Retro Active

Knol Tate knows how to put an outfit together. Not a band, because he really isn't in a band. (You see, the group he plays in, Askeleton, is one of those "projects" where one guy writes and records by himself on his iMac and hires extra musicians for the live set.) I'm referring to the uppercase Outfit, the one rock stars and teenage girls acknowledge as the true artistic grail: the perfect coordination of costume from head to toe. Tate is tall and skinny (a skeleton, get it?), and he wears a gorgeously worn-in pair of jeans, a light-violet collared shirt under a green striped sweater, and a note-perfect pair of blue-and-yellow Nike Internationalist running shoes ('86?). And he doesn't cheat by aping what the mannequin is wearing at the Gap. Tate is a vintage fanatic.

"I like old stuff," he explains while I fawn over his shoes at a coffee shop in St. Paul. Next door to the shop sits Tate's very own vintage clothing store, MoeJo's. (Actually, it's co-owned by Tate, his wife Moe, and their friend Curly...no, not Curly. Her name is Joellen: Moe-Jo's, get it?) But you don't have to sift through a rack of picked-over sweaters to realize that Tate is not alone in his love for old stuff these days. Velvet Underground-loving bands out of New York (the Strokes) have given way to Joy Division-loving bands out of New York (Interpol) and there's a slew of retro-punk and garage-band-loving groups like Liars and Ex-Models coming right behind them. And if all of those guys don't own vintage clothing stores, they sure look like they know their way around one.

Wearing their influences on their sleeves has taken on a whole new meaning in this modern age. And Askeleton's new EP, Modern Fairy Tales (on New York's Alone Records), struts Tate's vintage predilection: It's a collection of angular riffs worked out on antique Casio keyboards, tied to classic stripped-down punk drum samples copped from bands like Television and Modern Lovers--all layered over Tate's flattened vocals. And like that box of one-dollar antediluvian odds and ends found near the register, Modern Fairy Tales collects influences ranging from Lifter Puller to Eno-era Bowie to The Making of Star Wars.

So what makes Askeleton different from all the other skinny rockers with a Maureen Tucker haircut and a Members Only jacket? Tate--who used to sing and play guitar with the Hidden Chord--admits that he has a soft spot for vintage dudes like Andy Warhol and David Byrne and that he "loves old Casio keyboards because they feel warm." He even admits, a bit grudgingly, that it's hard to set what he's doing apart from what "the 'The Bands' on MTV" (as he calls the StrokesVinesHives group) are doing. Askeleton isn't much different from those other skinny retro-rockers, really. He has a short dirty-blond Bowie haircut instead of a Maureen Tucker haircut, and there's one of him and usually three or more of them.

And despite Tate's self-professed love affair with music circa 1970-1989, Askeleton ultimately sounds like Askeleton. Modern Fairy Tales showcases well-crafted quirky, catchy little stories perfect for the goofy Casio keyboard riffs that bounce along like a new-wave Yellow Submarine. "I'm a Radio"--featuring a dirgey organ and far-away, tin-can vocals--assumes the animated viewpoint of a transistor set. Tate sings, "I am a radio/I am energy/I am angry/I am a radio/I am knobs/I am airwaves/ I am FM/I am AM." "The Monster of Martin Street" follows a sneaky dance beat that you'd expect to find on an OMD track. Adhering to a fairy-tale theme, it offers a child's perspective of a creepy nuclear physicist's house in the St. Paul neighborhood where Tate grew up. "It was like a huge castle that would just freak [the neighborhood kids] out," Tate remembers. "I wanted pretty much everything on the new record to be little slices of life: simple, with just a hint of a moral, like the best Grimm's fairy tales."

Performing Askeleton's material live, Tate is joined onstage by Jeff Brown on drums, Brock Sprecht on organ, and Matthew Rezac on keyboards and bass. "We're perfect to dance to live," Tate boasts. True. With Tate spastically quivering like a Thom Yorke wannabe while the rest of the band strains to play in time with the substantial prerecorded material, there is a very danceable groove shimmying behind this version of garage rock. If you don't want to dance, you can stare at four band members wearing headphones that are so big and so old that it looks like the guys are getting ready to curl up on beanbags and listen to Dark Side of the Moon.

When I ask Tate about this, he tries to explain that the headphones aren't merely fashion accessories. "Actually," he laughs, "I was inspired by watching footage of Pink Floyd playing The Wall live. They had these big headphones on so they could listen to all the prerecorded stuff--samples of the marching and the kids. So they had to play with these headphones to hear what the fuck was going on. And I was like, Perfect! That's exactly what we need!'"

I'm not buying it. I just stare down at those vintage Nikes of his and wonder if a pair of headphones would go with my own worn-out denim jacket. Maybe together with a skinny tie? Then I walk next door and sift through old sweaters.

 
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