Shoegaze Sound Makes a Comeback in Tel Aviv

Interview with Elliott Frazier, founder and guitarist of the indie group Ringo Deathstarr, which is at Barby in Tel Aviv on Wednesday.

Moshe Kutner
Moshe Kutner

The set list for Wednesday’s double indie show at Tel Aviv’s Barby club is like a menu of period styles, with a loop going back to the history of contemporary music. The evening features two American bands that love to wallow in blurry, foggy sound: Ringo Deathstarr and The Soft Moon.

Ringo Deathstarr is a trio from Austin, Texas that plays guitar music with effects — the shoegaze sound of the late 1980s and early 1990s as defined by British bands such as Slowdive, Ride and My Bloody Valentine.

Like many other bands in recent years, Ringo Deathstarr has revived the shoegaze sound. Some of these bands did it by mixing shoegaze with other influences, while others, like Ringo Deathstarr, remain faithful to the original. Their sound includes the vocal harmonies of Alex Gehring and Elliott Frazier and pop melodies enveloped in grating guitar distortion.

The Soft Moon started out as a solo project of Luis Vasquez, a musician from Oakland, California. It later became a band that combined electronic music with live instruments playing a wild, abstract version of New Wave music in the dark and cold styles of the 1980s.

Ringo Deathstarr is certainly not the only band to focus on music previously associated with with innovation and the future. Anyone who insists on listening only to music that isn’t clearly reminiscent of past styles could quickly find himself unable to listen to almost any new music. Still, when it comes to Ringo Deathstarr, the link to bands from the past is basic. This is particularly true of My Bloody Valentine, which ruled the style and was much admired for designing its production and guitar sound. But beyond what is described as “a guide for reconstructing the shoegaze sound,” which the band created on its albums, Ringo Deathstarr added to the genre a few songs that are great on their own merit, as well as various influences, such as the intensity of punk and American alternative rock styles from the 1990s. These give the band enough character to stand on its own.

Elliott Frazier, the band’s guitarist and creator, sounds content when asked, before arriving here, about the comparisons between Ringo Deathstarr and the original shoegaze bands and about the cultural situation where dealing with the past is so central to music, and also to the reviews.

“Yeah, the same old comparisons get old,” Frazier says. “I think the way the Internet is today, there are so many shitty music critics that pass themselves off as knowledgeable. What the fuck do they know? In our case, people overlook the fact that we are not trying to change music; we just wanna have fun. I feel a lot of bands get treated that way... and the critics should be criticized.”

Frazier founded Ringo Deathstarr in Beaumont, Texas in 2005. The band’s name is a combination of the name of Ringo Starr, the Beatles’ drummer, with the Death Star weapon from the Star Wars films. After moving to Austin and a few personnel changes, Alex Gehring came on board as bassist and vocalist, and Daniel Coborn joined as drummer, just before their first show at the South by Southwest Festival. Last year, the band released its second album, “Mauve.” The band raised the money to make the album by crowdfunding; in exchange for donations, the band offered its supporters prizes such as signed CDs, song covers and classes in drumming and makeup. Frazier, who produced the album, sounds ambivalent about the whole fundraising process.

“Crowdfunding is a blessing and a curse,” he says. “It is a great way to set yourself free of debt to record labels... but you’ve got to be careful not to overextend yourself when it comes to the exclusive offers. We were on tour when our funds became available and had to mail out all the stuff from the road. We would probably never do a crowdfunding operation again because of the deadlines that come along with it and the stress it puts on our fans! However, we are glad we did it because it was the only way... but we now are set up to be our own boss (thanks to our fans!).”

Growing up on the Bible

Ringo Deathstarr went on a world tour with The Smashing Pumpkins last year. The tour took them to performing venues that were bigger than what they usually saw. “The Pumpkins were awesome! We learned so much about the performance aspects, the behind-the-scenes stuff that we took from the big stage into the small clubs. And that effort is paying off. Yes, I was into Siamese Dream when it came out. I was 12 in 1994 when I saw the video for ‘Today’ on MTV, and I would ride around on a bike with a Walkman listening to that song and Weezer’s ‘Say It Ain’t So.’”

Also among the band’s peak experiences were its shows in Japan, where they were received with such adulation that it was a bit confusing. Japan is the only place where people can spot the band members on the street. “They don’t understand that where we come from, people see us as losers,” Frazier says. At Japan’s Fuji Rock Festival, the band members expected to perform at a non-peak time for a small crowd. To their surprise, they found themselves performing for a large audience that knew the lyrics to their songs. But after Frazier jumped into the audience and surfed along the first row, one of the security guards, not knowing who he was, tried to block him when he tried to get back up on stage to continue the show. Another security guard who saw what was happening hit the first guard and let Frazier back onstage. Frazier later described that show as “the best thing that happened to me since I was born.”

In the past, the band members recalled attempts to write lyrics in unconventional ways, which included having them performed by a band member who hadn’t written them, which has a gender-blurring effect. These days, the band writes lyrics as a team, and Frazier says it’s a tough job. “Lately we have just been throwing all our words into a hat and choosing the best parts. We all seem to hate lyrics, but we also hate instrumental bands.”

When he’s asked whether he’s familiar with Israeli music or culture, and about his expectations for his visit, he answers, “I have heard the music of various sorts... and I was raised on the bible, but I can think for myself. Let’s save all this for another interview! Unfortunately, we will only be in Israel for a day-and-a-half, and I will not have a chance to explore any of the sites I have only imagined visiting.”

He’s not all that interested in the electronic music scene that’s sweeping America these days, and doesn’t get excited at the possibility of performing at a rave or having an electronic remix done on the songs. Still, he says, “Early rock and roll was in fact electro music! Electric guitar music!”

“I don’t use that many pedals anymore,” he says, a surprising admission for the guitarist of a band whose sound is defined by effects and distortion. “I try to let the amp do the talking. In the small clubs, I use a Marshall JMP-1 pre amp. In places that can handle it, I use a Bluesbreaker combo turned up to 10.”

And if effect pedals were ever outlawed? What then?

“If pedals were illegal, I would still use them,” Frazier says. “Prohibition never works!”

The members of indie group Ringo Deathstarr.

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