sound. At last weekend's "British Anthems" showcase at Studio Coast, the group's only Tokyo show, Test Icicles sounded completely unlike any other band, with bass and drums provided by a backing track and members switching vocals and guitars on every song.

On first listen, you might guess that they were an offshoot of California's skatecore scene or a part of the skewed punk of Washington D.C.'s Dischord label. The more extreme releases on Olympia, Wash.'s Kill Rock Stars label also comes to mind. And indeed, the group cites a whole slew of obscure American bands, like The Locusts, among their faves.

DH: "That is kind of the stuff that we were listening to when we were making the record. The only British bands that I really listened to or really liked were in the mid to late 1990s -- like Ash and Radiohead. And even Ash was really influenced by Weezer and Nirvana, and Radiohead was always progressing and changing. In the past five years, most U.K. bands are stuck are in this retro, post-'70s groove, and the ones who do seem to be the most innovative are just copying former innovators."

That sense of being apart, of being caught up in something not of their own design has left Test Icicles with a distinctly ambivalent view of the music biz and their place in it.

RA:"People are intrigued by us, and they don't know what to make of us, and we don't know what to make of us so we can't tell them. There are all these kids who are so into what we are doing, and if we play really badly or if we are having a night when we really don't want to be there, we still can't escape them. They are waiting for us to do something, waiting for us to change their lives."

DH: "We feel like the biggest cheats in the world."

JT: "But you said that Slipknot did change your life. Isn't there a possibility that the Test Icicles could change someone's life?"

DH: "That frightens me."

SM: "I guess it's better than being into Kaiser Chiefs."

RA: "As long as we are a stepping stone to bigger and better things. When you are 13 or 14 you need to hear that band that makes you find out about all the other stuff."

JT: "You must be at least a little proud of the record."

SM: "I'm still kind of embarrassed about it, but it happened."

DH: "I like the first three notes."

After Japan, Test Icicles return to Britain for yet another round of shows. Their first tour of the United States in March with dates at the influential South by Southwest music conference in Texas. After that, it is anybody's guess, but fans shouldn't get their hopes up for a second Test Icicles album. The group may be a one-hit wonder, not by chance, but by design.

"It is definitely something that isn't supposed to last," says Mehran.

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