WEIRD SCIENCE: The Sonic Youth elements are purely accidental.
“We’re not really looking for a cure for anything,” says Danielle Stolzenberg. “We’re just forwarding the understanding of neurocircuitry.” We’ll get to Stolzenberg’s band in a minute; right now I’m engrossed in her PhD work at Boston College. It revolves around figuring out how to get female rats to exhibit maternal instincts for rat pups before they’ve had babies of their own. A normal adult female rat who hasn’t had pups will ignore or even attack baby rats she runs into.
“We inject dopamine agonists into their brains to get their systems moving and test to see if they’d become maternal,” says Stolzenberg. The idea — which turns out to work — is that you can create instinctual behavior in the rats that would not ordinarily occur until they’d given birth.
A twisted, Secret of NIMH type of treatment? “There are actually no nerve endings in the brain, so the needle doesn’t hurt,” says bandmate and former lab partner Amanda Dellevigne, who’s now employed at an MIT “memory and learning” lab. She also points out that the rats are anesthetized beforehand and that they’re tough creatures, evolved to survive in garbage cans.
Hot Box, the fledgling four-piece from Boston anchored by Stolzenberg and Dellevigne, are set to release their first full-length, Four Eyes (BNS Sessions). The album release (vinyl only, with access to digital download keys and a bonus track included) caps a different kind of experiment in the lower-brow mechanics of rock, with the band members using themselves as the lab rats. Stolzenberg, who plays guitar and splits vocal duties with Dellevigne, had never played music in front of anyone till 2007; Dellevigne picked up the guitar only last year. It’s been an exemplary run so far, with just a few bumpy spots. For one, they overlooked the fine print on their LP-manufacturing contract — no, ladies and gentlemen, the album will not be shipping in time for the show this Sunday at Great Scott. Cue the sad trombones.
A few weeks ago, Hot Box were playing a low-key warm-up show at O’Brien’s — the line-up with second guitarist/bassist Jon Gill (who, it happens, studies vision at a Harvard neuroscience lab) is still relatively new (the fourth member is drummer Eric Kogelschatz), and Stolzenberg jumps at any opportunity for practice singing in public. At midnight, they started “Busy Busy Busy” (the coy, depressive, up-tempo song that also opens the new record) with a few jitters, then settled down into one another’s orbits. Dellevigne, who sings the lead on this number, was all smoky and jilted romantic. Someone yelled from the back of the bar that there was a Dodge Neon out in the parking lot that needed to be moved; it turned out to be Gill’s.
Stolzenberg used the break to bring up the new album. “It’s coming up sooner or later, like two months, maybe? I can’t wait to have it all on our own piece of plastic.” There was a debate with the audience over whether records are made out of vinyl or plastic. (Hint: vinyl is plastic.)
It’s Hot Box’s polite refusal to act the rock star that helps them move into more interesting territory than they might with a cockier self-assurance. Stolzenberg admits that when she was growing up, Smashing Pumpkins formed the outer limits of her music universe and that “mostly it was just Paula Abdul.” Last year, someone told her that Hot Box sounded like Sonic Youth, so she bought a CD the next day (“I think it had a number in the title?”), put it in the car stereo, and gave up after one song. “I made everyone else listen to it, and they all hated it too!”
There are poppier bits of Sonic Youth in the music — brittle, coiled-up melodies, trails of reverb and casual, seasick dissonance — but there’s more than that. There’s a heavy back-and-forth between the dainty parts and the wrenching bits of numbing shoegazer, post-rock, and disco hi-hat fits that Kogelschatz throws in at the most non-obvious moments.
When Dellevigne and Stolzenberg met, Stolzenberg had been trying out songs at solo acoustic open mics around town and just starting to get into Elliott Smith and Modest Mouse. Dellevigne, meanwhile, had grown up a punk and hardcore kid and become a stalwart Shellac and Jesus Lizard fan. Dellevigne: “I think the fact that none of us like the same music at all and have no plans on how we want the band to sound in the first place keeps us from ever sounding too much like a bad version of any of our favorite bands.” So far, it’s working out. Elegant, strange approaches to the fretboards from both leading women are beginning to jell into sets of patient, exploratory songs. And the band remain humble — nerd-friendly album title and all.
“We’re a pretty clean-cut band,” says Stolzenberg. “Except for what we do to rats.”
HOT BOX + THIS CAR UP + WHERE THE LAND MEETS THE SEA + HORSEHANDS | Great Scott, 1222 Comm Ave, Boston | March 29 at 9 pm | $10 | www.greatscottboston.com