For Brooklyn band Xray Eyeballs, the wild live shows mask a dedication to garage-rock evolution

Xray Eyeballs play tonight at Mercury Lounge (flickr via Jason Persse )
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“If it doesn’t sound like a lullaby, we trash it,” O.J. San Felipe told me earlier this week about his songwriting process for his current outfit, Xray Eyeballs, playing Mercury Lounge tonight.

While that might sound like the idiosyncratic ideal of an artist trying to differentiate himself from the pack, the songs all do have a distinctly dreamy quality, but given their volume, they are not quite as soporific as San Felipe would have one believe.

Over the past decade, San Felipe has stuck to what he knows best: rock and roll that is very noisy and very danceable and just a little bit hazy (hence the lullaby bit). He’s played guitar in a handful of bands that put out one or two recordings each, but were known more for their high energy live shows that usually saw a trail of broken instruments and blood left on the stage.

It was during his time in the most successful of those bands, Golden Triangle, that San Felipe started fiddling around at home on his own material, recording songs by himself, and posting them on his blog. He spent an increasing amount of time on his own project, which he called Xray Eyeballs, and that work eventually ended up on a cassette issued by the Night-People label. As Golden Triangle ended, people started asking when Xray Eyeballs would become a real live band. The songs came from the same school as contemporary garage bands like the Black Lips and Thee Oh Sees, but had a hazy surf rock edge to them.

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With the songs he’d recorded as demos, San Felipe enlisted the help of fellow Golden Triangle member Carly Rabalais, along with a few other friends to start up the band. They began playing live shows, put out some 7” singles on the HoZac and Hardly Art record labels, and ended up swiftly signing with Kanine Records, the label best know for releases by Grizzly Bear and Surfer Blood. The band put out the L.P. Not Nothing, and began touring relentlessly.

In February, Xray Eyeballs released their second album, Splendor Squarlor, with Rabalais’ presence being one of the most noticeable changes—singing alongside San Felipe on nearly every song, adding a unique counterweight to his often off-kilter vocals. The leap from the band’s debut 2011 L.P., Not Nothing, is sizeable. Graduating from garage rock that sounded like it was more influenced by Robitussin than The Sonics, Splendor Squalor hones the formula, coming in like something between a latter-day John Carpenter soundtrack and New Order

San Felipe recognizes the shift, and pointed out in our conversation that future songs might “get really heavy with the synths and drum machine and programmed beats.” Rabalais echoed San Felipe, and pointed out that they simply had more time to write the songs on their second album. San Felipe added, “Not Nothing was recorded and mixed in two days. Splendor Squalor … we had a week.” While some bands take years to make an artistic leap, Xray Eyeballs took seven days.

Aside from the lexical connection and fashion-sense similarities, there are a few reasons why San Felipe and Rabalais are something of the 2012 Brooklyn version of the band X. John Doe and Exene Cervenka sang about life in Los Angeles in the late 1970s, and Xray Eyeballs' songs are a similarly perfect snapshot of the band’s time and place. On the song that closes Splendor Squalor, “Summer Daze,” a Cure-worthy bass line and wobbly synth see San Felipe and Rabalais literally rattle off everything you’d see on a walk through Williamsburg or Bushwick on a balmy July day. Trading off in an almost call and response way, San Felipe says “Ice cream,” Rabalais follows up with “Wet dream.” Felipe says “Swamp ass” Rabalais gives a “Smoke grass,” and the list goes on and on.

San Felipe calls it “an inside joke for New Yorkers” that he had intended as a “dark, dancey coldwave kind of song for D.J.'s,” the litany in the lyric is surprisingly thorough, including everything from condos to Montauk. It is possibly the song that best encapsulates everything that people find bizarre and wonderful about New York in the summertime.

While Xray Eyeballs might be writing anthems for Brooklyn circa now, there’s something very studious and un-New York about the band’s approach to constantly retooling their sound. It might not be completely evident at the band’s wild live shows, which San Felipe estimates number anywhere around 100-150 a year, though it's likely he doesn't remember quite a few thanks to his propensity to hurl himself into the audience even if the crowd isn’t expecting it.

“One time I got knocked unconscious and my friends sent me to that scary hospital on Broadway," he said. "My bed was next to this lady that was bleeding from her head and she was screaming at me all night.”

But the chaotic live performances are uniquely at odds with the meticulous craftsmanship that goes into Xray Eyeballs’ songs. San Felipe and his co-conspirators constantly strive to make their sound better, weirder, and catchier. They aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel, but they aren’t content to be just another garage band rehashing what’s been done a thousand times in the past by people possessed by The Velvet Underground and Nuggets box sets either.

And that’s exactly what sets Xray Eyeballs apart from the rest of the pack: they’re just doing exactly what they want to do, and it’s working and evolving right before our eyes.

Xray Eyeballs play Mercury Lounge tonight.

Xray Eyeballs "X" from Micki Pellerano on Vimeo.