Lost System aren’t easy to pin down. While it’s true the band’s aesthetic -- a triangulation of post-punk, dark wave and minimal wave -- exudes a decidedly Mancunian bleakness, their tough, hardcore-inspired groove wind-ups betraying their American Midwest roots. The result, as captured on Left Behind, their debut full-length for Neck Chop Records, is a seething tension that vacillates between introspection and despair on one end and defiance and rage on the other. And speaking of their roots, Lost System hail from Grand Rapids, and that really is key to their story. For the uninitiated, the Michigan city (home to the archly conservative DeVos family) is a nationally recognized stronghold for Republican power and Christian fundamentalism. It’s a place where the divide between the rich and powerful and the poor and disenfranchised is thrown into stark relief. In this sense, Lost System’s dark and oftentimes politically charged music serves as a lens through which they examine the emotional turmoil that comes with having grown up surrounded by such dehumanizing forces. The Brvtalist sat down with vocalist Michael McFarlane and drummer Michael Houseman to talk about these issues, as well as the creative processes that helped bring the riveting Left Behind into existence.
TB: Let’s begin with the band’s name. It has the ring of a phrase that could’ve come either from science fiction or radical politics. What are its origins?
Houseman: We’re all into science fiction and the idea that everything is gone, not some romanization of a lost idea or place, but the idea that everything falls apart -- it’s inevitable. We talked about that a lot.
McFarlane: Coming up with a name can be the hardest part of starting a band. We already had some songs written, and the direction the music was taking seemed to fit these ideas.
TB: Left Behind clearly is informed by the monochrome atmospherics associated with Factory Records, as well as the spectral darkness seeping into some minimal wave, yet it’s filtered through a physicality that’s very Midwestern. Lost System remind me of older Rust Belt bands like Die Kreuzen, who blended post-punk’s bleakness with tough, rock-like heaviness. Mike’s drumming feels like nonstop body blows.
McFarlane: We’ve played a lot of shows, and I haven’t seen anyone who hits as hard as Mike.
Houseman: Not a lot of bands in the synth or minimal wave zone even have live drummers. When they do, they’re pretty rudimental. When I lived in North Carolina a few years back someone heard my playing and asked if I was from Michigan. I didn’t know what he meant, but he said I was like an engine just chugging along. I don’t even have an actual set. It’s just pieces: my floor tom was found in a dumpster, while the kick drum is an old marching drum. It’s cool to have all these weird pieces and wonder just how much I can beat the shit out of them.
TB: But you’re not just heavy. You have a great understanding of groove construction. That percussive part in “No Regrets” really stands out. And then there are all those sick, little fills in “You Won’t Find Me Now.” I know your background also includes afrobeat-inspired work.
Houseman: I’ve been obsessed with music as far back as I can remember and find it sacred, like fire and water. It's all pretty equal to me, from Discharge to Buddy Holly to Augustus Pablo. With any part I come up with, I just try to serve the song.
TB: The new record is hulking and suffocating, quite different from your debut seven-inch. At the same time, there’s an uncanny sense of distance baked into the sonics. The music, no matter how loudly I play it, sounds as if it’s is emanating from a stereo far down a hallway.
McFarlane: I think the mastering is key. We used Daniel Husayn at North London Bomb Factory Mastering. He did a phenomenal job.
TB: Were you already familiar with his work?
McFarlane: Yes. He’s worked on a good balance of hardcore and post-punk. He’s done a lot of stuff for La Vida Es Un Mus, a label we love. I didn’t think we’d have a chance of working with him. But I e-mailed him, and he liked our older stuff, which was flattering. He would send us mixes, and we’d write back with what we liked and didn’t like. It was quick and easy.
Houseman: Sometimes, we didn’t even have musical references, more like sounds or ideas. The actual recording happened here in Grand Rapids, at Goon Lagoon. The studio is analog to the degree that I don’t think a single piece of equipment is newer than 1970: the mixing boards, the reels, the microphones. The owner, Tommy Schichtel, seems to be one of the only folks in this city who likes us.
TB: You do seem to be exiles in your own city. You tend to play basement shows rather than any of the local clubs.
Houseman: I’ve always felt that way, no matter what band I’ve played in.
McFarlane: I have no interest in local clubs. They don’t ask us to play shows, and honestly, I would rather play basements. I like being an outsider here. We aren’t playing music that’s easy for everyone to digest. Not being popular in Grand Rapids is a compliment to me.
TB: This gets us back to your sound. That bleakness permeating Left Behind may be informed by Manchester post-punk, yet it also speaks to living in Grand Rapids, a deeply conservative city and hub for national Republican power, like Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.
McFarlane: Totally. You can’t drive a mile without seeing the DeVos name plastered to a building. Religion and conservatism are everywhere. I grew up Catholic, and it was forced down my throat.
Houseman: Churches are everywhere. It’s unsettling. For half my life, I grew up with a stepfather who is a military guy, so I had to be around the racist, dumb side of America. It was disheartening.
TB: And then there are the harsh, never-ending winters -- darkness and freezing cold.
Houseman: I do think that bleakness in the music also reflects our winters. That seems to be when we write our best songs. That sound comes out when you have to drive everywhere in snow, and you’re always shoveling and scraping-off windshields.
McFarlane: I actually prefer it. I’m not a summer guy. I can’t handle heat.
Houseman: The funny thing is that when I lived in North Carolina I developed a romantic notion of what Grand Rapids was. I just remembered the dingy, industrial side of it, like playing the back of a Mexican flea market or a dusty, old bookstore. But since I’ve returned it has turned into this gentrified place full of craft breweries and corporate art nonsense.
TB: That’s something I wanted to touch on. I feel like your music, with all its anger and defiance, peels back the shiny façade of gentrification that has infected not just Grand Rapids but nearly every American city, to some extent. The title track, which is nearly 10 minutes long, nails this. You chant “Left Behind” as ambulance sirens emerge from the groove. The song feels like a weary dispatch from streets, where the homeless have only multiplied, while rich people look down from their shiny, new live-work units.
McFarlane: I was pretty impressed with how that song turned out. We messed around with it for a while. Our keyboardist [Nicholas Alcock] added the noisier parts with pedals, and we added some samples over it. It’s funny when people say how nice certain parts of town are. Adding more breweries and higher-priced restaurants hasn’t helped improved neighborhoods. But it’s easy for most to ignore the people being pushed out of the places where they grew up. Who can afford these condos that keep popping up? If it doesn’t make you angry, it probably makes you comfortable.
TB: Continuing with the political angle, unrest ripples through the music, especially on the opening “Era of Choice.” When writing lyrics do you consciously grapple with the utterly dire political situation in America?
McFarlane: I try to incorporate those things, but not too much, actually. There are a lot of bands right now who sound as though they started just because Donald Trump was elected or because of the rise of right-wing fascism. I like to make those things personal to me.
TB: What I noticed on “Era of Choice” -- and this is something I first noticed on the older song “Future Shock” -- is how the words transcend the current administration. You seem to be taking a bigger picture look at modern American culture and even capitalism.
McFarlane: Trump has passed awfully heinous stuff while folks are busy reading his Tweets. But realistically, have things really changed since Bush? From that perspective, “Era of Choice” isn’t aimed directly at what’s happening now. The corruption of politicians on both sides has always existed. It’s just more obvious now with a president who can lie to someone’s face and get away with it. But the song also is more personal. It looks at what people think they should be doing in life and how they’re setting themselves up for failure.
TB: I know Lost System isn’t explicitly hardcore punk, but it is in your background and does seem to inform some of the more rage-fueled moments on the record, like the closing of “Discipline,” with all that howling and grunting as the band speeds towards collapse. Can you talk about how hardcore still inspires you?
McFarlane: I like that we have flashes of that intensity in songs. It keeps things less safe. I once saw a fight break out when we were playing “Discipline.” That was exciting. Personally, I don’t have a ton of knowledge of older hardcore. It wasn’t something I grew up listening to, but there are a lot of new bands I love. Brandon Hill [of the band Cloud Rat] has helped keep me up to date with new releases.
Houseman: Well, I’m pretty cynical and nihilistic about the way society has been going, so there’s that. Hardcore is the only genre of music I’m aware of that allows you to write and play freely on any topic or emotion. The ethos that anyone can play punk, at any skill level, inspires me still. Most of us playing punk have to have a job for income, so the drive to play comes from another place, and that inspires me.
TB: Your label, Neck Chop Records, is more rooted in hardcore and punk, and your debut seven-inch was reviewed in Maximumrocknroll. Do you find that the scene is receptive to a band that’s more grounded in post-punk, dark wave, etc.? Or, do you find yourselves between worlds, so to speak?
McFarlane: Neck Chop took a chance on us. The label was a bit hesitant because we were different from their other bands. It helped get our name out there, especially in the underground punk scene. MRR was very receptive to our debut seven-inch. I relate to the punk scene more than the dark wave scene, and I’ve been trying to bring more punk bands like Marbled Eye, Spodee Boy, Trampoline Team and Erik Nervous to Grand Rapids.
Houseman: We’ve gotten a good response from the punk community. All of life seems to be a constant juggling of worlds. I can walk into a pharmacy or basement filled with punks, and no one could give a shit who I am or that I play music. That’s humbling. I mean, most of the people I deal with on a day to day basis don’t even know I play in a band, let alone multiple ones.
You can pick up Left Behind, due out June of 2019, through Neck Chop Records.
by Justin Farrar
*Photos by Jaimie Skriba