OBITUARY: AIDS Wolf, 2003-2012
[cross posted to everyoneisdoomed.org]
As is the case with almost any band worth knowing, the first time I saw AIDS Wolf was by accident. It was 2003, and at the time I was obsessed with a band called Daiquiri from Ottawa, and was going to see them every chance I got. On one weird night in 2003, at a completely unironic dive bar in Ottawa called Bumper’s Roadhouse, AIDS Wolf opened the show.
That first show was confusing. To put things into a bit of context, 2003 was a big year for me. Up until then, I thought that you always needed Drums, Bass, and Guitar to have a Band (unless you were playing rap, which I was also delving way further into). Daiquiri blew that door wide open: their lineup at the time was a vocalist, a guitar player / backup vocalist, and a minidisc player playing backing beats. This weird lineup would have been inconsequential, but the problem was that Daiquiri was fucking amazing live. This meant I had to reevaluate some shit.
AIDS Wolf turned the punchline of the band riddle on its head: they used the traditional band tools, but the noise that ensued was almost unrecognizable (and the drummer set up facing AWAY from the audience!). It’s hard to give a really specific review of that show 9 (!) years ago, but it was scrappy, weird, and compelling. It wasn’t music for everyone, and that was a good thing because I wasn’t everyone.
A little over a year later, I had relocated to Toronto and DFA 1979 was pummelling people all over the damn place. On the day before New Year’s Eve, 2004, AIDS Wolf opened for DFA, totally fucking confusing the entire scene. This was not dance-punk. It wasn’t even punk. It was washes of noise, roiling drums and blistering caterwauls. The people who came to dance just kind of stood there. Seriously confused What The Fuck looks combined with fingers in ears was hilarious to me. I loved the noise, and the reaction of the ostensibly adventurous crowd.
The ensuing years, I got lost down an academic rabbit hole. AIDS Wolf and I lost touch for a while. I’m not sure how life on the road was around then, but the reviews were not kind. Pitchfork (surprise!) hated their debut LP “Lovvers” (which, at the time, was like a hipster death sentence, or a life sentence with no parole). As they officially stepped out into the realm of criticism by starting to release more and more music, more and more people tried to make sense of it in reviews. Most reviews completely missed the point.
During that time, AIDS Wolf got really fucking serious about touring. They documented their discipline with each release, getting better and better on record and getting tighter and tighter live. The people who didn’t get it continued to not get it, but the people that got it became further and further entranced.
In 2008, on a roadtrip to New York, I saw a listing for a Todd P promoted show in Brooklyn for Hallowe’en. A bunch of bands I wanted to see were on the bill, including AIDS Wolf. It happened in a weird warehouse out in the middle of nowhere, a place where you wouldn’t even know a show was happening except for a big security guy standing out front. Inside, the place was reverberating like crazy, pulsating and pounding. When AIDS Wolf took the stage that night, they laid fucking waste to the entire room. Though I had really, really liked them before, that show made it official: I loved this band. That night I picked up the Cities of Glass album, and when I got it into my earholes, I was floored. This was woozy, spastic, and dangerous, but there were also some really fucking interesting SONGS buried in there. No wonder it was hard to stomach.
On a cold night in early 2009, I heard that AIDS Wolf was playing at The Boat in Toronto, and my friend Ryan and I went to check it out. Again, it was the kind of thing you can’t really jam into adjectives. I can say though, that the packed room that night fucking GOT IT. It was a room full of art school rejects, messy punks and oddballs. When AW took the stage the room pitched, rolled and yawed. At least a few people had bloody faces by the end of it. After the show Ryan and I returned to Ryan’s independent as fuck artspace across the street and talked about what we had just witnessed. We decided that night that if AW can tour, we can too. That summer, we would hit the road for a month with a travelling art show. Inspired by AIDS Wolf, fueled by ideas. No money, no problem.
It’s now 2012 and it’s been a a few days since AW’s last show. I’m listening to their last album, Ma Vie Banale Avant-Garde and thinking about how appropriate that title was / is. When you take the kinds of risks that AIDS Wolf did, you can expect to be chastised, ignored, or have other people’s musical insecurities projected onto you. You can expect small crowds, and impatience. Much has been written over the years about whether or not AIDS Wolf was a “good band,” without a hint of irony. To be fair to music journalists (whom have rarely produced much of value themselves), the underground / avant-garde has never been something that they really give a shit about. The thing that always bothered me about people ragging on them, though, was that it was never clear to me who they were comparing them to. I guess if your frame of reference was DFA 1979, or Ponytail, or even some slightly more experimental outfit, yeah, AW would be hard to wrap your head around. My frame of reference for AW was more like Jackson Pollack, my personal demons, road construction, and to a lesser extent Throbbing Gristle and Arab on Radar. They made perfect sense to me.
Their last show ever was at the Garrison in Toronto. With so much time having passed since last seeing them, I was yet again blown away by how much they had progressed. This last show was, sadly, probably the best I had seen. Stripped down to a three-piece but sounding no-less insane, they once again pretty much destroyed the room with the ensuing noise. A lot had changed since 2003 - songs turned and stopped on a dime, they quieted down into jittery solo vocal experiments, and built back up only to fall apart again into a rainfall of cowbell. The room roiled and seethed. They even did an encore. And then it was over.
So I’m sitting here, with a pile of records and a pile of photos and almost a decade to look back on. The story of AIDS Wolf isn’t the story of my life, but it’s hard not to think of it that way. When I first saw them, I was just starting to explore weird music and getting into photography. As the years went by, I took better pictures and AW got weirder and better too.
Bands don’t last forever, and no-one should expect them to (The Eagles and KISS don’t count… they’re not really bands anymore, they just put on spectacles). The most we can ever hope for from music, whether on record or in person, is that is an intangible emotional experience that we can somehow identify with and that gets us through the goddamn day. Perhaps the best part about AIDS Wolf for me was that they were never didactic. Their music didn’t tell you how to feel about it. They didn’t provide the typical emotional cues that most “normal” music is littered with, they didn’t act in the “normal” ways that bands acted, and they didn’t leave you with the “normal” satisfaction that comes from an evening of musical spectatorship. They were challenging from the first notes to the last, and at the end it was up to you parse it. I’m sure that all the people who saw AW as a huge musical bummer are probably happy (or at least, typically indifferent in that hipster way) that they’re done. But for the people who found something to believe in in AW’s work, we’re left with a whole bunch of stuff to think about. And that’s really the best thing you can ever ask for as a legacy.