Here’s a charming way to think about music, a notion that came up in a conversation about music with Can’t Kids band members: The musician playing a guitar and singing is the same as a briefcase-carrying professor.
Both are lecturers. Both attempt to change lives through thoughtful discourse. Both give listeners things to think about.
“Every conversation is a competition because you’re trying to express that you have strengths, and (that yours) is so powerful that (you’re) constantly able to say words,” Adam Cullum says. “You have to work so hard to just keep talking.”
We’re sitting on the back porch at Shreadquarters, the downtown house that also serves as a practice and meeting space for Can’t Kids and other bands. As mosquitoes dance on our skin, the interview, which is more like a conversation – a fact-finding mission as Cullum, who sings and plays guitar, suggests – routes circuitously through local bands, the influence of music and religion.
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Can’t Kids, an indie-rock band that moves with impassioned tumult, will release its debut CD, “Brushes, Touches, Tongues” tonight at New Brookland Tavern. The band includes bassist Henry Thomas, cellist Amy Cuthbertson and drummer/vocalist Jessica Oliver. The album is a labyrinth of mutating rhythms and harmonized vocals that wonderfully boil into screeches, howls and wails. It’s a result of exchanges.
“A big part of what I do in Can’t Kids is I try to use the energy I have from having conversations with William, because he taught me so much about how to talk,” Cullum says, referring to William Busbee, the chirpy singer from The Choir Quit who also performs in the sweepingly ambient band Belk Boys. “He has to constantly be making noise and that is a good way to deal with the stuff that goes on in your brain.”
Can’t Kids is an extension of – and a connection to – the local music scene. It would be hard to find a more prolific and accomplished rock quartet locally. Cullum, a member of Magnetic Flowers, led Falling off a Building, his solo project that featured friends, including Oliver. Oliver plays in Hauswerk, the apron-wearing all-girl punk band, and she records her solo music under the moniker People Person. Cullum plays bass for the People Person live sets.
Cuthbertson, a White Knoll High School graduate, is in the quartet Silent Spring Ensemble, and Thomas is the former flailing-armed singer of the punk band Thank God. He also plays bass with The Choir Quit. If it’s hard for the reader (or listener) to keep all the activity straight, it isn’t for the people playing the music.
“We’ll have a wave of being really productive,” Oliver, 25, says. “Then we’ll have a wave of wanting to be really productive and trying to be productive. That’s how it works for me anyway.”
“We’re more in the performance area of the prolific than the writing area,” Cullum, 30, adds. “When we moved (into Shreadquarters, a house he shares with Oliver and Brielle Hayes, the Hauswerk drummer), we wrote all the projects. It’s like we wrote a bunch of plays and then we’re going around performing those plays.”
The dialogue is music. Cullum and Oliver, a Lancaster native who moved to Columbia in 2010, played as Dawn Shredder before Can’t Kids was formed.
“When it was just me and Adam in the band, we played music every day constantly it almost seemed like,” Oliver says. “We’ve added something that I don’t not want to have in the band.”
But she first said no when Thomas, a Charleston native, asked to join the band.
“I booked them at Hunter-Gatherer and was like, ‘Let me play bass,’” Thomas, who was seeking an outlet after Thank God disbanded, says. “I felt like I needed to do something.”
“Henry is the only person that makes sense,” Oliver says.
“Henry is the only person that could possibly play bass,” Cullum, a Lexington High School graduate says, drawing laughs from the table. “He had performed in Thank God, and I had always enjoyed that energy.”
“And none of them had ever heard me play bass,” Thomas, 28, interjects.
“I don’t know, I feel like we wanted to hang out with Henry,” Oliver says of Thomas, who camped out on Shreadquarters’ living room floor for a few months.
Fiona Apple’s new CD “The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do” is followed on the kitchen-table boombox by Ugly Casanova’s “Sharpen Your Teeth.” The early-evening sky reddens as cigarette smoke hangs in the breezeless air. The porch overlooks a small backyard that has remnants of a homemade Slip ’n Slide.
Cullum is always barefoot when he performs (even when there is a rainstorm, like in May at Hay Hill Garden during a Jasper Magazine party), so one shouldn’t be surprised to see him without shoes at Shreadquarters. When he opens the door to greet a guest, he offers Cheerwine, the soda he’s drinking out of a cafeteria-red plastic cup. (Cheerwine, along with the band’s families, the restaurant Beezer’s and the candy Skittles received special thanks on the album jacket that features an image of William Tecumseh Sherman, a Union Army general, on the cover.)
“Brushes, Touches, Tongues,” released by Fork & Spoon Records, features a variety of vocal and musical arrangements. Cullum scored the cello parts on music sheets. Lyrically, the subject matter combines the practical with the abstract, as heard in “Things.”
“I got a trash can full of ideas / Strike a match to set them on fire/ Please, I’m getting cold and I could really stand to warm my hands,” Cullum and Oliver sing.
On “There’s Never Enough Butter,” Cullum, the choir director at Suber Marshall Memorial United Methodist Church, gets into religion. In the song Cullum, who is Lutheran, portrays a character who at one point sings, “God knows to stay out my way.”
“Lutheran and Methodist aren’t that ...,” Oliver begins.
“They aren’t that different,” Cullum says.
Isn’t religion all the same, one asks?
“On the core of things, I imagine,” Cuthbertson, 23, says.
“I think religion varies from person to person,” Cullum says. “I do think the differences in denominations are just the differences in the ways of doing things.”
Modest Mouse and the band’s singer, Isaac Brock, were then reintroduced to our conversation. It was the band’s interpolation of a Modest Mouse song during its live set at Mardi Gras Columbia in February that resonated with this reporter. Brock, who claims to be an atheist, creates arousing imagery of God in his songs. (Listen to “Styrofoam Boots/It’s All Nice on Ice, Alright” for an example.)
“To take the way he imagines the character of God doing things, from someone who says there is no God, I think that’s incredibly interesting,” Cullum says.
The conversation isn’t work, but it becomes challenging when one is asked to answer this question: are you a believer? Cuthbertson, who is an environmental analyst by day, was philosophical in her answer. It sounds like it belongs in a song.
“The thing about belief, the word belief itself has really changed. Now it kind of implies absolute truth,” she says. “I don’t hold anything in absolute truth. I see things in more of a possibility, and it’s a cool idea that I really enjoy.”