Taking It All the Way

We play Jukebox Jury with United State of Electronica, winners of Best Electronic Act in the third annual Seattle Weekly Music Awards.


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We ask, you speak:

That's the basic premise of the Music Awards polling we've done for three years now. It's not scientific, and in some ways, the winners this year were more predictable than the previous two: Indie Rock/Garage Rock winners Death Cab for Cutie in a walk; Hell's Belles holding it down in Cover/Tribute for the third year running; Dusty 45s maintaining their swagger atop the Americana/Roots/Country/Rockabilly list; Reggie Watts handily winning the poll's inaugural Vocalist category while his band, Maktub, swarmed back to the head of Soul/R&B after running a close second last year to Nu Sol Tribe (who finished eighth this year—hmmm); Damien Jurado back at the top of the Singer/Songwriter pile after Brandi Carlile's victory last year (she was third this time, after Carrie Akre). Blue Scholars, who won last year's Album vote (a write-in category not included in the 2005 ballot), sailed to victory in the Hip Hop category; Alice Stuart dipped to second in Blues below the Charles White Band after two prior wins, only to snag the Guitarist vote.

Even if we grant that the awards aren't especially flexible—none of the 2005 categories were write-ins—the most notable thing about the voting this year was how decisive most of the victories were. Only four winners beat the runners-up by fewer than 60 votes. Of those, two were photo finishes—Paul Rucker three votes ahead of Bebop & Destruction in Jazz, Seattle School five points over Degenerate Art Ensemble in Experimental. The most interesting mess, appropriately enough, was in Punk/Hardcore, where Blood Brothers fans checked only nine boxes more than were checked for second-place Go Like Hell—and a mere 42 more than fifth-place These Arms Are Snakes, with Schoolyard Heroes third, and fourth-place Idiot Pilot also picking up Best New Artist. (The fourth under-60 was DJ Fucking in the Streets, who outpolled DJ Riz by 29 votes.)

But the big kids this year were big indeed: Maktub, Death Cab, Hell's Belles, and this week's cover subjects did exponentially better than their runners-up (respectively: Type A!, Pedro the Lion, Maiden Seattle, and IQU). And it's the cover stars we shall now turn our attention toward.

United State of Electronica—keyboardist/singer Noah Star Weaver, guitarists/singers Peter Sali and Jason Holstrom, bassist Derek Chan, drummer/rapper Jon E. Rock, and vocalists Amanda Okonek and Carly Nicklaus—have won the category they share a name with for three years running. They began four years ago as the outgrowth of a harmony-drenched pop group called Wonderful, which featured Weaver, Sali, Holstrom, and Rock, who met at Seattle Pacific University in the late '90s.

U.S.E.'s first Music Award, in 2003, was won via a cute little EP and a seriously fun stage show. In spring 2004, the band self-released its self-titled album (the first couple hundred copies were hand-painted), which began to sell regionally (Bellingham and Portland are strongholds), then nationally and internationally, thanks to mentions in online indie bible Pitchfork, U.K. rock mag Careless Talk Costs Lives, and the posting of several MP3s to the popular Fluxblog Web site. Soon, the album took off in Japan—hardly surprising, given U.S.E.'s campy, cute-pop proclivities—and began garnering serious buzz, abetted by tireless touring.

Sonic Boom recently reissued the disc nationally with a bonus EP, and the band hit the road again, playing a pair of feverishly received concerts in Tokyo and Osaka, and two galvanic shows at Austin's South by Southwest. The second of these, in a severely overcrowded, out-of-the-way bar without a stage, was filmed for MTV. United State of Electronica has also gotten notices in nearly every national American music magazine, including a four-star Blender review. And they're gearing up for even more, particularly locally: In the next month, they'll play the Sasquatch Festival and tour the West Coast with the Hold Steady, a Brooklyn rock combo with whom they connected at South by Southwest (the two groups share a publicity firm) and who may be the only band in America that can match U.S.E. for onstage intensity.

All of which called for one thing and one thing alone: a Jukebox Jury, which took place last week at the shared First Hill apartment of Okonek and Rock, with Sali and Weaver sitting in.

Andrew W.K.: "Party Till You Puke" (2001) from I Get Wet (Island)

Noah Star Weaver: Crank that shit! [starts clapping along]

Amanda Okonek: I think we all know this one. [laughs]

Weaver: Louder, please. [pumps fist]

Seattle Weekly: U.S.E. have been compared to Andrew W.K. a lot.

Weaver: He's a very big inspiration for us.

Jon E. Rock: Have you read his Web site?

SW: I have not. I assume he rants on and on about positivity on there like he does in his interviews.

Weaver: I read what he wrote on the Web site before I heard his music, and I was already sold. [laughs] Then we saw him at Graceland three falls ago, and it was the most intense, amazing live experience I've ever had, seeing what could happen between the performers and the audience, just totally mixing, all going toward the same goal.

SW: Did all seven of you go?

Okonek: I actually went the next year, but I remember that night, them coming home, and their energy—I felt everything had changed for them as far as performances. From then on, I felt like it was an inspiration for all of us.

Weaver: Absolutely. Our shows went up 100 notches right after that. It was six months after we'd started playing. Just what we learned from what he does with the audience, giving everything he has, so everyone gives everything back.

SW: Do you always go to concerts together?

Weaver: Well, we all hooked up there. We all planned to go.

Okonek: That happens a lot with us, actually. We're good friends, and we like a lot of the same music.

Weaver: If one of us gets way into something, I'll end up hearing what everyone else liked about it.

SW: Do you ever get tired of each other, like coming off tour and then running into the others at a show the next night or something?

Weaver: No, actually, usually the night after we get home from tour, I'm like, "Hmmm. I wonder what Jon E.'s up to tonight."

Okonek: I'm like, "Oh, thank God, my space again. I can go to the bathroom when I have to." But then it's like, I miss [these] guys immediately. I know it's a little sentimental, but it's true.

Annie: "My Heartbeat" (2004) from Anniemal (679/Vice)

[The group listens to the entire song in rapt silence.]

Weaver: Beautiful.

Okonek: I really liked that. Who was it?

SW: Annie. She's kind of the Kylie Minogue of Norway. I wanted to talk about songwriting. A lot of what you guys do is fairly riffy and chanty, and I know you write a lot from group jams. Do you do a lot of sitting down and composing, too?

Weaver: Songs definitely come together both ways. "Taking It All the Way" and "So Tired of Fucking Around" were totally organic, [written] in the practice space, along with "Dance With Me."

Peter Sali: "Dance With Me" was written, the chords were.

Rock: I think our smaller jams, with just two or three of us, are really productive. We should do it more, but we try to do it a lot.

Weaver: Peter and I spent all day in his apartment [today with] acoustic guitars, playing through a whole bunch of songs—some future U.S.E. ones.

Sali: When we go in to play, we definitely have ideas to bring, but we make sure to leave ourselves completely open to any possibilities. Having some sort of idea or starting direction helps set what that night of jamming might hold. But you really don't know what's going to end up happening.

SW: Where do the lyrics come in?

Weaver: Typically with the melodies, or somebody says something funny.

Okonek: And then the lyric is sort of written around that funny comment.

Rock: I was saying stuff like, "Hollywood? I don't need it!" [laughs] And Noah thought I was saying, "All the world" [instead of "Hollywood"], so we started going on that, and I thought, "That's pretty cool."

Weaver: Even when it's a miscommunication, we ride that, and it turns out funnier.

Okonek: I'd say the first 30 times I hear Noah sing something on the vocoder, I have a totally different idea what he's saying: "Oh, I like that." That's happened a lot. Or Carly and I will think [he's singing] different things. It's a very collaborative effort, lyrically.

Rock: Pretty soon we're going to start writing rounds, like old Christian praise songs—the girls will sing one melody, and the guys will overlap it with another melody.

SW: You all grew up singing rounds?

Sali: It's kind of a youth-group thing.

SW: I don't assume you were in youth group together, but when did you come together?

Rock: The guys all met at SPU. We met the ladies at a house party. I actually walked by Jason's dorm room and he was playing Green Day's "Basket Case" [on guitar]. I said, "Hey, man, I play drums. We should jam on that song sometime." He said, "Cool. I know this guy Pete, who taught me this stuff. Let's have him, too." We listened to Pete's stuff, and it was awesome.

Sali: I was writing songs in high school. When I met J, I taught him guitar, and we immediately were able to harmonize well—our voices mixed together really well. I was really into vocal-harmony music. We started making music together, and then we found out about Jon E. I think for about two weeks, I hadn't met Jon E. yet, but Jason was telling me about him, and we were stoked.

SW: There just weren't any other musicians around?

Sali: I think there were, but no one wanted to play the dumb '50s pop we wanted to play.

Weaver: We pretty much learned how to write songs from Pete, because he'd been doing it all his life. And hearing the songs Pete and J and Jon E. were writing together, it was the first time writing a song even occurred to me. That's all I wanted to do.

SW: What had you wanted to do before that?

Weaver: I'd definitely never planned on anything.

Okonek: Ever. [laughs]

Of Montreal: "Wraith Pinned to the Mist and Other Games" (2005) from The Sunlandic Twins (Polyvinyl)

Rock: I really like this song a lot. It's like the beginning is this boring guy who realizes what to do not to be boring.

Weaver: I saw five seconds of their show at South by Southwest from outside, on the street. They blew me away. They had trumpets, horns—it was crazy.

SW: There are seven of you onstage during the shows. Have you ever thought of expanding or contracting the lineup?

Weaver: Our philosophy from the very beginning was everybody's invited—anybody who wants to play music, come and party with us, and we'll see if we can make songs.

Rock: We definitely see six more dancers—two, two, two [indicating stage positions]. Bigger stage productions—larger letters that have these really awesome lights doing these kind of wavy things with the music. Columns for the dancers.

Weaver: A lot more kids on roller skates.

Rock: And a large female choir.

SW: What would the choir be doing during the solos?

Weaver: Partying.

SW: Oh. Duh.

Sali: It would be cool, if technology reaches this point, to have real, not fake, dancing animals—somehow to have genetically made bears or something to get up there. . . . 

Okonek: These guys have been talking about dancing bears for five years. They dream of a video of dancing bears. Every time, Carly and I are like, "No." [laughs]

Sali: I remember about four or five months before U.S.E. started, we had sort of a need to make poppier songs—it was kind of bulging out of us. We kind of tried to do it with Wonderful, but then U.S.E. happened.

SW: This year was your first South by Southwest. How was that?

Rock: [mock gruff pout] Another city. Another gig. [laughs] It was the one spring break where I actually fit in. I've been to Cabo, all those places, bumping and grinding, and I never fit in there. Austin I fit into a little better.

SW: The weird thing was at the second show, seeing MTV cameras.

Weaver: Those were our buddies, Something for Rockets, from Los Angeles.

Okonek: They were correspondents for MTV for South by Southwest. So it really was MTV—we were on a segment. They did an interview in the back of our empty U-Haul while our gear was out on the street. Jason and I jumped out, then the four other people except Jon E. all jumped out, and they all got stuck. [laughs]

SW: Was it staged?

Okonek: No!

Sali: We all wanted to be first out.

Okonek: They finally popped through, and there was Jon E.'s naked ass. They edited that out.

Sali: I don't think Kurt Loder liked Jon E.'s ass.

Death Cab for Cutie: "All Is Full of Love" (2003) from Stability EP (Barsuk)

SW: You opened for Death Cab last year at Bumbershoot. The first time I tried to see you was at Bumbershoot in 2003, when there was a line out the door of EMP and across the fairground.

Okonek: That show was wild. The crowd, the stage—the footage from that show is my favorite. You know the screen behind [the stage] at [EMP's] Sky Church? Glittering, blinking blue stars and giant red letters: "U.S.E." It was crazy.

Rock: The weather was perfect. It was the middle of the festival, it was a good time to play. Everyone wanted to have fun. The planets were aligned.

Okonek: I think that's the first time my dad saw us. He loved it; he's come to many shows since then.

SW: The most intense show I've seen of yours was the Capitol Hill Block Party last year.

Weaver: At 4:30 in the afternoon on the hottest day of the year, I didn't wear any shoes. I had blisters on my feet within five minutes. It was awesome! Then [promoter] David Meinert went and got a hose around the corner, came back and plugged it in, and hosed everybody down.

Okonek: I talked to people about that, though. They were so excited for the hose, but they said the water was boiling hot. [laughs] My mom and my grandma were in the front row of that show, too, in that heat.

Weaver: Luckily, we brought water balloons.

SW: You were throwing water bottles from the stage, too. One of them hit my friend right in the chest.

Sali: Whoops.

Okonek: I ended up in the hospital after that show for severe dehydration. The doctor said the problem was that I had drunk way too much water, because I was so frickin' thirsty, but my body wasn't able to hold onto it. If I'd had Gatorade or some sugar or something, it would have held on. I started shutting down, literally. My veins flattened out and everything. The alcohol didn't help.

SW: What's the most severe crowd you've played for?

Okonek: Osaka. Oh my God.

Rock: Anything I would throw out there, they would rip apart.

Okonek: Throwing cute girls down for a drumstick or a sweaty rag.

Sali: I just saw a roomful of arms in the air the whole time. I was like, "I know none of these people."

Okonek: They were singing all the lyrics, all the choruses. Carly actually crowd-surfed, and the people didn't know what to do, so they laid her gently on the ground. [laughs] She lost two rings, a necklace, and an earring. I jumped in the crowd, and people were pushing just to hug you. They weren't doing anything gross, just "Hug! Hug!" It was the sweetest thing in the world. I had no idea that my lip was bleeding from banging the mike [against my mouth]. The poor guys who put on the show were ready to die or kill—they were terrified. It felt so good.

Daft Punk: "Digital Love" (2001) from Discovery (Virgin)

Weaver: This is a genesis for U.S.E., for sure.

SW: When I first heard "Emerald City," I thought, "There's a genre of music devoted to sounding like 'Digital Love'?"

Rock: Why shouldn't there be a genre? There's a genre for blues, and that's one song. [laughs]

Weaver: Something that initially drew us all to Daft Punk in the whole realm of electronic acts, before any others, was that there's a deep warmth to it. [This is] a beautiful song before it's a dance track or anything else. There's definitely a real sense of beauty in Daft Punk's music.

Sali: Every sound they choose and everything about what they do is audacity to the max. They break each element down as far as it can possibly go. And then they throw the most beautiful pop melody on top of it. The first time we all listened to this record together, this song came on and we were like, "Why is somebody trying to sound like Britney Spears?" It's just like the most '80s pop feel, which is what they were going for. They said in an interview they were trying to re-create the sound of hearing a pop song on the radio as a kid and the joy that brings.

SW: The shorthand that's often used about U.S.E. is that you're indie kids whose lives were changed by Daft Punk.

Sali: That's not true at all.

SW: I think that comes from you being from Seattle; there's an assumption that if you're young and white, you must be into indie rock.

Weaver: We've always been on the pop end of things.

Sali: And what a lot of people consider the cheesy end. I'm more often attracted to music from Europe or Japan than to American music—just the sensibility, that you can be funny and pretty and playful, without it being looked down upon because it's not serious.

Todd Edwards: "Savior Tonight" (2001) from Full On (i!)

Rock: I have a drumbeat that inspired the first song I wrote for U.S.E., "La Discoteca." This drumbeat [that's playing]—it's a standard. I love songs that start off with drums and bass.

SW: This is Todd Edwards. He's from New Jersey; he's a devout Christian—a lot of his songs are about Jesus—and he's got the most advanced harmonic ear I've ever encountered in an electronic musician.

Sali: Like Daft Punk, there's the party [feel], and there's also the melancholy there. He sings about Jesus and stuff?

SW: When I saw him DJ, he was wearing a "God Is a DJ" T-shirt, which had an extra edge.

Rock: Like "Jam for the Lamb." There's a T-shirt, with a lamb wrapped around a guitar: "Jam for the Lamb 2002." [laughs] I think our first band played a fest called Jesus Jam.

Sali: Jesus Jam 2000.

SW: Did you guys go to raves?

Rock: Yeah, definitely.

SW: Was that in the back of your minds when you started U.S.E.?

Rock: Oh yeah. C89, that high-school radio station—that's all Top-40 electronic with no commercials. Melodies are so strong in that genre. It's so easy to listen to that station for several hours, and all these great pop melodies come to your head. It's not like [you're] ripping off that, it's just that what you remember filters out and you put it together. I listen to a lot of music that way.

Okonek: Is "La Discoteca" from that?

Rock: I was listening to the Spanish station. They have salsa [playing], and it sounded like [the singer] said "La Discoteca." Like an MC.

Weaver: It happens a lot in other languages very easily, where you know a word or a phrase that you turn into a creative thought, or you write a sentence or a poem—a word that sounds fun, and you sing it and repeat it.

Rock: There's some kids down in Portland, and they thought "Vamos a la Playa," when they first heard it, was "Mama's Not a Player."

Weaver: "Mama's Got Her Pliers"?

Rock: That would be kind of a creepy song.

Basement Jaxx: "Oh My Gosh" (2005) from The Singles: Special Edition (XL, U.K.)

Rock: Is this M.I.A.?

Weaver: Basement Jaxx?

SW: Yes. You're on record as having been inspired by seeing them live. When was that?

Weaver: It must have been 2001, the Rooty tour. I put on my little brother's headphones and hit play, and "Romeo" [the opening track of Rooty] came on. I'd never heard of Basement Jaxx before. I was like, "Holy shit, what am I listening to?" We went to the show; it was the first time I'd seen what seemed like a party happening onstage, people in African dance regalia freaking out.

SW: Is that where U.S.E. started to click in your mind?

Weaver: Just elements that ended up lodged in there down the line, for sure. It was definitely not preconceived.


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