Moving units with the Chinese Stars and Kill Me Tomorrow at the El Mocambo (464 Spadina), tonight (Thursday, October 21), 9 pm. $13.50. 416-777-1777. Rating: NNNNN
Now that the Moving Units' long overdue full-length debut, Dangerous Dreams (RX/Palm Pictures), is finally out, the innovative Los Angeles trio should be hailed as conquering heroes of the punk-funk boom. So why isn't everyone celebrating?
It could be that many of those familiar with the band's role as instigators of the post-punk revival movement got bored with the whole 80s throwback craze as soon as it went mainstream. Meanwhile, those unaware of the group's work probably write them off as bandwagon jumpers.
Yet when I encounter Moving Units' frontman, guitarist Blake Miller, at the Delancey bar on New York's Lower East Side in the midst of CMJ madness, he appears bemused rather than distraught by his band's predicament.
"In a way it's strangely comforting to know that those perceptions exist," grins Miller after yet another magazine photo shoot. "It's like we're taking a leap knowing that there's no net. We're now free to be as ridiculous and absurd as we want because we have no edge to protect.
"It's fine with me if people appreciate what we've done with this record because they know our history, even if they take what they hear at face value. But if they judge our music based on some reading of the current cultural climate, we're indifferent to that."
When Miller began collaborating with drummer pal Chris Hathwell and bassist Johan Boegli as Moving Units - after Miller's previous project Spectacle fell apart during the major-label merger crisis of the late 90s - the whole notion of building a band around the jerky grooves of Gang of Four and Joy Division hadn't been considered by anyone in Los Angeles since 1984. In fact, it wasn't even in Miller's original game plan.
"When we started Moving Units, there was this 60s time-warp thing happening in L.A. with the Brian Jones-town Massacre and the Beachwood Sparks, but I'd already been through my long hair and flares phase," he explains.
After hooking up with Hathwell, who was working at Jabberjaw, and former Washington-dweller Boegli, Miller and his pals turned to krautrock, namely Harmonia, Cluster, Neu!, Can and Faust, and free jazz artists like Pharoah Sanders.
"One day I was fooling around with a bass and came up with something that sounded like a bassline Peter Hook might've come up with for Joy Division," Miller continues. "I recorded it, put on a drum track and dubbed on some guitar, and the other guys were into it when they heard it. That song, Between Us And Them, was really the genesis of the Moving Units sound."
But this was 2001, long before the emergence of Interpol, so Miller still had no idea whether something that sounded reminiscent of Joy Division would fly, let alone become the hot "new" sound. And then everything suddenly fell into place.
"This DJ named Max from New York started a club night in L.A. that he called Death Disco NYC, back in December of 2001. He'd spin this obscure New York punk stuff from the late 70s and early 80s, and we were the first band invited to play," Miller recalls. "It was a rainy Sunday night, and in L.A. everyone usually stays home when it rains, but as soon as we plugged in, all these kids came out of nowhere with fucked-up haircuts and weird clothes and started spazzing out to everything we did.
"We weren't reinventing the wheel, but it was definitely something very different from the popular sound of the time."
Trends have caught up with the Moving Units over the past three years, and just about everyone has cashed in but the band themselves. Their darkly demented Dangerous Dreams disc should help to raise their profile, but it would've better served them two years ago when they had a serious buzz happening.
"In this group we have a really great creative rapport, but unfortunately no organizational skills... and a bad case of indecisiveness. We were also too cocky to hire a producer because we thought we could do everything ourselves. That's why our album took so long to finish.
"Hindsight's 20/20, and I realize now that some things should've been done differently, but I'm still really happy with our record."