sad family plays finlandia
Three hundred bodies jostle for space in a room the size of a dorm kitchen. The lights are off. Heat vapor billows out of a half-cracked window and, still, a mist of sweat lingers over the crowd. Winter jackets carpet the floor. An entire garage band outfit–amplifiers, drums, a few electric guitars–occupy the front half. No one’s playing yet, but they’re supposed to. For a moment, I think, a low-key riot might break out if the delay drags on any longer. With this much post-punk angst caged in one tight venue, we should put it to use and tear shit down or lash out in a mosh pit or, at least, initiate a religious revival of some sort. Anything but stand, cramped and awkward, like eighth graders at a gym dance without a DJ to spin “The Electric Slide.”
On February 7, the pleasant-sounding indie outfit Sad Family played for the launch party of “Now Here This,” a new website featuring podcasts of student-produced audio stories. The event was held at Finlandia, or “Findy,” an off-campus co-operative on Waterman Street. Next door to Subway, and across from the computer science building, Findy is a worn-out vestige dated to the early ’70s–back when starting a commune as a stopgap to gentrification wasn’t a lost cause. I live in Findy, actually, upstairs. Much less than combat class structure, we fend off the inevitable decay of our home: fill in backyard sinkholes, paint over layers of lead paint, plumb rusty copper pipes, and, several times a month, we host parties for progressive student groups on campus which, in turn, often undo whatever repair work happened the week before. It’s a struggle, part Sisyphean, mostly Bacchanal. When bands come to perform, they do so at their own risk.
Sad Family takes the stage without introduction. By stage, I mean Findy’s dining room minus a long wooden table. They let loose a flurry of energetic chords, sending seismic waves through the ground floor. Against the noise, Sophie Kaskove, the lead singer, shouts the melancholic chorus line, “I miss everyone I ever knew, but I never knew that many people anyway.” They were improvising, just that one line on repeat, and it caught on. I liked them, and so, it seemed, did everyone who came out that night. Which made that song kind of ironic: it became something else entirely–whatever an expression of loneliness becomes when chanted, collectively, by a drunken youthful horde. And, yet, in spite of the malaise, Sad Family has a certain charisma, an unmistakable charm reminiscent of what you’d imagine a late ’90s college band to be: literary, irreverent, nerdom mixed with a hint of rebellion.
At the peak of their show, as the bandmates feverishly switch instruments with one another mid-performance, the audience, bathed in sweat and beer, topple the sound system. After that, every few minutes, periodically, the tower speakers erupt in a low piercing whine. I go deaf, briefly, though I don’t mind. Sad Family plays on regardless, as if in a transcendental state of electric bliss: heads down, they keep thrashing away. We are all swept up in Sad Family’s ethereal vibrations, in a strange sort of infectious and chaotic mess completely removed from the deathly, frigid, silent snowpack outside.
But even outside, on Findy’s corner stoop, excitement is in the air. At the edge of the double-door entrance, smokers with Marlboro Lights dangling from their lips (myself included) escape for a hot second from the furnace inside. A line of would-be partygoers throng the curb. We’re already at max capacity, I tell them. The Providence Police shut us down last weekend on the same pretext. Cops are, as we know intuitively, an adversary of pleasure. Any excess of communal feeling–especially as it bubbles out onto the streets–is perceived as a direct threat to orderly routinized existence. Somewhere, in the annals of the Providence Public Safety Complex, my name and home address (Greeneville, Tennessee) are on a long list of offenders. It was for the small crime of throwing a party that was too loud, too ebullient, for our neighbors in College Hill mansions who complain if trash cans aren’t rolled back from the sidewalk on time.
Shortly before the night was in full swing, before I had to force people off the porch, I interviewed Sad Family in a room adjacent to the “stage,” a common area with a piano, books, a couch and vinyl records with titles like “El Gordo’s Revenge.” It was a hurried spontaneous thing that arose out of my fascination, and respect, for an original group who has only played three live shows before this. I felt cool just hanging out with them, even though I am, decidedly, not cool. For instance, I carried around seeds in a fanny pack for an entire year in high school (not pot seeds, unfortunately, regular ones). For no fucking reason at all. I wasn’t a gardener, nor did I have grandiose plans to start an underground seed exchange. It was just weird. In the same slice of semi-adolescent time, Sophie Kasakove was already a child star, jamming in the famous kid-rock (the genre, not the country music icon) band, “Care Bears on Fire.” They’re on Spotify–and they have a pretty decent cover of Tears for Fear’s “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” not that it needed to be covered in the first place.
Celebrity status aside, Sad Family is incredibly talented as is. And they can build up a particular sort of energy in the crowd. It’s real; it’s solid walls of sound in nervous rhythm; it made Findy tremble and shake. But they let this rawness dissipate, stagnate, filter away. At the height of their set, when Sophie or Bailey Barton (on backup vocals) should have grabbed the mic in a drug-addled fury and screamed, the tension dropped and, instead, we were left with a stagnant cloud of sweat, unsure what to do with ourselves. Maybe my desire for chemical fueled recklessness in their performance, though, is irrelevant to how I think of them as a group. Sad Family are friends who play for their friends, and who are, in the meantime, not bad at what they do.
At around one a.m., when the last stragglers had cleared out into the night, the remaining few were slouched over buckets of their own vomit in the kitchen. I gave them water, to soothe the nausea I know all too well, and stumbled up to the third floor. There, embers of the party blazed on. We played the kind of lame music that comes on the radio during long drives on the interstate with your dad. We danced in erratic, unformed motion, to classics such as Sixpence None the Richer’s “Kiss Me,” and “Bizarre Love Triangle” by New Order. The type of songs you’re vaguely embarrassed to admit you like. But we do anyway. And, as I chain-smoked on a balcony watching the Saturday night tribes of undergrads stagger back to their dorms, I thought of the Kurt Vonnegut quote in black paint above Findy’s dairy fridge: “the most daring thing is to create stable communities where the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.” Not so sad, this extended family of mine.