The Princeton Packet - Oct. 19, 1999
Asking for forgiveness but not permission
By Alex Saville
Princeton Packet Staff Writer
Out of the bars and into the streets. That's where Suran Song in Stag has taken its music. Pulling the home-built "agit-stage" behind a van, SSiS is in the middle of its fall guerrilla tour. Without official permission and with very little advance warning, the group arrives at a location after dark, unfolds the agit-stage, sets up the generator, plugs in the bass and amplifiers, turns on the projectors and the show begins.
Stripped to its bare essentials, SSiS has only two permanent members, Suran Song yes, that's her real name and husband William Weis. Song sings. Weis plays bass. While they perform, images appropriate to the music are projected on to the band and the surrounding environment, creating a live multimedia experience. The images range from photographs of Paleolithic fertility figurines dating to 25,000 B.C. to The Simpson's Mr. Burns.
The music is at once sparse and densely layered. Sparse to the ear because it has only two main elements; dense because the thick bass textures provided by Weis and the soaring vocals provided by Song cover most of the audible frequency range.
The Fall Guerrilla Tour 1999 is in support of SSiS's latest release, Pure Agitator, and includes shows at college campuses throughout the Northeast and Midwest. SSiS will be performing locally at Rutgers University, Oct. 22, and Princeton University, Oct. 28.
In the money-driven world of popular music, few groups manage to incorporate art or politics into their music, let alone accomplish a marriage of the two. Not so Suran Song in Stag, which manages to make political statements about art. On closer inspection, maybe they are artistic statements about politics. Like a set of Russian nesting dolls, the layers repeat; each time you open one up, there's another inside.
Song began performing solo in 1992 while earning her masters at Parsons School of Design, staging her slide-projected body art performances at fine art galleries in New York and Los Angeles. By 1995 these performances had run their course. She felt trapped in an "art ghetto," constrained by the sterile white cubes of gallery spaces.
Joining with bassist Weis, she began transforming her performance pieces into a song format, blending the three-minute pop song with still images projected on to the musicians and the surrounding environment. For a while this worked well, and the group since all the musicians Song added were male became known as Suran Song in Stag.
The band released short collections of songs; Shiny Objects (1997) and Analogue Love Muffin (1998). Following the releases, the band followed the standard format and played a lot of shows in bars. By the end of 1998, however, Song and Weis realized they had traded one ghetto for another.
"We weren't feeling like we fit into the bar setting," says Weis. "Bars, in general, were feeling that our music wasn't fitting in enough for people to come in and have a good time."
Suran Song's shadow can be seen at the left amid the projected images the group uses during its multimedia performances. "I think it's censorship, myself," says Song. "They don't want anybody to talk about anything." She adds that one booking agent told her the songs themselves weren't appropriate, saying, "You're talking about stuff that you don't go out and get smashed to and drink to."
"There's lots of bands that do that already," Song retorts. "I felt like we were getting flak for not fitting into a mold and for not talking about good times all the time."
Adding to their frustration with the bar scene were difficulties in finding guitar players and drummers as committed to the project as Song and Weis. Rather than continue searching for musicians to complete the group as a standard four-piece rock band, the duo decided the group was already finished, and they would perform as a bass player and a vocalist amid the many projected images.
"The thing that's nice about using the stage is that we can really connect with the area that we're in," says Song. "It becomes really site-specific. We project it on walls, on sculptures or on the ground or trees or wherever."
Although the music seems strange electric bass and vocals without drums or guitars it's not without precedent. Both Bob Dylan and Billy Bragg have performed extensively singing solo with only their electric guitars to accompany them. Using a bass guitar instead is not all that far off.
The music takes some getting used to it's hard not to keep waiting for the more familiar context of guitars, drum. However, there are incredible bass tones all over the recording. Without the other instruments, the bass has so much more room to play, and Weis uses it well, easily making transitions from heavy distortion to clean deep notes like drops of water, or using distressed, wound-out, high-gain notes to accent the more prominent points of Song's vocals.
Pure Agitator begins with a call to arms: a cover of Fugazi's "Blue Print" containing some of the finest slogans in modern music. Witness: "I'm not playing with you"; "What a difference a little difference would make"; and "Never mind what's been selling, it's what you're buying."
Following are eight original songs tackling sexual politics and relationships. From the "guilty of skin" indictment of "Female Rape Jury" to the closeness of "Analogue Love Muffin," the music of SSiS is uncompromising and action-oriented. The songs on Pure Agitator suffer slightly from the lack of accompanying visuals, yet still provide documentation a sonic pamphlet, if you will of the group's message. The CD ends with a second cover, this time the enticing and lushly ironic "Star," by David Bowie.
Suran Song in Stag has ceased to be a band, if it ever was. It is pushing hard at the edges, trying to become something new, something different. "We just really want to make our own context and present it the right way and communicate it the best we can," says Song. A difficult task, to be sure, and a difficult one for a group with one foot still in the world of popular music. SSiS is making music for the masses, but will the masses listen to something designed to wake them up? To expose contradiction? To take away the warm fuzzies? Not all of them, but maybe enough to make it worth it.
"I've really learned a lot from this past tour," says Song. "The best thing to do is just set up and do it. You ask forgiveness but not permission. And it's the only way to get the work out there that's clear and different and not age restricted."
Suran Song in Stag brings its guerrilla tour to Rutgers University Oct. 22, and Princeton University Oct. 28. Performances begin at 8 p.m. The Rutgers performance will take place near Demarest dormitory on the College Avenue campus in New Brunswick. The Princeton performance will most likely take place near Firestone Library in Princeton off Nassau Street. Check the group's Web site at www.cruelmusic.com for precise directions and more information.