The band members’ silhouettes are soft against Brooklyn Bazaar’s trademark stained-glass as Bodega starts their set. Madison of ONWE channels David Byrne’s hollow stare, set in concentration. Nikki Belfiglio plays a converted computer keyboard as percussion before bite-smooching frontman Ben Hozie’s cheek.
Live audio, Bodega at KEXP. Catch lyrics from Neil Young’s “Harvest” and Can’s “Vitamin C” from 5:30-6:15 (both of which appeared on PTA’s Inherent Vice soundtrack).
Hozie’s reading from the biography of French film direct & critic Éric Rohmer: “A classicism among the ruins… The cinema is definitely invested with a redemptive mission… [empowered by] the impartiality of the movie camera and the limits it imposes on human intervention.” Consider this the band’s ethos, alongside a motto inscribed in the lyric book of 2018′s Endless Scroll: “The best critique is self-critique.” Bodega sees its mission as self-evaluation through documentary. When liberals got excited about self-critique post-Trump, it was usually just one more in a series of sly twists toward superiority. (The dinner party line de rigeur: It’s like, shouldn’t we have worked harder to communicate our politics in a way the masses could understand?) Bodega’s scathing inward turn is in better faith and to better results.
The irony of the Rohmer quote lies in its contrast to our present moment: no one could seriously claim the camera and the screen as “objective” or limiting “human intervention” in 2018, year of the DeepFake. Hozie knows better than to sell cinema’s impartiality with a straight face; the artificiality of naturalism-as-artistic style is a recurring theme in our pre-show conversation. Which is why, on Scroll’s closing track “Truth Is Not Punishment,” Hozie shouts out the TV as the fulfillment of writing’s “porcupine dream… / where a man and his dream, let loose on caffeine, see it only one way.” Like everyone else, Bodega’s stuck inside a perspective and ideology. The question Endless Scroll can’t stop asking is what happens when you’re aware of the stuckness? What are the limits and liberations of self-knowledge?
Bodega used to be Bodega Bay, back before they broke up, played a final show to a desperate sweaty crowd, then pulled an LCD and were born again. The new record got its release on What’s Yr Rapture, the same label that put out Bodega’s post-punk peers Parquet Courts. It’s a more traditional LP than Hozie’s previous effort, thirty-three-track Our Brand Could Be Your Life (2015). But the never-say-die mode of “can’t go on, I’ll go on,” of trying to slip serious engagement into knowing snark, is standard practice for Hozie and Belfiglio, the two holdovers from Bodega’s previous incarnation. On Endless Scroll, the band combats contemporary nihilism — not to mention rockism’s aesthete tendencies — with an ethical center. Hozie makes full-length films in his free time, most recently The Lion’s Den (whose production is referenced throughout Endless Scroll). In Lion’s Den, Hozie took time out to explain Peter Singer-style utilitarianism, to examine the nuanced ethical trade-offs involved when consumption is framed as a zero-sum game: spend it on yourself, or spend it on others. Hozie’s projects have always been expositions on the hypocrisy and self-oriented pragmatism that characterize political and moral life. The message veers left, but it’s no Rococo Marxism — Endless Scroll is action-oriented and urgent, at least in affect.
BODEGA exist within the global media economy, but they’ve also kept it local in holistic, farm-to-table fashion. The band’s biggest influence is, as it has been from the start, New York (“an island of blue / a nipple in water”). Wilson Ave venue Alphaville is a homebase for the group, and Hozie and Belfiglio are regulars in Bushwick’s weeknight scene. Ginsberg’s Rockland leaks through on the album’s twelfth track “Charlie”: “On that Staten Island ferry I was with you my friend / I see your face in the river / I am with you my friend.” The constant set-up and erosion of class oppositions, and the self-aware disparagement of yuppies, is vintage Whit Stillman updated for the iPhone bourgeoise.
That’s always been the conflict, right? Yuppies vs. Yuckies (aka Young Creatives). They used to fight over Downtown real estate but the suits won so the bands packed up for Brooklyn. Now the Yupsters have landed on the waterfront, set up a beachhead at the Vice Media offices and are working their way inland. It’s no coincidence that Vice is the conflict’s ultimate go-between, an intermediary agent with a history of swapping sides as is convenient. La Malinche, the Nahua translator who betrayed the Aztecs to Cortés, was a go-between who spoke both languages, after all.
Robert Sapolsky, ape researcher out of Cambridge, will tell you what Hozie and Belfiglio have learned through experience: large, concentrated populations lead to parallel status hierarchies, different but co-existing ways of gaining cultural cache. Which puts finance bros and punk rockers in the same business: cultural and social capital are capital too, these days. By the time the syllogism rolls around, the coffin’s already shut — on “Warhol” Hozie sings, “Andy said the best artist is businessman / and the best businessman is a cold blood killer / so it follows that the best artists are killers too. / If you see a man dying, note the color of his blood / and snap a picture.”
In his essay “Joe Chip, What’s On Your iPod?” Tom Ewing compares the death of rock, and the New York DIY scene by extension, to the “suspended animation state” and “shrinking reality bubble” of half-life in Philip K. Dick’s Ubik:
Within the bubble we listen to what we always did, we talk to people who listen to that stuff too, we enjoy the unspoken shared experience. But outside the bubble that experience is irrelevant or forgotten… Radio stations change format away from your music to something else; mailing lists sputter out; fellow fans move away and are not replaced.
Ben Hozie is the rocker in the bubble who’s also read all the thinkpieces written about the bubble. The political analogy is quick to hand, Bodega’s point of departure: for the man in a bubble aware of the bubble, what options are left? If you’re implicated, and you know you’re implicated, are you redeemed?
Bodega’s combating nihilism — “What do you believe in? I have no idea what you still believe in” Belfiglio sings on “Margot” — because ultimately, self-knowledge is not just limited, it’s limiting. Accepting your narrow sliver of access to the truth, digging into your own moral impurities and hypocrisies, can be as paralyzing as it is necessary. How to continue on after self-revelation’s incapacitation? Paraphrasing Rohmer, you return to the past to find a classicism among the ruins. Keith Johnstone, Impro: “[You’ve got] to look back when you get stuck, instead of searching forwards. You look for things you’ve shelved and then reinclude them.” Cue Montana Simone, drums, standing up behind a cymbal, tom, and snare à la Moe Tucker on an Easter Sunday. Bodega is cratedigging through the archives, reincorporating discoveries and walking backwards as a way to move forward. In the end, well, there is no end — but maybe it’ll work.