The Situation On a recent Monday evening, I'm having cocktails at Sun Liquor on Capitol Hill with Travis Coster and Jeff Johnson of the experimental noise duo U. Johnson wears a collared shirt and has nicely combed hair. He works as a computer programmer, and, as his bandmate puts it, "is good at looking very handsome." Coster sucks down his whiskey ginger in five minutes. "I wanted to feel good!" he says. He does. And so do we--the three of us talk so excitedly we accidentally blow out the candle on our table four times, each time replacing it with one at a neighboring table, and each time watching as the poor bartender comes by to relight it.
How They Got Here Coster and Johnson are roommates as well as bandmates. They say there are many days when they spend 20 consecutive hours together, often making art--Coster pieces together found-object collages and Johnson draws. He's currently working on a comic book based on the Nigerian novel that lent its title to the Brian Eno/David Byrne album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.
"It's kind of just a weird roller coaster," Johnson says.
"Everything Jeff does creatively is just a crazy, weird roller coaster," says Coster.
Shop Talk U was originally Coster's idea. He wanted to create an anonymous band--no press photos, no live shows, no public presence of any kind--that made "really degraded pop songs."
"The way people make music now is very self-centered," he tells me. "It's very like satisfying the ego of an individual. I just [didn't] want it to be about me."
That changed when the guys accepted an offer to play a friend's gig, the first of many to come. U's music is dark and stormy, frequently instruments-only, and rendered with electric guitars, percussion, and a whole lot of fiddling with pedals. Which is why Coster and Johnson both play shows on their knees instead of standing, in order to stay closer to said gear.
To regain their anonymity, I suggest they wear white sheets, with holes for their eyes and mouths like ghosts.
"Well, it's too late now," says Coster. "I didn't want it to be a gimmick!"
Behind us, the bartender examines the unlit candle for possible defects.
BTW Speaking of gimmicks, Coster says that wasn't his intention when he thought of the name U--he just wanted something simple.
"We thought about changing it, but everything we thought of was even dumber," says Johnson.
The strange, impossible-to-search name does add to U's aura of mystery, though. "It's kind of a problem," says Coster, "but it's kind of cool."
U is playing the Rendezvous this Thursday, May 5. Secret Colors, Tadoma, and Geist & The Sacred Ensemble are also playing. The show starts at 10 p.m. and the cover is $6.