VIDEO: One minute with HUMANWINE
The house that HUMANWINE founders Holly Brewer and M@ (i.e., Matt) McNiss share in Jamaica Plain looks like a gallery that’s exploded. Hanging up in no particular order are Indian tapestries, graveyard rubbings, abstract canvases, dancing skeletons, political posters, erotic pin-ups, and punk-rock gig flyers. It’s a perfect visual translation of the duo’s cut-and-paste musical style. And it’s a clue to the way HUMANWINE (a name they spell with all caps) see themselves, in that they’re as much about socio-political art as about rock and roll.
“I was a visual artist for most of my life before I focused on music,” McNiss explains. Brewer adds, “And I was always picking up bones in courtyards and making necklaces out of them, before I started poking holes in people for money.” (She did piercings.) The pair are well matched: she’s a small spitfire and he’s a quieter heavy thinker. Brewer: “What we do is a hundred million percent about politics. And about relationships — the relationship between large masses of people and the small groups of people who control them.” McNiss: “Our only real intention is to live the life of art and to do it convincingly. We wear our influences on our sleeve, just like anyone else. But our sleeves are all patches of everything we’ve ever liked.”
HUMANWINE have been drawing notice and raising eyebrows since arriving in town two years ago. Beyond Brewer’s facial tattoos, there was their sound, which like that of the Dresden Dolls and Reverend Glasseye (two groups HUMANWINE are often lumped in with) is unusual and has an art-school/theatrical edge. But rather than being purely cabaret or purely rock and roll, HUMANWINE suggest the soundtrack of a play that hasn’t been written yet. It has rock elements, but they’re mixed in with circus music, drunken sea chanteys, and spooky waltzes. McNiss throws out just enough heavy guitar riffs to provide familiarity; Brewer’s voice and her commanding stage presence lure you into the darker and more dreamlike aspects.
You’d think all that would be hard to capture on disc. But HUMANWINE’s debut full-length, Fighting Naked (Cordless), does the trick. The band’s rockier side is more pronounced than when they play live, thanks partly to Dresden Dolls drummer Brian Viglione. He’s a long-time associate of the band and, along with Reverend Glasseye’s bassist Paul Dilley, will be joining them on a three-week tour that brings them back to the Paradise April 20. Viglione has been a fan since he overheard a rehearsal two years ago. “What got me was how sincere and completely untainted by outside influences it was. As if you’d picked up a rock and there was a whole other world of insects crawling under it.”
Despite the rockier sound, the Threepenny Opera–styled “Dim Allentown Cove” and the Dietrich-esque “When in Rome” make this as eclectic as any major-label release in recent memory. And yes, it is a major-label release. HUMANWINE were signed back in 2003, when a friend introduced them to Jac Holzman, the veteran Elektra president who was looking to launch a new label under the Warners umbrella. Since his other signings include the Residents and Devo spinoff Jihad Jerry, one can assume that Holzman’s top priority wasn’t moving units. “He’s a hot shit,” says Brewer. “He said we remind him of the Doors, who we sound nothing like. And we got control over a lot of things — everything, in fact.” As for influences, she points out, “We’ve never heard of half the ones people mention, like Bertolt Brecht and that other guy, Kurt Weill. If they said Tom Waits or Dead Can Dance, I’d understand.”