9 Songs, the eight-song debut from California duo Dub Thompson, is a hulking, surly, ill-tempered slab, so grimy it sounds like it was sucked up from the bottom of a tarpit. The two men who made it, though, Evan Laffer and Matt Pulos, couldn’t be more affable. When I meet them at Brooklyn’s Momofuku Milk Bar in mid April, Pulos is wearing an oversized fur coat and projects the sly goofiness of a good-humored Adam Driver. Laffer is more boyish and more openly enthusiastic; within five minutes of meeting him, he’s gamely engaging me about the genius of the Fall, Television Personalities and, improbably, ’80s Bob Dylan. Throughout our conversation, the two finish one another’s sentences, go on at length about future concepts for Dub Thompson, and quickly swat their more grandiose thoughts down in midair with carefully-aimed darts of sarcasm. In short, they come across like two teenagers who care deeply about a lot of things — music chief among them — but try very hard to seem like they don’t. “I don’t think either of us considers ourselves musicians,” Pulos offers. “More like scientists. Or jesters.”
Pulos and Laffer met in high school in their hometown of Agoura Hills, an affluent suburb in California best known for blessing the world with Hoobastank and Linkin Park. “What’s omnipresent there is the ska scene,” Pulos says. “There’s a lot of fucking ska shows. And there’s also a lot of the ‘two-girls-and-a-ukulele’ type thing.” Needless to say, the duo’s musical education did not take place locally. “We live on the internet,” Laffer says, by way of explaining their far-reaching tastes. “You don’t have to dig that deep. We have a huge love affair with Talking Heads, followed by Bob Dylan and the Zombies. But a big turning point for me was listening to Scott Walker. I’m the band’s resident Scott Walker expert.” Laffer says this with pride, but Pulos rolls his eyes. “Yeah, because every band needs that.” He turns to Laffer, slightly aggrieved. “I mean, you invite kids into your car and try to freak them out by playing Bisch Bosch.” By contrast, Poulos’s tastes are surprisingly reserved. “Of all the artists I listen to, I relate to David Byrne the most.”
If there is an axis between Scott Walker and David Byrne, it’s there that 9 Songs exists. Its rhythms are thick and throbbing — like chopped and screwed versions of Talking Heads songs — but they’re also draped in a suffocating darkness. The title track is powered by a zombie-funk bassline, but it’s also showered with shards of arrhythmic guitar. “Ash Wednesday” stalks and creeps along slowly, while Laffer’s voice bellows up from the darkness: “Down the alley street, you don’t come home.”
The album was recorded with a fellow Agoura Hills native, Foxygen’s Jonathan Rado, who Pulos and Laffer met in high school. Any time they mention Rado, it’s by his last name, shorthand that implies a close, lifelong friendship. The trio banged out the entire album in a feverish nine-day stretch at Rado’s house in Bloomington, Indiana, the grueling conditions of which likely contributed to the album’s queasy sound. “We were in a tiny house in Bloomington and sleeping on a mattress on the floor,” Laffer recalls. “All we had to eat was pasta, eggs, beer, Coke and Red Bull. We’d just boil pasta and eggs in the same pot and then eat it.”
“We almost killed each other,” Pulos adds. It’s difficult to tell from his tone whether or not he’s joking. “And Rado was pretty involved in the recording. He thought he was Todd Rundgren producing the New York Dolls.”
The songs evolved mostly from protracted jam sessions, where the duo would lock into a groove and spent time exploring all of its weird, dark crevices. “We would make the songs into these longer things,” Laffer explains, “but we wouldn’t fill the spaces with some jerkoff guitar solo.” The resulting empty air is one of the things that makes 9 Songs feel so ominous. The more Laffer and Pulos discuss the album, the more they begin to sound like brothers, volleying from affection to aggression. At one point, Pulos says, “If you listen closely enough, all of the songs are vaguely political,” but no sooner does he get out that last word than he’s cut off by Laffer. “That’s not true. I would not say that. It’s not political.” He turns to Pulos. “You don’t know what that word means.” They’ve got a similarly wry sense of humor, as evidenced by the fact that the album’s title doesn’t square with its track listing. When I ask them if any song was particularly challenging to work out, Pulos immediately deadpans, “The ninth one.”
And like siblings, they’ve developed their own shared language. Throughout our conversation, they constantly refer to things as being “interdimensional.” Scott Walker is “interdimensional.” Bob Dylan in the ’80s was “interdimensional.” When I press for a definition, Laffer explains: “Sometimes you come across a piece of art that’s very fully realized, but it seems like it belongs to a whole other world. And it’s a really weird and really specific world — it has its own rules and it follows those rules, but those rules only make sense within that world. It’s not surrealism — it’s someone’s vision for something that only they can understand.” He offers a recent illustration. “We watched this video of Billy Joel live in the ’80s performing ‘Uptown Girl’ and ‘Big Shot,’ and it’s way more intense than I ever thought — it’s harder than that music should be played.”
“It’s something that has no business existing,” Pulos says.
“It’s something they produced in such a big, professional, high-grade way, but there is something that’s fundamentally wrong with it.”
In fact, when they discuss 9 Songs‘ follow-up — preliminary work on which has already begun — Pulos and Laffer seem to get a bit interdimensional themselves. “I have a vision of New Dub being, like a high-gloss show, like Miley Cyrus or Lady Gaga, but have a homeless guy on the mic,” Pulos enthuses. I cringe at this, but Pulos continues. “We’re writing, like, Mariah Carey-style songs now. We’ve got one song that sounds like the theme to SpaceJam.”
Later, after we’ve left Milk Bar and Pulos has gone to find an alley in which to relieve himself, Laffer plays me some of Pulos’s demos on his phone. “Don’t tell Matt,” he warns. The music is a far cry from 9 Songs, bright and propulsive and sparkling. As I listen, I’m reminded of something Laffer said earlier. “The thing with the new record is that it’s a very crazy idea that we’re kind of doomed to follow through with.” The music he’s playing sounds focused and concise, but also almost unsettlingly precise and, in its own way, utterly foreign. I can’t be sure, but I’m pretty sure there’s a word for that, and I imagine Laffer and Pulos have already invented it.