VIDEO: One minute with HUMANWINE
The house that HUMANWINE founders Holly Brewer and M@ (i.e., Matt) McNiss share in Jamaica Plain looks like a gallery that’s exploded. Hanging up in no particular order are Indian tapestries, graveyard rubbings, abstract canvases, dancing skeletons, political posters, erotic pin-ups, and punk-rock gig flyers. It’s a perfect visual translation of the duo’s cut-and-paste musical style. And it’s a clue to the way HUMANWINE (a name they spell with all caps) see themselves, in that they’re as much about socio-political art as about rock and roll.
“I was a visual artist for most of my life before I focused on music,” McNiss explains. Brewer adds, “And I was always picking up bones in courtyards and making necklaces out of them, before I started poking holes in people for money.” (She did piercings.) The pair are well matched: she’s a small spitfire and he’s a quieter heavy thinker. Brewer: “What we do is a hundred million percent about politics. And about relationships — the relationship between large masses of people and the small groups of people who control them.” McNiss: “Our only real intention is to live the life of art and to do it convincingly. We wear our influences on our sleeve, just like anyone else. But our sleeves are all patches of everything we’ve ever liked.”
HUMANWINE have been drawing notice and raising eyebrows since arriving in town two years ago. Beyond Brewer’s facial tattoos, there was their sound, which like that of the Dresden Dolls and Reverend Glasseye (two groups HUMANWINE are often lumped in with) is unusual and has an art-school/theatrical edge. But rather than being purely cabaret or purely rock and roll, HUMANWINE suggest the soundtrack of a play that hasn’t been written yet. It has rock elements, but they’re mixed in with circus music, drunken sea chanteys, and spooky waltzes. McNiss throws out just enough heavy guitar riffs to provide familiarity; Brewer’s voice and her commanding stage presence lure you into the darker and more dreamlike aspects.
You’d think all that would be hard to capture on disc. But HUMANWINE’s debut full-length, Fighting Naked (Cordless), does the trick. The band’s rockier side is more pronounced than when they play live, thanks partly to Dresden Dolls drummer Brian Viglione. He’s a long-time associate of the band and, along with Reverend Glasseye’s bassist Paul Dilley, will be joining them on a three-week tour that brings them back to the Paradise April 20. Viglione has been a fan since he overheard a rehearsal two years ago. “What got me was how sincere and completely untainted by outside influences it was. As if you’d picked up a rock and there was a whole other world of insects crawling under it.”
Despite the rockier sound, the Threepenny Opera–styled “Dim Allentown Cove” and the Dietrich-esque “When in Rome” make this as eclectic as any major-label release in recent memory. And yes, it is a major-label release. HUMANWINE were signed back in 2003, when a friend introduced them to Jac Holzman, the veteran Elektra president who was looking to launch a new label under the Warners umbrella. Since his other signings include the Residents and Devo spinoff Jihad Jerry, one can assume that Holzman’s top priority wasn’t moving units. “He’s a hot shit,” says Brewer. “He said we remind him of the Doors, who we sound nothing like. And we got control over a lot of things — everything, in fact.” As for influences, she points out, “We’ve never heard of half the ones people mention, like Bertolt Brecht and that other guy, Kurt Weill. If they said Tom Waits or Dead Can Dance, I’d understand.”
Even before they met up with Holzman, HUMANWINE’s history had been far from conventional. The band emerged from Laconia, New Hampshire, where the music scene, according to McNiss, consists of “three Journey cover bands who play all year long.” “We were surrounded by cemeteries,” Brewer adds. “We could practice all the time and nobody complained, because they were all dead.” The pair had already traveled the country doing stage construction on Phish tours, and Brewer admits she made supplemental income on those tours. “I was a drug dealer, I even sold at the Grateful Dead show the night before Jerry died. The police never bothered me because I was the cute 15-year-old girl with the dog who couldn’t possibly have all those drugs on her. No regrets, because I got all my debauchery out of the way by the time I was 23. Between 12 and 23, I was totally fuckin’ lifted.”
Toward the end of their wild years, McNiss and Brewer came up with the idea that’s informed their work ever since: the songs would all be set in Vinland, a totalitarian society with recognizable connections to our own. Brewer: “It was one of those crystal-meth ideas that takes you over for days. We went on for hours and could not stop talking about it — ‘Okay, the evil characters are the not-mes, and the good guys are the you’re-your-owns.’ We made up commercials and slogans. We just couldn’t stop.” The Vinland concept has helped HUMANWINE to invest their music with politics without seeming preachy. McNiss: “It allows us to do a full, emotional description of how some small, imaginary creature is getting stomped on by some big, aggressive creature.”
Brewer: “A lot of political music sounds like someone’s yelling at you to clean up your room. Doing a parallel world was a way around that. None of our songs end like, ‘Ha ha, you’re fucked!’ It’s a little more solution-oriented.”
HUMANWINE | Paradise Rock Club, 967 Comm Ave, Boston | April 20 | 617-562-8820