by Nich Sullivan
A gutsy debut that brought a new kind of flair to rock-n-roll – while the mainstream was still catching up with technology
In the days after the show, reviews would call it ‘bananas.’ The last.fm link to the bootleg audio was titled Girl Talk Murders Seattle. My wife, then fiancé, and I arrived at the Emerald City’s famed Chop Suey that night unsure of what to expect from the experience even though we loved 2006’s Night Ripper, and by ‘we’ I mean ‘I.’ Of course, I’d heard the legends about how Girl Talk could whip crowds into uncontrolled frenzies, but they seemed almost like modern tall tales that were a little too wild to be taken without several grains of salt. But when Greg Gillis began mixing radio hits with hard-hitting rap verses in his signature early style, I was compelled to do what I had always done at energetic shows in those halcyon days of relative youth: muscle my way up to the front. It was clear in the first thirty seconds that the expectations I had arrived with were going to be met, and then some.
The whispered rumour at the time (since debunked, unfortunately) was that Gillis had created his own software in order to achieve the manipulation displayed in his song combinations. Each of his tunes was a smattering of recognisable pop or rock or hip-hop with vocals that came from out of the left field (think of O-o-h, Child’s leisure-suited sweetness nestled up against Kid Hustlay’s hook from Blowin Purple Stuff and you’re getting there.) At the time in 2006, we were only a few years removed from thinking that Playstation’s MTV Music Generator was pretty special, so the novel use of software to make music was remarkable in its own right. But as remarkable as Girl Talk’s music was for how it was made, it was doubly so for how it sounded. More than ‘songs,’ these were adventurous audio collages yanking on different dopamine dispensers that weren’t used to working in combination with each other. Each one was effervescence in audio form, nostalgia committed to tape like the taste of an orange Creamsicle mixed with the goosebump-inducing feeling of Pop Rocks on the tongue. It was all unapologetically new, even though its discrete elements were effectively recycled from earlier times. The overall feel of seeing this play out live was bracing: one never knew how an element might be changed up, or what corners Gillis might go around next – it was the thrill of the unknown mixed with the palpable delight of hearing old favourites.
Gillis was tapping into something that was on the bleeding edge of music production. By jamming together snippets of familiar songs and layering them into structurally new experiences, he was taking advantage of a recent addition to the artistic milieu of the nascent millennium. And it wasn’t until many years later that I pieced together that it probably all had something to do with a man called Ian Parton.
In our recent interview, Parton was keen to describe how he and his band, The Go! Team, approached music formally in their early days. ‘I’ve always been interested in the idea of schizo music – ramming together wildly different things. I come from a noise guitar background, but have always loved cuter stuff like girl groups and Snoopy and the Jackson 5. Those worlds never really collide, but I never saw a reason why they shouldn’t. Me and my brother – who mixed the record – wanted to find different ways of fucking things up and distorting these elements.’
Thunder, Lighting, Strike was Parton’s firstborn child into the ever-changing terrain of modern indie/pop music. It sashayed into the space with an as-yet unearned self-assurance, and, after a few listens, its confidence only became one more reason to love it. Listeners never knew what might be pulled next out of its bag of tricks. The title seems an oblique reference to ‘lights, camera, action’ which is fitting because the work is almost more filmic in its deference to character and messaging. But that was not how it opened doors.
What opened doors was the way that the elements used didn’t feel like they should work together, and yet they almost always did. And even when they didn’t completely gel, one had to at least respect the chutzpah inherent in attempting to make them coalesce. Describing the onslaught of sound and the alchemic way each track hung together Parton goes on, ‘The Go! Team is less about my personal lived experience but more about second-hand memories and stuff you’ve loved through your life…it’s more about grabbing your favourite things.’
Panther Dash opens the album with guitars straight out of a 70’s police procedural set in Hawaii, but one that is much cooler than the one you’re thinking of. Set against a backdrop of cacophony wrought by anxious but determined drums and making use of some chanting vocals, the song is a metaphor for movement and action. The formula has its first real breakthrough moment on The Power Is On: here again are the old-school tropes, headed by pounding piano and sampled brass and strings. Guitar is more contrapuntal here; an answer to the rousing call of the vocals. But the vocals deserve their own credit: sampled from something akin to a high school pep rally, they are made of an undiluted but pragmatic positivity while being set inside an instrumental setting that means business. If one could bottle the vitality that comes through on this track, they could probably solve the energy crisis.
There is an unerring American-ness throughout Thunder, Lightning, Strike that features heavily in the choices and their resultant effects. One could widen the lens on that until they found a metaphor for the proverbial ‘melting pot’ nation ideal, but the answer may actually be much more simple. For his part, Parton owns it, but also allows for more of a globalist take. ‘I suppose American stuff features pretty heavily. Particularly New York has been a big influence on me – Woody Allen, Sonic Youth, The Velvet Underground, Sesame Street, Midnight Cowboy, Wildstyle. But I think there’s something good about music from most countries – particularly Bollywood in the way it was lo-fi, technicolour and a bit mental. I never saw that much of a difference between Bollywood strings and a Sonic Youth wig out and was frustrated that bands stayed within their little worlds.’
The tempos go up and down throughout Thunder, Lightning, Strike and the deftness with which effects are deployed and pulled back remains a thing of wonder even all these years later. Nowhere is this more clearly outlined than on what is arguably the album’s signature track, Huddle Formation. To say the drums are hyperactive here would be a gross understatement. The guitars include single-string runs composed of little more than a healthy relentlessness. Again, group vocals are utilised, but these sound more like they could be manipulated double-dutch rhymes and they simply ooze with youth and joie-de-vivre even though I will never be quite sure what the words actually are. The track exists in a bright timeline where people are spurred by one another to make moves that are not only beneficial to themselves, but also to the wider world. Said another way, it’s an insanely euphoric way to spend three minutes and change.
Parton’s recollection of how Huddle Formation came together offers some suitably kinetic insight, beginning with his finding of ‘dodgy B-movie and VHS tapes’ and culminating in something that felt wildly original. ‘When I had these kick-ass vocal samples – including a black panther chant – I tried laying it on top of a guitar noise idea I had and it became this strange hybrid. I didn’t think Thunder, Lightning, Strike would do well, but I distinctly remember thinking it was really original. I’d never heard a song like Huddle Formation before.’
When The Go! Team initially released their debut, the fact that it scanned as their own distinctive ode to joy didn’t save it from trouble in the wider world. The samples used on the album hadn’t been cleared in a legal sense. It became apparent after the fact that no one involved with the record had thought twice about this because they weren’t imagining a wide listenership. Logic then dictated that the legal mumbo-jumbo wouldn’t ever be a concern. But the album received such rave reviews in many publications that the public had no choice but to flock to it. As a result, the samples were cleared where they could be and ousted where they could not (with the sampled elements often being recreated by the band), which resulted in slightly different versions of the release that were dubbed ‘illegal’ and ‘legal.’
You see, while The Go! Team is predominantly a rock band that does ‘rock band’ things quite well (i.e. sugar-fueled music for momentum junkies), they had unknowingly reignited a war between the establishment and the underground that the Beastie Boys had fought a quarter-century prior on the basis of their sophomore LP Paul’s Boutique (one that the NY group continued to fight well into the new millennium). The problem arose purely from the band’s use of samples and the owners of each of those discrete pieces of intellectual property not being reimbursed for said use. Seemingly overnight, The Go! Team unwittingly became conscripted warriors in the fight for fair use. Parton’s recollection comes with the ratio of elegance to pragmatism that one might expect: ‘When the major labels started getting involved, it got messy on the sample front cos we released the first version completely uncleared. We figured no hit – no writ. It was agonising having to replay some stuff and most of the time I would just pay the rights holder.’
This use of samples as a pastiche with which (or against which) to create new work was a largely untested modality for a rock band at the time, but in a new age, some trailblazers simply saw these as more tools in the toolbox. Parton explains that he used ‘samples just like chords that can build a song I’ve already written… it felt new then and, to be honest, I think it still feels unique.’ Though the world had seen more than its share of rock bands who included DJs (see: Limp Bizkit, Incubus, Linkin Park, etc), these tended to be technicians in an atmospheric sense who were shoehorned into a band dynamic and less concerned on the whole about using discernible samples than they were about adding to the vibe or feel of an individual song. The Go! Team had essentially made themselves vulnerable to a predator that had been lying in wait for just this moment. Their quick work to make changes to the album that appeased the arbiters of copyright law, while keeping the intention and ferocity of the work intact, is perhaps as meaningful as any other part of the group’s origin story.
It would be sheer oversight here to not at least point out that The Go! Team’s music also came with a higher-than-normal dose of positivity and motivational goodwill. In a time when rock music writ large was only beginning the long process of rebounding from the nadir of its self-inflicted ‘downer’ mentality, Parton and his band were injecting aural adrenaline into their fanbase. ‘Optimism and happiness have never been a particular mission statement for the music – but this upbeat thing is something natural that happens – my sonic fingerprint that I can’t shake off and don’t even realise I’m doing. I always think the euphoria of it is a by-product of ACTION…Music just makes stuff better.’
It was the ‘action’ Parton speaks of that proved to be a clarion call for others. Girl Talk rightly became an audience darling for a charismatic live show, but it was his sample-heavy and fun-loving tracks that gamely pushed his foot in the door with tastemakers. Had Gillis become a working musician even five years sooner, his methodology would have had to have been drastically different due to technological limitations if nothing else. In such a scenario, Girl Talk as we now know it, may have been relegated forever to a figurative conceptual purgatory of having missed its window in time and/or cultural climate. The Go! Team’s success partly opened a window for Gillis and others like him.
Around the same time as all this, Animal Collective’s Panda Bear was readying Person Pitch for its 2007 release, which is a different kind of sample-based experience, but is exactly that nonetheless. The Books toiled in relative obscurity for years creating cerebral music that liberally featured eclectic samples, and it can be argued that the larger milieu of collagist music allowed them to break through into new audiences.
None of this should, however, detract what The Go! Team was at the time and continues to be. Coming off a decade of bands in a never-ending battle of who could care less, Ian Parton’s brainchild project shined with equal parts ambition and provocation. They changed the rules of the game by proving they cared more, and the stakes became infinitely higher as a result. Unabashed, heart-on-sleeve presentation is always a salve for pessimism – it just so happened that The Go! Team did it as well as, if not better than anyone else. Parton sees a place in the pantheon for his group’s debut, but is a bit more humble about it. ‘Hopefully, if it stands up, it’s because the songwriting that’s behind it… I’ve always thought bands should be like worlds – a unique little universe where everything flows together.’ But his eye is clearly on the present and the road into the future: ‘[F]or some people, they will always associate us with that time, [but] in a way, I think the stuff we’re doing now is as good or better maybe.’
Thunder, Lighting, Strike is a line in the sand that rewards those who cross it with the honour of standing defiantly on the same side as a ragtag group of artists who colour outside the lines. It’s a haven for those unafraid of the more happy-go-lucky aspects of life, even when life seems to want to drown those sparkly bits under banality and dread. As with anything that is orientated toward the proverbial bright side, it will inevitably have some detractors. But any group of artists who consciously makes music calibrated to press the pleasure buttons in the human psyche won’t care about that. And those of us who get rejuvenated with an occasional vitamin booster of The Go! Team shouldn’t care either.