“This last record, no one would call it political. But if you ask me, it’s a lot more political than other stuff we’ve done.”
Jonah Furman (pictured at left in the photo by Joe DiFazio above), the frontman of the Boston-born indie rock band Krill, is talking about the trio’s new album, “A Distant Fist Unclenching.” And he is right—it is not an overtly political project, just as Krill is hardly considered a political band. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be, at least according to Furman.
“Maybe it is because indie rock, to a lot of people, is just party stuff or something. Or just, I don’t know, fashion sh-t or something,” he says. “But it’s amazing. Of the thousands of words we have had written about us on the Internet, so few of them have gotten even close to the heart of what I think is even the basic thing we’re doing.”
Krill’s notoriety has reached a tipping point of late, with write-ups in Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, Vice and NME, and a slot at the upcoming Boston Calling Music Festival. (They play Great Scott in Allston on March 13.) In print, the group is apt to come across as whimsical or weird, which isn’t surprising, as they are the sort of band who conceptualize entire EPs around their feelings of self-loathing-tinged admiration towards fellow Boston experimental rockers Pile, pen ironic-sad songs about the band breaking up (a fate that was prevented when drummer Ian Becker joined Furman and original guitarist Aaron Ratoff, who is pictured at right in the photo at top), and reportedly hawked their last album via USB sticks concealed inside of mozzarella balls.
But underneath the jokes and wry reflexiveness there exists a probing, existential bent. Furman has a knack for exposing life’s tragic mundanities with a wit that alternates between being sad if it weren’t so funny, and funny but for being so sad. Take, for example, the aforementioned album’s lead track, “Steve Hears Pile in Malden and Bursts into Tears,” a sincere yet winkingly absurd study in despair and self-contempt: “Did you hear the latest Pile album/ Not a stinker on it ... Steve said, ‘I feel infinitely bad times two/ If I could’ve made something good I would have.” The song crescendos briefly into violent mania before ending in an abrupt, disappointed dissonance.
On “A Distant Fist Unclenching,” Furman pushes his voice’s eccentricities to the brink, capitalizing on the vocal break that sends his strangled yowl into fragile head voice and back with almost tic-like regularity. The effect is something akin to the puberty-stricken squawks of an adolescent boy or the ragged tones of an out-of-practice yodeler (but nicer-sounding than either, obviously); Furman does not aim to seduce, exactly, but he wrings an impressive amount of anxious energy from every syllable. The instruments, meanwhile, are by turns the purveyors of charmingly messy garage-pop and something altogether more asymmetrical and mischievous.
Furman writes all of the band’s lyrics and composes the seeds of their melodies on a dilapidated three-stringed guitar. In rehearsal, Krill’s touchstones include noise-pop band Deerhoof and fellow New England rockers Pile, Ovlov, and Fat History Month. Less obvious is Furman’s kinship with alt-country singer-songwriter Bill Callahan and avant-garde cellist Arthur Russell. But the singer’s greatest influence, a literary one—“I wince at saying this,” he admits—is David Foster Wallace. Furman studied the virtuosic novelist (a hero to so many artsy Millennials) in college and even worked as an assistant on the D.T. Max biography “Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace.”
“In my reading, DFW’s whole deal, his main ethical deal, is [that] selfishness is bad and, basically, being other-directed is good,” explains Furman. “I think that’s the motivating idea behind almost all Krill songs.”
The openness with which Furman offers his thesis, bald of any aspirations towards cultivated mystery, is something of a gift. It turns his songs into puzzles to be solved, tossed away, and rediscovered. No insight is too far out, no theory too grandiose. It is a pleasure to sift through his lyrics and turn them over in the light. So what if they don’t always sparkle, or show a scratch here and there? They’re meant to be appraised with the same exhaustive, uncompromising eye that Furman aims at himself in his songs.
He lays out his preoccupations most directly in the second half of the opening track, “Phantom,” which begins with a chugging hook and then ratchets up into a higher key and a crookedly-phrased riff. Furman half-sings, half-speaks: “What is the proper orientation of myself to my non-self?/ What is the proper orientation of my non-self to me?/ What is the proper orientation of the world to my non-self?/ What is the proper orientation of the world to me/ To me/ To me/ Does it always have to be/ To me?”
Couched as they are in stiff technical speak and pseudo-philosophical terminology, the lines are a tad (and perhaps intentionally) ridiculous. But Furman’s delivery is earnest. Even as he struggles to answer these looming questions—which, grounded though they are in lofty metaphysical notions, are essentially concerned with personal integrity—he admits to having trouble even knowing how to ask them. And though he attempts to disavow his own narcissism, that lingering phrase—“to me”—is the one that pierces. The self, ultimately, is the thing that Furman cannot escape, no matter how fiercely he flings himself into the intellectual stratosphere.
Furman describes the songs on Krill’s last full-length, “Lucky Leaves,” as “little fables—real simple and almost tied up in a knot at the end with a little moral-of-the-story. And a lot of them have lines that just repeat and repeat and repeat and repeat, and I’m just saying the one thing over and over. And [“A Distant Fist Unclenching”] is a little bit more like: you’ll have the premise, and then it gets challenged by the music and by some other lyrical strain in it.”
Like Aesop’s Fables, the songs on “A Distant Fist Unclenching” are enamored with the instructive possibilities of animal-driven narrative. On the roving, syncopated “Tiger,” Furman uses the tale of a brutal tiger attack to expose the triviality of his own existence (and in turn the selfishness of his own subjectivity), and to pull apart the pat clichés with which tragedy is so often processed. Occasionally his fables elicit an eye-roll—sure, the squirrel in “Squirrels” is probably a metaphor, but must we muse on his family’s grief after he becomes roadkill? At times, too, Furman can seem strangely uninterested in human relationships. But listen closely, and you’ll hear them nudge their way in. Running just below the surface of Krill’s fantastical parables are the tangled filaments of human attachment. “Tiger” ends with the unexpected lament, “You never call me.”
Krill’s songs benefit especially from wayward time signatures and off-kilter rhythms. Though the band executes phrases in seven and five as easily as the more conventional four and three, their aim is not showiness so much as subtle disruption. “For me, when I hear that 4/4 beat, I’m kind of not hearing anything,” says Furman. “So a lot of it is trying to make people’s brains hiccup ... because some of the questions, some of the music is about foundational stuff, [and] it doesn’t make sense to ask it from the level of the institutionalized, understood rhythm.”
Krill are happiest when things are uncomfortable. Take, for instance, the final explosive bars of “Foot,” when a series of brief, dizzying silences interrupts the feedback-fed windup. Those pauses in the song’s lopsided melody are jolting and a little bit giddy. Listening is like being thrown momentarily into the vacuum of space. The natural orientation of things—the self, the ground, the sky—is utterly upended. But for one excruciating second the universe is gloriously vast, and the body impossibly light.