Durham's Free Electric State rides a big beat and blasts bigger guitars | Music Feature | Indy Week
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Durham's Free Electric State rides a big beat and blasts bigger guitars 

click to enlarge Free Electric State (l-r): Tony Stiglitz, Shirlé Hale, Nick Williams, David Koslowski

Photo by D.L. Anderson

Free Electric State (l-r): Tony Stiglitz, Shirlé Hale, Nick Williams, David Koslowski

By any measure, Free Electric State should be considered a new band. It's been less than a year since the Durham quartet played its first show. They've made one single and are set to release their first LP, Caress. But in the 10 months since that first set, the band has quickly become a hot ticket in the local music scene.

"We've been lucky," says guitarist/ singer David Koslowski, gesturing from the back patio of The Pinhook to downtown Durham's gleaming landmark water tower, several hundred yards away. "We had a lucky strike."

To be fair to the competition, the band isn't composed of strangers to the local music community. Koslowski moved to the area with singer/ bassist Shirlé Hale in 1998, playing together in Gerty! and then the Ex-Members. Drummer Tony Stiglitz played for Jett Rink and Hundred Air before joining Free Electric State. Though guitarist Nick Williams is the least experienced band member, as the co-owner of The Pinhook, he, too, is entrenched in local music.

"I know we knew how to get shows," says Koslowski. "Whether or not people would actually get what we're doing is what we didn't know."

Free Electric State aims to be a reactionary band, a contrast to the mannered indie rock that Williams calls "tiny music."

"We don't really unplug," says Koslowski. "It's full-tilt or nothing."

Caress, like the two-song demo that preceded it, evokes the dramatic washes of guitar favored by My Bloody Valentine and pivotal indie rock bands like Sonic Youth. Free Electric State's members speak fondly of those bands and others—Dinosaur Jr., Boris, Mercury Rev, none of whom are known for being quiet or restrained.

Following the death-disco of Gerty! and the Ex-Members, Koslowski got the idea to start another rock-oriented band after a 2008 reunion show with Liquor Bike, the eccentric, wiry Baltimore grunge act he fronted 15 years ago. He wanted to rock out again. Hale, too, had grown tired of the formal rigidity of playing with a drum machine in Gerty! and the Ex-Members.

"The machines aren't controlling us," says Hale about Free Electric State. "We're in control of it now."

Williams and Koslowski met at The Pinhook, where they discovered a shared love of Krautrock. Koslowski, who's more than a decade older than Williams, poured 100 such German epics onto a DVD for his new music pal. A bond was formed—a band, too. Aiming for the freedom to play louder and with fewer constraints, and inspired by the insistent momentum of bands like Neu! and Can, and the dense textures of Ride and My Bloody Valentine, the foundation for Free Electric State was set.

Initially, Wigg Report frontman Stephen Mullaney sat behind the drums, but he bowed out after the first show. Tony Stiglitz, who'd played briefly with Hale and Koslowski in a B-52s cover band and who could play the sort of hypnotic, driving rhythms the band wanted, filled the empty drum stool.

"Marshes," whose chorus gives Caress its title, makes Free Electric State's Motorik inspiration obvious. A steady drumbeat and Hale's insistent bass line roll for seven and a half minutes on record; live, though, they really go for it.

"The Velvet Underground used to do 'Sister Ray' for 40 minutes," says Williams. "So we gotta try to push 'Marshes' to an hour."

The focused momentum of Free Electric State's rhythm section opens space for Koslowski and Williams to let their guitars wander until the band congeals for a last ecstatic chorus. "We're more on the bombastic side of Krautrock," Williams acknowledges, although it's only one influence among many. But the concentrated and insistent thrust is part of what makes Free Electric State's songs feel bigger than they are. Rather than circle back on itself or meander at awkward angles, it pushes forward with assembly-line consistency.

Lyrics, then, take a backseat to sound. Certainly, Hale and Koslowski, who have been married for nine years and trade lead vocals, use their melodies to reflect or extrapolate on ideas from movies or news stories. "Darkest Hour" was inspired by an NPR feature about a Vietnam veteran whose return to America separated him from a woman he'd fallen in love with. The hopeless distance between them is what stuck with Hale. The Koslowski-penned "Matching Scars" is an entirely fictional account of two failed suicide attempts.

But those meanings are secondary. "I'm way more into the sound of words than the meaning," says Hale, who references the textural, melodic vocals Sigur Rós employs in its own Hopelandic language. "I'm really aware of vowels and consonants and making them fit smoothly."

Ultimately, the melody drives the narrative—the music comes first, and the stories linger. But the band is about something else entirely.

"We're entertainers," says Koslowski. "The four of us were put here to entertain in some capacity."

And as for Koslowski's doubts about whether people would get that, only time will tell. But Stiglitz puts it best as a hypothetical: "Maybe people are tired of tiny music."

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