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Javelin's junk shop pop: Tom Van Buskirk on the pleasures of radio hiss and thrift store gems

November 12, 2009 |  3:03 pm

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Tom Van Buskirk recently got word that his car had been stolen, along with all 20 of Javelin’s vintage boom boxes, painstakingly assembled over years of digging in thrift stores and pawn shops across America. Yet somehow, despite losing this staple of his band’s ballyhooed live show, he seems unperturbed. Mind you, he and his cousin, George Langford, the other half of the junk shop-pop duo, are currently in Oakland, midway through their first-ever tour of the West Coast and 3,000 miles away from their home in Brooklyn, where the vehicle was swiped. But not only is he calm, Van Buskirk also seems downright ebullient, and I suspect this is the reason why the Luaka Bop and Thrill Jockey-signed outfit is one the most notable acts to emerge this year: It has the incredible ability to create music that makes you happy.

The litany of influences on the MySpace pages of most buzz bands typically reads like some lame competition of ironic one-upmanship, but Javelin’s is surprisingly illuminating: Chaka Demus, Tom Tom Club, Kraftwerk, dollar-bin dance records, transcendent amateurs, '80s Soca, regional dance music, Smokey Robinson, junk shops, endless loop tapes and (of course) cousinship. The band distills post-modernism’s best possibilities: the pastiche of disparate influences to craft something wholly novel without any of the pretentious self-seriousness or whimsical shtick that dogs many of Javelin's peers.

The duo's excellent self-released debut, “Jamz and Jemz,” struck hard at the start of summer with its seasonal collage of eight-bit beats, tropical lilt and analog groove, winning online raves and an opportunity from Thrill Jockey to issue a 12” (released earlier this month in a hand-painted and silk-screened run of 500 copies). In advance of their show tonight at the Smell, Javelin spoke to Pop & Hiss about the mystery of the missing boom boxes, the duo's creative process and their favorite thrift store purchases of the year.

According to descriptions and reviews, the boom boxes appeared to be a pretty iconic part of the band’s stage show. How long had you guys been performing with them?

As long as we’ve been a band. We started collecting them from the Salvation Army in Providence, and I don’t think I ever paid more than $15 or $20 for one. We also got a lot of them for free from our friends. For one special show, we started spray painting them all sorts of different colors and then a friend said that we had to keep doing it, so we did.

We had to leave them behind, because we couldn’t exactly fly out to California lugging 20 boom boxes, and the day that we arrived, I got a call saying that my car had been stolen from my neighborhood in Brooklyn. It’s not like it was a nice car either. It’s possible that someone took it to a chop shop and sold it for parts. I think I can count on one hand the amount of time we’ve performed without them. It’s really funny. I almost feel for the boom boxes like a missing child. We loved and pampered them.

How exactly did you manage to get 20 boom boxes wired to play the same songs simultaneously?

We had to create and set them to the same FM transmission. We’d run the sounds through the mixer to the radio and it would still have that crackling radio sound. We’re really interested in doing transmission-related performances. The cool thing about them was that they were wireless and battery operated, so it opened up a lot of things that you could do.

Was there a certain unified aesthetic or theme that you set out to project with "Jamz and Jemz," or did it come about naturally?

It was essentially a collection of our favorite tunes from 2005 to 2008, and it had a constantly changing track list. When Pitchfork reviewed it, we were finally like, 'OK, well I suppose we ought to stop tinkering with it.’ With everything we’ve done, it’s bound to be somewhat organic. There was no vision for what “Jamz and Jemz” would turn out to be. We like short songs that are to the point. Dilla kept it short, different Brazilian artists that we love would put out two-minute tracks with no fluff. There’s a beautiful element to making things that are collage-like. Even if you’re making 20 miniature collages, when you sew them together, it’s like making a quilt with every piece slightly different and the entirety heterogeneous.

In the live setting, how difficult is it to re-create the feel of an album so heavily based off of samples, studio technology and distorted vocals?

It took awhile to figure it out. The options were just deejaying our own stuff, or bringing in the equipment we made it on. But we figured if we’re here, we might as well change it up. So, if you see us live, we mix it up and add words — completely improvised.

What are the band’s favorite thrift store finds this year?

1. A great Lowrey organ that we got from the Providence Salvation Army. It was sort of out of tune with itself, so you can play a 1/5th note and it sounds like a bagpipe. It has a tape deck inside, so you can record yourself and play it at different speeds.

2. A Casio SK-5. We were in a pawn shop in Kentucky and this guy had so many amazing soul records, but he was selling them for a little too much money. But he had a Casio SK-5 and he didn’t realize that it was worth a lot on the Internet, so we got it for a steal.

3. A tape called “Believing in the Incredible You.” We found this in the Providence Salvation Army too. It’s like funky self-help subliminal music from the early ‘80s. All the songs sound like the theme from “Taxi.”

4. A huge negative portrait of the RZA. We found this in Brooklyn and it was originally from a photo portrait studio. Essentially, it’s a head shot of RZA, but it’s the negative so his eyes are white and reversed. It’s pretty great.

-- Jeff Weiss

Photo via Free Williamsburg

Javelin with Rainbow Arabia and Pit Er Pat, tonight at the Smell,  247 S. Main St., 8 p.m. $7.