Courtlandt-land, New Brunswick, New Jersey April 26, 2008
“Lactose Intolerance Acceptance Revolution!” We Are The Seahorses front man Darren chanted while pumping a glittered fist towards the basement crowd at Courtlandt-land, part of Three Day Weekend, a festival of basement shows that took place across New Brunswick, NJ, April 25 -27. A torrent of flashing guitars, prerecorded beats, and fleshy antics, the Seahorses’ boisterous show of trailer-park bacchanalia surfaced somewhere between the Ultimate Warrior and Viennese Actionism, with '80s Americana and political incorrectness on the side.
The first time I saw the Seahorses play, they were spitting glitter at their fans while the New Brunswick police negotiated a truce with the show’s organizer. Recently, in a downtown Baltimore art gallery, they slathered their guests with silver body paint and dirty magazines, miraculously missing the high art photography on the walls. While talking with guitarist Dave and bassist Frank after that show, I learned they’d been recently banned from an anarchist bookstore.
To start off the performance, the vocalists, 300-pound Darren and nymph-like Sally, hurled miniature American flags at the audience. Half a dozen televisions flanking the band were looped with WWF highlights, sex-ed videos, and classic pornography from the band’s extensive VHS archive. By the second song the Seahorses were dancing in their underwear and fondling the crowd.
Everything from the holocaust to feminism was somehow slipped in or sardonically mocked by Darren and Sally between fan favorites like “Jeffrey Caught the Green Ball” and “Dingo.” Their improvisational banter and pro-wrestler-like rants are not the stuff of Vaudeville or stand up, but come from the over-sexualized terrain of youth culture, the modality within which the Seahorses live. At one point Darren slapped Sally hard in the face, to which she responded, “No one gets it, they see you hitting me and they just get upset.” The audience laughed uncomfortably and after a good dousing of silly string the band was into their next song. Such seemingly misogynistic acts tread a hazy line between humor and bad taste, a line rarely touched in choreographed art-house burlesque shows hand-tailored for a seated audience of clothed consumers. Later Darren responded to a heckler, saying, “It’s comedy, it’s not supposed to be funny. You’re supposed to go home and read about it!”
The Seahorses’ hyper-sexuality that night was infectious. After trying to get our shirts off, the band recruited some willing enthusiasts into brief make-out sessions. Darren splattered fake blood on his enormous torso, screamed in some people’s faces, bear-hugged others, and put Sally in a headlock. As the last song shuffled off into memory, the Seahorses passed out on the concrete floor like casualties of some Independence Day orgy. The crowd planted the small flags in the folds of their skin, as if fulfilling Darren’s prophecy that we would all “pledge allegiance to the booty.”
Through their website, songs, and thrift-store regalia, the Seahorses tap a wide range of associations, from the Hulk to Wu Tang Clan to 9/11. If unapologetically embracing the hydra-headed beast of mass culture isn’t enough to discomfort the “cross-armed hipsters,” their overbearing, sloppy, sometimes violent assaults on the audience often do, physically rejecting the elitism and intellectual distance that can dogmatize underground music. Underneath all that libertine showmanship and sophomoric panache are a clutch of friends having a great time.
The Seahorses’ venue that night, Courtlandt-land, embodies this ethos in its own way. It’s a household of itinerant musicians and art students that’s been a stop on the underground music circuit for only a year, but in that time they’ve developed a community as attentive to its creative output and as it is committed. They host shows and performances for friends and friends of friends, and post band interviews and adverts next to inside jokes on their community blog (www.courtlandtlanddotcom.blogspot.com). It’s through these interactions that Courtlandt-land validates itself to itself and forges lasting ties to bands like the Seahorses who operate outside the influence of the moneyed and propertied arts.