The first hip indie-rock set of 2006 might end up being the best. It will almost certainly be the shortest. Ari Ari plays for twelve minutes, maybe a few more when it's feeling improvisational. Five or six songs merge into a blur of choppy guitars, frenetic percussion, propulsive bass lines, tantrum-style vocals and indelicately tapped keys. The members of the Muncie, Indiana-based band jerk their joints and shake their stylish haircuts as they move in conjunction with erratic rhythmic shifts.
"Even if we're exploding all over the place for half an hour, it's only going to be exciting to people for the first fifteen minutes," keyboardist Mark Tester explains. "Why play any longer?"
Ari Ari's debut EP, a dozen-minute disc called There's A New Sheriff in Town, preserves the intensity of its performances, perhaps because the group recorded it in a single session in a friend's living room.
"The EP was intended as a demo," Tester says. "Now, we want to be ambitious and make a really good record that shows our full potential."
This impending full-length (and the limited-edition, clear-vinyl pressing of Sheriff that will precede it) gives the group's 1,500-plus meticulously coutured-and-coiffed MySpace friends a few dates to circle on their 2006 Radiohead calendars. A widely distributed record should make Ari Ari which sounds like Pretty Girls Make Graves fronted by Bikini Kill-era Kathleen Hanna the cool kids' favorite new cool kids.
The group's categorically photogenic membership should only accelerate this process, though Tester is already balking at Web site postings such as "You guys are hot, and your music is pretty good, too." Even album reviewers have strayed from discussing lyrics and song structures long enough to interject that singer Jill Weiss is "hot as hell."
"That's pretty frustrating, because it's hard to deal with the fact that people might like your band only because they think certain members are attractive," Tester says. "I can't fathom thinking that about a band. I would rather people who think like that not listen at all, because they're completely missing the point."
Hardcore scenesters miss the mark in another way, Tester says.
"When we started, we played a lot of bills with heavier bands, and those kids would be moshing to us," he says. "We have distortion on our guitars, and some of our songs are up-tempo, but it just seemed like people were listening to the wrong thing. With the connection with the crowd, sometimes it's right, and sometimes it's silly. Usually, people just stand there, which doesn't bother me because most of the shows I go to I just stand there. We all dance and move around, but that's because we know where the songs are going."
Tester feels that St. Louis is one place where the crowds always get it. When Ari Ari first played the Lemp Neighborhood Arts Center, owner Mark Sarich approached the band after the set and said, "You're what a rock & roll band should be about."
"It's a pretty bold statement, but it's the best compliment we've gotten," Tester says. (That's a bold statement in itself, given that Ari Ari has inspired online testimonials such as, "I listen to your music when I take showers!" and "Your music helps me with my sexual frustration.")
Even today, Sarich has nothing but good things to say about Ari Ari.
"Jill Weiss is forging new territory of what a woman can be as a frontwoman in a band," he says. "Rock & roll has been kind of a boys' game for a long, long time. She does really breaks that loose; it's just so powerful. It's the most energetic and aesthetic performance you could ever see.
"Everybody's really good at what they do, they all have kind of reinvented how this thing is supposed to work. They have a really popular sensibility without catapulting into the silliness that pop represents. I don't know anyone who's gone to an Ari Ari show has left thinking anything but, 'Wow, that was really great.'"
In fact, the second time Ari Ari played the Lemp, Tester recalls, "It was huge, one of the first shows that people seemed to be really into for the right reasons. Everyone was feeling the same thing, and the focus was on the energy instead of us."
Because Tester loves St. Louis so much, he agreed to give us a guided tour of what 2006 will or at least could bring Ari Ari, metalcore groups and giraffes.
Andrew Miller: What music trends do you think should disappear in 2006?
Mark Tester: I guess it's cool that keyboards are coming back and that '80s new wave and post-punk is starting to influence artists, but I don't know if some of those groups are genuine. And that metalcore stuff, I can't get down with it. It seems dry and overdone, and it doesn't have a purpose. It's like what rap-metal was two years ago.
Politically, how do you see the year shaping up? And is Ari Ari a political band in any sense?
We all have our own political stances, but our music isn't inherently political. However, there are certain things that we're willing to take a stand for. We've played places where people have been critical of homosexuality, and we said something during our set about how that's not cool. To me, that's not so much political as it is just being decent. We don't want to stand idly by while people attack stuff that we think is OK.
Politically, it's not looking too bright because of the current administration. I think we're going to see a lot of stifling of women's rights and gay rights. But I don't really trust anyone in office, regardless if they're Republican, Democrat or Green Party, because I'm not sure that they're really looking out for people's interests.
2005 was the year of the penguin, thanks largely to a documentary film about the adorable waddlers. Will King Kong ensure that primates rule in 2006?
It would be cool if giraffes could get back into the spotlight. It's funny, we made an off-hand comment about our band sounding like "penguins riding motorcycles" on our Web page, and now people always put penguins on our fliers.
2005 brought new popularity to portable electronic devices. What technological advance would you like to see next?
I would love to have a record player that you could use in your car. I just prefer the sound of vinyl.
Your Web site contains this helpful definition: "If you're sitting between two men and giving them handjobs at the same time, it's called skiing." Any other hip new terms we should know?
We're totally not the type of people who usually talk about that stuff. But when we're in the van and we're not listening to music, we can get into these long conversations where things get weird. For some reason, I brought that up, but I can't take credit for it.
At modern merchandise stands, groups sell everything from bobblehead dolls to belt buckles. Will Ari Ari introduce any innovative merchandise in 2006?
We sell cassettes, and colorful homemade shirts we screened ourselves.
Maybe you could sell a toy giraffe with "Ari Ari" written up the neck.
Yeah! That would be neat.
Additional reporting by Annie Zaleski.