“I may live badly, but at least I don’t have to ‘work’ to do it!” This is the sentiment of an inebriated hitchhiker in Richard Linklater’s timely indie film Slacker. The film captures the complacent attitude of what the US media dubbed the ‘slacker generation’: the plague of indifferent American teenagers of the early nineties who couldn’t be bothered with humanity. Kids jettisoned careers and ‘building America’ to make way for partying and personal expression. For ‘slackers’, college was just a decoy to prolong their sense of freedom. The more musically adept took their heartfelt jams into the musical arena and the genre ‘slacker rock’ was coined. This term diverged from the media’s more pejorative use and instead embraced a certain laid-back, loose approach to rock song-writing, which bands such as Pavement, Dinosaur Jr, and Kurt Vile have since perfected.
What has any of this got to do with Brighton instrumental trio Cousin? Well, either absolutely nothing or absolutely everything. According to the Brighton lads’ bandcamp, their sound comprises seemingly dichotomous forces: ‘math rock’ and ‘slacker rock’. An interesting question arises: can math rock be ‘slack’?
There is certainly a ‘loose’ feel about Cousin’s music: the grungy guitars, the slow percussion, and the stumbling riffs. The cool, off-the-cuff guitar strumming in songs like ‘Fourth Floor Balcony Fight’ and ‘Post Relationship Feedback Form’ from their recent EP, Alternate Tunings for Regular People, certainly feels loose and easy-going. The sound of Cousin’s instruments remains homogeneous throughout their recordings; there is very little variation in guitar effects and no embellishment of tone in the form of wacky phasers, digital delays and wah-wahs. And, to be honest, it’s damned refreshing to listen to something that is not corroded by a plethora of guitar effects, samples, electronics and, God help us, sound clips. Cousin appear non-reliant on such contrivances to steer their sound. It is no wonder critics of Alternate Tunings compared their unrestrained musicianship to slacker rock bands such as Polvo and Slint. Moreover, their sound indirectly nods to the relaxed attitudes of the ‘slacker generation’.
Yet at odds with their slacker-esque proclivities is the indisputable math rock element, inconspicuously expressed in the shifting time changes and angular melodies of songs like ‘Cold Sweats in a Thermal Jacket’ and ‘Fussball Politics’. The nature of math rock is articulate and complex, and it becomes increasingly harder to deny the absence of such components when sitting through Alternate Tunings. In addition, the precision between guitar and percussion in Cousin is absolutely perfect. Anyone that has been to a live Cousin show has had the benefit of seeing their precision in full visual glory. The conundrum thus becomes not only a question of genre but also a question of structure, both far removed from anything that might be deemed ‘slack’.
So what are we working with here, other than a confusing and seemingly unanswerable genre paradox? How does a band marry together these opposable forces? “It’s the melodic sequence that guides any other factors,” suggests guitarist Chris Blakey, “this means the irregular timings are more natural and don’t feel shoe horned in” What manifests is soulful instrumental rock that wraps the slacker rock sensibilities around a math rock skeleton. Unlike their contemporaries, Cousin’s math skeleton does not manifest in frenetic guitar tapping or flashy polyrhythms, but rather in elaborate connectedness and multi-dimensional chord arrays. However, this does not resolve the problem of how Cousin can be ‘slack’ while evidently being a tight band with exceptionally crafted musicianship. “I guess the most simple way I would look at it is that as a band we try to play ‘tight but loose“, says Blakey, “we play around the feel and timing of the riffs but do so in a way that is together so we’re locking in“.
This is what makes a band like Cousin so appealing: musical complexity complements their modus operandi, but is never forcibly inserted into it. The incorporation of slacker rock into their mathy nature relinquishes any showy technical wizardry to make way for something with a bit more soul. “We’ve taken a lot of influence from the 90s American indie rock stuff cause those guys were great at that,” says Blakey. Pavement frontman, Stephen Malkmus, once said in an interview “if it jumps out, it has to jump out in the right way“, and Cousin are definitely working with this idea. “We like the idea of using irregular timings to serve the melody and not the other way round“. They break some of the ribs in their math skeleton to reaffirm the organic and romantic nature of a good groove.
Cousin have put themselves in a unique position. What seems like an isthmus between two mutually incompatible musical forms is, for this trio, the undervalued intersection of a Venn diagram. Some may also slot earlier mathy-slacker acts, such as Drive Like Jehu and Chavez, into this same diagram but it is the active up-and-comers Cousin who have the exciting opportunity of pushing a firmer logical relation between the two genres. And I’m excited about watching this all unfold.
You can purchase Cousin’s Alternate Tunings For Regular People from bandcamp.