Attempting to define Tamion 12 Inch, the mercurial noise-pop trio from Detroit, is proving to be difficult. Band members Sam Consiglio (C. Samuel, analog electronics, guitar), Michael Kearns (K. Michael, bass and electronic percussion) and Kerry Biernott (B. Kerry, vocals) know what they are not, sure enough. Not Electroclash, not direct descendants of either the new wave or hardcore rock scenes of the 1980s, not exactly kindred with the city’s underground dance or garage rock communities, not happily compared to adult., their labelmates on Ersatz Audio. Not anything really, they insist.
No one speaks. They light cigarettes.
Breaking the silence, I offer: “It’s art. Right?”
“I’ve worked in a museum for six years,” says Kearns, indifferently, “and I’ve acquired a real aversion to art.”
“Anything that’s non-traditional, discordant and damaged gets lumped into being called ‘art music,’” adds Consiglio dryly. The man studied painting at Eastern Michigan University.
Kearns again: “I would just call us outcasts.”
“I wish we were OutKast,” ribs Biernott, her voice rising from the side of this pretty back porch in Woodbridge. “Then maybe we’d have enough money to afford a car.”
This four-way repartee has the potential to get testy, but never does. It has a circularity and sensitivity that pushes well beyond the limits of a formal interview. In fact, no formal interview ever gets started, so chatty and forthcoming are these reported enfants terribles. They are the same sweet souls who scored an early reputation for playing dark minimal electro that ripped, crashed and burned — often during the same song; and for a confrontational live show that aroused powerfully strange human sexual responses between Biernott and the boys and girls in the crowd.
They write songs called “Thin Boys Murdered,” “Do the Devil Dance,” “People Call the Dead” and “Bones/Teeth.” To those who know Tamion 12 Inch as cranky miserablists who only come out after midnight, the trio comes off here as disappointingly ... nice.
“I just feel so foolish going up on stage. It feels so unnatural,” Kearns says. “All our friends are down there, and we’re up here.”
“I used to play with my back to the audience,” Consiglio says. “What was the point about looking out there?” He doesn’t do that anymore; now he’s wide-eyed and fully engaged with the room while onstage.
“The stage is something to fall off of,” Biernott says, dragging off her cigarette. “I’m just in total fear when I’m there. I’m the biggest total pussy in the world.”
You might say that Tamion uses its fear and discomfort to an advantage. Strong-willed and combustible, the band pushes each live performance so hard it feels like we’re all — fans included — on the verge of pending disaster. Their presentation is fierce: They bicker among themselves and tease and taunt their fans, setting up a ferocious musical attack made up of splintered guitar junk, machine noise-bursts and punk-rawk vocals. I took my then-girlfriend to see Tamion 12 Inch at an all-night after-party during last year’s Movement festival weekend. The music, which she claimed should not have been called music at all, made her physically sick, which I thought was a savagely appropriate first response. You should feel like fighting, or fucking, or puking — something! — when you experience a band so self-consciously trying to derange all your senses.
But maybe I should have asked first: Are you all conscious of what you’re doing, and the impact it has on people?
“Some kid came up to me after a show and said, ‘You must have emotional problems,’” Biernott says. “He said: ‘You must hate America.’ Ha-ha-ha. I thought that was funny.”
“These are not happy times,” Kearns adds. “It’s not like we all sit around reading Rimbaud, like we’re Tom Verlaine [Television]. ... The music is dark, but we’ve got a sense of humor too.”
“We just play modern pop music, using 21st century tools,” Consiglio says. “We don’t have lofty ambitions. We’re just friends trying to be in a band.”
The Tamion story begins in Macomb County, where the threesome all spent time as kids. Consiglio moved to Arizona for a time, but Kearns and Biernott got the full benefit of a Utica Community Schools education and some quality hang-out time at Lakeside Mall, which they say served as a social focal point.
“Yeah ... it was a place to get beaten up by Utica girls,” Biernott says.
“We all got beaten up in junior high and high school,” Kearns adds. He lights up another smoke. “I learned you had to project a tough exterior.”
“Some older kids gave me tapes to listen to. I wanted to be Robert Smith,” says Biernott, who possesses a (sexy) asexuality similar to the Cure frontman’s early monochrome days.
Seeking a life out of the suburbs and in the margins, the three met up in Detroit at a point in local music history that might be described as “Post-Zoot’s.” Zoot’s coffeehouse was a magnet for creative acoustic, electric and electronic musicians in the pre-gentrified upper Cass Corridor of the mid-1990s.
“I was exposed to some amazing music there,” Kearns says. “Thank you, Clark Warner and Carlos Souffront.”
Warner and Souffront are DJs who exposed careful listeners to the vastness of the Underground; from the danceable post-punk of Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire to ambient knob-turners from Iceland or Sweden that few had ever heard.
At the same time, Kearns, Consiglio and Biernott played or partied with various obscure bands that may as well been from Iceland, groups like Perfect Hooded Nun, UVU, the Midnights, Bulb and the Dance Fasters (which also included Brett Lyman, now relocated to Washington D.C. and playing in the band Measles, Mumps, Rubella).
Consiglio, Biernott and original member Steve Darson played their first show as Tamion 12 Inch at the Third Street Saloon in late 2001. After Darson left, Kearns, who had been DJing with Consiglio, joined the band in the summer of 2002.
When they recorded “Thin Boys Murdered” — an austere death-disco bacchanalia with baby doll vocals that appears on the Ersatz Audio comp, Misery Loves Company — nearly all the music was programmed. The band added layers of electronics and bass onto the five-track EP, All Black, Eyes Closed to the Excess of Disaster, its title inspired by Tamion’s latent interest in envenomed Situationist theorist Guy Debord.
On their debut full-length, Let’s Suffer, released this month on EA, the sound mutates into still something else. More guitar, more bass, more voice. Everything seems juiced up a level or two in the hands of production team Warn Defever (His Name is Alive) and Dion Fischer (The Go!, Slumber Party). Tamion’s sonic architecture is getting less linear, even less song-like, and now spreads over their increasingly jagged soundscape like a virus. The beginning of many of the 12 tracks have almost no relationship to how they end.
On the cabalistic “Sisters,” guitars and electronic effects compete for your attention. It clicks and stutters like a sick motor, Biernott’s voice alternately howling, soaring and getting buried in the mix, then breaks down in spasms of asthmatic coughing.
“Sisters” ends not with Biernott hacking but with two minutes of sweetened solo piano, there as if to comfort us all after a jolting jaunt through hell. Biernott says the asthma is real: “I was a sick for a long time when we did that. I’m so glad I started smoking again.”
As the conversation winds down and no interview ever commences, Kearns blurts that Tamion is indeed “high concept art. We’re either sound collage or punk rock, or nothing.”
Nothing? Now we’re getting somewhere. In the end we don’t care what it’s called, do we? This music comes at you from places you really don’t want to know, and it hits you in spots you didn’t know you had. All that matters at the moment is that Tamion 12 Inch is creating some of the most ill, fucked-up sonic shit of these unhappy times, challenging us all to be more human (yes, human). They do it by just going out and mauling your ass. That’s my kind of ambition.