Heartfelt tributes, Sopranos shout-outs, and kittens: Decoding The Death Set’s Michel Poiccard
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“Predictable” is the least accurate description of The Death Set’s 2011 effort, Michel Poiccard. The unruly Brooklyn-via-Baltimore-via-Sydney, Australia gang’s sophomore release is giddily overflowing with off-the-wall ideas. As the band’s first major release since guitarist Beau Velasco’s death in September 2009, the record proudly spends much time subverting the free-spirited, electro-fied punk of 2008’s Worldwide, all the while wringing meaning from whatever sources it can find. Before the trio hits the Barbary on Sunday, May 29, The A.V. Club caught up with lead Death Setter Johnny Siera to dissect some of the LP’s most fascinating tracks.
“Slap Slap Slap Pound Up Down Snap”
Michel Poiccard’s opening salvo is a traditional Death Set number: balls-to-the-wall mosh music, with Siera screaming like a teenage punk in a temper tantrum. The song’s namesake is a handshake shared by the members of The Death Set and buddy bands like Ninjasonik and Cerebral Ballzy.
The A.V. Club: Why kick the record off with this?
Johnny Siera: The sophomore record is a difficult one, because you want to continue with the same vein of the previous record, but you want to step it up. That song was the most like the thrash songs of the old record. We wanted to start with the continuity of it.
AVC: Was bookending the record with the fast “Slap Slap” and the far more subdued “Is It The End Again?” a conscious move?
JS: Yeah, I obviously thought a lot about the running order. It made a lot more sense to finish with “Is It The End Again?” rather than start with it, of course. When we were writing this record, a lot of different styles were naturally coming out. There are a lot of songs people would probably say are not Death Set songs. It would have been contrived to not put those on the record. It’s funny: A lot of reviews will hate the songs that other reviews say are the best, so I’m glad we put all those songs on the record.
“We Are Going Anywhere Man”
Siera tones the energy down a notch, rapping and mushing his syllables, only really making the chorus clear: “We are going fuckin’ anywhere, man.” If you remember the new wave-indebted sound of The Epoxies, the synth here sounds like it could have been theirs. Call it “space-station punk” for kicks.
AVC: Is the track a mission statement for the band?
JS: Yeah, that’s a funny one. Originally, the song was called “We Ain’t Going Anywhere Man.” It was essentially about, we’re gonna see this record to the end throughout all the crazy shit [we] went through. We thought it was better to change it to “We Are Going Anywhere,” which is even more of a mission statement. It’s a real uplifting, driving kind of song.
AVC: Did you start thinking about the record’s diversity from its outset?
JS: It just came out naturally. We didn’t set out to make a really diverse record. We also love diverse music and musicians. I grew up listening to old Beastie Boys records, where they would go from a hardcore punk track to a funk jam to a hip-hop track. It all flows. We’re definitely hoping to achieve that.
“I Miss You Beau Velasco”
Siera brings his howl to a low hush in this autumnal, distortion-drenched song. The melancholy mid-’90s indie rock vibe is strong; if Built To Spill ever covers a Death Set track, it should be this one.
AVC: Compared to “Slap Slap,” your singing is more restrained here. What’s it like navigating between this and the super-energetic material?
JS: I think one thing we’ve found from all the touring we did was that, even if it’s the most hardcore [crowd], after 10 or 15 minutes of playing spazzy punk rock, people need a break to chill. With the record, we realized that that would work as well. It works naturally.
“Kittins Inspired By Kittens”
Nearly 30 seconds of turntable scratching and meowing cats. That’s about it.
AVC: Who does the meowing in that one?
JS: It’s actually a stupid website that my friend [sent] me, where you click on the screen and a cat would come up and meow, so we just sampled that. Dan [Walker, guitarist-vocalist] scratched it.
AVC: Why include it in on the record?
JS: Just because, essentially, we thought it was fucking hilarious. There really isn’t any reason except for that. Even getting back to Wu-Tang interludes and shit like that, we all love just doing what[ever] the fuck.
AVC: Yours includes kittens, which is the best kind of interlude.
[We looked this website up; it’s called Meowmania, and it is indeed hilarious. -ed.]
“Yo David Chase! You P.O.V. Shot Me In The Head (Feat. Diplo)”
A shout-out to The Sopranos’ controversial finale, its cultural impact, and its creator in the form of frantic electro-pop.
AVC: What’d you think of The Sopranos ending?
JS: A lot of people hated it, but I thought it was brilliant.
AVC: In the past, you mentioned wanting Jamie-Lynn Sigler, a.k.a. Meadow Soprano, to appear in a video for this song. Has anything come from that?
JS: Yeah, we had this director that was friends with her, and she said that it might happen this year. We’re still trying to do it. It would be fucking awesome.
AVC: What kind of angle do you want with the video?
JS: I think the treatment was something to do with table tennis and death. [Laughs.] We’ll see if that eventuates.
“I Been Searching For This Song Called Fashion”
Built off a riff Velasco wrote, “I Been Searching For This Song Called Fashion” is a quasi-pop-punk/garage rock number—rather sugary and, like so many songs here, inescapably catchy.
JS: That was an old, old Death Set song back in Sydney. We played it live once, and it just kind of got shelved. It was super poppy. Dan and I wanted to have Beau on the record as much as possible, so we decided to [reuse] it.
AVC: Beau’s appearance aside, why pick the song back up?
JS: It’s just a catchy, great song. It was very difficult to make it less poppy. [The record’s producer] XXXchange saved it by throwing in some real dirty electronics. It’s a funny thing, too, with these songs: Maybe people think they’re poppy or whatever, but we play them live and people go just as crazy as [for] the other songs.
“Is It The End Again?”
A silky acoustic guitar drives this closing tribute to Velasco, with Siera pensively reciting his lyrics. Similar in feel to “I Miss You Beau Velasco,” this teeter-totters between bummed-out and forward-looking.
AVC: Would you consider this a hopeful song?
JS: I think it’s more just venting. A lot of songs are really medicinal to deal with the shit that went down. It’s a celebration of trying to look at the positive things and remember those things, rather than letting the memory of what happened overcome the greatness of what they gave to so many people.
AVC: Even with how many broad colors there are to Michel Poiccard, is there any cumulative narrative to the record?
JS: It’s very indicative of the journey and experiences we’ve gone through over the past three years since Worldwide was released. It would have really fucking easy to write a thrash or punk record. Maybe we’ll do that in the future, who knows, but it would have felt contrived considering the circumstances. We wanted the record to be a celebration of the band, Beau’s life, and our lives, and keep moving forward and doing what we love. I like to think of it as a positive and honest record.