Alec Ounsworth at Kilby Court

Posted February 26, 2010 in
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For pretty much as long as I can remember I’ve had a deeply rooted opposition to and disgust for mustaches. I guess it’s an unfair generalization, but from a young age I observed that the only people who had ‘staches were cops, weasel-faced Nazis, and guys who used one hand to turn up their Hank Jr. tape while using the other to polish the fender of their four wheeler after a holiday weekend at the sand dunes. A few years ago a new breed of mustache-wearer became far more prominent in the mostly still stagnant facial hair scene: the sarcastic hipster. This ugly bastard was worse than anything. He had this instinctive ability to wrap his haired lips around Rock and Roll and suck all the danger and soul right out of it.  As more and more of these vile parasites started popping up in public places my anger and outspoken hatred grew until I was so consumed with rage that I could hardly go to a show or a party without picking a fight or stomping out in childish, satanic fury. I was worried about myself. That level of loathing certainly isn’t healthy, and I was wasting away into darkness, consumed by my own fear and inability to interact with anyone who had any sort of mustache affiliation whatsoever. 

Being the first-rate journalist that I am, I did the only thing I could do: inhale deeply, face my inner demons, and grow my own mustache. That’s right. You heard me. I was on assignment for SLUG to cover the Alec Ounsworth show at Kilby Court. You know, that cat from Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. He put out a solo album, Mo Beauty, last October, and has been touring to promote it. I figured that there wasn’t a better method of creeping into his strange indie/art world than to finally go undercover and try to understand what I’d loathed for so many years. Also, for the sake of journalistic accuracy and my own integrity, I’d better point out that I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t have an ulterior motive in growing the awful thing. You see, there’s this girl that I’ve sort of been seeing lately, and she’s more than a little into facial hair. I wanted desperately to impress her (What I mean to say, of course, is that I wanted desperately to get some), and ol’ Alec happened to come to town on a night she didn’t have to work. One way ticket to Mustacheville.

So there I am, right? Walking down the crumbling road that leads back to Kilby, shining green in the night like some sort of cheap Emerald City. I’ve got my right arm hanging loosely around my lady’s shoulder, and my left hand keeps creeping up to my face to curiously stroke the hundred or so hairs that make me a man. I haven’t quite gotten used to it yet, but I’m starting to because I’ve already gotten more kisses in one night than I got in all of 2009. We walk in, and local openers Mathematics Et Cetera have just started their set. Now, I’ve seen Mathematics a couple times a few years ago, and even though they’re probably the nicest people in the entire world I’ve talked more trash about that band than any man alive. But since I’ve last seen them they’ve written new songs, broken up, and reformed, plus I’m trying to open my mind and squash my beef, remember? Anyway, I listen hard, and I watch hard, soaking it all in. Now I’m not sure if it’s the gnarly roots of my mustache taking hold on my brain or what, but I actually start digging them like crazy. Maht Paulos acts like some sort of primal beast doing his slack-jawed, hollow-eyed, drumming thing, and Joe Castor is howling and spitting out his surreal lyrics like a man possessed. God knows what he’s moaning about—something about how John Stockton and Karl Malone are the greatest treasure, whatever that means. They look miserable on stage, unhappy and tense, but the music is sincere, loud and catchy. Did Joe Castor used to have a mustache? I don’t know, but I wouldn’t be surprised, and that’s probably why I never gave the band a chance. Karl Malone had a mustache, and look how he turned out.

Pretty soon they finish up and the guys from Ounsworth’s band start carrying amps and instruments onto the little corner stage. I turn to my notebook to try to get some thoughts together, but I look up as my date gasps.            

“That mustache is so sexy,” she says in my ear.

“Thank you, baby,” I respond, but my pride immediately falls, shattered on the concrete floor, as I realize that she’s not looking at me, but at Ounsworth’s guitarist. He’s got this real bushy, triumphant bastard growing on his upper lip, an unkempt walrus-stache that drifts over the corners of his mouth like the bristly tentacles of some terrific, light-up, deep sea creature. The lazy way he stands as he tunes his guitar makes him look like an extra charming Jason Lee in an ill-fitting suit. She swoons. I clench my teeth. Damn him.

They get set up pretty quickly and start playing Ounsworth’s peculiar brand of indie rock. Not only is he cultivating a subtle Amish look (he is from Pennsylvania, after all), he also has a mustache, just like I knew he would, and even though he never looks in my direction I feel like there’s a bond between us, some unspoken, mystic tie that unites us more than mere music can. Meanwhile, my date, who by is now rocking onto her toes and grinning foolishly, is developing a bond of her own with the guitarist. I stare at him with pure hatred, the kind of severe emotion I reserve for only the most foul and disgusting, but he’s dumbly oblivious, lost behind that hairy monstrosity.

As the set progresses and the music builds, Ounsworth turns from his organ to his band like an orchestra conductor with a head full of peyote, directing and leading them with moans and exaggerated gestures. They look back at him, then around to each other nervously, as if they know something the audience doesn’t—as if he’ll beat and abuse them later if they don’t perform to his high expectations. The bassist looks especially tense, gulping, sweating and trying not to blink. I feel bad for the guy, and just as it appears that he won’t be able to take even one second more of the agonizing torture the song comes to an end. He exhales.

The crowd claps, but doesn’t cheer, and the two (also mustached) young men directly in front of me talk loudly to one another about the last time they saw Clap Your Hands Say Yeah play. A clumsy drunkard toward the back of the room hasn’t realized that the song is over and keeps dancing, stepping like a clown, tripping over himself and grinning. Ounsworth surveys the scene and mutters something about how he feels like killing himself, but rather than ending his life he counts off the next song, which rolls in with the heart-wrenching twang of a pedal steel guitar and indecipherable artsy wailings. I wouldn’t say it’s cool, Velvet Underground artsy, but rather a threatening, inorganic noise that serves to chaotically alienate all but the most devout listeners.

The set eventually winds down. We clap, and everyone is very nice. The drunkard cheers, and the very pretty, polite girls who he’s with look embarrassed, but happy. It’s been a fine evening—maybe not entirely my thing, but I feel like I’m coming away with and deeper knowledge of a world that I never understood, and I’m glad for that. I take my girl’s hand, and we run through the cold air back to my car, parked across the street.  The drive home is quiet. We’re tired, and it’s been a long evening. I drive. She looks out the window.

“Listen, Nate,” she begins, “I just don’t think we can do this.” I list off a thousand profane combinations in my head, and it all starts. I won’t bore you with details of who says what, or describe the awkward drop-off, but now, looking back on the exchange a week later, I realize that I learned a valuable lesson. What did I expect from a relationship with a girl who is attracted to mustaches? Am I a lunatic? No, man. I’ve got myself together now, but I still can’t shake the feeling that something stuck with me, that it has me in its vile grip and won’t let go. Karl Malone had it too, and look how he turned out.