Adapt or die, goes the adage. Reinvent yourself, or be ready to accept the consequences. Jose Ayerve did that last year, when he renewed himself creatively by putting his old band, the longtime Portland scenemakers Spouse, on the back burner, and turning himself into the mysterious masked musician known as A Severe Joy(an anagram for Jose Ayerve). Like Bruce Wayne becoming Batman, Ayerve’s gone from mild-mannered indie rocker to dark, sexy performance artist.
“[It’s] my way of experimenting with potential solutions to the challenges of being an independent musician in this day and age. It’s also my way of keeping the process fun and malleable,” said Ayerve, who released his first self-titled album as A Severe Joy last December. “I had to take a break and re-address my relationship to music creation and performance.”
You can see A Severe Joy in action this weekend, at the Anti-Valentine’s Day Prom events, set for Portland on Friday at Geno’s Rock Club, and on Saturday in Bangor at Mezzenine at Zen. Both shows, put on by WPC Presents, start at 8:30 p.m., and feature A Severe Joy, When Particles Collide, Yes We Kin and Pretty & Nice.
Spouse had been a popular Portland band for nearly 15 years, releasing four albums of complex, hard-driving indie rock, including the 2010 release “Confidence.” Radio airplay had been positive for that album, but show attendance in Maine and elsewhere wasn’t where Ayerve wanted it. Sensing a sea change in the attitudes of his audiences, he opted for a dramatic and, as it turns out, exciting shift in style. A Severe Joy was the result — it’s just Ayerve, in a mask and costume with handheld lights, performing choreographed dance moves and singing over drum loops and pre-recorded tracks.
“The outfit and the mask is inspired by my love of comic books, but I think it’s really about my theater background and tapping into that part of me that feels less inhibited when I wear a mask,” said Ayerve.
The first and foremost reason Ayerve decided to try something different was the practicality. One person touring and performing is a lot less expensive than four or five. But as the project has grown, it’s become rewarding for him in a totally different way.
“One of my big assets is that I can travel very simply. Everything I need for my show pretty much fits in a backpack or small suitcase,” he said. “The project has been so far more engaging, satisfying, and financially viable. I will always want to make music but I don’t want to lose my shirt in the process, let alone my pants – which are really killer and have this crazy lace thing going on.”
Musically, A Severe Joy is a lot more stripped down than Spouse, though it retains the frank, intelligent edge that all Ayerve’s work has held, as well as its thoughtful guitar work. There’s a bit of a 1980s vibe, with the soaring synths and bouncy pop melodies, as evidenced in songs like album opener “I Need You Close.”
“When I first started working on songs for this project, I went through my album collection and honed in on a few different artists for inspiration, none of which were particularly dance-oriented, but each displayed a distinct way of focusing energy and eliciting a physical rhythmic response from the listener,” said Ayerve. “The Clash with their driving bass-lines; The Cure with their heightened atmospheric sense, and Ida Maria with her dynamic, explosive, and passionate vocal delivery. These were my muses for this album.”
But in other places, it’s got an unabashedly sexy vibe, like on “My Luv 4 Sale,” which brings to mind Of Montreal, another theatrical indie band. “Everybody, Hey,” which features guest vocalist Erin McKeown, does have that specific kind of atmosphere created by artists like The Cure — but with a healthy dose of contemporary lo-fi, fuzzy indie rock thrown in for good measure. It’s engaging stuff, well worth multiple listens. And one can only imagine what it’s like live, with Ayerve’s dynamic, totally unique way of performing.