The opening band onstage seems slightly beyond the ken of the 12 Rods fans who've arrived early at the Foxfire Coffee Lounge. The air in the concert hall is thick with the assumption that more is more: More black leather, more adults, and more attitude than usual fill the modest all-ages venue. All have assembled to be rocked, unequivocally.
Instead, they get Triangle, a wide-eyed blonde bopping about like a hot-wired droid and a scruffily diffident guy pecking at a computer keyboard. Both bassist Amanda Warner and guitarist Brian Tester are swaddled in utilitarian sweaters, both alternately pluck at guitars and plink at synths. The beats recall the baroque bedroom electronica of Jake Mandell (who engineered Triangle's recent self-titled EP), while the songs skirt the judicious application of camp employed by Walker Kong and the Dangermakers (whose recent EP Tester produced). To the foursquare rawk advocates, the sight of Triangle is baffling, maybe. Ludicrous, even. Inassimilable, for sure.
But, for many of us, the sight and sound of this electro-pop unit stitching guitar curlicues and Kewpie doll parts to the hyperlogical patterns of drum 'n' bass is a pretty thing. At last, here is the two-headed Kraftwerkian mensch-machine we've been looking for, a pop band uncommonly graceful enough to dance around the pitfalls awaiting all but the most wary of fusion-minded dance-poppers.
Pitfalls? You know: the boy-girl vocal chirps that meander between kitschy and catchy. The jokey attempts at staving off postadolescence that fall a half-dozen credits shy of sophomoric. The compubeats too inept to pull off the new-wave pretensions their creators harbor.
This February 4 Foxfire show is, for Triangle, a comparatively minimalist affair. Sometime last year, their setup had ballooned into a veritable synthesizer orchestra, with six keyboards and assorted drum machines scattered across the stage in what Tester now disparagingly calls "a wacky instrumental circus." The band members swung like trapeze artists between instruments, dangling the unsavory threat of plummeting into cacophony, which made it hard for an audience to relax and have a good time. Especially when, occasionally, Triangle did indeed plummet.
At this show, however, Tester and Warner are equipped with one supplementary keyboard apiece, a laptop that splurts beats, and a visiting percussionist--Dan Kappecki, who taps on cowbells and congas with a jungle programmer's sense of theme and variations. (The band's third official member, Susan Lindell, is on an indeterminate leave of absence, working as a guitar tech on a touring theatrical adaptation of the life of Buddy Holly.)
With a gaggle of unconvinced kids gawking up front, and without Lindell alongside her to act as a foil, Warner transforms a slight stiffness into a self-conscious stage act. Teetering between nervous and nervy with a fine-tuned showwomanship, she even instigates an abortive clap-along at one point. Between songs, she quietly states, "This show goes out to Susan Lindell, wherever you are."
"We're really not this nerdy all the time," Warner apologizes earnestly a few weeks later. She and Tester have just unleashed a tag-team rush of wonkish sound theory.
He: "We were initially writing to a drum machine. Now the drums play a more harmonic, melodic role within the compositions."
She: "When we started I wanted a sparse, angular sound. I was like, 'Quit with the major-seventh chords already. I hate those.'"
"Angular" is hardly a musical word you pick up in casual conversation. It's a term you'd cull from reviews, record-guide entries, and glossy mag retrospectives on, say, Television, Talking Heads, and the other jaggy art punks whose used LPs Warner and Tester scouted for as diligently as they did the Wurlitzer, Moog, and other electronic artifacts surrounding us. Here, in Tester's apartment-cum-studio, tucked away in a nook off Selby Avenue in St. Paul, the members of Triangle speak with a sense of history befitting musicians whose sense of direction isn't merely intuited but consciously studied and plotted.
"We do spend a lot of time talking about things," Tester admits.
The guitarist matriculated on the local indie-rock scene in the mid-Nineties with the Lee Family Curse, which began as one of the Twin Cities' most ingenious variations on the jangled intricacy of the Meat Puppets. "We were trying really hard to be into Neil Young still," he says, "but we were more and more interested in Komeda, in spite of ourselves."
Unloosed from his indie-rock tethers, Tester launched a variety of eight-tracked experiments in the hummable, eventually enlisting Lindell as an accomplice. Meanwhile, up in Fargo, Warner had dubbed her one-woman accumulation of keyboards and drum machines the Triangle Project, an admittedly indulgent sideshow she began while living in Portland, Oregon. "It was superabrasive, mostly to make my friends laugh," she says. "Real lo-fi and kind of goofy." Once she moved to the Twin Cities to study jazz bass at Macalester, she initiated Tester and Lindell into the Project.
Three months later, in January 1999, Warner received a call from Sean Na Na's Sean Tillmann. While touring with his AmRep punk band Calvin Krime, he had seen the Triangle Project in Fargo, and promised to keep in touch. A band named Rectangle was playing at the Foxfire, and needed a geometric counterpart to open. And so, Triangle was rushed onto the stage sooner than they'd expected--or maybe hoped.
"We just wanted to make sure we were going to do it right, but we weren't sure what 'right' was," Tester says. "So we just piled up a ton of keyboards. Next thing you know, we're the Human League."
Their four-song EP, released last fall, explored the minimalism of late-Seventies art pop. No particular sound dominates, and instead, the disk comes off as the sum of its electronic details--the way "Back to Squares," for instance, breaks down into an acoustic strum before rejoining with a synthesized horn chorus. And the music's success isn't a matter of lyrics, either, though the images--a resonant pattern of consonants--provide color.
What holds these songs together is the internal logic of their rhythmic development--partly composed, partly improvised. What makes the best electronic music stick to your brain is the fact that it seems to expose you to a kindred sensibility--that you share a sense of rhythmic progression with the entity responsible for creating what you hear.
Which is not to say that Triangle have settled on any single style. "The EP is a lot squishier than anything we'd do now," Tester insists, aware that cheesy goodness is part of the band's appeal to many listeners. It certainly helped squeak them to the 77th spot on Radio K's listener poll of the Top 77 of 1999.
"It's almost in our best interest to be as goofy as possible," Tester says, "so we're trying to avoid that."
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