Romping through neon pyramids with M.I.A., Die Antwoord, and Sleigh Bells: The Creators Project launch party

Click here for more photos from M.I.A.'s Creators Project show

Like most people who listen to music a lot, I get easily fatigued hearing people verbally hand-wring over the future of music, technology, and the various synergy thereof. But that didn't stop me from snatching up a free pass to this past weekend's Vice Magazine/Intel blowout, held at the Meatpacking District's Milk Studios. It seems the idea behind this music-festival-slash-art-gallery-installation-slash-symposium, humbly entitled the Creators Project, was to scour the globe to find the point where human pretentiousness ends and robotic overload begins -- and apparently, it all tends to involve neon colors and sweaty people wearing sunglasses indoors. But enough about the audience; making fun of NYC hipsters is a joyless enterprise, and I'd much rather walk you through the joyful parts of this nutty gig.

Wittingly or not, the invite-only event served as a showcase for the solipsism of modern creative culture. Everything at Creators Project seemed to focus on our generation's relentless need to document ourselves: from the art itself -- like the installation piece that allowed you to have your face digitally represented above a Day-Glo pyramid) -- to the vast majority of attendees, who were photographing themselves in every possible moment. In a sense, then, the "creative" aspect of the festival had something to do with the way that almost every member of the audience was working on his/her own documenting project at any given time. Was I watching a set, or was I gathering raw footage to be edited later into a representative piece about said set?

Deep Screen

As you can probably tell by the previous two paragraphs, I had a good seven hours of navel-gazing before the music started up: standing and spacing out in installations like Mira Calix's My Secret Heart (an eternal choral loop intertwines with a gigantic 360-degree screen depicting what appears to be human beings slowly transforming into lightning bolts), United Visual Artists' Triptych (three 2001-ish monoliths emitting light and sound that seem to corrolate with viewers' physical movements), and especially the trippy-and-overwhelming Muti Randolph piece Deep Screen (is it cliche to point out that being inside this piece is pretty much what it must be like to be inside The Matrix?). It wasn't until almost sundown that we started hearing the pounding notes of bands like The Rapture and Gang Gang Dance. By this time, the art and the free bar had loosened everyone up enough to the point of incoherence.


It still took a few hours, however, for things to get really nuts. The poorly kept secret of the event was that M.I.A., although not listed on anything official, was going to be the de facto headliner -- and anticipation was clearly off the charts. The music line-up was a strange mix of up-and-coming oddities and more dependable modern rock acts that could dependably get people excitable. At no point was this didactic separation more evident than the simultaneous performances of Interpol and Die Antwoord: the former, a straight-laced act performing minimalist anthemic new wave rock, and the latter a spastic and freakish South African rap/rave act who mix the grotesque and the amusing in a confrontational mashup of Afrikaner and English. Neither act was really on the forefront of any kind of technological event horizon -- but neither was playing Glastonbury that weekend, and both of them were able to blow the roof off their respective corner of the gallery.

Sleigh Bells

Before I get into Die Antwoord, a word about Sleigh Bells, the band that went on before them. Amid all the high-tech laser shows and talk of creative boundary breaking, it was interesting to see a Sleigh Bells set, because they kind of straddle everything. They are both high-tech and lo-tech, and they are both forward-thinking and just straight-up rocking. Their set-up is borderline-retarded: just a guitar, a vocalist, and an iPod that plays the drums. They have a back-to-basics vibe, but at the same time, it's hard to deny that vocalist Alexis Krauss is a budding rock diva, with a magnetic and sweaty presence that is both glamorous and unpretentious. Emerging from a haze of strobed-out smoke, guitarist Derek Miller began pounding out the intro to Slayer's classic "South of Heaven" before the band ripped into their own senses-pounder, "Tell ‘Em." The way this band mixes up metal, punk, dance, electro, and pop signifiers and sounds is electrifying, especially since they pull it off so effortlessly. Sleigh Bells' music can fit into so many spaces: they could play the smallest little bar or the largest rock festival, and it probably wouldn't matter. As they ended their set -- drenched in sweat, blasting their final chords over an epilepsy-inducing strobe light -- it was clear that a new force in rock has emerged.

Salem (footage from their 2010 SXSW appearance)

I took a sojourn from the second-floor gallery down to the first to check out Salem, a strange three-piece hailing from Traverse City, Michigan. They're an odd fit for this event, if only because the celebratory nature of the Creators Project is pretty much anathema to the dreary drudge of Salem's haunting muse. Sounding not unlike Julee Cruise warbling over T-Pain, the band mix crunk beats, gauzy synths, and almost-not-there vocals to a startling effect that's both disturbing and beautiful. Since this was a Vice-sponsored event, I'll say here that the band's look was a quintessential DO: the mismatched clusterfuck of their appearance (you had one guy in a wifebeater and shorts, another wearing a flowing medieval shirt with a plethora of Wiccan-y necklaces, and a woman in high heels and short black dress) was so discordant as to be brilliant, especially when paired with their we-don't-care attitude. Never saying a word to the audience, they softly pummelled the crowd with gloomy warblings that seemed to come from a dark, indistinct place.

Die Antwoord

I sauntered back upstairs just in time to catch the debut NYC performance of Die Antwoord, who are definitely one of the stranger acts to ever grace an American stage. A lawless and anarchic rap duo (backed by their DJ, Hi-Tek), one toweringly tall (the intimidating Ninja) and one puzzingly short (the pixie-ish Yo-Landi Vi$$er), Die Antwoord blew our face off with boundless energy that in a live setting allows you to forget your nagging suspicions that the whole thing is a put-on. Much ink has been spilled attempting to figure out if the group is a joke act, owing not only to their out-of-nowhere media blitz but also to the sheer weirdness of what they do. What comes across as almost gratingly irritating on record is mind-blowingly exciting live, as Ninja and Yo-Landi proceeded to attack this overcrowded room of hipsters with a ferocity that was both unexpected and refreshingly vicious. They bounced around the stage like they'd been electrocuted, almost defying the laws of gravity. Tracks like "Enter the Ninja" and "Wat Pomp" might sound like some kind of 21st-century Dr. Demento fare when you listen to the MP3s -- but in person, they are absolutely blistering. I have a suspicion that novelty of Die Antwoord might actually last a bit longer than some might have guesstimated, now that the actual humans are touring America and proving that they are two of the more capable MC's at work anywhere.


After Die Antwoord left the stage, the mood in the room heightened, as the anticipation of M.I.A.'s rumored appearance hit fever pitch. Would she show? Would she play more than one song? Would she (ulp) be terrible? Everyone got their iPhone cameras ready and aimed as the lights eventually went out, and a red strobe and a lone drummer started rat-a-tat-tatting in unison, signaling the start of recent single "Born Free." When the song kicked into its frantic riff, M.I.A. emerged, resplendant in an outfit that could have been purchased from a street vendor around the corner for a few bucks: a camo windbreaker with the hood up and cheapo sunglasses with pot leaves over the eyes that had the strange effect of making her look like a rapping Jawa. Oh, and a rainbow wig that she never removed during her hour-long set. But the off-the-cuff zaniness of her appearance was in stark contrast to the tightness of her flow. In the past, M.I.A. has proven a pretty hit-or-miss performer (as anyone who caught her last Mass. appearance at the Worcester Palladium a few years ago can attest). But clearly with the build-up to her new album (Maya, her third, out in mid-July), she's gotten her proverbial act together, with a live drummer, a tight DJ, and a flanking squadron of backup singers and dancers, all moving in sync to a precision set that moved seamlessly from new material to older tracks from Kala and Arular without missing a beat. The highlight came near the end, when a spirited run-through of "Galang" ended with an extended shout-through of the song's coda, a wordless melodic chant that had the entire room yelling in unison. M.I.A. dove into the crowd with her mic; and for a few minutes, her inclusive world-beat-mashing made more sense than anything in the world.

My Secret Heart

After the set, I found my way back to the My Secret Heart exhibit -- now somewhat empty, save for the occasional couple making out in the glow of the installation's rotating display. As I crashed in the corner and attempted to get my head together for the long train ride back to Boston after the 12-hour metaphysical atom-smashing I had just received, the discombobulating sense of wordless grace that Calix's installation doled out was meditative in the best sense of the word. Perhaps this is how technology and art can work with real-life music culture: to help spastic music fans to chill before and after the sprawling chaos of live music?

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