My introduction to Austin’s krautrock tinged indie group American Analog Set wasn’t sexy or romantic. Riding around in Houston in 2001, a friend and I noticed a local Warehouse Records was going out of business. Being pop culture vultures, we stopped and bought up as much as our meager teen earnings allowed. Compilations were priced at something like a quarter, so those were especially tempting, hence my possession of both volumes of SST’s The Blasting Concept, Brian Eno’s No New York and a mix for Tiger Style, a now defunct label I had never heard of. Tiger Style’s roster was eclectic and this label mix reflected that, pairing guitar heavy indie rock from 764-HERO with an especially good mix of James Chance and the Contortions’ “Contort Yourself” and sludgy doom rock from Dead Low Tide. But it was American Analog Set’s “Punk as Fuck” that wound up stuck on repeat, mystifying me with its familiar but unique sound, setting me down a lifelong romance with the Rhodes electric piano at the same time.
I found the band and the song via a frankly sad scenario, but I contend that anyone unmoved by its opening blast of autumn beauty is inhuman. A brushed drum flourish and a harp-like guitar strum open “Punk as Fuck” before the song settles into its default groove, a motorik beat made dreamy by the use of brushes instead of sticks and a muted walking bass line. The bass and the Rhodes provide the melody before the vocals enter the mix, but they do so in a way that emphasizes the silence between the notes, escalating through tandem chimes and low end.
As I soon learned when I made my through the rest of American Analog Set’s catalog, the band excel at sustaining grooves, but they have never been strict krautrock revivalists, preferring instead to find new, disarming ways of reconfiguring that subgenre as something more melody-oriented. Yet “Punk as Fuck” is perhaps the furthest they travelled from krautrock terrain, it’s still got a ‘70s feel to its construction and tone, but it packs a gorgeous vocal line that places it closer to Laurel Canyon than Germany. Its parent album Know By Heart featured a collaboration with Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, so it’s tempting to align it with the West Coast indie pop bubbling up in 2001, yet it feels infinitely more honest than the work of those acts.
And what of that title? Admittedly, seeing a track called “Punk as Fuck” on a compilation featuring No Wave legends and a then new project from Murder City Devils members had me expecting ample rowdiness. Instrumentally, of course, that’s a red herring—this isn’t American Analog Set going electric. Lyrically it’s a different story. All American Analog Set tracks are inherently lyrically vague, but “Punk as Fuck” has a krautrock trick of slight alterations happening lyrically. “It’s perfect/But worth it?” mutates into “It’s a circuit/But it gets worse, yeah” on the descents from the verses, eventually culminating in the chorus’ twist: “So leave me to die/In the comfort of my own home/Of my own home.”
It would be about a decade before that line and the loop of the rest of the lyrics would really make sense to me, even if the sense it makes to me is maybe not the intent of the song’s creator. Shortly after we left Houston, my mom was diagnosed with cancer and the following decade would see a circuit of “conquering” that diagnosis and then learning it had come back. With family by her side, she was always alright, until she wasn’t, and in the wake of the final diagnosis we elected to take her out of the hospital and bring her home.
Death is unconquerable, but there is something inherently punk about deciding how it will go down, under what terms. Anyone who has dealt with a loved one suffering cancer understands how it’s a circuit that gets worse, how sometimes the treatments force you to ask over and over whether it’s worth it. Sometimes trying to save someone isn’t right and comfort is more important. “Punk as Fuck” has been a song I return to continuously over the years because it provides a full emotional spectrum, comforting me in memories of a happier time and also in a shared experience, expressing first in the twinkling of a well-mic’d Rhodes’ beauty and sadness before lyrically conveying cycles and certainty and comfort. For me, “Punk as Fuck” is perfect, and it is worth it.
Morgan Davis sells bootleg queso on the streets of Austin in order to fund Loser City, the multimedia collective he co-runs. When he isn’t doing that, he plays drums for Denise and gets complimented and/or threatened by Austin’s musical community for stuff he writes at Ovrld, which he is the Managing Editor of.