Traumahelikopter: Dutch punk rockers wear themselves out with five days of energetic shows at CMJ Music Marathon
The members of traumahelikopter sit passively in front of Brooklyn's The Knitting Factory, letting the CMJ Music Marathon happen to them. The sheet of paper taped to the door tells Mark Lada, Roel van Merlot and Daan van Dalen that their band will take the stage at 3 P.M., but as with the average music event, things are running behind schedule. Birth of Joy, another Dutch band playing at the "Culture Collide" showcase, will eventually take the stage at 3:10. Forty minutes behind schedule, at least the delay allows the trio to enjoy their respective cigarettes. Van Dalen doesn't anticipate Birth finishing within its allotted half-hour, even with the current backup.
"They play all the solos," he explains, mimicking a wave of hammer-ons with an invisible guitar. "It's behind schedule anyhow. We knew we weren't going to be going on on time."
Van Dalen's squinting may be due to the afternoon sun, but the look only complements the exasperation in his voice. The CMJ Marathon serves as New York's version of South by Southwest, and small acts spread themselves thin across the city with the most music publications in the world. Traumahelikopter has played a previous showcase, a live broadcast session, and hosted a DJ in the days leading up to its Knitting Factory gig on Thursday. The band will add two more showcases, a New York show unaffiliated with CMJ, and a trip to Philadelphia by week's end.
They are, Lada acknowledges, burnt out.
The vocalist points out that CMJ won't top traumahelikopter's previous standard for nerve-breaking concert run, a mark they set at the actual South by Southwest earlier during 2013, cramming ten shows into four days. Drummer van Merlot, refusing to be outdone, one-ups Lada by pointing out that the band played four shows in one day at this year's Record Store Day, back in Holland.
"Four times in one day, it's intense," he says, extinguishing his cigarette on the curb. "It's like sex. It's still fun, but...you know. Four times in one day?"
A mere two times a day doesn't seem to have killed the intensity of traumahelikopter's Knitting Factory performance. A thumbs-up from the sound technician sends the band into a frenzy of motion. Lada and van Dalen jerk spasmodically as they chug through a power chord riff, and Van Merlot's wavy hair keeps time with his drumming, wobbling with every downward motion (and there are many). Van Dalen — who claims he has never heard his name comically compared to Van Halen — tackles a bridge, drilling into the layers of garage rock fuzz with every tremolo pick of his one-string solo.
Traumahelikopter takes its name from the aircraft that made frequent flights overhead on their way to the hospital, nearby to where the group practiced in its hometown of Groningen. Whether inspired or annoyed by the helicopters, the band turned its amplifiers up. Much like the titular air ambulances, the group's sound is straightforward, but the associated din suggests something more chaotic.
Members of the ambiguous "punk blues" scene, traumahelikopter places more emphasis on the "punk" portion. The message of the lyrics, combined with early-hardcore instrumental sensibility, gives off the same vibe as Metal Circus-era Hüsker Dü: less than politically relevant, but more than rebelliously motivated.
Societal discontent comes through the band's setlist with more of a grin than a sneer. Eddie Cochran may have mourned his lack of free time during "Summertime Blues," but Lada flat-out refuses, shouting the lyrics to the traumahelikopter's "I Ain't Working This Summer" (an ironic song, considering the band's exhaustive 2013 European tour schedule). The group pays homage to the city hosting it that week by playing the Randoms' punk classic "Let's Get Rid of New York" (although Lada pipes in that he was "just kidding").
Simplicity provides an overarching theme both in the studio and on the stage, serving as the backdrop for the discontented-young-male thrust of traumahelikopter's lyrical content. The lack of a bassist sharpens the band's sound, leaving any potentially rounded edges sharp (and, as van Merlot notes sarcastically, "bassists are assholes"). Van Merlot's kit consists merely of a floor tom, a snare and a crash cymbal. He behaves as if he's the third guitarist, standing at his post with legs apart like James Hetfield. He makes up for his lack of drums with an abundance of aggression directed at his kit.
The band's self-titled debut album, released in January on the Excelsior label, follows its live approach to a lowercase "t," and traumahelikopter doesn't plan on going London Calling for its follow-up record either. The group has entered the studio already, but for now seems less interested in boasting the future record's sonic superiority than cheerily assuring that it will live up to the standards its predecessor set. No, Lada won't be taking any solos this time around, he assures. Van Merlot won't be playing any solos either, he says, but he will be playing a drumroll.
Details on a sequel album are scant, traumahelikopter needs to get through this set before it puts more thought into a second record. Lada drops to his knees and proceeds onto his back onstage, continuing to supply a power chord backdrop for van Dalen's current solo. It's all part of the performance of course, but he heaves a breath at the ceiling from puckered lips. Only one song left to perform during this gig, and then on to the next: a 9 P.M. showcase at The Trash Bar in Williamsburg.
The band finishes the set, having crammed ten songs into 26 minutes, four minutes under the gorup's "limit." The spare time won't get the "Culture Collide" showcase back on schedule, but they can't be say traumahelikopter didn't try.