No matter what underground scene you happen to be dredging, it's an arduous search finding a band that lives up to the hype. Lansing-based rock outfit The Hat Madder have built a significant buzz in just over a year, which is enough to make any jaded music snob raise a skeptical eyebrow, but hopefully it's also enough to get them to see a show, because these guys are worth a listen.
What has earned admiration for The Hat Madder is the band’s ability to get a crowd to uncross its arms and remember what makes music fun. The band plays exciting shows and writes songs that can simultaneously carry emotional weight and make you bounce around like an over-caffeinated crazy person. They're confident on stage, but not cocky self-promoters. The music, which touches on ‘70s psychedelia, ‘90s slacker rock and a dose of indie-electronics, is at once affecting and fun.
In October the band released its first LP, "Friend of the Devil," a collection of 14 meaty songs that sound polished for an unsigned group presumably working on a modest budget. Between the record's swirling guitar and vocal effects, pop jams and riffage that conjures Seattle's heyday and Sonic Youth’s experimental punk, the band is obviously unafraid to try anything. Still, the songs are focused enough to give the impression the band is reining in its sound to play to its members’ strengths.
Primary songwriter Isaac Vander Schuur (guitar/vocals) spent the mid-‘90s recording no less than nine cassettes full of whatever was in his head. Some of these songs have served as fodder for tracks on Hat Madder releases more than 10 years later. "I was definitely approaching it from a different place," Vander Schuur says. "I was a little bit more introverted and less exposed, so a lot of it just sounds like scary, sparse, acid-trippy stuff."
In 2004 Vander Shuur, then living in Austin, Texas, began playing shows with an entirely different lineup of Hat Madder contributors. Personal circumstances dictated he return to Michigan in 2005, and by the following year the band reformed in the Lansing area with Mark Jagmin on drums, Aaron Pangborn on bass and Matthew “Doobie” Lofts on keyboards (and assorted noise). Numerous shows accompanied by college radio play (including Michigan State University’s 88.9 WDBM The Impact) of standout track "Leave Every Light On" has garnered a sizable fan base. "When we first started to play, we couldn't get but a smattering of people," Vandur Shuur says. "Now when we play, the room kind of fills up. I feel like things are a little bit more responsive toward us as far as Lansing goes, but a lot of that probably has to do with the radio exposure and the press finally trying to figure us out."
It has been a long time coming for Vander Shuur to realize his musical vision, but in the decade-plus since he began writing he has honed his musicianship and songwriting to the point where deceptively complex grunge is second nature. The dude can sing, too, sometimes switching from deadpan delivery to crisp vocal harmonies to throaty growls all in the course of one track. What pushes The Hat Madder from exceptional band into the realm of legit indie contender, though, is the outright power of the supporting cast. Jagmin, Pangborn and Lofts would each provide a significant lift to any outfit. That they have joined forces with Vander Shuur is good news for anybody who’d like to hear some impressive musicianship and memorable songs to erase the memory of the weak bar bands they’ve been booing.
The Hat Madder are already working on a follow-up EP and full length to “Friend of the Devil,” which is expected to see a spring 2009 release. Vander Shuur indicates the band’s sound is already beginning to evolve. "The [new] songs seem to be a little bit more edgy, a little bit more jagged,” Vander Shuur says. “It has a bit more of a live feel, which is definitely different than what we did in the first one."
In the meantime, The Hat Madder has been featured on a recent Magnet Magazine compilation with its song “Sadder Days” and a DIG Music Vol. 1 disc sold in Meijer stores. “Friend of the Devil” can be downloaded at www.thehatmadder.com.
The Hat Madder
With The Lexingtons, Flatfoot
9 p.m. Friday, Dec. 26
Mac’s Bar, 2700 E. Michigan Ave., Lansing