The jittery party music of Van Goose: Brooklyn-based outfit to play Monstercade
Van Goose makes hyperactive, slightly skewed party music. The grooves are a bit twitchy, and the singing veers toward the crazed. The Brooklyn-based quintet is the creative project of Shlomi Lavie, a drummer/multi-instrumentalist songwriter-singer. You may find yourself thinking of bands like LCD Soundsystem, Kraftwerk, early Roxy Music, Pet Shop Boys, Devo, the B-52s and Can when listening to Van Goose. There’s an exhortatory zeal coupled with a robotic drive to these songs.
Their debut full-length album, Habitual Eater, came out last week, and I spoke with Lavie by phone from his home in New York City on the day of its release. Van Goose will play Winston-Salem’s Monstercade on March 9 as a part of a 10-day tour to launch the new record.
Lavie has been playing drums in ‘90s hit-makers Marcy Playground for the past 10 years, and he’s pursued a variety of other eclectic side projects along the way, some with a wild underground theatrical aspect involving costumes, props and body paint.
Born in Israel, Hebrew was Lavie’s first language. He speaks English with a pronounced accent, and one of the engaging aspects of Van Goose is that Lavie sings energetically with rich traces of his mother tongue.
“The main thing was for me to sing in my own voice,” Lavie said. “In earlier projects it was very much me trying to sing in this raspy Tom Waits sound, hiding behind that sound because I didn’t have the confidence.”
The aesthetic of Van Goose is percussive. In addition to the drums and percussion, the bass, synth and guitars all play with a clipped, staccato attack, stabbing out patterns that serve as rhythmic statements. And Lavie’s vocal delivery is similarly pneumatic as if each syllable were forcing out some item on a gridlike assembly line.
“It always feels like we have five drummers on stage,” Lavie said. “Everything is very rhythmic and very percussive.”
The opening track on the record, “Last Bus,” is built around vocal statements made with a kind of rigid, robotic, steady eighth-note rat-a-tat. “I got no feeling in my upper jaw,” intones Lavie several times at the start of the song.
As with many of Lavie’s lyrics, it’s not always clear what he’s getting at, but the ambiguity and uncertainty create a certain kind of focus. As it happens, the song is based on the regrets that follow excess.
“It’s mainly about all the nights I had that seemed so promising — amazing parties — and then looking back on it the day after and realizing what a disaster it was, what a mistake,” Lavie said. That might be the inspiration, but the song conveys the manic energy of a wild party, building to some unlikely climax.
“Last Bus” is built on repetitions, with layered parts — videogame drum sounds, slashing metallic post-punk guitar accents, percolating bass lines, cowbells, synth squiggles, clanging cowbells, and a vaguely monastic chorus of voices rising and falling in slow, ominous unison. The cumulative effect is delirious.
If there’s a theme lurking under the bubbly nonsense of Van Goose, it’s that sheer force of will, repetition, and dancefloor determination can transform just about anything into a rallying cry.
Take the song “Mike Myers,” which has the refrain: “I laid an egg on Mike Myers/ and there’s nothing I can get without fire.” It’s a post-punk disco jam that almost dares you to question the logic of what’s being said.
“I really believe in the idea of taking a seemingly random idea and executing it with full conviction until it becomes a concept,” Lavie said.
The emperor may have no clothes, but he’s dancing like a lunatic, which distracts from his nakedness.
Lavie’s musical career was kickstarted, you might say, as a way of coping with intense energy as a boy. “When I was a kid I was rather hyperactive,” he said. His mother got him enrolled in a marching band program, but the director had doubts about Lavie’s coordination, so Lavie applied himself with extra focus, eventually channeling his twitchy nature into pounding out beats.
Getting bodies moving is part of the motivation for Lavie.
“The goal is to make people dance,” he said. “I really enjoy combining the punkish and rockish elements with something that is very danceable. It’s very practical: You play music and people dance to it.”
Ecstatic dance music seems to have waves of popularity in New York City, Lavie said. Sometimes crowds are content to stand still, nodding their heads, and sometimes it’s crucial to create movement. The influence of certain very popular bands can be so powerful that a whole generation of young musicians might consciously try not to sound like those artists. It’s the anxiety of influence played out in pop culture. As if a style was so powerful that everyone had, for a time, to intentionally avoid adopting it. The band LCD Soundsystem had that kind of seismic impact on music circles, before playing a farewell concert in 2011. (They reunited in 2016.) And, as Lavie points out, that band was drawing on underground disco and other music that had come and gone in decades past.
Now, oddly enough, might be the perfect time for a revival of that particular sound, with lots of syncopated bass riffs, four-on-the-floor beats, extra percussion in the form of synth drums, cowbells and tambourines and the prominence of feverish party chants.
“I feel like just now I’m starting to see many more bands that are proudly getting their influence from that,” Lavie said.
Mixing the aggression of punk and the rhythmic precision of disco can be a tricky business. And Lavie said he had to work to strike the right balance between order and chaos.
The album ends by summoning another hugely influential figure. The last track, “WildStar,” brings to mind the mid-’70s music of Brian Eno, with washes of synthesizers that suggest harps, flutes, and rippling textures, with vocals sung in a gentle almost sleepy fashion over syncopated bass lines.
Lavie said he recorded in his home studio for about four years, fine-tuning riffs and beats and working on his ability to sing and drum at the same time, sometimes undoing some of the polish so that things wouldn’t fit together too nicely.
He said the end result was “like a carefully planned accident.”
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.