I Want Your Body on Me: The Tale of Superlative Supergroup Gayngs
Just over a year ago, the Minneapolis-based super band Gayngs made a stop at Cat’s Cradle on what was then their first and surely their last tour.That stunning show, along with all of the circumstance surrounding the tour, the album, and even the band’s formation, was the impetus for this: my first piece of substantial music writing and, in a way, the reason belated, baby exists today.
The Gayngs tour was the ultimate experience of musical ephemera: an all-star cast led by Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and masterminded by Ryan Olson, playing original cheese rock so decidedly uncool, many critics struggled to understand their act as anything more than cruel irony. Gayngs has played a handful of live shows since this piece’s completion in Dec 2010, but their “flash in the pan” story and their mostly overlooked, misunderstood album Relayted remain plenty worthy of appreciation today.
The house music is bumping on a Wednesday night at Cat’s Cradle. The opener has already cleared the stage, and expectant concertgoers begin to push toward the front of the club. When the house music finally cuts, the crowd shrieks and roars–indie supergroup Gayngs has made a stop in Chapel Hill on its first, and most likely its last, tour.
The hushed, staticky beat-boxes and clicks of album-opener “Gaudy Side of Town” usher in the 10-member set in a steady trickle–some wearing white tuxes, others donning fuzzy, cartoon animal hats and t-shirts, all rocking Corey Hart sunglasses. When a hard, mellow drumbeat begins, the crowd roars again, calming just in time for introduction of a Skinemax soprano sax and harmonic, Siren-like croons. Much of the crowd is here to see indie god Justin Vernon, known for his falsetto fronting vocals for Bon Iver and, most recently, a number of collaborations with Kanye West. Few of them expect the highly auto-tuned blues punch he delivers in the opening lines. Solid Gold’s Zach Coulter follows with seriously slick vocals, and instantly the crowd is dropped into a dizzy, sensual haze: clearly, tonight is going to be special, perhaps all the more special when Gayng’s unlikely origins are considered.
Firestorm Waitin’ on a Spark: The Formation
It all began one day when Ryan Olson decided he really, really enjoyed 10cc’s 1975 ballad “I’m Not in Love.” As Olson put it in an interview with The Guardian, “We just wanted to start playing some soft-rock music…I’d been listening to a shitload of 10cc and I was just like, yeah, I want to do something like this.”
A single three-man basement jam session in Minneapolis provided ample material for Olson to begin recruiting like-minded, incredibly talented artists with an interest in recreating the lush bedroom rock of the 80s. Gayngs was formed, with its roster ballooning to 23 members, including Vernon and Mike Noyce of Bon Iver, all of Megafaun and Solid Gold, Ivan Howard of The Rosebuds, saxophonist Michael Howard, and Rhymesayer’s P.O.S.
After several months of Gayng members stepping outside of their respective comfort zones and laying down tracks in a Wisconsin studio, Relayted–a 54 minute, 11 track gem of an album–was born. Upon its May 11 release, The Guardian instantly annoitted Relayted as its top candidate for album of the year for 2010. Other reviews struggled to take Relayted seriously, treating it more as a parody-gone-wrong. As the review on pitchfork.com read, “Gayngs take this stuff seriously, and if you concentrate really hard, maybe you could, too.” In truth, Relayted is honestly, warmly crafted. The notion that its cheese rock, tongue-in-cheek nature prevents it from being instantly, effortlessly appreciated, is pretentious at best. The album speaks for itself.
Floating Through the Larger Line: Relayted
The aforementioned lead-off track “The Gaudy Side of Town” sets the pace of the album, wandering the line between peering through the back windows of a town car limo with hawk eyes in some unspoken nocturnal objective, and a full-blown narcotic haze, reinforced by ambient cries of “Figure it out / Sort it out / Foot in your mouth” and “You don’t even feel it / You don’t.” All the while, atmospheric lead vocals (far softer than their live counterpart), a solid bass line and the occasional alien synth drop make sure there’s no doubt as to whether or not this is full-fledged dim-the-lights, baby-making music. Gayngs is just getting started.
The next highlight of the album comes in the cover of Godley & Creme’s 1985 single “Cry,” cementation of the aforementioned 10cc influence (the pair made up one half of 10cc, and are often considered the “brainiac” of the operation). The cover is considerably slower than its predecessor, as it abandons the original 98 bpm for what is indeed the one constant throughout Relayted: a sensual 69 bpm (wink). Godley himself even makes a cameo on Gayngs’ remake of the original “Cry,” an emphatic nod of approval.
P.O.S. abandons his alternative hip-hop/punk roots for “No Sweat,” instead laying down deep R&B vocals like “Who knows why the heart goes on / When it keeps on beatin’ to the wrong song” over a slow keyboard trip-out that is soon surrounded by a choir of haunting support vocals and a mellow drum backing. Midway through, the sax slides in, a guitar spaz out ensues, and everything falls out, leaving the sax to mourn over a heartbeat bass drum.
The middle of the album strays away from the cheese rock and sinks into an experimental groove, beginning with the tribal electronica piece “False Bottom.” The listener is plunged into deep chaos, moved by a bumping bass through fragmented keyboards and indistinguishable vocals that seem to reach at the listener, looking to drag him deeper. Careful transitions and the general uniformity of these tracks, while perhaps rendering them less memorable (or, at least less distinguishable), create a contiguous experience. Solace is found temporarily in the deceptively relaxed vocals of “Crystal Rope,” which begin with “Same state different road / Are we lost?” The next track, “Spanish Platinum,” brings the listener back down, but a resolution seems in reach, and indeed what some critics might call a “bad trip” ends with Vernon’s soothing falsetto admitting that “After your father come on to the scene / I grabbed the beans and / Spilled them.”
The listener is snapped out of all this with the potential pop hit “Faded HIgh.” A bombardment of female vocals from all angles makes up the first verse and later verses, taunting the listener with sayings as “I keep my heart in a jar / You ain’t ready for me.” There’s a break, a male declaration of “I want your body on me” as the rhythm drops, and once again the song is sent into a pop, “you-can’t-have-me” frenzy.
The album ends with “The Last Prom on Earth,” a lyrical success that, instrumentally, easily out-cheeses any of the preceding tracks. The high pitch synth cues the dimming of the lights and dropping of the disco ball. Vernon highlights the lulling chorus with his auto-tuned falsetto, “This will be our last prom / All these little love songs,” only to bust into a wholly remarkable (if only for its sheer unexpectedness) Bone-Thugz four bar rap near the end of the track, alternating between said falsetto and a deep rumble. Not unlike any memorable Prom, the listener will want to relive this one–and most of its preceding tracks, for that matter–again and again.
Same State, Different Road: Gayngs Live
Olson himself admitted that “the most far-fetched thought about Gayngs for me, initially, was the idea of playing the songs live…” Gayngs was intended as a studio affair. After all, the stylings of influence 10cc were specialized for the studio, with sometimes hundreds of layers providing an uber-produced sound that would be virtually impossible to recreate onstage. Thus, when Gayngs announced their first gig–an album release show at First Avenue in Minneapolis, ironically dubbed “The Last Prom on Earth”–they understood the need to rework their sound.
And rework they did. The first show was but the first of two literally unimaginable bookending events of their live performances for the year, and probably forever. A flood of purple lights bounced off a real disco ball; glittery, prototypical early-90s prom decorations adorned the venue; much of the crowd showed up sporting their old (or their parents‘ old) fluffed-up digs; and, you guessed it, pop legend Prince was in attendance. Gayngs took the stage with confidence. A a trimmed down 10-member roster would play Relayted from start to finish.
From the opening tune, the listener notices that they’ve traded in airy ambience for the opportunity to ride the natural energy of live performance. “The Gaudy Side of Town,” opening the show just as it does the record, has undergone perhaps the most notable alteration, evolving into a powerful groove: The percussion is vamped up, immediately making it known a rock show is in store. Newton’s sax is still tuned for back-of-the-club copulation, but Vernon abandons atmospheric falsetto for powerful, R&B auto-tuned vocals. A funky guitar sneaks its way in, and the product is stunning.
As for the more mellow, avant-garde tracks in the middle of the album, they aren’t forgotten, but are utilized more as transitionary tunes for more vocally-driven tracks. When the album-closing “Last Prom” finally rolls around, the moment is perfect. A less than harmonic but heartfelt chorus of “This will be our last prom / All your little love songs” inspires short bursts of awkward slow dancing, and a sudden shower of balloons as Vernon begins his rap causes the crowd to explode. When the artist formerly known as “The Artist” was asked why he didn’t take the stage for a Purple Rain-esque solo, he simply said, “They didn’t need me out there.”
Several months later, after much admittedly-necessary rehearsal, Gayngs would embark on a fall tour of east coast clubs. In addition to showing off more polished versions of Relayted tracks, the group busted out a number of covers. A sultry take on Sade’s classic “By Your Side” and a rendition of the ultimate concert closer, George Michael’s “One More Try” headlined that list. Vernon’s vulnerable croons in “By Your Side” makes Gayngs’ cover a formidable one, perhaps more heartfelt than the original, while the track-defining bass line crawls along nicely. And “One More Try” quickly became a crowd favorite, with Vernon’s fellow Bon Iver member, the diminutive, unsuspecting Mike Noyce on lead vocals. Noyce belts out cries of “Because there ain’t no joy / For an uptown boy / Whose teacher has told him goodbye” that, if don’t quite match the power of Michael’s delivery, are unforeseeably soulful, and provide for plenty of entertainment (and playful heckling opportunities) for the crowd and fellow band members alike. The instrumentals are an obvious improvement over the original: a bluesy lead guitar and bass line walks the listener along the path of heartbreak, while Newton’s sax womps out both lamentations and improvised diddles in between choruses. It seemed Gayngs had found the perfect mix of heartstring-pulling covers to complement the thumping, live version of Relayted.
A Tale’s a Ton: The “Poetically Insane” End of Gayngs?
After a string of successful shows and even a spot on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, Gayngs looked to close their two-week tour with their biggest show yet: a set at the Austin City Limits Festival. Instead of taking stage at 3 pm on October 10th, however, the band would report their tour bus–along with all of their instruments and equipment–stolen at 4:20 am.
In fact, the bus was not stolen. Rather, its owner instructed the driver to drive it back to Nashville as Gayngs was days late in paying a $6000 bill. Reports from the tour bus business and the band itself conflicted as to the escalation of affairs. On his blog, Vernon grudgingly admitted that “While it is totally ‘Gayngs’ to not pay bills…we were given no warning of our gear being taken and it was absolutely our every intention to pay our bill.” In any case, Gayngs was unable to find suitable replacement gear in time for their show; the band wrote in an eloquent statement that they were “insanely bummed out by these events.” What was most likely Gayngs’ last show on Earth was regrettably canceled.
Perhaps Olson, in an interview with CityPages, best understood the unfortunate, albeit strangely appropriate turn of events. He, assembler of the all-star cast and mastermind behind the unlikely, allegedly pardodical, unmatchably smooth album-of-the-year candidate, bemoaned his project’s anticlimatic end: “We were going to kill it today. We were going to destroy…We will have the most triumphant return, I swear. It’s an odd, poetically insane end to this journey.”
How likely said “triumphant return” is, however, isn’t clear. Vernon’s comments repeatedly implied that the Austin City Limits show was going to be their last. Indeed, it’s easy to imagine the artists drifting back to their separate projects; it’s easy to imagine Relayted and a handful of live recordings as the only artifacts of a magical, musical anomaly. It’s just not easy to accept.
Gayngs gave the world of indie music something unique in 2010: a sound truly novel, a style not quite replicable. And if this collective never again records an album, if they never again take the stage–if indeed their act was but a flash in the pan–well then, so be it. Gayngs was always a myth, breathing and coming to life for but a few short months. And myths are special, not just for their storied accomplishment, but because they don’t make encores.
Download (or stream) and watch Gayngs perform (and Prince enjoy) The Last Prom on Earth (filmed at the Last Prom on Earth) here.