Live Picks! with Tony Porreco: The Low Bends @ Velvet Lounge

Live Picks! with Tony Porreco

Arthur Sanzo, that shirt

Who: The Low Bends
Where: The Velvet Lounge
When: Sunday, July 21
Song You Must Hear Today: “Saint Valentine’s Rebuttal” 
“We have a poltergeist,” Arthur Sanzo notes casually as he we tour his Shaw residence.  And the first thing you notice about Sanzo (the singer/songwriter behind the aggressive, demented blues outfit The Low Bends) is that he’s kind of weird. I’m barely in the door, being vigorously sniffed by the house’s two dogs, and Sanzo dives headfirst into a slew of details about where he practices, showing me his living space (a segment of a basement hallway converted into what I suppose passes for a bedroom), and graciously offering me a beer. The experience is sort of like going over to your friend’s house, and the friend’s a parent with a little kid who’s dying to tell you everything.

I sought to interview Arthur Sanzo as a result of having discovered his compelling album American Alien, Success Story earlier this year on Bandcamp (released under the now discarded band name The Lippy Grins), and because I learned that he has a show with his full band The Low Bends on Sunday July 21st at the Velvet Lounge.

The album contains a full 11 tracks of well-structured blues rock, but with the delightful twist of featuring a wild vocalist whose performances can only begun to be characterized by concern-raising adjectives such as “deranged”, and perhaps even “unstable”. The songs’ topics are equally unsettling, which include narratives of workplace rage, the sexual perversions of the unattached, and the bloody conflicts of Pilgrims and Native Americans. In spite of the crazed vocal performances and curious source material, Sanzo’s gift for crafting well-organized songs with bizarre narratives shines through on American Alien, Success Story.

Sanzo’s story wasn’t easily ascertainable from a quick scan of his music’s web presence:  For a band with such a professional sounding album, The Lippy Grin’s Facebook page seemed a little undercooked, and was oddly littered with links to content for another band called The Low Bends. This second group certainly seemed to feature the same guy whose songs I’d been streaming, but the relationship between the two was acts was unclear.

I walked with Arthur to a nearby wine bar with the goal of learning about the twisted nature of his songs, his music’s fragmented online presence, and whatever other strange thoughts he might throw down.

Once you become accustomed to his unusual personality, the next thing you observe about Arthur Sanzo is the immense confidence he has in his craft. “I have the fucking talent to do any kind of songwriting I want.”  And there is enough variation on American Alien, Success Story to offer some support for this boastful claim. Tracks like “Praying Mantis” and “Dancing in the Street” are grounded in straightforward country rock while “The Lizard King” possesses a roaring, sludge-blues approach. There’s also some intriguing play with drum machines on two of the album’s numbers (“Porridge Brains”, “Two, One, Hang, Four”) which possess more of a junkyard pop/white boy hip hop in the vein of early ‘90s Beck.

Two of the album’s standout numbers, “Saint Valentine’s Rebuttal” and “Four White Walls”, while drastically different stylistically are indicative of a songwriter who can either leave you in stitches of laughter or feeling pangs of sadness. The former is a lively barroom blues number that hysterically chronicles the exploits of the erotically desperate on Valentine’s Day (prostitution, watching the Spice Channel, getting one’s rocks off in a seated theater), while “Four White Walls” is an exquisite breakup number told from the perspective of the heart breaker.

Arthur Sanzo, SOB

Below is some of the quoted dialog from our interview session (approx. 90 min):

Where does this kind of unhinged, unstable country personality of yours come from?

I guess I’m kind of a far out guy…I definitely enjoy writing in the more macabre, you know, finding beauty in places that maybe somebody else doesn’t see it, or does but doesn’t understand it.

Do you view your music as subversive?

In a way, yeah.  I’m not a Pretty Peter. I’m a fucking guy who’s going to go up there and play some fucking rock n’ roll songs. I don’t want to be that guy who’s playing your standard Top 40 radio hit. If I wanted to be that guy, I’d be that fucking guy… So, yeah, I do think it’s subversive. I am trying to challenge audiences, I’m trying to be in your face… That’s who I am and that’s what I do.

What’s it like being in a band with your brother (Two Alpaca’s Mike Sanzo)?

There’s fist fights. I’ve been in a band with my brother for 10 years. That’s a fucking long time to be in a band with anyone. 99% of the time, we get along great. But occasionally, about once every year and a half, we’ll get in a pretty serious altercation that will end in fists. That’s the way we settle our differences.

One source of continued frustration for Sanzo involves the difficulty in fielding a stable band to perform his songs. Sanzo is on borrowed time with his current four-piece line up: His second guitarist will be moving out of state in August, and drummer Michael Sanzo (Arthur’s brother) plays guitar and keys full time in his own band Two Alpacas. And despite the fact that he plays out acoustically at spots like IOTA with a fair amount of regularity, this doesn’t do it for Sanzo. “I don’t want people to come see me acoustic. I want to play loud rock n’ roll music in your fucking face. I want it to rear its head at you and bite you.” For these reasons, Arthur emphasized the importance of making his upcoming Velvet Lounge date with his full line up count before he’s forced to regroup and find some new players.

Interviewing Sanzo also illustrated the importance of having the willingness to put consistent effort into marketing a band. By his own admission, booking shows and reaching out to audiences isn’t Sanzo’s forte. In more than one instance, he likened a working band as a business having two parts, frontend (the public face, sales, marketing) and backend (product development, in other words, “songwriting”). He cops to not being great at the former, which accounts for his sporadic online updates. The change of his band name was actually a concession to one of his bandmates, who had elected to take on the frontend responsibilities. “If he’s going to be the one kind of being the frontend of the business, and I’m going to be on the backend, he should get a name that he feels confident selling.”

Arhtur Sanzo, shoulder

To sum it all up, Arthur Sanzo is a guy with an eccentric personality and some serious songwriting chops.  Things are gonna get weird (but in a cool way) when The Low Bends hit the Velvet Lounge on Sunday July 21st. Yo No Say and Grogan Social Scene open. I’ll be there cheering on one of my new DC favorites.

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