This was it; this was every single reason I came to NXNE. A band that means so much to me that I refuse to write about them from my usual distant vantage point headlining a bill stacked full of personal favorites. A finale where vocalist Meredith Graves, whom I love dearly and have called the patron saint of this site, shed her skin so completely that you could see her soul. A set that literally set an amp head on fire. A split crowd that was as violent as it was enchanted; both sides frozen to their spot, shouting out insults or silently praying for the well-being of Graves as she sank to the floor, adjusting the microphone with her. A bass that was split in half over the knee of Greg Ambler, broken out of frustration, regret, and helplessness. A kiss on the cheek. A small but meaningful exchange several minutes before the chaos that Perfect Pussy has so capably controlled in the past finally reared its head and did its best to consume them; the unfailing resilience of three people desperate to fight back. A fierce performance that turned into an unforgettable event. A religious experience.
Nearly all of that happened in the band’s final ten minutes and that was nearly every participant’s takeaway. Accusations started rolling in almost as soon as the band was forcefully escorted off of the stage by the same staff that refused to help them when their bass amp finally gave out. “The bassist is abusive to the rest of the band”, “the singer can’t handle pressure”, “that fucking sucked”, “this is exactly what happened at the bridge a few months ago at SXSW”. Wrong, wrong, and wrong. Wrong again. I’ll get to all of that in a moment but not before I get to what nearly everyone writing about this has seemingly forgotten: prior to that point, while still struggling with some sound issues (most notably bass and vocal levels), Perfect Pussy was careening headlong into their set and had whipped an audience- that had previously been almost uniformly gentle- into an outright frenzy. Bruises, cuts, and blows were given and earned at roughly the same rate. No one had any intention of stopping as the band, as they do at their best, ceased resembling a band and instead became more reminiscent of a white-hot wrecking ball. All of the songs came at a blink-and-it’s-gone clip, one after another: “Driver”, “Bells”, “Work”, “Big Stars”, each song inciting a new aggressive push in the audience- and in the band.
Then, everything was broken wide open; smoke started emanating from the bass head as the circuitry caught fire, a visibly shaken Graves looked out into a spot of nothingness and repeated “I don’t know how to ask for help”. A guitar that was re-purposed as a bass was split over a knee and handed off to a hungry audience (the instrument was no big loss- Ambler hadn’t expected it to last the weekend). Then, a few moments of confusion passed, looks were exchanged, and without warning Graves, drummer Garrett Koloski, and noise extraordinaire Shaun Sutkus all started to sink their teeth in as Ambler and guitarist Ray McAndrew exited the stage. What, just moments ago, had been an explosive set was now taking on new life as performance art.
It didn’t take long for the jeering to begin: every variation of “you suck” and “get off the stage” were directed at the surviving trio. Most damningly, though, was the repeated chant of “fuck off and go die”. Initially, after hearing Graves’ exhaustion in a short exchange before their set, I was filled with concern for my friend as I watched her tremble, on the verge of tears, before her exaggerated breathing fell in line with the rhythmic propulsion provided by Koloski and Sutkus. As Graves seemed to pull herself further inward, she began to fall into a quiet desperation and began repeating the mantra of “jealousy, anger, hate, regret, fear” (this same mantra is buried within the recesses of “VII”, the outstanding album-closer from Say Yes to Love). As this was happening, I stopped taking pictures. I considered jumping the edge of the stage to embrace my friend (a few of the people attending this with me urged me to do the same); someone who I was convinced was on the verge of a complete breakdown. My feet were cemented to the spot, I’m not sure I could have moved if I had tried.
Then, it clicked. I saw something in Graves’ eyes- a certain determination that is unique to her. It’s that same determination that’s helped make her one of the most compelling performers of this generation (a claim I don’t make lightly and one I’ve firmly believed since well before our first few talks). After receiving that small reassurance, I pulled my camera back out and began documenting- still concerned but no longer overcome with fear and anxiety. Once again, I found myself surrounded by a pool of silenced onlookers and unfiltered vitriol; the critical-commercial contrast of Perfect Pussy come to complete and total fruition. That contrast is one of the things that drove me to the band in the first place, two extremes so vocally present in two separate mediums: the content of the article vs. the comments section. Only that night, the two audiences that stood in contrast to each other weren’t critics and readers; it was the actual audience vs. the band itself. And all of the sudden, that mantra “jealousy, anger, hate, regret, fear” took on a new, layered meaning.
The five qualities contained in that mantra are the five you’re supposed to live without. It’s a philosophy that Graves has embraced- only on the night of June 20, 2014, she got hung up on one: regret. Graves would eventually break the mantra to repeat “regret’ over and over, taking as few breaths as possible. I would find out later, as she repeated the word each time, she was crawling back into her past and doing her best to address and forgive all of the regrets that she was still clinging to. Reality began to flirt with art once more and a newfound sadness crept into Graves’ repetitions. As each breath became shorter, each new face inflected with more pain, and each word grew more impassioned, the microphone was drawn closer to the floor. A few minutes into this brutally rigorous self-examination, the moment took hold of Graves and the weight of it drove her incrementally down until, finally, she was kneeling on the stage, flush, short of breath, a few tears escaping, and doing her best to manage her demons.
In those moments, everything around me felt quiet, even though the chants continued. Graves didn’t have that luxury; she instead chose to fixate on that harrowing “fuck off and go die” chant coming from at least one person. “Fuck off and go die”. “Fuck off and go die”. “FUCK OFF AND GO DIE.” Each new iteration was what Graves chose to take from the audience in front of her- and she obliged it. Graves would steal me away for a beer and talk about this at length the next day, which is a conversation where I’d learn new lengths of her empathy and understanding: “Fuck off and go die?” “Okay, if you want to see me die, I’ll destroy myself in front of you. Maybe then you’ll finally find some happiness.” This, in a nutshell, is one of the strongest reasons for my celebrations of Perfect Pussy. That dedication to compassion for all sides, a trait exhibited most strongly by Graves and adamantly reinforced by the best of the band. There’s an earnest quality to Perfect Pussy that stands in direct opposition to the apathy so prevalent in music earning acclaim today. This performance, more than any other offering the band has given, cemented their conviction.
Graves would later go on to say that during her reactionary exchange with the bold heckling, she couldn’t stop thinking of Serbian performance artist Marina Abramović- her piece “Rhythm 0” in particular- and it’s hard to blame her. The parallels that she’s had to endure are eerily similar; it’s never easy to be subjected to a public trial when more than half of the audience seems intent on doing their best to make you aware that they can end you. I’ve been back to Perfect Pussy’s performance in my head time and time again, each time with a little more contextual information. Nothing can ever fully duplicate what it was like watching everything unfold but each revisit’s provided at least one more new answer or one more stray thought. My certainty about some aspects increases while my curiosity about the rest of it grows exponentially.
At least those accusations that were quoted above can all be dealt with simply: “The bassist is abusive to the rest of the band?” No, Ambler’s “hissy fit” wasn’t pure impulsion; everyone in the band had done all they could to warrant attention to some potentially venue-threatening problems, he did what was quite literally one of the only things that they could have done to finally get it. “The singer can’t handle pressure?” No. That’s what most of this piece has been about; it’s also worth noting that I shared a few words with a guitarist from The Kickback, who had come for Spoon but secured a spot for Perfect Pussy, who may have put it most adeptly: “I loved it. It was in your face and you just had to deal with it. They made you deal with it. It was what punk’s supposed to be.” Ambler’s bass-breaking was certainly a far cry from his flinging a previous bass off a bridge in Austin during SXSW– while it’s true both instances were motivated in part by frustration and both took place at music festivals, that’s literally their only connecting threads. “That fucking sucked?” I know I can’t definitively state whether something’s good or bad- but I will do my best to argue that particular assumption every time I come across it.
One part that keeps haunting me, no matter how many angles I approach it from, is how the set ended. It didn’t end on the artist’s terms and felt like a total violation of artistry in general. It was the pinnacle of an evening that was full of behind-the-scenes hostility. Whether it came from ill-mannered heckling, whether it came from a beer being literally grabbed out of one of the previous performer’s hands backstage by the crew that was on hand for the evening, by the (likely unintentionally) overbearing nature of the marketing campaign to let just about anyone know that Spoon was the “secret” headliner well before doors, and the ever-present corporatization of a lineup full of artists that do their best to champion independent ideals. Then, in a final egregious public manifestation, that hostility took on its most present form by way of NXNE security marching onstage to remove the three remaining members of Perfect Pussy by force.
First they came to Sutkus, who looked at them with some disbelief, heard something and shook his head “no” before wordlessly exiting the stage; Koloski followed roughly the same routine while throwing his hands up in mild disgust. I’d find out later that they were both asked to escort the now crumpled-on-the-floor Graves from her position at the microphone. They came for her last, as she was still shouting “regret”, visibly shaken and deep inside her own thoughts: “Regret!” “Regret!” “Re-GRET!” “REGRET!” ringing out more clearly than ever, now with no synthesizers to back it- only some light, propulsive drumming. “REGRET!” “REGRET!” “REGRET!” Now, more furiously than ever. “REGRET!” “REGRET!” “REGRET!” “REGRET!” “REGRET!” Now, on its own, with only jeers and stunned, apprehensive silence serving as the backdrop. “REGRET!” “REGRET!” “REGR-“. A hand on the shoulder, a look up, a sad acceptance. A snapped trance. A return to real life with a new lease. A stunned audience.
And then, as Graves was being forcibly helped off the stage by the same staff that refused to help her when she needed it, she flashed a bleary smile, in one final and defiant act of heartbreaking bravery.
All I could do was applaud.
An extensive photo gallery of this set can be accessed here.