Telefon Tel Aviv: Electronic Punk Rock Pirates Making Music for Strange Seaports

Text by Sage Rader

After nearly five years on hiatus, Telefon Tel Aviv’s Josh Eustis and Charlie Cooper have something they’d like to say: “I swear to God, we couldn’t give a fuck what anybody thinks of this record… we don’t give a SHIT. Really. Finally. We did this record for ourselves.” It only takes a few minutes of conversation with them to be convinced that they mean it.

Discussing with Cooper and Eustis their upcoming release Immolate Yourself (Bpitch records), I feel like I am adrift on an open rolling sea with two highly intelligent if not mildly enraged pirates wielding keyboards like cutlasses. Telefon Tel Aviv are digital punk rock, cavalier and pissed off enough about the current vapidity of culture to make almost anything they do interesting. They are also so smart it’s stupid. Their latest offering is a perfect example. While it couldn’t be further from anything they’ve ever produced, its naissance is of the same cerebral cortices as their back catalogue, and you can tell immediately that, while the essence is Telefon Tel Aviv, they’ve been up to something very different.

When I asked them who their contemporary musical influences are they had difficulty answering and I got the sense that they were as confused by the question as I was by the lack of an answer. When I shifted gears and asked them who their lifelong muses are and how they translate on Immolate, they had no problem immediately offering a strangely divergent list of names: 20th Century composer Steve Reich, Industrial/Electronic music trailblazers Skinny Puppy, Curtis Mayfield and The Isley Brothers. The Isley Brothers? Seriously?

There is a preternatural longing in the record that has been contoured by years of listening to early Soul and R&B records. I’d traced every connection between their latest work, and its inspirational points of origin, but I still couldn’t figure out The Isley Brothers. “It’s all about repetitive vamps.” Eustis explains. Vamps? “Soul Vamps. James Brown—the Isley Brothers ‘Shout’ is a perfect example. They just repeat a small part over and over and the crowds would go wild. It just builds and builds.”

It is this simple idea of repetition and building that dance music has been fashioned on from day one. “There is only one really original musician and that was the first guy sitting there banging rocks together.” Eustis is dead serious again. “Everything since is just a reference.” Encapsulating the minimalism and tape looping of Steve Reich, shredding by misallocation of gear parameters the way Skinny Puppy did just enough to create an original sound and repeating it until the crowd goes wild like The Isley Brothers is exactly what I hear when I play their record for the 8th time. Five years of culturally monastic seclusion have done Josh and Charlie no harm. Immolate Yourself is part audio sculpture, part genetic engineering. Eustis and Cooper reduce influences to their DNA and splice them together in a creative orgy of recombinant potential.

While opinionated and brutally honest, they are not pricks. Josh tempers their bravado with sincere and endearing self-deprecation. “We are essentially starting over and it remains to be seen whether anybody will care about our new work. We’re not even sure we’re around any more. We’ve been out in the wasteland.” Charlie boasts.
People who know nothing about music running the music business, online dynasties that wield a tyrannical power to make or break indie music careers and people who lack all context for their lives, and shop online to buy their “street” cred are a few of their least favorite things. While there is a tinge of sanctimony to their cultural vantage, it is submerged in an intellectually defensible, legitimate fervency that makes it hard to hate. Cooper and Eustis carefully document and reinforce each opinion or complaint with a selective litany of evidential ordinance—cultural ballistics, gathered, studied and assimilated into their mental weapons cache. It’s not that they are skulking around looking for a fight. They just won’t back down from one that they see as justifiable.

Their process is equal parts rock ‘n’ roll high school and NASA-worthy scientific method. Analog tape loops made using mic stands as guides for the tape to increase the length and creative potential of each loop are fused with the latest digital production software creating electronic music that feels completely organic. That they weren’t trying to make a comeback record is admirable. That they turned their own creative universe ass end up, hit restart and opened themselves to an uncharted wealth of creative possibility is what distinguishes them as legitimate artists from the mediocrity that plagues their genre. It is this willingness to shift direction, the persistent revolution of revolution that drives the sounds on Immolate Yourself, not some marketing-based ploy to burst back onto the scene with a newly minted relevance.

For all of their bluster, Eustis and Cooper are admittedly two regular working guys who are only asking to be musicians for a living—no small order in this climate, but one they seem willing to show up for. Both say they knew they would be musicians when they grew up from early childhood and neither wants to be anything else.
Charlie sums it up for me “We had fun making this record. It was fast fun and painless. Bro’s hanging out in the studio getting high every once in a while, having a drink, playing with synthesizers and fucking off. It was awesome!” Pirates indeed.