“Flames! Flames on the side of my face,” says Madeline Kahn in one of her most quotable—and improvised, by the way—lines as Mrs. White in 1985’s Clue. The flick, based on the popular board game by Hasbro, was a total flop for Paramount Pictures at the time. But these days, nary a Halloween goes by where you don’t spot at least a couple of Kahn-heads donning sultry-strong exposed shoulders, a pearl choker, a blunt black bob, and, of course, a rope.
And now, while keeping Kahn top of mind, picture this, too: a brown corduroy, fur-lined jacket, worn-in jeans, a coffee cup, wispy strands, and a sepia-tinged outlook on life. That would be Harry Dean Stanton, in one of his final roles as Carl Rodd in Twin Peaks: The Return (2017). What do these two individuals have in common? Other than residing at the cross-section of many an eclectic sexual reawakening, together, they embody Ganser’s answer to the dreaded question, “what kind of music do you play?”
“Genres are boring,” says Alicia Gaines, the Chicago band’s purveyor of cavernous vocals and sludgy basslines. “I’d rather identify with a character.”
Her bandmates Charlie Landsman and Brian Cundiff are in total agreement. “I fucking love Harry Dean Stanton,” says Landsman, Ganser’s mustachioed guitarist, whose equal parts precise and tizzied plucking often sounds as if it’s cutting through to his insides. He turns to Cundiff, “And you like Crispin Glover a lot.”
“Love,” says the band’s drummer, who brings an unflappable ascension to Ganser’s rhythm section, dragging his sticks through a distorted deep space.
“We’ve been drawn to character actors lately,” says Gaines, “we really bond over people that are a little bit left-of-center.”
While the genre-as-characters concept originally began as a clever tweet, today we find ourselves deliciously offline and sinking deeper into a pale green booth at Avondale Bowl. Ganser’s in the midst of a lineup change—co-vocalist Nadia Garofalo is no longer with the band—so I’m joined by Gaines, Landsman, and Cundiff at the eight-lane bowling alley in Chicago’s Avondale neighborhood. The bowling alley, which dates back to the 1950’s under former ownership, boasts mid-century-esque decor that gives Wes Anderson a run for his money, manual score cards, and Dude-inspired drinks like a White Russian slushie. It feels like an ideal old-school respite from reality, and more immediately for this Californian—who needs a break from toughing it—the nippy Chicago air on this Thursday afternoon.
“I took at least two very awkward first dates here,” says Landsman, who actually worked at this bowling alley before the pandemic and is no stranger to its quirks. He finds himself reminiscing about his days of getting jammed pin resetters fixed. I ask him if we’re sitting in the very booth from those first dates. “One of them was in here, yeah,” he chuckles.
It seems fitting that the band take stock here, of all places, because it happened to be the last place Ganser was together before the big lockdown of March, 2020. This is a homecoming of sorts, and they’ve arrived at the bowling alley with a cautious optimism for the future that juxtaposes the apathy that fans have come to expect from their lyrics and musical style. The post-punk band has a stage presence that can go from world-weary blasé to energetic resiliency in an instant, so a little jaded apathy feels par for the course.
Ganser borrows its name from a rare dissociative disorder. Their old Tumblr account refers to the condition as being “characterized by clouding consciousness, somatic conversion symptoms, confusion, stress, loss of personal identity, and echolalia.”
Not to talk about the pandemic, but if you can stomach it for just a second, it’s relevant to Ganser’s ethos. Back in 2020, melodies and lyrics they’d put together long before lockdown suddenly felt like fitting soundtracks for what was starting to feel like one never-ending bleak day in. Songs like “Emergency Equipment & Exits,” a single off their 2020 album, Just Look at That Sky, co-produced with Electrelane’s Mia Clarke and engineer Brian Fox, encapsulated the times. Lines like “so real” melded into “surreal” from staggering repetition and, in her signature guttural drawl, Gaines paved a tunnel with gravely honey, singing, “it’s a long way down.” The sentiment reverberates until the final lyrical admission: “I don’t want to be here.”
Before touring was further complicated by the pandemic, the band had spent several years getting into the swing of live shows, participating in festivals like Riot Fest and Cold Waves, local gigs at beloved venues like The Empty Bottle, and in neighboring states alongside acts like Modern English, Naked Giants, and Daughters. But in 2020, with touring on hold, the band released Just Look at That Sky, and watched as streaming numbers increased and vinyl pressings sold out.
For Ganser, one silver lining while not being able to tour their new record was a series of collaborative remixes of tracks from Just Look at That Sky. They reached out to folks in their orbit like Algiers, Bartees Strange, Sad13 (Sadie Dupuis), Andy Bell (of Ride), and Girl Band's Adam Faulkner, who each took on a song. The result was a five-track remix EP called Look At The Sun, which was released in May of 2021.
“Our one rule for the remixes is that we had to have some kind of real relationship with the person,” Gaines says. “Like Andy Bell…we played Riot Fest and met him briefly then.” Under his side project GLOK, Bell took a stab at “Bags For Life” (the closing track of Just Look at That Sky), transforming the goth marching band kicker of a closer into something more proggy with incandescent synth.
Now Ganser is back with a new release: an EP called Nothing You Do Matters; co-produced by Liars' Angus Andrew and released via Felte. Thematically, it brings more dark anxieties, dispelled by a cheeky wink. The measured propulsion of a thrashing guitar blends into a thrumming rhythm section, as buoyant synths shine through the cracks in the cave. There’s a perpetual push-and-pull between feigned indifference and underlying concern, which ultimately give way to grounding anthems of survival—even if said ground is shaking.
As we move from the booth to pick out our velcro bowling shoes, Gaines pauses and turns to me. I must have a self-satisfied look on my face as I nod along to the music playing overhead. “Did you ask them to put this on?” It’s the third or fourth Peter Gabriel song of the day. He’d already come up in our conversation a few times and, unbeknownst to me, Gaines had recently tweeted about him. I have to break it to the group that I did not plan a bowling playlist in advance for the occasion.
“Tony likes a lot of really good music,” says Landsman, referring to Avondale’s bar manager. “He was my boss for a long time here, and at my current job, too, and he would just be playing incredible stuff in his office.” This is a relief to hear. I was beginning to worry that they thought I’d orchestrated a stunt.
As we begin to bowl (on what I thought was equally rusty footing, after everyone made big claims that they hadn’t bowled in a long while) it starts to sink in that I’ve been hustled. Landsman, who’s nursing a couple of broken ribs, impresses with the granny technique, and then offers us all words of encouragement from the sidelines. But it turns out that I’m the only one who needs them. Cundiff bowls a lucky spare, then Gaines, and I’m left in the gutter on each turn as they steadily improve and casually exchange iconic lines from There Will Be Blood.
As we begin to bowl, it starts to sink in that I’ve been hustled
The band can clearly drop pop culture references all day, in real life and also online. Gaines runs the band’s Twitter account, which mixes mentions of the likes of Björk, Shelley Duvall, and Peter Gabriel (duh), with some blunt takes on the more problematic parts of pop culture, too. I ask the band about one spicy tweet that I found particularly resonant. It’s a wish for today’s music journalists to write more like Lester Bangs once did about racism in rock: “Fuck off with ‘Black artists in indie music’ fluff pieces where Black artists can’t even speak their mind. I want to see someone talk to all-white guy bands that only tour with clones of themselves,” it reads.
The sentiment gets at the heart of so many present-day issues in indie music, ranging from racism in touring and the pitfalls of touring in general—which Gaines actually wrote about for Louder with an elegance only experience can summon—to the lack of nuance in a lot of music discourse these days (see: this tweet about that racist Patti Smith song).
“I think it kind of relates to how we get taken in overall,” says Gaines, referring to the band. “It’s not even reduced to touring because I remember when the only way anybody paid attention to us was when we’d be on a list, like here’s the ‘20 Punk Bands of Women,’ or here’s ‘20 Punk Bands of Black People’…it was the only way we got covered.”
“I think it changed when quarantine happened and I texted the band like, ‘guys, I think we should just get on Twitter,’” she continues. “It was very easy for me to just open up another window and tweet, and through that, I think the perspective of having a Black woman in the band kind of started to get expressed more to people.”
Landsman appears to feel right at home in his old stomping grounds, having jumped behind the shiny wooden wraparound bar to make us a few drinks. “Just like I never left,” he says. We each snag a swivel stool and cozy up with an assortment of beers on tap, spritzes, and a Fernet and Coke that Landsman has expressly made for Gaines to try. “It’s good,” she confirms.
Soon enough, though, Landsman leaves us and his old gig to go clock in at his current job at the classiest of local dives (the name of which is really none of your business, CREEM reader). Cundiff, Gaines, and I pile into their car to tail him so we can be the first to put in our orders when the bar opens for dinner service. “We’ll get you fed before your flight,” says Gaines. Everyone in the band has an instinctive warmth that had been radiating throughout the bowling alley all afternoon. “They have the best fries,” assures Cundiff before taking the wheel.
On the drive over, Gaines points out Bric-a-Brac Records, who recently released the Bam Bam archival EP I’d been going on about earlier. They let me geek out for a moment, before we talk about Smashed Plastic, the local Hermosa neighborhood record plant that pressed their limited-edition red vinyl for Nothing You Do Matters, which drops in early December.
When we get to the bar, a thoughtful patron hops up and insists on doing a little musical chairs so that the three of us can sit together. We pile into a row of low stools and remove our winter layers before settling into smash burgers, fries, and Marz Haze IPAs all around. The bartender—a fellow musician and friend of the band—brings us a whiskey sampling as we discuss their upcoming show with Stress Positions set for Dec 8 at Sleeping Village. “It’s going to be different,” says Gaines, noting that it’ll be their first live gig without Garofalo. “But we’re excited to perform again.”
Now all that’s left is the eventual, elusive tour. They promise a future sojourn out west. “We’re dying to get out there,” says Cundiff. I hold him to his word. We down our shots, polish off the remaining fries, and another Peter Gabriel song plays. Just kidding about that last part.