Lip Critic: The Best of What’s Next

Music Features Lip Critic
Lip Critic: The Best of What’s Next

Lip Critic are about to drop Hex Dealer, one of the freakiest, crunchiest, grossest albums of 2024. The New York-based band, who have been kicking up a fuss since dropping their first EP, Kill Lip Critic, in June 2019, remind me of the avant-garde shit that was coloring the streets of the city they call home in the mid-1970s. Now, I’m not saying that Lip Critic are the second-coming of the Talking Heads. But, you can call them an offspring of some kind, and you can see a shared emotional similarity between them—especially in how there’s not much of an interest in retreading the ground laid out before them by other musicians that might, to many, exist as their peers. Just like how the Talking Heads weren’t trying to be David Bowie or Lou Reed or the New York Dolls, Lip Critic aren’t trying to be Death Grips or JPEGMAFIA or MSPAINT. With the way music culture is right now, a time where influence, inspiration and respect share blurred lines, Lip Critic’s mind-boggling, skin-melting, hair-pulling, teeth-grinding originality is a fresh change of pace. On their sophomore LP, they don’t come to fuck around.

My first interaction with Lip Critic is at Paste’s East Austin Block Party, and drummer Danny Eberle is doing a two-step in the middle of the crowd during “Milky Max.” Oh, and he’s screaming like a banshee, growling inaudibly into the microphone while his bandmates make noise on the stage behind him. The part they’re playing isn’t on the studio version at all, arriving like a pitched-down, doomy, sludgy coda that completely reinvents the track altogether. I’m standing off to the side, and one of Paste’s founders suddenly appears next to me. “What the fuck am I looking at?” he asks, in a matter-of-fact way that illustrates just how in-awe he is of the band going berserk right in front of us. Bret Kaser, Danny Eberle, Ilan Natter and Connor Kleitz make up the New York-based group, and they sound like the B-52s being run through a trash compactor. Their setup isn’t ordinary—two samplers, two drum kits, nothing else—but for a 12:40 PM set, trying to orchestrate a pit is a helluva way to start a day of music, for both the audience and a band that hasn’t even put out its first record yet.

“Danny will jump down in a crowd of two people, if they’re there,” Kaser laughs. “He likes to only play venues where he can do that, honestly,” Natter, the band’s other drummer, echoes. “He wants to be able to do that—not only no barricade, but it’s about stage height. It’s a whole equation he’s got going on about the best possible jumping.” While Kaser is the lead vocalist in Lip Critic, Eberle gets to find his release for a few minutes every night when he jumps into the crowd and lets Kaser pound on the drums. “One of the things that gives me the most joy in life is singing—or screaming, based on how you look at it—and jumping around,” Eberle says. “We’ve tried setting up a mic by the drums before, but I honestly feel it detracts from one of the most defining factors of the band, which is Bret’s voice and lyrics.”

Eberle plays in a number of bands—many of them existing in the orbit of hardcore and metal—but a crucial piece of Lip Critic’s identity is Kaser’s frontman style, which exists somewhere between Fred Schneider, MC Ride and Genesis Owusu. “Milky Max,” as metallic and crushing as it can be, is considered to be a pop song by the band—which makes the hardcore breakdown all the more perfect for Eberle and Kaser’s switchover. “Bret is a pretty sick fucking drummer, so I like that we can show we got not one, not two, but three drummers in our band,” Eberle says.

“That is, essentially, the extent of my ability on the drums—what I played for those 16 bars,” Kaser adds. “When I was in sixth to eighth grade, I played drums in my first-ever band, Carrier Pigeon, so drums are kind of like my first love. I took piano lessons for 10 years, and I love piano, but drums were the first instrument where it was really my choice. I went and found a drum kit on Craigslist. It’s always been an obsession for me, so getting to play a little bit [during ‘Milky Max’] is definitely a vanity project, as well. And Danny loves being a frontman, too, so we get to live vicariously, for a moment, through each other.”

Lip Critic began when Kaser, Eberle, Natter and Kleitz were all at SUNY Purchase together. The foursome formed through a shared love and curiosity for music, even though Eberle and Natter had already played with each other in a band prior to college. “We could talk about music forever,” Kaser says. “If we’re in a car together for a seven-hour drive, people will just be talking about music the entire time.” He contends that one of the first songs he ever purchased on iTunes was a Benny Benassi song, along with Rihanna hits like “Pon de Replay” and “Rude Boy”—and he and Kleitz used their combined interests in club music to get into music production.

“The meshing of everything is about accepting that our influences are so vast that we could never be satisfied with, aesthetically, painting ourselves into a corner or pinning ourselves down anywhere,” Kaser says. “We just allow ourselves to make whatever we want to make whenever we want to make it.” Eberle came up loving math rock and hardcore albums, while Natter found a lot of exploration in what his friends and soon-to-be bandmates were getting into. “What brought us together is, I feel like, my curiosity for music that I didn’t know,” Natter says. “I knew Bret and Connor from the conservatory—and it was a very small, 30-person group, where we had almost every class together—and the curiosity of wanting to know what type of music they were into became a part of the influence, us all coming from different places, musically.”

Eberle was the only member who wasn’t a conservatory student—instead studying anthropology, journalism and ethnomusicology—because he’d majored in music throughout high school. “Going into college, I was pretty certain I didn’t want to major in music again,” he says. “I found Purchase to be the right environment to allow me to focus my studies on something else while still being surrounded by awesome musicians. The community that we built at Purchase made it a great place to test out new bands and songs and meet so many different musicians with unique music tastes and differing ways of creating and sharing their music.” Echoing what Eberle is saying about SUNY Purchase being a great place to test-drive new musical ideas, the early days of Lip Critic featured a lot of failed experiments. The first time the foursome played music together, Natter was playing guitar, Kaser was improvising lead and Kleitz was on bass with Eberle on the kit. “Even that first thing, which really wasn’t meant to become Lip Critic, I feel like elements of that—Bret being very performative, in the way of delivering vocals that day—definitely affect what’s going on now,” Natter says.

In Kaser’s words, Eberle has “been in, like, 10,000 bands” and Kleitz, too, hopped around between groups. But Kaser was never a band guy growing up, instead preferring to do handfuls of solo projects. When he was 18 or 19, he wrote and recorded an album that was entirely composed of guitar and piano—just because that was something that was aggressively not his lane but he wanted to figure out how to do it. “I was making club music and I was obsessed with Skrillex and I was like, ‘Let me just try to do this,’” Kaser says. “I feel like that also speaks to the curiosity aspect, where it wasn’t like ‘Oh, yeah, I love acoustic guitar and I know how to play it.’ It was ‘Let me just set the restriction that I can only use this stuff and then try to make something out of it.’” The first time Natter saw Kaser perform was a one-hour improvised piece of acoustic guitar and piano in a stairwell. “Definitely pre-Lip Critic I would talk about how interesting I thought that was, and I didn’t even know that that wasn’t the main thing he was doing at the time,” Natter adds.

Though Lip Critic have been living in New York City together now for some time, with Natter having been born and raised in Manhattan, they are candid about how the busyness of their surroundings and the effectively endless cauldron of artists around them hasn’t been as crucial in forming their sound as the internet has. They are, affectionately, willing to go on the record and be honest that their influences often came from places like Bandcamp Weekly and BrooklynVegan, a sign that modern music discovery and journalism is still shaping bands that have yet to hit the scene.

Kaser is particularly passionate about how the World Wide Web opened his eyes to music that stretches far beyond the domestic, limiting barriers of the coast he grew up on. “The internet is the thing that pushes me, creatively, more than anything—as crazy as that feels to say,” he explains. “I was listening to Gabber Modus Operandi and stuff from other corners of the world, listening to HKRC (Hong Kong Community Radio) and stuff from China and Europe—all these places where, when you just have that wealth of music that is entirely global and, essentially, free to listen to. It’s so overwhelming that going to see my friend’s band play, as awesome as it is, doesn’t shape what you’re working on as much as something you catch on the internet that blows your face off does when you’re making a record. I grew up on the internet, and all the music that I love I discovered through YouTube and Bandcamp Weekly articles and blogs.”

Lip Critic being made up of four players whose interests involve club, pop, rock ‘n’ roll, techno, noise, jazz, hardcore and metal—when did they arrive at the conclusion that the setup that would best suit their shared talents and chemistry was two samplers and two drum kits? “It was immediate,” Kaser says. “I always bring up this video of Brian Chippendale and Greg Saunier—two of my favorite drummers—playing together, where they’re playing with their kits facing each other and it was completely improvised for 45 minutes. Ilan showed me the video in college and I watched the hell out of it. I’ve probably watched it six times now, just because you never really get to hear a drummer play off another drummer that often on a full kit. You get to hear drummers have chemistry with bassists and keyboardists and guitarists all the time, but you don’t really get to hear drummers have chemistry with drummers.”

With that in mind, Kaser, Eberle, Natter and Kleitz wanted to build a more traditionally musical, pop-oriented band with the idea of the live shows being their “center ground.” “From the very start, it was always the crux of the band to have a complete sonic elasticity to do whatever we want,” Kaser adds. “So, samplers are going to be the way to go—and then we’d also want to have this cool percussion ensemble happening, and that was the only way to really do it.” When it was all said and done, the time that had passed between Natter showing Kaser the video of Chippendale and Saunier, that first show when Natter played guitar and Kleitz manned the bass and the band’s first rehearsal in their current setup was only a few days.

“The suggestion was made to have two drummers very quickly,” Natter says. “I think we toyed with stuff within that setup until we reached what we do now, which is having no tracks. We’re playing together like a band, but each sample hit is as if someone was strumming a guitar or plucking a bass. There’s no type of synchronizing happening electronically. We tried experimenting with using a kick drum or docking a synth—trying all of these things that seemed very cool—and maybe that took a second, but, really, only a rehearsal or two until it was like, ‘Okay, this is why it’s not feeling good, because we’re not playing off each other.’ Now, we’re playing like a band.” By the time Lip Critic’s first single, “Entry Level Stud,” came out in March 2019, the setup was solidified and parallels what the band is working with now.

For a while now, Eberle has compared Lip Critic to Television—not that Hex Dealer and Marquee Moon are comparable sonically, but fundamentally they serve a similar purpose. It’s the twin-guitar elements of Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd that especially sparks such a comparison, and it’s that distinction that can be found in Lip Critic’s DNA, too. “There is no lead or rhythm guitar, really. They both occupy a very similar, yet unique, space—both melodically and rhythmically,” Eberle says. “With the drums in Lip Critic, there is no ‘rhythm or lead’ drums, we are both trying to play parts that compliment each other and form one whole sound.”

Natter mentions that fans come up to him and Eberle after sets and ask whether or not they are playing separate parts, or if there are two separate elements chugging towards a convergence. “I feel like there are parts where we’re both syncing up to play the same thing, but that’s just because the part in that moment demands the power of two of us playing it and doesn’t need two separate parts,” he says. “And we improvise, in the sense that no two shows will sound the same—but certain fills, there will be certain moments where we will link up. Those parts are quite set and decided and rehearsed. There’s a lot of thought given to them before we play.”

Eberle and Natter sitting at kits together is a special thing to witness live, and you can tell that their long, shared history with each other—through multiple band iterations, often with Natter playing guitar and Eberle on the kit—has a particular resonance that serves as a momentous backbone for Lip Critic. “We bounce off of each other in a way only people that have been playing for years together do,” Eberle says. “When you play music with someone, you start to just have a thing you can’t really describe that just makes you feel comfortable playing more music with them in the future,” Natter adds.

Up front, Kaser and Kleitz are both working on a pair of samplers at the same table. Kleitz is using an Electron Octatrack, while Kaser is playing bass on an MPD. For Kaser, there’s never any variances, other than changing the bass instrumentation source from song to song. It’s Kleitz who plugs in the color, playing specific notes and chord stabs or, as Kaser frames it, “one- or two-bar chunks of songs.” When Kaser’s playing bass, Kleitz is, according to Natter, “making all the sounds besides the drums come out of that Octatrack.” “I’m basically just a bass player, and then Connor is more of the ‘utility sampler guy’—you can just accomplish so much with the Octatrack, in terms of its internal effects, rigging, the sequencing abilities,” Kaser continues. “We’re definitely misusing the Octatrack, in terms of what it’s intended to do. We’re basically playing it like an MPD.” Though Kleitz has some time-based effects on his sampler, Kaser is often working in conversation with Eberle and Natter’s drumming, trying to lock in and follow their pace and lead.

It can be easy to see Lip Critic’s stage setup and think it looks limiting. The brain-rot of rock ‘n’ roll beckons us to assume no sound is complete without a six-string at the forefront, but there’s no cap with samplers; they can go anywhere you need them to. “The reason a sampler is so magical is because it’s this chameleon instrument where you can make respresentations of other instruments with the click of a button,” Kaser says. “Connor could be playing a trumpet and I could be playing an upright bass. We can sort of sound like a jazz combo. It’s gonna sound insane, but we have the ability to morph. It’s magic. Connor has moments where he’s hitting a button and then there’s a full recorded choir that’s happening. And then he hits another button and it stops and it’s something else. That dynamic is very paramount to the stuff we’re doing, where all the music is really about the diversity of the sounds that are in it and the diversity of the grooves and textures. Having the ability to just instantly pivot and be in different sonic worlds and eras is very key.”

You’ll be hard-pressed to find many records this year that are more bonkers than Hex Dealer. Across 12 songs, Lip Critic revel in stories about spiritual superiority in an East Coast gas station, murderous mailmen, mutant kids and “speaking with the birds of prey split-tongue.” It’s an anti-Americana harbinger of chaos, and Kaser’s songwriting takes on a quasi-conceptual narrative of a faith healer handing out false miracles, as if his moodboard—or bookshelf—has his lyrical compass pointed towards vignettes of surrealistic underdogs and forgotten mystics and consumerist hellscapes. It’s completely enthralling and, naturally, Kaser prefers to let the work speak for itself about how Hex Dealer’s arc came to be rather than come up with some grandiose explanation for how those fucked up tales germinated in the first place. “It just all seemed like it made a lot of sense,” he says. “It just seemed like it made a lot of sense, too, at the time when it was being written. It still does make sense! It feels very natural to do.”

One of the Hex Dealer singles, “In the Wawa (Convinced I Am God),” is probably the only time that a gas station chain will be involved in the same breath as a couplet like “What was the summation of atoms in my blood? I’m a gusher for the devil, there’s no boat in the flood.” As somebody who feels a certain divinity every time I walk into a Sheetz here in the Midwest, I understand Kaser’s affinity for Wawa and its East Coast delicacies and whatever godliness might exist in its aisles. “They offer a better version of Subway than Subway and it’s in a gas station,” he says. “Every time I’m in a Wawa, it just feels good, feels very comforting.”

Kaser then explains that the craziest gas station he’s ever been in was stationed in the unincorporated community of Buck Snort, Arkansas and had no indoor plumbing. “I don’t know how big Buck Snort is, but it can’t be that big,” he says. “There was one single lady in there that was selling a single chicken tender. It was one chicken tender. They also had a bunch of Buck Snort merch. There was a mug that said ‘The History of Buck Snort’ on it, how the town got its name and then six paragraphs of text around the mug. It was like a Wikipedia article on the mug.” Did Kaser end up buying the chicken tender? “I did not, but, believe me, there was a part of me that wanted to put it on a chain and wear it as a prize,” he replies. “I don’t think anyone should have bought that chicken tender,” Natter chimes in. “We may have canceled the show that night. There’s really no way to tell.”

Hex Dealer was finished two years ago. It took some time for the foursome to find a home for it, eventually getting the record into the hands of Partisan Records—who’ve made their mark with, recently, Geese’s 3D Country, PJ Harvey’s I Inside the Old Year Dying and IDLES’ TANGK and are, to put it frankly, a perfect fit for Lip Critic. But having sat with it for so long, the band has been playing remixed versions of Hex Dealer on the road—which is how you get a version of “Milky Max” that includes Eberle going full screamo in the last interval. And that extension came when Kleitz was messing around on his sampler, got a one-second sound and then built a whole section around it. Now, Lip Critic have a label and know they won’t have to sit on something for two years again before anyone else hears it. But, Kaser and Kleitz still approach making music—and the indeterminate lifespan of a track—just as they have for the last six or seven years, which spans from their love of dance and pop music and its cultural elasticity.

“I feel like that attitude is always present where you’re thinking ‘There’s no limitation on what I put in this. There’s no limitation on what it can become after it’s “done,”’ Kaser says. “Remix culture exists so heavily in club music that, if you go see a DJ you love—if you go see Héctor Oaks play because you like ‘We Met Under the Strobe Light’—you’ll probably go to the show and hear a VIP of it, or some kind of bootleg of it. There’s just this culture and this idea of, when you go to a DJ set, you’re seeing a lot of altered versions of tracks already. I feel like, at least for Connor and I, there’s no real change in the thinking of it, because that’s the thinking that we started making music with.”

But Lip Critic aren’t just sitting idly waiting for Hex Dealer to drop. According to Kaser, the record’s follow-up has been in the works for a minute now. “There was so much material that we had for this last record, it was a brain blast for all of us—where it almost feels like it was hard to whittle down and say ‘Okay, this is that idea. We’re done with it and now we’re gonna move on,’” he says. “There was definitely a period where it felt like I was just making the Hex Dealer deluxe-edition for months after the record was finished. It does feel like, in the last six to eight months or so, that we’ve started to really make headway on the next project, and it’s starting to feel really good.” “As soon as [Hex Dealer] comes out, I’m going to feel very much that the next one couldn’t come soon enough,” Natter replies.

When Lip Critic were still new and playing college shows, everyone who showed up to watch them perform were, as Kaser puts it, “down to go insane” and receptive to the off-the-wall turns their setlists would take. But, as time went on, they started doing showcases—like one called “School Night” at the Mercury Lounge—and beginning to feel out of place. “It was one of the first times I remember playing and seeing people and I was like, ‘Oh, all these people think we suck. All these people think we’re horrible,’” Kaser recalls. “I remember playing a Pauline Oliveros record to my sister one time, being like ‘This is the coolest thing ever!,’ and my sister was like, ‘You have to turn this off, this is giving me a panic attack. This is horrible.’ I’m so in my own head about music. If I just like something, I just like it. We know what we’re doing, but we’re still figuring out the audience of people that are also going to like it or that are going to want to listen to it and go to shows. We don’t really know, because we’re just making it because it’s entertaining and fun to make and feels new. I don’t really know if we know that it’s working. It’s fine, it’s fun to do. But we definitely had audiences look at us like we shouldn’t be there.”

I keep thinking about the crowd’s reaction to Lip Critic at our block party, and the bewildered looks on folks’ faces as Eberle went nuts in a pit he created all by himself. There’s a bit of gratitude to be had that Paste, once a magazine that gauged its initial interests in being an alternative, folkish counterpoint to the mainstream in the early 2000s, is still a place where musicians like Kaser, Eberle, Natter and Kleitz can take its stage and deliver some truly audacious, indescribable, mind-fuck tracks that’ll leave you questioning whether or not that performance was a ruse or the real deal. And, for a 12:40 PM set, your guess is as good as anyone’s. I vouched for Lip Critic to be put on the bill because, even though they’re a band that won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, you’re gonna want to drink from it anyways. The foursome are, without a doubt, a product of the moment they are in right now—and they will be a product of whatever moment comes next, mortifying as many people as they are blowing away.

Matt Mitchell reports as Paste’s music editor from their home in Columbus, Ohio.

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