‘Frozen in time…’
The California-based post-punk band Valuemart boasts a creative repertoire marked by both nostalgic sonic tendencies and a ‘discount DIY’ ethic that is uniquely of our time. Frontman and multi-instrumentalist, Tory Knowles, the man behind the sound and style of Valuemart, epitomizes this dialectical notion with his creative direction.
The group’s name betrays a familiar irony. Playing off certain cultural elements available yet largely unknown to most digital natives, ‘Valuemart’ epitomizes this kind of 2020’s pastiche, an inclination both toward and against the past. What is on the surface a benign signifier of ‘the corner market,’ an environment echoing both a kind of banality and a nostalgia for simpler times — perhaps a pre-neoliberal America — is at the same time emblematic of Valuemart’s sound and visual aesthetic.
In this sense, what Valuemart does so well and has capably performed on their recent Detriti Records’ release, Alice Underground, is act as an expositional trial of a culture in the grips of what the French theorist Jacques Derrida termed hauntology — hauntologie. That is, as the repeatedly visited Shakespearean phrase in his Specters of Marx puts it, that ‘the time is out of joint.’ What this means via Mark Fisher, a theorist and the most notable champion of Derrida’s idea in the cultural-social context, is that elements from the past continue (and will continue) to resurface in our cultural imaginary as the only material option. In a more pedantic sense, it means that nothing new can be created. ‘Hauntology, then,’ Fisher writes,‘the persistence of the no longer…’ (Ghosts of my Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures, 43). Valuemart evinces and exposes this through their sound and visual aesthetic, for what they audition so well is that ‘no longer…’ 1980s goth and post-punk vibe which can only be understood as the séance for a ghost of a temporal simulacra, a cultural nostalgia uniquely endemic to our time. And what may very well come off as a slight to the project of Valuemart — or the entirety of the contemporary post-punk sound — is not. A cultural critique speaks little, if anything, to the talent and skill of the artists who participate in the contribution to cultural dilemmas posed by phenomena well outside the scope of what any of us are capable of altering. Indeed, Valuemart’s history, music and context are marked by this disquieting characteristic.
Moreover, Knowles boasts a particularly solipsistic etymology for the band’s name. ‘I was in Indo,’ Knowles tells me, ‘I think the swell died for a while and I just got kind of bored.’ While condensing from the heat and exhaustion of the dilirial Indonesian atmosphere, Knowles devours the only form of entertainment at his disposal that doesn’t involve further souring his liver or collapsing into some psychic oblivion: FL Studio. ‘I had no internet or anything, and no instruments. So, I would just look through FL Studio and try to find old recordings and chop them up and make songs out of them.’ The resulting concoction was the initial whispers of what would become Valuemart and, moreover, Valuemart’s discounted, madcap, unselfconscious debut Homegrown Vandal. The record, aside from being crafted in the shimmering mania of an Indonesian dry spell, is host to a number of notable tracks, including ‘Heart is Black,’ a feverish, Oingo Boingo-sounding tune, and ‘Diana’s Dead,’ arguably Knowles’ first standout track and the germ of the direction he would take his then slipshod project. ‘I made the instrumental [for ‘Diana’s Dead’] out of chopped up bass parts,’ he says in passing. ‘Then I came up with the name Valued Shoppers; I thought that would be a sick band name. But I just made up the name Valuemart as like where you could find the valued shopper shopping,’ Knowles laughs. ‘It doesn’t really make any sense. It was just kind of nonsense to begin with.’
What is now a functioning band, a far cry from his isolative Indonesian psychosis, Valuemart still upholds a lot of that same marauder-like, DIY ethic. Until recently, however, Knowles has maintained a small circle when creating, producing and playing his music. That is, mainly himself. ‘The reason I got into recording my own music is because I could never really find band members with the same tastes and ideas,’ he says. ‘Whoever else was playing with us was never down to learn any of the songs.’ Knowles, it seems, got along well in this manner, recording and producing his debut as well as his second record, the smokey, dark, illustrious II. The album is home to Valuemart’s most popular track ‘Blow,’ a grimy, synth-heavy song evoking the image of an orgy of undead Whitesnake and Talking Heads band members, an infantile Kavinsky peering through the closet shades in onanistic self-gratification. Although Knowles disclaims appreciation for the album, he still recognizes ‘Blow’ as a kind of benchmark achievement. ‘I don’t really remember what was going on,’ he says about II. ‘It’s not my favorite, but I like ‘Blow.’’
Despite the various musicians and personnel Knowles hosted throughout the time predating Alice Underground, it was not until he linked up with his guitarist, Michael Salgado, that Valuemart finally began its initial calcification into a coherent band. Salgado, an experienced and seasoned musician who is also working with Knowles on another project, Phantom Blood, previously played with the now disbanded Shameface. Nonetheless, Knowles claims the Vista-based guitarist is unmatched in a creative harmony he has yet to find in most others. ‘Me and Michael … work together pretty well,’ Knowles says. ‘That’s probably the only person that I’ve found so far that I actually like working with.’ Aside from Salgado, Valuemart is now also the haunted (musical) home to two Encinitas, CA-based musicians: the percussionist and drummer Micah Peck and synth/keyboardist Riley Schutz. ‘Micah has been playing with me since the beginning,’ Knowles notes, ‘but we never really learned any Valuemart songs. We would just kind of jam … but Micah’s always been pretty committed.’ Schutz, I was told, happened into the band by a kind of spontaneous serendipity. ‘He just came up with Micah the first time we decided to practice,’ Knowles says, speaking of their rehearsals up at his mother’s house, a retreat up into the desolation and solitude of the Central Coast of California.
There ought to be noticed here, a congruence between the geographical, as well as cultural-social, context in which Alice Underground was forged and the music we hear. Knowles himself notes as much. ‘When I moved up [to the Central Coast], at my mom’s pad there’s this downstairs, perfect studio room,’ he says. ‘It was over quarantine too, so I just had a bunch of time.’ What’s more, Knowles claims to have been coming off nearly a year of writer’s block, a state wherein he could not muster the necessary chemistry to write anything he deemed worthy of producing. To make matters worse, in the midst of this anti-libidinal wasteland, he was to be approached by Detriti Records — the label responsible for Valuemart’s recent record deal and release — only to be forced to admit to this deficit in creative production. ‘At that point, I had gotten so frustrated with not being able to write music, because I had had writer’s block for about a year at that point … I hadn’t been able to write a single thing I actually liked. So, I deleted my Instagram, Facebook, all that kind of shit, just to take the pressure off. It killed all my momentum but it cleared my head. I didn’t feel like I had to keep writing. I could just do it on my own time. But [Detriti] reached out and they asked, ‘What’s your social media?’ And I told him, ‘Oh, I don’t have any.’ He just didn’t reply after that. And I was like fuck, I could’ve had a record deal right there.’
A few months after this interaction, however, Knowles wrote and produced the first track of what would become Alice Underground, the boisterous and operatic, yet chilly, ‘Vapors.’ A song accompanied by the signature Valuemart music video: a lo-fi shoot ritualizing a karaoke sing-along tape, boasting theological signifiers and 80s counterculture tropes as if to take an ironic distance from the symbolism and tone their music reveals. This track is also indicative of one of the many thematic elements explored and exposed on Alice Underground: ghosts. Here, it might be tempting to envision that image of the old-fashioned, supernatural Victorian entity who haunts baroque, decrepit manors; I would resist that temptation. The ghosts that Valuemart seeks to conjure on their recent release ought to be thought of, not as any metaphysical entity or supernatural being, but instead as persistent psychoanalytic, cultural and social elements. Such is the cry when Knowles, his Smithian tenor, mutters, ‘All that’s left are vapors of you.’ The ghost that he contends with here is himself, a psychic revenant. Moreover, the ghost of ‘Vapors,’ again referenced towards the end of the track when he sings ‘Rip out my heart and feed it to the ghost of my past,’ can be heard as that raw, hedonic id of the type experienced on Homegrown Vandal and II. The songs, ‘Diana’s Dead’ and ‘Blow,’ are, in fact, objects of this very famished specter. ‘My old self is a ghost, it wants to drag me down,’ Knowles says.
In this vein, there are several specters present throughout the tracklist of Alice Underground — Knowles is just one of them. ‘Tokyo,’ boasting another infinitely cool VHS-style music video straight out of the year 2088, contends, sonically, with the same forces that vaporwave seems to seek to understand. That is, the quality and effect of the liminal. Or, as anthropologist Marc Auge named, the ‘non-places.’ Places of generic, aseptic multiplicity, more and more prevalent in the spaces of late-capitalism: retail plazas, airports, interstates, business parks. Don’t you ever feel like you can travel for miles and miles on an interstate and not go anywhere at all? Such is the ghost of ‘Tokyo’ — ‘Tokyo, 2088; Nowhere left to hide.’ Still yet, are the very traumatic, Real ghosts of ‘Forever’ and ‘Just One More Time,’ two tracks that sing like elegies for an entire population, Himalayan in their melancholy. Again, if we can understand the ghost as the persistence of the ‘no longer…’ then ‘Forever,’ a dedication to the band’s recently deceased friend, becomes the very essence of the traumatic.
However, the most intrusive and provoking wraith found on Valuemart’s recent release, as noted previously, can be accessed through their sound. What is effectively happening, especially on the record’s opening track, ‘Roses of Yatsuk,’ when Knowles sings, ‘Frozen in time…’ is a statement of ontological analysis. The colossal and atmospheric coldwave anthem acts as a mirror, informing us that these cultural specters from the ‘no longer…’ have and are resurfacing throughout our social mediums of expression: ‘I never thought I’d find myself here again … Petrified.’ Valuemart serves up a ghost of the coldest order: a simulacra, a mere representation or ritualization of an object or individual. In our case, the object is a time element. And if Valuemart traffics in that hyperbolic sadness evinced by post-punk (or goth, as Knowles seems to identify with more), then its locus, its source, is that mythical, temporalized sphecural of the 1980s. A time and space that is now only available through mediated images and revisited sounds. The decade has been reconstructed by a kind of séance movement, artists such as Ariel Pink, John Maus, Black Marble and, no doubt Valuemart. The specter of the simulacra of the 1980s is experienced through Valuemart’s freezing cold synth lines, in those weeping guitar licks and in the industrial, Joy Division-esque reverberated snare. As analogized previously, Knowles especially plays a role in this ‘courting of the ghost’ through his vocals which echo both a Pornography and Disintegration Robert Smith and Philippe Planchon — of the lesser-known, albeit outstanding French coldwave/post-punk group Asylum Party. As Knowles himself notes, ‘If you could see my Spotify listening hours of The Cure, it’s kinda sad. But it left an impression on me, where I wanted to make something that sounded like that. I feel like I achieved that, without copying it, pretty well. I wanted the same feeling from it, not really the same sound.’ And he’s right to say this. What Valuemart performed on Alice Underground is not a photocopy of the 80s post-punk aesthetic and sound. Rather they simply conjured the ghost of a simulacra resulting in what can only be heard as a symptom of the cultural climate we find ourselves in — rampant nostalgia. One need only listen to the popular music of today, such as The Weeknd’s After Hours or Kanye West’s Jesus is King — a record informed by theological and gospel hauntology — or even Phoebe Bridges’ ode to the 90s ghosts of Throwing Muses or Julianna Hatfield, to understand this. The (simulacra of the) 80s are just one of the many sampled, ravaged coffins we rummage through today in search of amusement, society and culture.
Nowhere is this claim more hauntingly clear than in Knowles’ reasoning behind the album’s name. ‘Everyday when I was making the album, I was thinking that I wanted to make a song called ‘Alice Underground,’’ he says, a measured pause lingering as he finds his words. ‘It meant, to me, that there is no more magic in the world, that nothing is sacred anymore. But there might be that lost feeling buried underground somewhere.’ In this sense, Lewis Carrol’s Alice, a girl who imagined herself underground in Wonderland, is not the same girl as Valuemart’s Alice. Today, instead of placating the delusions and hallucinations of the sick child we give her medication, a paregoric for her perceived illness and tell her she’s fucked. But yet she still digs — she can certainly be heard digging on the record. She digs beneath the earth in some hopeless attempt to uncover, to find, something that she thinks had to have been there to begin with. Where it went, and why it is not here anymore, are questions few want the answer to. An answer which, in my opinion, Valuemart suggests throughout the album: that there might not have been anything there to begin with. That it might have always been a ghost, the ‘no longer…’ Or, maybe, like Knowles optimistically states, ‘that lost feeling is buried underground somewhere.’ Let’s hope he finds it.