"Hi, we're Deus," announced lead singer Tom Barman at the front of his opening gig at the Warfield. "We're from Belgium, just outside of Scotland." Idiot me -- who thought the band was poking fun at its Trainspotting-influenced fashion sense -- missed the joke.
Deus are a band from Belgium, yes. Actually, four members are from Antwerp. The fifth, guitarist Craig Ward, is a Scotsman. That's the joke. Anyone else get it? No? Pity any unknown Continental band on its first American tour. While English ensembles traditionally enjoy a decent turnout by a die-hard faction of pasty Anglophiles, mainland European acts are shit out of luck. Quick -- name a Belgian group. Bonus points if you answer Front 242. Double bonus if you forgot about them already. Deus guitarist Ward knows about the lack of stateside access and would elaborate the point at a spontaneous post-soundcheck interview the following night.
The crowd at the sold-out Warfield (sold out for Morphine, that is) was a disparate amalgamation of hippies, cosmopolitan socialites, and bereted cafe flies. When Deus (pronounced DAY-us) took the stage, the venue wasn't yet at half capacity. The five-piece opened with "A Shocking Lack Thereof," a loping cut from the new freak record In a Bar, Under the Sea, produced by Captain Beefheart/Pere Ubu/PJ Harvey sideman Eric Drew Feldman.
The song began with discordant guitars and keyboards, building to near climax after three minutes. It then broke into tiny plucks on a violin, played mandolin-style by Klaas Janzoons. The band struck up again. Barman shimmied while Janzoons moved like a mime doing a robot act, mechanically turning right to left and servoing his head up and down. After the band eased the song back toward climax, just when the audience expected an eruption of power-chord frenzy, Deus turned the segment purely percussive, with Jules de Borgher hacking away at his kit and Janzoons freaking out over a small stand. It's the kind of aural subversion at which Deus excels.
Deus' personality is at once their greatest asset and greatest liability. While quirky personalities from Little Richard to Alice Cooper to Marilyn Manson command large, devout followings, freaky music is another bird. Sure, Zappa and Beefheart will always have their finite cult legions, as will this decade's Mercury Rev. But freaky music only appeals to the larger mainstream audiences when sugarcoated. (The Flaming Lips' "She Don't Use Jelly" -- a pretty little alternative hit about substituting Vaseline for butter, magazines for tissue paper, and tangerines for hair dye -- is a fine example.)
Deus made no concession to normality with the following tune. Barman introduced it as "Sam Peckinpah's Daughter." It's a title as compelling as anything in rock, but the song didn't make sense, at least with those lyrics that could be discerned. Yet the band somehow conveyed the Wild Bunch director's sense of graceful violence with guitars that collided with drums and dripped with effect-pedal reverb.
Introduced as "a song about a Belgian friend of ours," the penultimate "Theme From Turnpike" began with a sample loop from Charles Mingus' "Far Wells, Mill Valley." Like "Shocking," it too lopes until the third minute, when a pair of vocals -- one clear, the other distorted -- begin repeating the chorus, "He said: 'No more loud music.' " Morphine's Dana Colley, who plays on In a Bar, brought his baritone sax onstage and played against Ward's clarinet squawks. Supposedly the chorus refers to former bassist Stef Kamil Carlens, who quit the band to pursue quieter projects. What the New Jersey Turnpike has to do with Carlens eludes me.
The band didn't suffer Carlens' absence except on "Fell Off the Floor, Man," a bizarre rap delivered by three vocalists over a funk workout. The song really belongs on a headphone set, where the listener can hear the two principals ping-pong lines from left to right channel, but the stage provides enough visual cue. On record, Carlens punctuates each line with phrases like "sing song," "headcase," "courtpie," and "gridlock." Live, the new bassist, Danny Mommens, delivered the lines flat.
The band's final act onstage was an apt metaphor for the entire show. As the last few notes of "Roses" faded, the group disarmed itself, thanked the audience, and left. Almost as an afterthought, Craig Ward approached his mike to announce the band would play a free show the following night at the Hotel Utah. But the sound guy had already shut down Ward's mike and the guitarist had to resort to shouting ineffectually from the front of the stage.
The next night, after the Hotel soundcheck, replete with the obligatory "Whole Lotta Love" warm-up, Ward indulged my request for an unplanned interview. The guitarist said Deus are well-received in Europe -- especially in Belgium, where he says they have a gold record -- but America is another matter. "We didn't want to come here and slog through the toilets," the guitarist explained, unwittingly extending my baseless Trainspotting inference by alluding to the disgusting scene in the film where actor Ewan McGregor dives head-first into a commode to rescue a pair of opium suppositories.
Touring fears aside, Ward illuminated some of the questions from the previous evening, specifically the reference to Peckinpah. "That song's a real collaborative effort," he said, explaining that the lyrics are utter nonsense. Nonetheless, the title is hardly meaningless. According to Ward, it refers to making violent art (or any art prone to censorship) and the repercussions it can have on one's own family. I suppose it could've been called "G.G. Allin's Boy," but that lacks Deus' knack for poetic image.
Ward says the band relished the opportunity to open for a guaranteed-draw act like Morphine their first time out in America. Being rushed by all of two or three people after such a show at least is better than the "totally demoralizing" 20-person crowd at their early March performance in Providence, R.I. Judging from the tiny crowd at the Hotel Utah, Deus should cultivate their relationship with Morphine and hope for another opening slot.
At 9:15 Barman broke from a conversation with two Dutch kids to ask no one in particular where the fuck everyone was. An hour later, he must have wondered the same thing. Thirty-or-so people, apparently a mixture of fans and Urban Outfitters, moved up to the front of the stage.
The first few songs were as discordant as those from the previous night, but after three numbers the band hit its pop stride. Later, bassist Mommens seized a moment between songs. "This song's called 'I Wanna Fuck This Shit Out of You,' " he announced before a breathy little bass-driven solo tune, to which his bandmates responded, "Danny's so subtle." His little gaffe and his bandmates' response is a clue as to what makes Deus' sound so complex: The band members act like they just don't belong together.
But creativity often flourishes in conflict. Sometimes, like on the poppy "Little Arithmetics" (Deus' best shot at a "She Don't Use Jelly," despite the dangerously depressing subject matter of insanity), Barman's voice and musical sensibility stood out. But for every such song, there's a "Suds and Soda" -- a tune that hinges on an epic riff of sawing violin. Onstage, each member of the band plays something extraneous: There're go-nowhere guitar notes from a Leonard Cohen song, a massive blast of power chords, stadium-style drums, and a hippie-jam bass line. And the way the two vocalists trade lines in the main verse is near-exhilarating, beaten only by the manner in which they sing the chorus together. It's one of those songs that can leave a listener on the floor.
Supposedly "Suds and Soda" was a hit single in Europe, and it deserves to be one here. But that will probably take a few more tours. Before the show, Ward said the band's up for it, even hinting that Lollapalooza figureheads have offered the quintet a gig on the strength of critical accounts of performances in New York and at the South by Southwest music conference. When I said how disappointing the Lollapalooza bill looks, Ward smiled. He knows his band can outshine Korn. "I welcome a bad bill.