Christian Riley and Isaiah Michael's band name—Civil Lust—and the title of their Mike Sasich-produced debut EP Constitutions (civillust.bandcamp.com) are provocative. What's civilized about something as primal as lust, which leads to grunt-y rutting? Does it mock the lame distinction between civil unions and marriages? And how does Civil Lust pair with Constitutions, which can describe the parts and the whole, or one's general well-being or disposition?
Casually slouched on the small couch in their second-floor Avenues pad, singer/multi-instrumentalist Riley and bassist Michael gamely explain. Naturally, as a new band—they've been together since June—they wanted something grabby, an attention-getter. But there was definitely an emotional and socio-political tone to capture. "It's kind of hard to explain," Michael says. His head is cocked in the opposite direction of the Morrissey-esque swoop in his hair, which is shaved high and tight to reveal a spider-web tattoo covering his cranium.
"A lot of the influence behind this band is a lot of post-punk and early goth stuff," Michael says. His tattoos advertise this much: post-punk Morrissey (The Smiths) covers his right carotid artery; late goth-rocker Rozz Williams (Christian Death) covers the left. The Moz-Rozz portraits speak to an interesting duality within Civil Lust. Morrissey's music is wistfully blissful, while Williams' is largely confrontational. Yet Morrissey, for all his lyrical sensitivity, can be a cantankerous dick, while Williams had a sensitive side—many of his lyrics dealt with heartbreak.
Civil Lust's music is similarly complicated and contradictory. The duo also is into the glammier side of goth and post-punk, "all that lustful stuff that all those glam bands bring to the stage," Michael says. He adds that they also want to convey a sort of militancy, which comes from another major influence—The Clash, circa Combat Rock—only it's not the legendary English punk-rockers' leftist politics they wanna cop. It's the gentle but active aggression of their message. This makes the seven synth- and bass-heavy songs as melancholy and questioning as they are grounded and forthright, and that duality sufficiently clarifies the band name.
Now we get down to divining the significance of Constitutions. The title track opens with a sample of John C. Lilly quoting Sufi Oscar Ichazo regarding the concept of Satori, "a natural, simple, easy, obvious and continuous state" that's akin to mindfulness or loving kindness. "It's basically self-identity and finding your own little niche," Riley explains from his seat closest to the window. When writing the lyrics for the EP, "I was questioning my constitution, where do I fit in?" In the song, over a tortured guitar, insistent bass and moaning synths, Riley intones deeply and with emotion, as though channelling Peter Murphy and Robert Smith: "My constitution/ is fading I know/ but how to define it?/ how does one grow?"
The theme continues throughout the other six tracks, like "An Alternate Display": "I'm alone/ I am nobody/ understand me/ understand me/ let me go." Others explore relationships, religion, alienation, and even names—as with "A Man You Will" (a play on Emmanuel). The songs, Riley continues, "reflect how you view yourself, [and how your experiences] define who you are." From his end of the couch, Michael contributes this: "It's very existentialist."
Even as he strove to reflect and define, Riley continues, he realized that this soul-searching quest for balance and composure is a work in progress, forever. It's not something you can rush. Ideally, it should move at a comfortable, civilized tempo. Ideally, because life determines your pace.
When Michael and Riley met, they almost immediately started Civil Lust and even moved in together. Before the songs were fully written, they were already playing shows and booking studio time. But at their gigs, Riley says they were playing unfinished music. "Prior to recording, I was making up lyrics for many of the songs." It was nerve-wracking, he says, but he learned that he can work that way: "It's completely changed the way I write music.
"I realized that, before getting a point across, or telling a story, that the goal is to create a mood." Words, whether names or lyrics, have meaning, but sometimes serve only "to reinforce the tone of the song."
And Constitution's tone, although dark and aggressively brooding, is not entirely offset by a faint pulse of hope. Just like with Moz and Rozz, Michael and Riley are engaged in civil lust for answers. Only, whereas Moz remains a jackass and Rozz hanged himself 20 years ago, these guys, in their ardent but aggressive quest, actually have a shot at gleaning some meaning from life.