A Madison thing we’re listening to: Drug Spider’s “The Square Root Of Negative Zero”

The instrumental-rock quintet is as interested in texture as it is in epic dynamics.

The instrumental-rock quintet is as interested in texture as it is in epic dynamics.


At the end of Madison band Drug Spider‘s new live release, The Square Root Of Negative Zero, just as the eight-minute finale “The Mysterious Light Outside My Window” is wrapping up with a delicate, methodical back-and-forth of reverb-tinged electric guitars, some dude in the audience lets out some kind of horrible screech-hoot-cheer sound. It’s really loud—a vocal mic, presumably placed on stage for between-song announcements, picks it up and it’s more than a peripheral sonic interruption. It takes a sense of humor for a band to go ahead and release a recording with a wart like that, one that’s not even the band’s fault. But in a way the unidentified hooting person plays right into Drug Spider’s tendency to both embrace and subvert the weighty conceits of instrumental rock.

Capturing a performance in late February at the High Noon Saloon’s Madison Mixtape series, the live release wasn’t really even planned—a friend of the band made a soundboard recording and later surprised them with a mix. Drug Spider has yet to release a proper studio recording but plans to work on one later this year. A promising set of six demos came out last year; Square Root comprises the same six songs, though the order is different and the recording of a slightly more atmospheric quality. The band has been playing live at a pretty healthy pace since emerging last summer. It’s also developed an anachronistic persona—members perform in identity-obscuring eyeshades, and posts from the band’s official Facebook page often begin with “This is Drug Spider speaking”—and a wide-ranging, democratic songwriting approach among all five members (two guitarists, a bassist, a synth/keyboards player, and a drummer), who all insist on going by pseudonyms.

“Ultimately, we’ve all gotten to a place where it’s about the song, not about the people in the band. That’s also the reason we wear ‘anonymous’ glasses during our sets: it’s not about us; it’s about the audience,” says one of the band’s two guitarists, who uses the stage name Rick Swirl. “If you listen to music, you don’t stare at the speakers. Likewise, we want to gently suggest to the audience that our music is largely about getting lost in your own mind, letting the music seize your imagination, and letting yourself be transported elsewhere. To me, that’s the essence of this band.”

While it is easy to lump the band in with the post-rock or math-rock category, there’s a lot in this music that suggests an ambivalence about those subgenres. “XOFM,” for instance, has a couple of those yearning crescendos that people associate with Explosions In The Sky or what have you, but more often backs off from them in favor of wry, tangled melodic statements. “Dreams That Weigh You, Release You” has a gentle introduction that gives way to a crashing, tragic hook, yet most of the song is spent building up tension, exploring between those two extremes. There’s an interest in texture here that goes beyond well-deployed delay pedals, and Swirl cites as many far-afield and ambient inspirations (Stars Of The Lid, Labradford) as he does the ones you might expect (Slint, Polvo). 

“Personally, I would like to see the songwriting get still more minimal, and greater dynamic contrasts,” he says. “I still believe heavily in the ‘less is more’ maxim. I recently heard someone say, ‘the fewer the words, the more intense the dialogue.’ And to put it simply, I would love to see us intensify everything; which is to say, whatever mood we happen to be trying to convey at any given moment, I want it to be intense. Intensely disorienting, intensely creepy, intensely melancholy, intensely sublime. The range of human emotions.”

Drug Spider’s next show is March 31 at Art In.

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