Craig Wedren (Shudder to Think) Talks Death Grips’ Niggas on the Moon

When I first took LSD, it felt like coming home.

When I first took LSD, it felt like coming home.

Ditto, the first time I heard Death Grips — although I was more frightened by them than I was by acid.  It was the “Guillotine” video.

Death Grips are much better than other bands. (For the sake of this piece, I’ll call them a “band.”)  Their videos make me laugh/scared, and happily I don’t know much about them outside the spate of songs and videos I adore/abhor.

Here’s the obvious: Death Grips is drummer/producer Zach Hill and rapper Stefan “Ride” Burnett, who sings with a mouthful of marbles and narc-soaked cotton.

Or maybe it’s a trio.  There seems to be a stuntcock producer named Andy “Flatlander” Morin who comes and goes as he pleases.

The lyrics are dreamlike and nightmare-inducing and funny and very organic feeling to me. I get a distinctly Californian vibe from Death Grips, but maybe that’s because I know they’re from Sacramento. Either way, there’s a particular kind of dread, an end-of-continent nihilism that reminds me of the feeling I used to get (and love) from the Germs, Gun Club and good Black Flag, which felt uniquely regional to me — a true abyss and its peculiar art waste.  Now that I live in California — Hollywood, no less — it doesn’t feel romantic. The local desperation is generally not expressed via art or excellent poetry, which makes me appreciate a group like Death Grips all the more.

Death Grips is inexplicably popular, which says something about where we’re at, both good and bad, right now.

I’m particularly surprised that ladies like Death Grips.

I went online last year and found a live clip that was full of what looked less like music geeks, or even hipsters, but straight Vegas dollies partying to Death Grips’ live scree, acting like everything was perfectly normal. “Awesome!” even.  Is there a new wave of secret genies who dress mall but think Xenakis that I don’t know about? I’m skeptical. Hopeful, but I mean, come on.  This is not a love song.

In the swirl of 2014, meritocracy seems to bubble alongside trad corporatism (and anything you can dream of in between), so we have Death Grips as a buzz band three years running.

Their music is, by the way, totally fun. When I hear it, I get giddy and grin and laugh and pay attention and walk away inspired. Death Grips gets me.

Their new album — or rather, part one of their new album — Niggas on the Moon (the second installment, Jenny Death, is forthcoming and the set will eventually be released as a double album called The Powers That B), appeared without warning in the middle of the night and has been getting decidedly mixed reviews, but I’m not hearing that at all — I think it’s just grand.

For this album, they cut up and manipulated Björk’s voice, which they generally used — wisely — as an instrument in the tracks, and not as a lead vocal.  She’s basically the guitar.

I don’t generally ingest Death Grips’ music in album-length doses, but more like a powder that keeps me tucked in and grinning while I glide through the boring effluvia of other current indie music, most of which makes classic adult contemporary sound like early Swans.

So this is new for me and very satisfying, listening to Niggas on the Moon en toto.  I promise to do it more.

I’m traveling now, listening to this music on planes and it feels right.  Unnatural airborne body-shock suits the music (or vice versa).

In DC, I visited my dad, who has dementia brought on by Alzheimer’s;  and I dropped in on Ian MacKaye (who definitely does not have Alzheimer’s) for hugs at the Dischord House, which combination somehow equals the music here:  short-term (gl)itching but with a long tail, historically (Black Flag, Björk, Autechre, Ornette Coleman, Dr. Doom, blahblahhhh).

This music feels very natural to me, composed but not clinical or cynical; it’s poetic and sculptural without coming off heady, precious, or sentimental. This is a magnificent balance to achieve, and a hard one to maintain, but Death Grips seems to do it fairly effortlessly.  I guess that’s called chemistry.

There’s a vibe here that reminds me of stuff I did on my laptop when I first got Pro Tools in the early aughts.  Not tooting my own horn, just that there’s a tore-up sonic kinship that puts me right at home. (Some examples here, here and here, if you’re interested.)  I remember discovering a new level of focus doing this kind of work, kind of macro-micro, not unlike meditation, where I would riff, diddle and flow without focusing or fussing too hard on the piece at hand, but still tunnel deep into the minutiae of a single waveform or audio cluster — (digi)tight-but-loose.  Does Death Grips do that?  I feel like they must.

I’m curious how their songs get made.  What’s your process???

But now to the songs, which I am listing here in the order I listened to them on my trip, not necessarily the order they appear on the album.

DC to Chicago

On “Viola” there’s a hard-cut tempo change that feels natural and satisfying, not jarring like you might think.  Are we just used to this now — a good recent trend where no lube is used between ideas, where you just slice into the next section, key or tempo?  Or does Death Grips just do it right?

“Up My Sleeves” has a hook that sounds like Björk is singing “Roar” by Katy Perry, but then later gets into a kind of Vincent Price mad laugh. I wish I had Björk for a synthesizer. She’s a good tribal cheerleader.

Chicago-LA (visiting the in-laws)

There’s a nice flute sound on “Say Hey Kid” which I’m assuming is made of Björk; and more hard-cut tempo changes.

One complaint — the same I’ve had at recent(ish) Björk rekks:  I’m not ready for the return of jungle beats, and there’s a moment or two here that veer a touch close to that still-stale, chipmunk riddim.

I like how “Have a Sad Cum” starts kinda posi, with pitched-down Björk that winds up sounding like Merrill Garbus. Speaking of Tune-Yards, there’s kind of an African breakdown, which is awesome and turns out to be the end of the song.  It feels like gladly being thrown off a cliff. The Afro vibe continues at the top of “Fuck Me Out,”  along with more cut-up, ethereal Björken rainsparks.  “Just don’t touch me, just f-fuck me/fuck me ouuuut, fuck me ouuuut.”  It’s nice to hear a guygasm in the middle of a song.  There’s one here that I wish would go on longer, like an inverted hair-metal girlgasm sample from the ’80s.

I wish I’d written the line ‘I’m so black quarterback,” from “Black Quarterback.”  That’s maybe my fave lyric hook, on account of its pop-smear inversion, like a nightmare mashup up of Jay Z, ESPN, and high school (with Yo Gabba Gabba! for good measure.) In general, MC Ride writes my kinda lyrics, which sink their fearsex talons into the v-hole just below the base of your skull.

I love the economy of these songs.  Do not overstay. I want your ideas, then please go away.

The “Big Dipper” hook kinda sounds like Big Boi to me.  The song contains a more recognizable Björk-moment midway toward the end, like seeing her cute face for half a sec in the spin cycle before it whisks her away.  There’s also a straight four-by-four kick at the end, which is the only remotely clubby thing I’ve noticed on the album.  In context, it makes me think of old Björk jams albeit ever so briefly, then the pinwheel flies off and away to the next show.

I’ve been talking a lot lately about immersive, “living” albums with friends — musical experiences that transcend the flatter aspects of concert-going-and-headphones; if I were creating a Haunted Funhouse for advanced placement students, Niggas on the Moon would be a good soundtrack.  This is a detailed record; it’s topographical, but like goosebumps rolling under your skin, not always overt mountains and valleys.

Verdict:  Thanks, fellas.



Craig Wedren is a solo artist, film composer, and the singer for Shudder to Think. Check out his latest release, On in Love, featuring Jefferson Friedman and the American Contemporary Music Ensemble here.  You can follow him on Twitter here.