What is the essence of rock and roll?
Let’s begin with the agreed-upon narrative: It was laced into the hard stops between Jimmy Rogers’ shrieking guitar licks and Muddy Waters’ growling pronouncements of his manhood when they performed “Mannish Boy” back in 1955. It launched from there into clubs in Chicago and Hamburg. It reached California beaches and cavorted with Pentecostal churches until it could hardly recognize itself in the mirror of the Studio 54 bathroom or sitting way up in the cheap seats at the L.A. Forum. But it was there when the sound of John Cale hitting a single piano key and shaking a set of sleigh bells while Iggy Pop chanted “I Wanna Be Your Dog” reached Manhattan and London, bringing rock back to itself. It gets lost again and again, and every generation incarnates its own saviors (and creates mythologies around them) to call us back to it.
As time goes by, the saviors get more self-reflexive, the mythologies more consciously constructed. Enter Cy Dune, a persona created when indie rock veteran Seth Olinsky decided to break out of the patterns surrounding his band Akron/Family, as he explained to Scott Pinkmountain of Vol.1 Brooklyn last year:
I was toying with the idea of just being Seth Olinsky but I ultimately wanted to create something that was a little more… not just a pseudonym. Those old blues guys had these identities and it seemed like it allowed them to have a mythological identity. Not just a different self, but something bigger than themselves.
If you’re going to talk about evoking the mythologies of blues legends, you better be bringing something ballsy and essential to the table from a musical perspective. It better have big, dirty riffs, a driving, danceable beat, and whoever’s doing the singing better be able to express wild emotionality without sounding like a pussy.
Check, check, and check. “Shake” is the title track of Cy Dune’s first full album, released last fall. The first time it aggressively burst into my headphones, I found myself involuntarily thrust into a tornado of herky-jerky, flailing-limbed, pelvic-thrusting movements. Olinsky seems to have tapped into a deep reservoir of creativity filled with juices squeezed from the likes of Chuck Berry, Tom Verlaine, and Jack White. He describes his moment of inspiration coming while he had become blocked trying to write what he intended to be a set of acoustic folk songs. His mother gave him Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids[i], which describes her early days living in New York City with the artist Robert Mapplethorpe:
The thing that I took away from Just Kids was this inspiration of the transcendent in rock ’n’ roll. That really drew a through-line for me back to my initial inspiration of being a kid and playing rock ‘n’ roll and the blues and then jazz. The transcendent vision in music. And that’s what I connected to in music.
I returned to seeing that transcendent thing in the simplicity and the earthiness of rock ’n’ roll, not some high falutin’ spirituality, the real transformative, transcendent power that rock ’n’ roll music has and possesses and how that fits into our culture.
When I was younger, I looked at it intellectually, and as I’ve gotten older I attribute a lot more value and weight to the feeling, the experience. So to me, the height of music is sort of an ecstatic state.
These songs, most of them no longer than two or three minutes, are simplistic and primal. The kind of shaking they demand seems like the kind The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing caught their nickname for. They evoke the kind of feeling that would make somebody start rocking their head, or rolling their hips:
The more unabashedly straightforward and beholden to the simple formulas that lie at the core of rock music Olinsky gets, the more compelling and undeniable his songs become. Listen to the final track “Raze,” which sounds a little like a mashup of Captain Beefheart’s “Her Eyes Are Blue a Million Miles” and “Seven Nation Army”:
The derivation doesn’t bother you, because all these types of songs sound like each other. It’s less a matter of innovation and more a matter of capturing an energy that is and always will be awesome.
It takes a certain personality to pull that sort of thing off. A hero that is at once gritty and genuine, and self-conscious and affected. Olinsky, who has spent the last decade immersed in the Williamsburg, Brooklyn art scene, might seem like an unlikely candidate to assume that role. Maybe that’s why he is recreating himself as Cy Dune:
I was coming from a culture of Hipsterism, for a lack of better word, and Hipsterism is sort of self-deprecating. In the way that a Hip-Hop artist is going to talk about themselves in the best light, the average Hipster is going to talk about themselves in the worst light…Neither is good necessarily. But the reason I like John Lennon, the reason I like Bob Dylan is because they were cool. It wasn’t superficial. They were cool because they embodied the part of themselves that was cool and they weren’t afraid to let themselves be cool. I think a part of this empowerment too is giving yourself the permission to be cool.
But wait a minute. Isn’t a big part of the reason hipster culture exists because brainy, affluent white kids acknowledged that it wasn’t really possible for them to be “cool” in the traditional sense? If you stop making fun of yourself, don’t you just come off as an entitled prick playing with your mommy and daddy’s money, living a fantasy life where you are free to think deep thoughts and follow any impulse that pops into your head, oblivious to the world around you, safe in your bubble of privilege? And isn’t safety the opposite of “cool”? Isn’t cool about taking risks and living on the edge? Can a goofy guy like Olinsky, with his half-beard and glasses, really pull that off?
Well, maybe if he’s got the right woman he can.
Cy Dune was conceived shortly after Olinsky and his girlfriend Ali Beletic[ii], a motorcycle-riding, fashion-modeling, folk-punk-songwriting abstract artist, moved to Tuscan, Arizona In 2013. A little like Smith and Mapplethorpe at the height of their connection, they embraced a shared artistic vision that has empowered each of them with greater freedom to create. Their collaboration has grown into the label Lightning Records, which in addition to releasing the couple’s own music, has signed a collection of musicians which includes side projects from some of indie rock’s most fascinating minds and some up-and-coming performers from the Tuscan region.[iii]
I don’t think it would be completely accurate to portray Cy Dune’s music as just a collection of three-chord blues and proto punk tunes with real good energy though. Olinsky’s background of searching for the unexpected on the margins of freak folk with Akron/Family, and his long collaboration with the surly master Michael Gira have earned him an unusual sort of chops. I’m not sure I’ve heard a lot of music that combines abrasive, loud, durgey-ness with a lighthearted boogie-woogie feel like Cy Dune does. The songs leave a lasting impact, they haunt your ears a little bit, because of the inherent contradiction within their structure. The collision of the two forces creates a sudden event that sounds like it is just barely being held together with the thin threads of Olinsky’s sonic acumen. The song “Where the Wild Things,” off Cy Dune’s new EP No Recognize, is a great example:
The creative ambitions of this project go way beyond the conventional. Olinsky uses his compositions as a basis for musical experiments that push the envelope of a song as a singular, experiential event rather than a packaged and repeatable commodity. He has been showing up at festivals to arrange large-scale collaborations of multiple musicians and bands playing music together on a grand scale. One form this takes is based on just getting a ton of drummers together. At SXSW in 2013, he rounded up forty drummers from different bands for an improvisational, one-time performance of some of his Cy Dune songs.
That idea quickly evolved into another elaborate, fun amalgamation of percussion, when he gathered “16 drummers, 2 air horns, and 6 table tennis players” to accompany his performance in a garden atrium at the World Trade Center in New York City a couple months later.
In the past year, Cy Dune has been showing up at festivals in places like Idaho and South Carolina to conduct what he calls “Band Dialogues.” He’ll gather a bunch of bands and performers together in a street or a skate park or on a basketball court and orchestrate a one-off happening that defies our expectations of music being confined, recorded, and consumed in a straightforward manner.
The pictures and videos give you some idea, but they seem inadequate to capture the sheer scale of the thing. You’d kind of have to be there to get the full experience – I like that. Here’s a video of the Band Dialogue at the 2013 Hopscotch Festival:
And here is Olinsky explaining the process he uses to compose the music for the dialogues:
What is the essence of Rock and Roll?
I have no fucking idea how to explain it, but I know it when I feel it. I’m going along for the ride wherever Olinsky goes, because he knows how to tap into that magic, like a rock shaman. I’m going along for the ride because I want to be one of the people who write the myth of Cy Dune.
[iii] Check back in with Old School Record Review throughout this summer to read and hear more about some other Lightning artists who have caught my attention, like Ohioan, a project of the Sonoran Desert-based songwriter Ryne Warner.