ABOVE: TOM VAN BUSKIRK (LEFT) AND GEORGE LANGFORD. IMAGE COURTESY OF TIM SOTER
When we met Tom Van Buskirk and George Langford, the cousins who together make up the band Javelin, at Kellogg's Diner in Brooklyn a few Saturday afternoons ago, we were all moving a little slowly. The night before, Javelin had played the American Natural History Museum's One Step Beyond party, which entailed performing songs from their irresistibly charming new electropop LP, Hi Beams, in the Hayden Planetarium.
It was an especially auspicious day for it—a meteor had just exploded over Russia, and an asteroid had barely avoided hitting Earth, all in the space of 24 hours. It's to Javelin's credit that despite these and sundry other distractions, their set kept a crowd of drunken 20-somethings transfixed. It's no accident: Hi Beams is a record calculated to play exactly as well at a dance party as it does in headphones, with stylish songs that start out merely catchy and end up unexpectedly complex.
At Kellogg's that Saturday, Van Buskirk got French onion soup, Langford got a BLT, and we got to talking.
ALEXANDRIA SYMONDS: Which one of you shouted out to Neil deGrasse Tyson last night?
TOM VAN BUSKIRK: That was me.
SYMONDS: That was solid. [all laugh] You guys have played at a lot of unusual venues, ever since you started. Are museum audiences different?
VAN BUSKIRK: Definitely. The spaces are larger, which means there are usually more people. It's also more boomy. And then there are other things to do and look at. Usually it's more of like a cocktail-party atmosphere than a show atmosphere.
LANGFORD: You can also get away with a lot of stuff in the name of art.
VAN BUSKIRK: The first time we played a museum was MOMA, 2008 or 2009, and we had dancers with us, and they had all these homemade uniforms—leotards and stuff—and one of the dudes' underwear just snapped.
SYMONDS: Oh, my God.
VAN BUSKIRK: And he kept dancing.
LANGFORD: He's like, "I'm not ashamed of myself."
VAN BUSKIRK: He's, like, this kid from Providence. And so this museum crowd is having to deal with this kid.
LANGFORD: But they were like, "Wow, this is turning into an interesting performance art piece." [laughs] So much scrotum happening. [all laugh]
SYMONDS: I don't know if you can put scrotum on a spectrum, though, like, "so much." Either it's there or it's not. [all laugh]
LANGFORD: Yeah, it's binary.
SYMONDS: I don't want to say your new album seems like it was more conventionally produced than previous ones, but you did embrace the studio experience more, right? What prompted that decision?
LANGFORD: We had never been in a proper studio for this band and never involved a third person touching our precious sounds.
LANGFORD: Sculpting things and making decisions and sometimes overriding our ideas in the name of making a better decision. We came to realize, this is awesome. Our friend Seth Manchester was the engineer, and we should have given him more of a production credit in some areas, because he's really involved in a lot of the tracks.
VAN BUSKIRK: Hopefully we're doing that now. We try to mention him.
LANGFORD: I knew it was going to be great, but I came out of it like, "Wow, I don't know if I can go back to working the way we used to, because it was so awesome."
SYMONDS: It also seems like you wanted to make the way songs would sound when performed live more obvious on Hi Beams than before.
VAN BUSKIRK: Yeah. We knew when we were making certain songs, we wanted them to make sense coming from two dudes on a stage, even if you knew that a bunch of the track was coming from a computer or something.
LANGFORD: An appropriate amount of noise for two people to be standing and presenting.
VAN BUSKIRK: Yeah, and gestures that we're making on stage should be heard—you know, if something is being done mechanically on stage, it should be sort of constantly there.
LANGFORD: I mean, there are a lot of guitar moments on the album, but it's pretty buried in there. I have certain ideas about backing tracks and sequence things. For a live audience, if we have a lot of recorded guitar tracks and there's no guitar on stage, that might be hard to follow.
VAN BUSKIRK: If you hear a trumpet, you want to see a trumpet.
SYMONDS: I think it was Chekhov who said, yeah. [all laugh]
LANGFORD: But I give a pass for more electronic sounds or keyboard sounds. People are like, "Oh yeah, that's a sequence, of course."
VAN BUSKIRK: We wanted to build a system that was more whole in its entirety. This is what the record sounds like, this is what the show sounds and feels like.
SYMONDS: You mentioned being two dudes on a stage—I don't know you guys feel about this, but I think we're in kind of a golden era for two-man bands right now.
LANGFORD: Yeah, I think we're gonna look back on this period and notice how the economics shaped the sounds of music. Just in terms of, nobody buys records anymore so you have to resort to touring all the time. Bands like Antibalas are sort of a thing of the past, because you can't have, like, 15 dudes in your band. So you want to get more economical. Two guys fit in one car.
LANGFORD: So we're in a Honda. I don't want to get too ethnomusicological.
SYMONDS: I would love for you to get too ethnomusicological! [all laugh] Can you?
LANGFORD: Like, Delta Blues guitar music in the '30s, certain styles were thought to mimic the sound of a greater band. But there's no money, no one has a band, this is just me and my guitar, and I'm mimicking and playing a lot of multiple parts at the same time. And at the time people were like, "Wow, that guy sounds like an entire band, he's amazing." And there's something to that.
SYMONDS: That's almost the expectation, now. That's really interesting.
VAN BUSKIRK: It was true of dub soundsystems in Jamaica, too—because the wealthy Club Med world would have live bands. And it became this thing, like the guys who had little shops, little soundsystems; it's like a very curated jukebox. It was cheap. You just had to spend money on speakers once and you just curate your sound system instead. A live band is expensive, so they only played at the expensive places, and then that became known as the resort music—the rich folks' cocktail party. The real shit is happening over here, for largely economical reasons, but it then becomes an aesthetic, too.
SYMONDS: Yeah, wow. I'm learning so much. [laughs] This has been written about, so maybe it's not that interesting to note, but I think there's an economic aspect to how many of the number-one pop hits of the last few years, like "Dance Until the World Ends," "Die Young," are based on kind of apocalyptic dread. It's really refreshing to listen to your album and not get a sense of that, actually.
VAN BUSKIRK: We both come from a history of puritans.
SYMONDS: Your family or America in general?
VAN BUSKIRK: We as in us, but America in general too. We're very practical-minded when it comes to such things as the apocalypse. Like when I think of the apocalypse I think, "Okay, where's the water shortage going to be, how long is that going to take, who's going to try and capitalize on it?"
LANGFORD: [laughs] We're reasonable.
SYMONDS: Can we actually talk about growing up? Have you always been close?
LANGFORD: Our families would always spend holidays and summers together, so we'd hang out quite a bit growing up. We have a lot of cousins on our maternal side, and all the families lived pretty close together. During each school year we wouldn't see each other so much, but we all definitely pretty much grew up together.
SYMONDS: Where did you grow up?
LANGFORD: I grew up outside Boston. Tom grew up on Rhode Island, mostly. There was always a sense of, even your really good friends in school and at home, if they ever hung out with your cousins, it was always like, "eh." Like, I don't even see these people that often, but you guys can't really hang out with us.
SYMONDS: Were you guys an alliance among the cousins? Would the other ones get jealous?
LANGFORD: There were micro-generations of siblings. Our moms probably all coordinated when they were having their next one.
VAN BUSKIRK: There was mainly a trio. For certain summers it was George, me and Sam—our other cousin. We formed this little pack of kids on dirt bikes. We were lucky enough we could go out all day, morning until night, and just be completely on our own. Go to the beach; blow up army men with M-80's. Just anything we could get our hands on. We'd save up money for penny candy and just hang out.
SYMONDS: That sounds idyllic. Did you have a lot of time to be bored? That's a helpful creative thing for kids.
VAN BUSKIRK: Yeah, people talk about that a lot, especially nowadays, where there's always something to be distracted by. Staring out the window of the car; long silences on car trips. You're not playing a video game. James Brown talks about that a lot, actually, in his autobiography, because he spent a lot of time alone as a child. His mom left, and his dad was working running rum and stuff. He would be a four-year old kid in the forest in Georgia, making friends with bugs and poking around. I used to do extended, solo imaginary games of hiding up in a tree and pretending you're a ninja or something. I hope kids are still doing that.
SYMONDS: Yeah, me too.
LANGFORD: I think they are. My hope is that they're going to be way more capable—just crazy brains—highly imaginative, but also grew up with smartphones.
VAN BUSKIRK: I think the social awareness that's coming up just leads beyond—hopefully they'll be creative and be able to think and work in groups at a level that we maybe couldn't.
SYMONDS: Actually, I was just talking with a friend about whether we're evolving emotionally at a rate that's capable of keeping up with technological development. Like, whether we sort of have the faculties yet to deal with things progressing so fast.
VAN BUSKIRK: Our emotions, at least in recent centuries, have taken the back seat. Supposedly, we're only meant to consider something like 12 people at a time—what your tribe would have been.
SYMONDS: Really? That makes sense.
VAN BUSKIRK: I think. I've heard that's why, if they're trying to raise money for children who need assistance, they'll generally show one child. Because when our brains encounter that, we're like, "One child can be saved. We can take that child into our tribe and support that child." But as soon as the numbers grow, literally if they put two children, the numbers are cut in half, because that's a big tribe, and we can't really deal with them. Rationally, of course we should be able to figure that out and get past our caveman stuff. [laughs]
SYMONDS: What roles did you guys fill in your group of cousins? How would other ones describe each of your place in the ecology?
VAN BUSKIRK: Well, we were the little guys for a while. Our elder siblings were very established.
LANGFORD: They had their pack. So we were like the sub-pack.
VAN BUSKIRK: And never the two shall meet, really.
SYMONDS: You were like the JV squad?
VAN BUSKIRK: Yeah. They had things going on that we didn't understand. But we never hazed each other. It was pretty friendly.
LANGFORD: No, there was enough of a gap where they weren't even really around.
VAN BUSKIRK: Yeah and we had free reign to kind of create our own little thing; a lot of board games. I remember as far as our creative alliance, we used to make tapes. Like, I was obsessed with making tapes. To the point where I forced it on people when I think they were sick of it. Like, it's a sunny day why would I stay inside. [laughs]
LANGFORD: I remember recording this weird radio play. It was kind of an accidental generation of a world of humor and understood sensibilities through those activities.
VAN BUSKIRK: And music.
LANGFORD: It went from that and turned into basically just music.
SYMONDS: Can you pinpoint when that started, or was that a gradual thing?
VAN BUSKIRK: Well, in high school we were both making recordings.
LANGFORD: I was a guitar player and I played in blues bands and jam bands and jazz combos and stuff, and Tom was more like with a four track. Like, Beck sounding. DJ Shadow. You had the turntable and mixer.
SYMONDS: I would say that your current sound is kind of halfway between a jam band and Beck. [all laugh]
LANGFORD: I'm okay with that. With us both getting into hip-hop at a certain stage, like everybody did, I stopped getting into guitar as much and recording samples, and realized that we were both doing the same thing. I'm two years older, so when I graduated, I came down to Providence a lot and started collaborating.
VAN BUSKIRK: When George moved to Providence, that was when the band really kicked off. We had a practice space, a hilarious situation. Lots of mice and weird bands on either side. There was a hip-hop production crew below us who -
LANGFORD: No insulation between our studio spaces, and they were really threatening to us all the time. They'd be making beats and stuff, and they'd come up, and I'd be playing the drums, and they'd bang on the floor and bang on the door. I was like, I'm not used to this level of confrontation, and I'd open the door. We had MPCs, and he was like, "What are you doing in here?" And we were like, "We make beats!" And he was like, "You do what?" His mind was exploding, like, "No you don't!"
VAN BUSKIRK: The funniest thing was when George was hitting the kickdrum on his ceiling, he was like, "What are you doing up there?" "This is the acoustic version of drum kits you use every day."
LANGFORD: Then there'd be sludge metal bands and everybody playing at the same time.
SYMONDS: When did this happen?
LANGFORD: That was like 2005, 2004.
VAN BUSKIRK: Providence was funny in those days. Nobody read blogs. There was all this stuff going on that nobody talked about, or ostensibly knew about. George would come in with things every once in a while, and things trickled in from the internet, but generally there was no impetus to document what you were doing and get it out there, or absorb what other scenes were doing and get it in there. It was really insular, but really creative. It's a small scene, really smart, and people just don't give a fuck. They're just pushing the limits.
The spaces themselves, too, were totally insane. Literally, barrels of industrial waste if you go into the wrong room. We'd play shows at places where insulation was getting rocked out of the ceiling by everybody dancing. Like, black dust coming down. We're performing, and afterwards, you blow your nose and it's black.
SYMONDS: You mentioned you didn't get the sense that people were reading blogs—now, that's not really the case anywhere. I don't think you can go anywhere where people haven't immediately heard the latest everything. Also, this is something that was in the press materials for Hi Beams, and I assume that one of you probably wrote it—that one of the themes was "advice for internet-age musicians."
VAN BUSKIRK: [laughs] That was me.
SYMONDS: Can you talk about that? Or were you just joshing?
VAN BUSKIRK: No, there was this song on the album called "Friending." It's kind of vague, but I just remembered being struck by the concept of friending, or the concept of following someone on Twitter. I'm not trying to poke too much fun or say that this is bad. It's more like, pointing out the absurdity of these terms we've created and our relationships to them. Friending someone is somewhat meaningful, and I guess the point is that they see who you are, they know that you like them or something.
SYMONDS: Or want something.
VAN BUSKIRK: Yeah, or want something. That's how people's desires are transmitted these days, this momentary, "Oh my gosh, I love this! I need to collect this onto my page and they need to know I exist." I might forget that fact a month from now. There's a line in "Friending" that's, "You're a little star now but nobody knows your name in Cleveland / So you leave your hometown and only go back to spend weekends / You should've known by now never to bite the hand that feeds you." Sort of thinking about hometowns. A lot of people have the experience of coming up in a scene, and maybe they don't get along with anybody in their scene, and maybe their scene doesn't understand them, but people in Brooklyn or Los Angeles do. So I'm going to go where people understand me.
SYMONDS: I think that's why cities exist. For millions of people with that impulse.
VAN BUSKIRK: Yeah, and I think what happened with us is that we loved growing up in Providence as a band, and we love going back there. I guess biting the hand that feeds you would be not doing that. It's great that you've been accepted by this "worldwide web," so to speak. [all laugh]
SYMONDS: You should trademark that.
VAN BUSKIRK: I know, it's really catchy.
HI BEAMS IS OUT NOW. JAVELIN WILL PLAY GLASSLANDS THIS FRIDAY, MARCH 8. FOR MORE ON THE DUO, VISIT THEIR FACEBOOK PAGE.