Jokes come early and often in the presence of Alpha Consumer. Over midday Sunday brunch at Icehouse, the three longtime friends and musical cohorts — Jeremy Ylvisaker, JT Bates, and Michael Lewis — rattle off what seem to be facetious plans for their new album Meat's LP release party at the Entry.
"We can have a snake pit at the side of the stage." "Or a Dosh pit where it's just Marty jumping around," they tell City Pages.
Alpha Consumer's pulsating mix of new wave and post-rock — riffs and rhythms galore — is no joke. In less accomplished hands, Meat could come across as a chaotic hodgepodge of unconnected ideas and far-flung influences, but these guys have honed their skills on some of the biggest stages around the globe, and they not only make these disparate ideas coalesce, they bring them to life.
"It was getting to be too much work, so we just started making songs," Ylvisaker jokingly describes the band's loosely structured early days, when the trio tapped into a dense mix of improvisational forms, fuzzy guitars, feedback loops, and random found sounds.
"And now that we've been doing it for almost 10 years, we've taught ourselves this math that works," explains Lewis. "And we try and keep tweaking the equation as we're working on new songs. Keep it simple, yet nimble."
Over the course of nearly four years, these songs have gone from Neil Weir's Old Blackberry Way studio, to various home sessions and overdubs along the way, to eventually getting released by the innovative local label Totally Gross National Product, a perfect creative partnership that works on many levels.
"It started as an EP of our favorite things that we had," recalls Ylvisaker. "It was JT's idea to just do the rest of the songs that we knew how to play, so that they were somewhere. In the meantime, I had some more ideas that I brought in, which became the center of this new sound. This is the first time that we actually made way too many things, and we just figured out what this record wanted to be. It was a pretty fun challenge."
Guessing which direction the group will take their boisterous sound next is not easy for the listener. "Miss Positron" builds to an indelible, Cheap Trick-esque chorus, and "Brain Doctor" has a Devo-like stomp to it. The sprawling "In a Circular Room" has a dynamic pulse that is reminiscent of Prince, "Tool Makin' Hands" goes from punk fury to Talking Heads abstraction at the drop of a drum beat, and "Shadowless" has a melodic fragility to it that echoes the Beatles.
Such virtuostic versatility landed Lewis a spot performing with Bon Iver's band, and he and Ylvisaker also play with Andrew Bird. All three of these hard-working musicians keep crowded calendars, but still make playing with their old friends a priority.
"Every time that we do have some time to get together and start writing new songs or working on a record, people are always bringing new thoughts to the table," says Bates affectionately. "And with this new record in particular, it just seemed like we were all kind of thinking about the same things suddenly, again. For years now, I have just believed that this will be a thing that I do for the rest of my life. It's always going to change, it's going to continue evolving, because we're all interested in putting that much of ourselves into it."
Lewis agrees, "I don't ever see a point in my life when I don't want to play music with these two guys."
Their sincerity can sneak up on you. Keeping their feelings at arm's length has been a safeguard that Lewis feels provides the group with a necessary creative insulation at times — especially onstage. The bantering jokes of an Alpha Consumer performance are often worth the price of admission by themselves, but the band members are trying to quiet those urges a little and let their inventive music speak for itself.
"Every band that you're ever in has a type of equilibrium, as far as humor is concerned," Lewis admits. "And because we've been in this band for a long time, most of the time our humor comes out naturally and it's easy. Other times, it's been armor for our own insecurities. So lately, we're trying to get more into a zone where we start by thinking about not saying anything. Start by trying to embrace silence."
"Yeah, you go and see a Tom Petty show, and there's down time," adds Ylvisaker. "And your ears get a break, and you can't believe what you just heard, and you can't wait to hear what's next. That's actually a nice pause. You sound nervous if you talk immediately, so we're trying not to be nervous, I guess."