By Mike Faloon | Photos by Michael Bogdanffy-Kriegh / Studio MBK
There’s nothing quite like a quiet day at home, especially a beautiful, sweatshirt autumn day. Today is one of those. It’s also Rosh Hashanah, so there’s no school. I’m catching up on house projects when Richard arrives, his truck filled with firewood. The image of his battered pick-up with the homemade sidewalls dumping firewood on the driveway should evoke cozy winter fires, blankets and cocoa and soft falling snow. Instead I see a massive, splintery pile of disorder and an afternoon of stacking wood.
Iron Dog take the stage and take the place by storm, albeit a storm that forms slowly before opening up. They’re a trio from Brooklyn. Sarah Bernstein (violin, vocals), Stuart Popejoy (bass), and Andrew Drury (drums). For the first minutes of the show it’s like a three-ring circus, each band member working in their own spotlight. My attention shifts from one to the next as their performances travel on parallel lines, related but separate.
My first notes seem confused. One reads:
Violin = 16 rpm
Drums = 33 1/3 rpm
Bass = 45 rpm
Drums = nomads of ancient Northern Africa
Bass = ships of Zhu De
Violin = strings of Renaissance Europe
Slowly, piece after piece, the wood clunks into the wheelbarrow. The driveway pile shrinks as the garage stacks rise. I square the ends and fill the middle, wood chips snagging on my work gloves. I have music on but it’s not loud enough to mask the sounds of leaves crunching underfoot and rustling overhead. I’m surprised by how satisfying the work is. (Don’t white collar types always say such things when their manual labor is optional and occasional?)
“Ain’t it funny how we waste our days?”
–So Little, “Waste”
Stuart Popejoy stands in the glow of a red neon sign. His legs are locked in place and he bends every which way at the waist, Reed Richards freed from the lab. Popejoy holds his bass nearly upright and both hands are in constant motion, so rapid yet so fluid. His sound is malleable—conventional, then distorted, then synth-like—always there to serve as the gum that everything else sticks to. Then there’s the intensity and direction of his gaze. He stares at the ceiling, looks up and beyond. I half expect his eyes to roll back into his head, like he’s ready to speak in tongues.
Technically Andrew Drury is the drummer but he’s revised the job description, just as much a player of strings and brass as percussion. He bows a dust pan, then a piece of sheet metal. He turns his sticks, holds them vertically and stirs on the floor tom. He turns a shower fixture into a mouthpiece, places it on the head of the same drum, and blows. Later he performs mouth-to-drum resuscitation, rotating his floor tom ninety degrees, holding it in his lap, and using the tiny hole on the side as a mouthpiece, rendering the thing a woodwind. But the Sanford and Son equipment is only a means to an end, the emerging sounds even more interesting than the choice of tools.
Sarah Bernstein plays strings (violin) and sings, part John Cale, part Nico. Standing behind a semi-circle of effects pedals, her sound ranges as far as those of her bandmates. She leaps about the upper layers, bounces and skips across the dense canopy of the band’s sound. Then she slices through the mix, blasts down to the floor. When she interjects lyrics, they’re more spoken than sung. I can’t make much literal sense of the words. They seem to volley between serious comments and “for the sake of the sound” non-sequiters, something else to consider when sorting through the sonics. Here’s one I like: “improper contest attire.”
When I was growing up my friend Joe had a circular above ground pool. If everyone walked or swam in the same direction we could create a mini-whirlpool; the water swirled round and round and carried us along.
For all of the band’s individual prowess, Iron Dog are best when they all push in the same direction at the same time, generate a different kind of above ground whirlpool. How they decide when and how to converge, though, is a mystery. One moment they’re circling around one another. The next there they are, a three-person flash mob.
So many things feel like they’re winding down, closing up for the season. The patio furniture is stacked and stored. Temperatures are dropping and the Mets are playing out their final games of the fall. The exception, the new thing that cuts across the grain of the winding down/closing up, is my mom’s move last weekend. The house-to-apartment move blurs by, months of phone calls and emails, debates and discussions dissolve in a few hours.
The movers unpack the truck—boxes, then furniture. Mom directs traffic from the kitchen table. We shuffle and reposition and restack, try to keep under control what’s flowing in through the front door—a horizontal version of Tetris. We are also prepared to smooth the way emotionally, put her at ease, try once more to sell the virtues of the new apartment, but there isn’t a need. She’s moving in and moving on. Within days she’s calling to say that we need to move faster on the sale of the house, that it’s time to stop dragging things out, pick up the pace. After all that’s been dumped on her in recent years she was re-establishing some sense of control.
The Biblical name for Rosh Hashanah is Yom Teruah, which translates to “day of shouting” or “making a noise” or “day of awakening blasts.” Iron Dog traffic in all three, but I think awakening blasts fits best. Some bands push boundaries. Others deny the existence of boundaries. Iron Dog use them to gain traction. They know full well what the norms are and relish stomping on boundaries, pushing over them, or under or through.
From Woody Allen’s Take the Money and Run:
Bank clerk (Uncredited): What does this say?
Fielding Melish (Woody Allen): Umm, can’t you read that?
Bank clerk: I can’t read this. What’s this? Apt natural?
Fielding Melish: No, it says, Please put $50,000 into this bag and act natural.
Bank clerk: (Confirming) It does say act natural.
Fielding Melish: Uh, I am pointing, uh, a gun at you.
Bank clerk: That looks like gub. That doesn’t look like gun.
Fielding Melish: No, it’s gun.
Bank clerk: No, that’s gub. That’s a b.
Fielding Melish: No, see, that’s an n. G-u-n. It’s gun.
Here’s another of Bernstein’s lyrics that I catch: “We make lists because we don’t want to die.”
James Keepnews catches the line, too. He leans over when he sees me write it down, but he hears it differently: “We like lists because we don’t want to die.”
Between sets we go back and forth, our impromptu take on the old Miller Light ad (“Make!”; “No, like!”). Then we find ourselves asking for clarification. Bernstein indulges us. She chuckles, too, because she can’t remember the line from memory and reaches for her lyric sheet. (It’s “like,” not “make.”)
They’re variations on the same theme, deciphering lyrics and liking lists, stacking firewood, moving boxes—different ways to clear space and carve out order, reign in the chaos of the day.