Oxford Collapse

The first thing I notice is how quiet Brooklyn is.

It’s almost too quiet, I think to myself as I step out of the Bedford Avenue subway station, on my way to see the Oxford Collapse perform an acoustic show on their home turf.

After soaking up the sights and sounds of Manhattan, I almost feel like I shouldn’t be here. It’s too…normal, too inconspicuous. If this is the kind of place that produces exciting rock bands, it certainly doesn’t show it immediately. Even Michael Pace, Oxford Collapse’s singer and guitarist, doesn’t seem comfortable about the band’s association with the New York City borough when I talk to him after the show.

“We’re a Brooklyn band in location only,” Pace says, adding that the band members will each be moving to different parts of the country by the end of their upcoming tour. “There isn’t really a Brooklyn scene, or an identifiable Brooklyn sound that we can be lumped into. We’ve always done things on our own terms.”

After six years of being a band (although Pace insists they’ve only been a “real” band since 2004, when bassist Adam Rizer joined the group), Oxford Collapse have never strayed from that mantra. The group’s sound combines punk-rock abrasiveness with clever pop songcraft that recalls ‘90s college rock favourites like Pavement, and on their newest, loudest record Bits – their second album for Sub Pop, yet fourth overall – comparisons to My Bloody Valentine and even the poppier moments of Hüsker Du are hard to avoid. At a time when it seems like every rock band is going back to mine the post-punk era, Oxford Collapse are proud to recall a time in underground rock that today rests on the nexus between retro kitsch and cool-as-hell. Pace, however, says the band’s influences reach back much further than 1991.

“I grew up with the Minutemen and Black Flag and all the SST bands from that period in the ‘80s,” Pace recalls, “but I would also listen to Randy Newman records and be amazed by how great of a pop songwriter he is. So I always had those two sides to me – the punk side and the lighter, poppy side. I think both of those sides are readily apparent in our songs.”

Another group that Pace and the rest of the band adore is The Band. Their love for the Canadian rock legends was obvious from the way they rambled through a version of “When I Paint My Masterpiece” that closed the show, and Pace’s higher register recalls The Band’s own Rick Danko. But as Pace elaborates on his love for bands from the past few decades, it becomes clear that he’s drawn to the period for reasons other than the music.

“I think it was much more of a statement back then [in the 1970s] to be a band that would be signed to a record label and would put out an album and go on tour,” he says. “It was like, ‘Wow, they really made it, they’re superstars.’ But now anyone can make a record, anyone can release it, anyone can make themselves heard, and the impact of doing that has fallen away. You actually had to be good at what you do in order to make it back then, so I guess that’s why I’ve always been drawn to those groups.

“I definitely support the whole DIY aesthetic, no question,” Pace continues. “It’s just much harder to make an impact these days, because you’re swimming against this sea of product, and most of it is bullshit. We just keep trying to separate ourselves from the pack, but it’s definitely difficult.”

With the band going on tour in support of Bits until the end of September, Oxford Collapse will have no time to lament the current state of the music scene; they’ll be too busy spreading their own unique rock sound across North America. Understanding that the acoustic show was an odd introduction to the band, Pace leaves me with some ideas of what I and other Calgarians can expect when they come through Alberta.

“We’re definitely louder,” Pace says with a laugh. “We’ve never done anything like this [acoustic show] before, and it was very strange to not be surrounded by noise while I’m playing. But I promise the tour will be very stripped down and rockier.”

I shake Pace’s hand and head back to the subway station with those words in my mind, knowing that I will see him soon when he and the band come through Calgary. And that they will definitely be louder.

Originally published September 2008