Is it ever possible to outrun isolation—something so deeply ingrained in our culture anyway, now only compounded by the pandemic? After the first few months of extreme caution here in New York City, it’s not like we were physically alone; every day found us shoved together on subway cars and brushing shoulders on the street, just with our faces covered, trying not to breathe too deeply. Still, there’s no warmth in the accidental second that the person across the aisle holds your gaze, no meaning in the touch you’re dying to escape. There’s certainly no real outlet or exchange in it. Even as live music “returns” (though its purportedly confident stride on its way back to normal lately looks more like a haggard limp) and we all stand shoulder-to-shoulder against the lip of the stage, it seems like people still feel that disconnect in what was once an inherently communal experience. How do you fix something that defies the circumstances of our whole situation in the first place? How do you even begin to reignite that organic spark between strangers when everything works against us?
At a time where even our most menial daily tasks can feel like forcing a stray puzzle piece into the wrong puzzle, it was odd to have discovered Vermont natives and self-described “queer post-punk” trio THUS LOVE by accident, no intention or force involved. Happening upon the second of their four sets during The New Colossus Festival—a five-day string of shows spread out amongst a bunch of venues on the Lower East Side—back in March, it felt like a sharp, concentrated exertion of joy that flickered elusive sparks between everyone in the room.
Though we didn’t know it, all of the material they played had already been recorded, mastered and sequenced to appear on their debut album, Memorial. I was impressed enough that I hung around to ask them where they would be playing the following night, and for every New York show they played afterwards, it seemed other people shared my instinct that I had witnessed something, felt anything. With an impressive return rate, more craning necks and dancing bodies crowded each subsequent venue, desperate to catch the spark in case it ever extinguished for good.
The first thing anyone going in blind will pick up from THUS LOVE’s visual output, whether it’s a gig or their creative, increasingly experimental music videos, is that these three people in front of you—guitarist/vocalist Echo Mars, bassist Nathaniel van Osdol and drummer Lu Racine—are having the absolute time of their lives. Even if you forgo the visual, the recordings themselves thrum with that same palpable jolt. Each driving bassline anchors the chaos in place, cutting through the air like propellers diving in and out of each other, as intricate guitars spread themselves across the blunt path cleared by the rhythm section. Under the tower of song, each lyric is concise and painfully emotive, with blanks left for you to fill in.
The album’s lead single, “Inamorato,” feels menacing even as the hook takes romantic swoops that mimic the feeling of your stomach dropping: “Don’t let up on your love to contrive / When all this breaks down / I’m memorizing your inamorato assart / It’s suffocating when everything’s falling apart.” For the record, “inamorato” is usually used to refer to a male lover, but to “assart” is to clear forestation to use the land for human use, creating an image of an organism violently hacked apart from its life source. For such a minimal setup, what they create descends upon you, teeth bared, a threat and love letter in equal measure.
Those contradictions carry over to the stage, as well: van Osdol tends to stand stationary, sturdy on one side, while Mars ducks and dives her way across the stage on the other, jumping on top of Racine’s bass drum between lines. More often than not, Racine beams in moments like these. Glancing around any audience they play to, you’ll notice those grins are reflected back without fail. It’s one of those fleeting moments of connection within a group of people so desperately missed that you want to hold it to your chest like a secret.
The thing is, THUS LOVE was never really anyone’s secret to begin with. Fresh off several festival dates and a summer tour opening for Crawlers, there’s been a number of established artists offering them support slots at major venues. They’re taking a few meetings in the city before they open for Sports Team at Mercury Lounge on the day we’re scheduled to meet, so we opt to chat in person. It’s raining when we meet up a few blocks away from the venue in a coffee shop we deem too quiet to speak in, and then a community garden where we deem it too cold to sit outside (“This is punk, don’t worry,” Mars assures me of our impromptu tour of the neighborhood, on a Goldilocks-like search for an appropriate spot). Finally, the trio, decked out in painted jackets as they shiver in the harsh wind, pick an Irish pub across the street, where two of them order one pint of Guinness to split simply because they’ve never tried it before, and decide they love it on the spot. Now settled and ready to chat, we focus on their hometown of Brattleboro, population roughly 13,000, where they were lucky enough to find each other, as well as “the small community of freaks that we are lucky enough to call our friends,” in Mars’ words.
Racine first met Mars in her print shop in 2018, forging a bond as fellow trans musicians and deciding to start a band together. After working their way through a few lineups, they finally convinced their friend van Osdol to join on bass, practicing intensely in the months leading up to the pandemic. The album’s drums were first recorded at The Buoyant Heart, a former organ factory that has more recently been converted into a community space and the band’s headquarters—then lockdown threw them for a loop.
Mars says the trio didn’t do anything during the first few months of the pandemic, but would eventually get together to retool old songs and work on two newer demos which ended up being their first two singles: “Inamorato” and the jittery, existential “In Tandem.”
“It was just one long processing of emotions for me that I laid down kind of all at once with like, a stupid MIDI drum, no effects … just the emotional backdrop,” she recalls. “Much later, when we started actually getting down to record, those songs were shaped as we recorded them.” With necessity being the mother of invention, they built a makeshift studio in their shared apartment and officially began recording in October 2020.
“That was such a funny experience,” van Osdol remembers of the process. “I would be at work during the day, and Echo was at home creating this full studio, getting everything set up. I’d come home from work at like 9 p.m. and get into it while they were in the middle of recording. We had to scour for some of the equipment.”
“It was a completely novice, amateur approach,” Mars agrees, “and it took us a long time to record it all. I would spend days on the same two guitars, or just taking an old song and trying to make it something that felt evolved to this moment. We needed that indefinite amount of time.” She stresses that they had “no notion that there would be any future in music. We had no notion of actually sending it to a label or anything. We were at this point where it’s like, ‘Well, we’ve been a band for this long. We need to record an album.’ Even if nothing happened, it was mostly just to document the moment and move on from there.” After the record was mixed and mastered by May 2021, their manager took a shot at sending the album to Captured Tracks, who signed the band that October.
Having already garnered comparisons to everyone from labelmates DIIV to Bauhaus, they work in a lineage of post-punk artists that have come before; from the jangly haze of opener “Repetitioner” to the galloping groove of “Family Man,” Memorial is an album that plays into the sharp, abrasive turns characteristic of the genre. The latter track, in particular, pairs the push-and-pull tension that great post-punk can execute with impressionistic observation that feels snide in its incisiveness (“Tuesday night happy-hour / Gasoline tearing down from the graze, they scour / Loose tin, melt down, make a mess reducing / All your day’s work to a single paragraph, repeating”) before the tension finally bubbles over into a final singalong refrain: “It’s alright,” Mars sneers as the music halts for her to deliver the final shot to the song’s subject, “I’m coming in closer.”
The band readily accept the post-punk label, but they cite both jazz and pop music as essential influences in terms of song structure, with their love for the pop format serving as inspiration to make each track as immediate as possible. Racine describes the album’s sound as “pop songs through a post-punk lens, but as far as what that post-punk lens is, it just ties back to who we are and our life experiences growing up—the politics of being trans.” “It’s the utilitarian mindset of it,” Mars interjects. “Post-punk is what strikes that nerve for us, but we love fucking pop music, so we wanted to dive into that format.”
After having the time to hone the material’s live sound with local gigs as things began to open up again, they found themselves traveling to play and connect with different audiences at events like New Colossus, which they say “felt like the debut of THUS LOVE in the capacity that it has now. We were playing with more power and presence than we had before. Everyone who runs that festival broke us onto the scene.”
Suddenly, that pop immediacy and live experience came in handy when building a fanbase, which they all instantaneously answer was originally composed of “post-punk dads”—“Which is cool!” Rancine makes sure to stress. Now, as they’ve continued to travel further and play larger gigs, they’ve noticed initially small groups of people, often not there to see them in the first place, returning with force (and friends in tow) each time they come back around again, just as I had noticed in New York. Each makeshift contingency of THUS LOVE fans seems to form almost entirely due to word of mouth, an unprecedented phenomenon in the age where it feels like the social media algorithm is king for newer bands to receive any kind of break.
Traveling with bigger acts has certainly helped; they specifically cite the Crawlers tour as a major moment they became aware of their expanding presence. “It was fun having access to a fan base that I feel like we would have just sort of skirted over if not for that tour,” van Osdol says. “We walk out on stage and it’s just children screaming,” Racine laughs, “but the dads were still there, chaperoning their kids!”
“One person told us they took a train from Louisville to see us when we played in Chicago,” Mars reflects. “I would never have imagined that platform that we now have access to where we would reach others in such weird, specific ways.” Racine agrees: “I feel like we owe everything to those people and their attention, their fucking vulnerability, their warmth and kindness.”
As a band that injects earnest, overwhelming emotion into a genre known for its lack of sentimentality, as well as a group of three queer musicians operating in a space usually not built for or run by people who look or sound like them, it’s not hard to see what compels even first-time listeners: They work in human contradictions that people want to attach themselves to. The overflow from the mismatched elements they piece together produces that electric current as they sacrifice themselves to the potential shock in all they do. In a live setting, it’s difficult not to laugh deliriously back at them. Each note emitted acts as a sound of resistance, the sound of disbelief that they’re pulling something off that simply shouldn’t work—at least not in our current state of music consumption.
“Sometimes, I really stay up at night and think about how fucking crazy it is,” Mars says as another jukebox classic blares in the pub and the band gets ready to head out for their next meeting of the day, single pint of Guinness drained. “I mean, thinking about those ‘special’ bands for me, and [the potential] to be one of those for somebody, anybody, even a couple of people … I mean, that’s why you do this.”
That night at Mercury Lounge, that same electricity sparks in the room the second the band takes the stage, like someone flipped a switch. As their set progresses, there’s a noticeable shift within the crowd to approach the stage—not like a mosh pit shove, but a hypnotic, gradual pull where people can’t help to move their feet closer to the vibration. When shoulders brush, it’s heavy with meaning. When grins pull at faces, the sensation is a shared one.
“The pith and point bears a harrow now / The pith and point is on hallowed ground,” Mars howls from the stage, taking breaths between lines like each word tugs at the center of her chest, knocking the air out of her as much as it’s knocked out of us. On ground that is quite literally hallowed for countless bands who have made their name in that same room, a few people next to me gasp at the same time I do. We glance at each other, smiling, and it sparks.
Memorial is out now on Captured Tracks. Stream/buy here.
Elise Soutar is a writer, musician, friend of witches, wannabe punk and annoying New Yorker. You can watch her share the same pictures of David Bowie over and over again on Twitter @moonagedemon.