It's more commonly known as "breaking the fourth wall," but playwright Bertolt Brecht called it the "alienation effect." It's when attention is drawn to the artifice of a performance or production, as when a player breaks character to summarize what's taken place or to highlight parts of the stage that would otherwise be hidden. By doing this, according to Brecht, "The audience can no longer have the illusion of being the unseen spectator at an event which is really taking place." It forces viewers, theoretically, to engage further with the performance than if they were simply impartial witnesses.
Of course, an attempt to further engage an audience in this fashion might have the opposite effect by alienating people who simply want to be entertained. For some, there's an accepted distance between the stage and the audience, and any unexpected attempt to broach that gap is a breach of protocol.
Where that line's drawn, of course, is mostly a matter of taste or timing: Half a century ago, Elvis Presley shaking his hips, or The Beatles simply showing up, was enough to send teenagers (and parents) into a frenzy. Just 10 years later, Iggy Pop slashed and smeared himself with whatever was handy before leaping recklessly into the crowd. Several decades later, seemingly disparate acts like GG Allin, GWAR and 2 Live Crew elicited similar glee and disgust. Sometimes, it's simply a class-clown act, an attempt to prove that any press is good press.
For others, though, there's a method to the madness, a reason the buttons are pushed. I recently chatted with three such bandleaders—Samuel Herring of Future Islands, Chip King of The Body and Eugene Robinson of Oxbow—about their performance styles and philosophies.
The costuming wasn't elaborate by any means, but the difference between what the members of Future Islands wear when they take the stage vs. what they wore with their previous band, Art Lords & the Self-Portraits, remains striking. Back then, frontman Samuel Herring dressed entirely in white, while the rest of the group wore black. When members of that group finally formed Future Islands, says Herring, "[We] just wanted to get away from the trappings of that band—no more masks."
To that end, the trio now wears pedestrian clothes when playing their particular brand of new wave (or "post-wave," as they prefer to call it). As a performer, however, Herring is anything but ordinary.
"I'm just trying to tell the story," he says. "The way I use my body, the way I use my hands—it's all a means to get the story across. You can't always hear what someone is singing in a crowded room, in a noisy bar, and I know this, so I try and show the audience what I'm singing." As such, Herring stalks back and forth across the stage, hunched, occasionally grabbing at his shirt or punching at his chest while his voice shifts from an emotive wail to a growl.
"I've never been one to hold back," Herring admits. "Some people allow you to engage them; some people feel as if you are confronting them. Maybe you scare them, take them off guard. To me, that is the distinction, but that is a distinction that's up to the audience member. I don't want to scare anyone, but I do want to challenge them, I want to reach out to them. Ultimately, we want to reach the audience, give them our energy, our power, and get theirs in return."
When Chip King, the guitarist and vocalist of The Body, says, "I always appreciate very direct delivery of music," he's only belaboring the obvious. Suffice it to say that The Body's live show doesn't beat around the bush. King and drummer Lee Buford take the stage, rip through a collection of some of the most turgid and darkest metal music around, and simply leave the stage once they're done. Outside of King's singing and the handful of vocal samples they use to bridge tracks or bolster some songs, the group says nothing to the audience.
"Maybe in the '90s, I grew weary of posturing in between songs and emotional diatribes about whatever was the hot issue of the moment," King offers. "I did not want to do that." After all, when the music is as expansive and evocative as their first proper album, All the Waters of the Earth Turn to Blood, there's not much that needs to be said, even if what's being said in the songs is pretty hard to discern.
"Definitely the vocals are obscured by being screamed at a high volume," King admits, "but [they] exist musically for texture and not for an instant narrative or quick comprehension. The lyrics are fluid live but usually start to become cohesive and lend themselves to an idea over some time."
When King and Buford first formed the group (they've since been joined by a second drummer, a keyboardist and a full choir), those ideas weren't quite so defined. "When we first started playing together, we were trying to be very abrasive during live shows," King recalls. "Things slowly changed, though, and now it's more about putting a reflection of our worldview out into the audience."
It's probably best to let loquacious Oxbow frontman Eugene Robinson tell this story, sans interruption: "The argument with the old guitar player concerned his annoyance that, when I jumped around onstage as was my wont, my cock would fly out of my threadbare underwear. He said he found it distracting and thought it disrespected the music. Since I was and am a scorched-earth kind of asshole, I said, 'Well, fine...next show I do, I will just stand there...and see if that improves the quality of the music that we make.' And so I did. I stood there motionless for the whole first few songs until the music grabbed me and demanded this other thing of me, which I was powerless to stop. I mean, were I to be shot at mid-show, I am sure I would have stopped, but the whole drive I finally figured was to put myself in a position where my body could answer the dictates of my soul as laid out by the music we were making. I could no more stop that than I could, well, stop it. So I took a middle path, which was attempt to control it."
This battle for control has been front and center at Oxbow shows for more than two decades, with the band matching Robinson's intellectual fury at every turn. This dogged pursuit has led to some critical acclaim (including, of all things, a Grammy nomination), but it's also given Oxbow shows a rep for being the sort of gigs where the band's frontman likes to mix it up with knuckleheads in the crowd. When it comes to seeing these folks live, there's one simple rule audience members should follow: Don't start none, won't be none.
"I go into [a show] assuming, like church, that you're there because you want to be. That is, until I remember that a large percentage of people at church are not there because they want to be," he says. "But I think in an offhand, very binary way, the audience is with me and that the rest of the world is against me. On discovering that this is not so, historically my reaction has been overwhelmingly negative. I demand that the artist be able to do what the artist was retained to do. Without interruption."
While Robinson—who turns 50 next year—has been forced to mellow out a bit, his spirit is more than willing to pick up his flesh's slack. "At 265 [pounds], when I was reaching for the stars, I was solidly involved in a certain kind of understanding of power. And this affected the shows. In addition, it affected the support structures, and I tore MCLs," he says. "But as I have shifted over to spend much of my discretionary time fighting, I have dropped to closer to my natural weight of 205, which means I have the energy and the ability to drive the car much faster and harder and, at some point, I would hope, achieve escape velocity. That's the dream."