San Francisco – A man once sang, “Every man wears a symbol.” It’s a loaded statement, and one that can be interpreted in any number of ways. That symbol could be some kind of badge, a mask, or even a projected image of self. It could be a tattoo or a hand-stamp used as proof of admission. It could be a device used to ground oneself in the present… or to keep anchored in the past. Hell, you could go as far as actually changing your name to a symbol (Prince, anyone?). In every explanation, there is some tie to identity: the mask hides the true self from the world, the tattoo holds some sort of sentimental significance to the wearer, the hand-stamp is temporary but perhaps hides remaining minute traces of the ink of previous stamps that have been left on the same spot time and time again. Some use religion and mythology as symbolic reminders of what they feel their purpose is in the grand scheme of things. When Sweden’s Miike Snow played the first night of a sold-out two-show residency, at San Francisco’s The Independent earlier this week, the band chose a much more decisive and admittedly bizarre symbol to wear: the fabled jackalope.
For those unfamiliar with the jackalope, it’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like: a combination of jackrabbit and antelope, and it is usually portrayed as a rabbit with long antlers; the kind one might see on a grown buck such as an adult male deer or antelope. The legend of the jackalope originated in Wyoming and has since become a fairly recognizable figure in the mythological animal kingdom. It’s unclear why Miike Snow decided to employ the jackalope as its chosen avatar, but given the band’s eccentric and hybridized musical style (and the similarities between the chilly climates they both hail from), it makes sense. Miike Snow is not just one person; in actuality, Miike Snow is three musicians, who got their band name from an actual friend of theirs named Mike Snow and added the second “i” purely for aesthetic purposes (there is no relation to the controversial Japanese film director Takashi Miike, as some have speculated in the past).
The Sweden-based trio consists of American vocalist/keyboardist Andrew Wyatt and producers/multi-instrumentalists Pontus Winnberg and Christian Karlsson. The latter two formerly operated under the moniker Bloodshy & Avant, a name that does not immediately inspire recognition, despite many contributions to mainstream music of the early-mid aughts (‘00s), working with such powerhouse figures as Madonna and Britney Spears (they were responsible for Madonna’s “How High” and Britney Spears’ “Toxic,” just to name a few).
The three came together in 2007 and subsequently released the eponymous debut LP two years later. In 2012, the band took a much more varietal and experimental approach to its music with sophomore album Happy To You, and just last month Miike Snow followed up with a third LP, the appropriately titled iii, which brought the band into a much more energetic and vibrant play space, while also catapulting the trio to moderate mainstream recognition with singles “Genghis Khan” and “Heart is Full,” which have permeated alternative radio airwaves for the past several weeks. Miike Snow has been celebrating the new release over the past month or so with a North American tour, hitting up The Independent for two sold out nights before continuing onto Coachella (the first of many festivals the band is hitting up this season) and beyond.
I had the pleasure of seeing Miike Snow on both of the band’s previous tours, yet both were festival appearances (Treasure Island 2010, Moogfest 2012), so experiencing the electric madness of the band – especially its new material – in the confines of a modestly sized venue like The Independent was a beast of a completely different nature. After a dynamic set by Boston dance duo Kaneholler, the three key members of Miike Snow (and the band’s accompanying drummer) slunk onstage amidst dim light and eerie ambient music. Along the back of the stage stood several stacked metal frames in the shape of empty cubes, though they were not empty at all – each housed an array of quadrilateral screens composed of tiny LED lights that ignited with colors and shapes that shifted with each song performed.
Throughout the set Winnberg and Karlsson floated from station to station, bouncing between guitar duties to synthesizers and back to guitar, peppering in backing vocals here and there, depending on the song. Wyatt mainly hovered over the keyboard that was tucked to the left side of the stage, sometimes wandering front and center to sing directly to the crowd when he wasn’t playing keys. Wyatt’s appearance was a bit scraggly and unkempt, his shoulder-length brown hair just barely reaching his leather jacket, sometimes blending in with his beard in moments of low light. He regrettably informed the crowd that he would be unable to do any head-banging (as he is apparently wont to do), due to a recent concussion he inflicted upon himself by “totally eating shit” in Seattle a few days prior. Despite the lack of mobility from the neck up, he had no problem in thrilling the packed house with his haunting tenor vocals.
The main set consisted of a dozen songs, almost evenly split between tracks from the recently released iii and the band’s self-titled debut, presented in a way that had songs from each album alternating. The band kicked things off with iii’s opening track “My Trigger” and then went right into a B-side from that first album, a song called “Billie Holliday.” Miike Snow chugged through iii songs “Heart of Me,” slow-jam “I Feel the Weight,” and hit songs “Genghis Khan” and “Heart is Full,” the latter of which was reworked onstage with a slower, piano-driven intro. From Miike Snow, we were treated to “Burial,” “Cult Logic,” and the monstrous seven-minute “Silvia,” while the main set was closed out with a one-two punch of “Song for No One” and “Black & Blue.” The only song performed from Happy To You was album closer “Paddling Out,” and it came just shy of the halfway mark, enhanced by eye-searing strobes and flashing white squares of light that overtook the scattered LED screens behind the band. Miike Snow encored with iii’s final track “Longshot (7 Nights)” and the band’s seminal first single, “Animal,” during which the crowd went absolutely berserk.
Before the release of iii this year, Miike Snow was not a name that one would hear too often. The band’s fan base was small and devoted, but Miike Snow was hardly a household name. I still think the band enjoys a bit of under-the-radar success, but the most recent LP has definitely put Miike Snow on a more recognizable part of the map. The sound has changed over the years, and now caters to a broader audience, but there is still a mythos surrounding Miike Snow. At this point in the band’s career, Miike Snow has shed the masks previously worn, but like the fabled jackalope, experiencing Miike Snow in person holds a kind of magic that can’t be disputed.
Miike Snow is currently on a lengthy tour that has the band hitting several festivals in North America and Europe, including Coachella, Denmark’s Roksilde, and San Francisco’s very own Outside Lands. The band’s latest LP iii is now available via Downtown/Atlantic. For more information visit the Miike Snow Facebook page.
Photography by Corey Bell for Best New Bands