Anchoress plays it loud, heavy, and smart
As real-life, sepia-toned tales go, it’s so epically brilliant, it would be a crime to limit it to the dinner table at family get-togethers. Thank Rob Hoover, then, for dredging up what happened 80 years ago on “The Rumrunner Blues”, the first track on Crime & Compass, the sophomore album from Vancouver hardcore upstarts Anchoress.
Set in the Prohibition era, the song chronicles a nighttime battle at sea. Over a backdrop of stutter-step guitars and Tommy-gun drums-and-bass, Hoover bellows out lines such as “Make a break for American waters/Make a break for American fathers/The Coast Guard follows/Shots fired puttin’ holes in the deck.”
When Hoover shows up with Anchoress guitarist Keenan Federico at the Waldorf Hotel tiki bar, he comes across as so impossibly well-mannered, it’s hard to believe that he spends his spare time screaming his brains out in a hardcore band. It turns out, though, that he comes from a lineage that’s all too willing to fuck with the system. More than just a great kickoff to an impressively abrasive album, “The Rumrunner Blues” is an adrenalized moment in Hoover-family history set to music.
“That song was written about my great grandfather,” says the singer, clad casually in jeans and a refreshingly un–punk rock North Face windbreaker. “In my parents’ house, my mom has the front-page clipping from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, back in, I think April of 1930. It’s basically this account of how the Coast Guard had a run-in with a rumrunner, and how they fired shots at him, but he got away. In the article, it says that none of the shots fired hit the rumrunner’s boat, and that they were all just warning shots. But scrawled at the side—and apparently this was written by my great grandma—is a note saying ‘They actually did hit the boat. He’s okay though.’ ”
Federico—whose tuque and black jacket make him look like he just stepped off the nearby Port of Vancouver docks—weighs in on “The Rumrunner Blues” with: “I love that song—the content is so classic, you can’t make that stuff up. With the lyrics and the way that the guitars sound, I’m really happy with that one. It’s pretty complete.”
Anchoress—which includes drummer Chris Lennox-Aasen and bassist Ricky Castanedo—has lots to be happy about on Crime & Compass, the band’s follow-up to its 2011 dark-horse monster, Set Sail. Once again, the temptation is to file the group under hardcore, mostly because it does fast, loud, and aggressive as well as anyone in wendythirteen’s Rolodex. There’s just as good a case to be made on Crime & Compass, however, that posthardcore is a better tag for Anchoress. That’s partly because Hoover is a more accomplished lyricist than 90 percent of the stooges who scored invites to last year’s Warped Tour and partly because Federico has no interest in limiting himself to three garage-punk chords.
Consider, for example, the way that Anchoress goes at the issue of drug addiction in “Fangs”, where, over two discombobulating minutes of sparks-throwing six-string, Hoover delivers the following: “I live in fear of the Lizard Lounge/We went in there but you never came out/Crossed the threshold and your blood went cold/You sprouted those claws and you scratched yourself raw.” Career barflies for whom the punk-rock party never stops will find plenty to chew over in the tightly coiled “Curtain Call”, sample lines including “It’s sundown in the city of slums, and damned if it ain’t the best pile of bricks and shit this side of Mos Eisley”. Elsewhere, “Disaster Porn” is part love story, part rumination on the endless cycle of birth and death set to a gas-bomb attack.
“I feel like there are themes running through the album,” Hoover offers. “Though I did come at each song with a different goal, I came at the album trying to make them cohesive. Some of the characters, in my head at least, come back. The girl in ‘Disaster Porn’ is also the girl in ‘Fangs’, and I use specific turns of phrase to try and connect them.”
Federico adds: “Set Sail was very ‘Boom! Enough said, and you don’t have to think very much about it.’ With this one we wanted to push the edges, write longer songs, and still try to sound unique while having the songs sound interesting.”
If one thing comes through on both Set Sail and Crime & Compass, it’s that the band’s members weren’t raised on a steady diet of nothing but vintage Gorilla Biscuits. The Okanagan-raised Hoover’s background includes playing in a folk duo and a love of poetry, the latter blooming during a stint in Montreal, where he embraced the city’s slam scene. Hoover was playing with Lennox-Aasen, Castanedo, and a since-departed guitarist when he first met Federico, whose CV featured stints playing bass with local acts Greater Thieves and Lights Below.
Fittingly, given how Anchoress has evolved, the soundtrack to that first encounter was one of the most forward-thinking bands in posthardcore.
“The most memorable thing about Keenan when I first met him was that it was at the end of a party,” Hoover says with a laugh. “Most people had gone home—it was six in the morning. Keenan was super drunk, looming over the laptop where the music was playing, and bawling his eyes out to Brand New. He was going ‘It’s soooo beautiful.’”
That connection made, Federico jumped right into Anchoress, trading in bass for guitar, and things jelled almost immediately.
“It was a good mix of guys really wanting to be in a band and me wanting to play guitar in a band,” Federico says. “Before you knew it, we had nine songs out of nowhere, hit the studio, and just kind of went from there.”
One of the big challenges of playing hardcore in Vancouver is that Lotusland isn’t in danger of challenging Boston as one of the genre’s international hotbeds. Consider, as proof of that, that the Warped Tour gives our town a miss more often than not.
“Music is different here,” Federico suggests. “People wanna hear, I don’t know, folk music. They want Rob’s old band. Singer-songwriter kind of stuff is really accessible in Vancouver.”
That’s not enough, however, to discourage Anchoress.
“I always think of Japandroids playing for years around Vancouver and not getting anywhere,” Hoover says. “I read somewhere that they said they were going to quit and throw in the towel after this one tour that they did where they played Pop Montreal. From that one show in Montreal they got signed to a label and blew up. Now that they’ve done that, they’re big in Vancouver. It’s like you need validation from somewhere else to be accepted here.”
So, having discovered over the past couple of years that playing Funky Winker Bean’s five times a month is a sure way to make people instantly sick of you, Anchoress will be making a concerted effort to hit the road for Crime & Compass, something it didn’t do for Set Sail.
“The best thing that this band can do is not break up,” Federico argues. “Longevity in Vancouver seems to do more for you than anything else.”
Even though the men of Anchoress are too polite and modest to say it, having audience-annihilating weapons like “The Rumrunner Blues” at your disposal doesn’t hurt, either.
Anchoress plays a Crime & Compass CD release party at the Rickshaw Theatre on Saturday (May 12).
Follow Mike Usinger on the Tweeter at twitter.com/mikeusinger.