Still House Plants contains multitudes
IT SEEMS VAGUELY IMPLAUSIBLE that a band as important as Still House Plants started playing out in 2015 and is only just making their American debut this Thursday and Friday, at Shift/411 Kent in Brooklyn, in collaboration with Blank Forms. That’s eight years that we haven’t been able to see them ribbon the fabric of time with guitar, drums, voice—and nothing else. They started in the mid-2010s at the Glasgow School of Art and slowly made their way to London, releasing singles and cassettes and one-offs that are now hard to find (or at least impossible to buy). After a long pause during the early pandemic, the band is in a busy phase, having played Kings Place London recently and heading for gigs at the Magnet Festival in Wiesbaden and Haus Der Kunst in Munich, as well as Milan’s Terraforma Festival in June. They are finishing a new album, which will be their second or third or fourth, depending how you feel about formats and other twentieth-century questions. Still House Plants is my favorite live band that I’ve never seen live.
Still House Plants became an obsession for me during lockdown. I first heard their recordings in early 2020, and felt they were the tonic I needed when life had gone digital until further notice. I listened to them stomping and scraping and yelling as I biked along the belt of Forty-Sixth Street, silent at lunchtime for months.
Still House Plants is as aggressively analog as a band can be. Guitarist Finlay Clark plays a mint-green Stratocaster and avoids figures that repeat cleanly while drummer David Kennedy plays broken little waffles of pattern, none of it obviously connected to what Clark does. Jessica Hickie-Kallenbach has a deep voice and often seems to be performing a torch song, or trying to sing one again and again while it slips away from her. It rarely sounds as if all three are hearing each other or following one pulse, and yet they are. The immediate analogs are things like Arto Lindsay and DNA or Big Flame or bits of Captain Beefheart, if you slowed it all down and pinned each motif to a piece of cardboard and tacked them all up in different rooms. Still House Plants sounds like music meant to fight the digital grid, if not destroy it, and yet the first music I read Hickie-Kallenbach enthusing about was UK garage, as digital a genre as there is. In 2020, we had the first of several Zoom talks, and I asked her about it.
“I feel like you can hear what’s going on in garage,” she said. “It’s very distinct. You can hear the edges of everything, every moment you’re supposed to feel in the arc of the song. I always found that useful in describing what I wanted to do with things when we would work together.”
If you want to go to the source, you can watch a beautifully filmed forty-minute set from 2022, their performance at the Onze Ambassade Festival. Hickie-Kallenbach is wearing a striped shirt, looking a bit like a cast member of a Peanuts adaptation staged at The Kitchen, and Clark smiles at her steadily. Kennedy plays the drums with his head down, hitting in a newly heavy way. Hickie-Kallenbach faces the back of the stage, bowing her head to establish a vertical axis, while Clark moves toward her and extracts a bit of information, wordlessly, sawing their high-slung guitar back and forth in the horizontal frame. They talk and play like close friends, with no need for obvious beginning and ending points. As many times as I’ve listened to them, I don’t feel like I know Still House Plants songs. Their music disassembles and reorganizes itself as it goes, allergic to the idea that anything will become fixed or known.
Their formal fracturing is somewhat related to the avant-classic continuum; Clark recently mounted a performance of a string quartet with electronics by Phaedra Ensemble at London’s Cafe Oto and is about to release a solo album. Hickie-Kallenbach works at Oto in various roles and Kennedy works as a commercial artist and designer.
Two of their full-length albums, Fast Edit and Long Play, are on Spotify, as is their most recent (2021—so, not that recent) single, “More More Faster,” but YouTube is well-stocked with live shows that appear nowhere else. (A contemporary aspect of Still House Plants is that their music is both hidden and easily found, with releases all over the digital landscape, little of it exactly official or prohibited.)
In our last Zoom, in late 2022, it emerged that they had played at Berghain, the legendary Berlin dance club that admits no photos and is extremely hard to get into. We had to repeat the word back to each other several times. “Berghain?” “Berghain.” I did not know bands with traditional instruments even played there. Not only that, but the sound crew had listened to Still House Plants before they arrived.
“It was just so weird to see that space, which has such a mystique around it, with all the lights on and the people that work there just milling about,” Kennedy said. “I realized that there’s a huge apparatus around it all which ensures that everything runs well. I was so impressed by how good the sound engineers were. It’s all super professional—they knew when to be flexible and they knew when not to be.”
“When not to be” could easily be the band’s motto.