A Very Special Episode

Jen Meller: Dancing about photography

Some people say “a picture is worth a thousand words.” And some people say “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” And then there’s the people in the middle, who say “taking pictures of music is worth a thousand hours of dancing about architecture.” These people are very confused.

Or are they? Because I know of at least one person who’s the embodiment of this latter statement and her name is Jen Meller—photographer, media instructor, music video director, editor, dancer, actor, DIY music capturer, livestream videographer, product pic lighting ninja warrior, and maker of nine-foot-tall mushroom installation pieces perfect for “dancing about architecture.” 


So how'd we get here? It all began when we planned to post some of Jen’s images as part of the recent piece on A Very Special Episode and their debut full-length, Fix Your Hearts of Die. But since the Deli’s MySpace-era blogging platform can’t accommodate more than one photo per post (so DIY!) we came up with the idea of making a video montage (or multiple video montagi) of Jen’s photography (both studio and live shots) set to AVSE’s music, which you can view above and below.


Jen is also friends with and neighbors of AVSE so I thought why stop at using Jen’s photos when she could also be plied for "behind the music" style salacious tidbits about the band and their lifestyle choices. Well, suffice to say, the band aren’t that inclined to salaciousness (rumor has it they spend most of their down time binge watching Law & Order re-runs, the ones with Ice-T) but still in a scintillating phone conversation Jen did have some interesting things to say about AVSE and about her own work—which is cool cuz it’s about time we started featuring some of the many “artists behind the artists,” in particular those who make musicians presentable in visual form. Our conversation has been loosely translated into the writeup below.

Beginning from the beginning, Ms. Meller grew up in South Huntington, which is in Suffolk County, which is on Long Island, a town that Wikipedia notes is “the birthplace of Walt Whitman, and the Walt Whitman Shops mall is nearby.” I kid you not this is exactly what the entry says, which then goes on to observe that “the Walt Whitman Shops were previously known as the Walt Whitman Shopping Center.”

Fending off the siren call of the Walt Whitman Food Court, Jen moved to Washington D.C. to attend American University and got her B.A. and B.F.A. in photography which allowed her to say F.U. to the M.A.N. and get an M.F.A. which led to work in fashion photography and also a gig with the D.C. based record label Blight Records doing press photos, set design, stage design, and lighting all while still in grad school (sorry Jen if I’m getting any chronology wrong here! I'm just a music blogger!) and through this association with a label self-reportedly specializing in “challenging new forms of sonic expression" with artists on their roster like “Philly slime wiz Nyxy Nyx” (sounds cheesesteak related but I’m not sure) it all led to Jen becoming cooler than she though she’d ever be, but still quite modest I would say.

The next stage in Jen Meller's professional development came with a move to New York City, skyscrapers and everything, where she really spread her wings—shooting and later hosting live band segments for BTR Live (R.I.P.) for a couple years while also pursuing many other undertakings (need someone to make you a floral mic stand? Jen’s got you covered) and it was through a meet cute Zoom interview for BTR Live that Jen and AVSE were brought together becoming quick “pandemmy pals” which led to an IRL picnic date with the band and the rest is history. 

Even when AVSE had only demos to go by Jen says she was drawn to their “intense rhythms” and later to how mesmerizing they were live (quite true!) and to how lead singer Kasey Heisler’s voice “stood out in a room the way Stevie Nicks's does” which is high praise indeed, especially seeing as how the white winged dove has been know to set rooms on fire.



When it comes to Fix Your Hearts Or Die, in particular, Jen says the latest song she's been hooked on is “New Coke” because of its “sense of anger and sense of release” (see photo montage #1 above) and because it's a "good song to throw on after a bad day." She also praises the LP for capturing “the chemistry they all have together” seeing as it’s their first record with drummer Chayse Schutter who goes all Phil Collins taking over lead vocal duties on one track, “Evergreene” (see photo montage #2 above). Speaking of a unique band chemistry, Jen captures it in her photography: dark-but-drenched-in-color shots, lit by swaths of glowing neon and moody studio lighting, that serve as the perfect visual counterpart to the band’s auditory presence—images sometimes crisp and vivid, other times blurred/oversaturated into abstraction, much as AVSE’s songs pivot between extremes of clean and pristine indie pop-rock, and grimy pedal-saturated white noise freakouts.

And hey, here’s a scoop: Jen and AVSE are slated to shoot a music video later this month with a projected release date sometime in February 2022 (incidentally, all the videos in this post were conceived/directed/edited by Jen save for the Mixed Chicks doc above, solely edited by Ms. Meller). Regarding her music video-making technique, Jen says she’ll listen to a song hundreds of times until images start organically forming in her head, later pulled together to create some kind of story in consultation with the musicians and their own visions using “tweezers to pluck out the right idea.”

Jen says she views making videos as a form of choreography seeing as she first came to filmmaking as a dancer (those "intense rhythms") and you’ll see what she means if you watch the vid she made for Nihiloceros’ “iamananimal” which was filmed in one single take and which obviously required some serious choreography to pull off with a hand-held camera trailing Shadow Monster's Gillian Visco as she wanders about a labyrinthine two-story house in the midst of a surrealist fever dream and so if you wanna see what “dancing about architecture” looks like, well here ya have it.

And how ‘bout this to bring things full circle, it was groundbreaking Ukrainian-American dancer/choreographer/experimental filmmaker/photographer Maya Deren (1917-61) who first attracted Jen to photography so you do the math because I’ve reached about a thousand words already. (Jason Lee)

   

A Very Special Episode usher in change with "Fix Your Hearts Or Die"

Reader’s note: This write-up is the first of two pieces on A Very Special Episode’s album Fix Your Hearts Or Die, the second of which is a profile and interview with music photographer/video director/general polymath Jen Meller who's worked extensively with AVSE and who generously provided the image above.

The recent holiday got me thinking “what’s it all about, Alfie?” and here’s what I came up with after binging on chicken tamales from my local taco truck washed down with a few El Presidentes in the middle of the night. Halloween is all about transformation—much like a tamale emerging from its protective corn husk, and yes I’m over-reaching—with kids transformed into demonic pixies looking for their next sugar fix (ok, not such a big change there) and adults transformed into monsters and witches and sexy EMT workers, etc. with the open secret being how it all serves as an excuse to fully inhabit the freaks we already are inside (by “playing pretend” oh the irony) all the while peeling back the façade of normal life and exposing it’s oft-monstrous or just plain weird nature, not to mention our too-frequent complicity in playing the roles we’ve been assigned.

Deep, huh? Or, to put a more positive spin on it, Halloween is an all-American spin on Old World carnivalesque rituals, not to mention Caribbean and South American Carnival traditions, where trickster figures rule the day and where established identities are subverted, taboos broken, excesses accepted, and existing power relations turned on their head. Check out Mikhail Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World if you got time and wanna read more about it but I’d better move on for now.

Or, as lead singer/lyricist Kasey Heisler of A Very Special Episode puts it on “Fuck Everything,” a track off Fix Your Hearts Or Die, the band’s debut full-length release: “I’m here but I feel like I’m losing me” and it’s not an isolated sentiment, because the notion of identities being up for grabs, potentially transformed and power relations along with them, pops up again and again in Kasey’s lyrics—like on “Cowboy” where she rebukes the song’s titular cowboy in such terms (“you know you had my going / tell me exactly who I am / to keep yourself from knowing”) or on “Weather the Storm” which evokes volatile weather systems as a parable for weathering change (like H.G. Wells said "adapt or perish" or in other words "fix your hearts or die") or on “Fire Walk With Me,” a mood piece that samples dialogue from the film of the same name in which Laura Palmer routines transforms from “goody two shoes Laura" to “very naughty girl Laura" when the sun goes down ("night time is my time") while suffering at the hands of evil, powerful men on both sides of the spectrum.

Related to this theme, it’s perhaps worth noting how by day Ms. Heisle works as an elementary school teacher—and how even outside of the classroom she often wears the wide-open yet indecipherable smile of the grade school teacher that says “no matter what kind of severe behavior problems you happen to have I’m still going to whether the storm”—but come evening, once onstage, and who knows maybe in the teachers’ lounge as well, she transforms into an alternately snarling/smiling rock ’n’ rolling bass-playing demon, a pixieish Gene Simmons with severe bangs but minus the compulsion to bang all her groupies. (to my knowledge, that is, not really my business anyway!)

Lyrics aside, it’s in the music where AVSE really drives home the theme of transformation, for rarely does a band captures volatility/mutability so potently in sound with guitarist Patrick Porter in particular having perfected a pedal-heavy playing style that makes you feel like you’ve entered the eye of a hurricane and been sucked into its vortex and passed into another dimension, assisted by Chayse Schutter’s powerful, nuanced drumming and Kasey’s dynamic bass-ing. 

And while loud-quiet-loud dynamics aren’t exactly a new thing, what sets Mr. Porter’s playing apart from many of his post-Pixies indie guitar brethren is that instead of changing from quiet to loud and back again on a dime, he’s got this thing of gradually morphing and warping the sound from one stage to another like a molting insect in a way that feels organic and highly visceral—who knew there were so many shades of white noise, ranging from etherial to abrasive?—for one example check out “Introspectre” with it’s oozing, mewling, turned-inside-out flanging musical timbres to hear what I’m getting at here, not to mention the vocal echo effect that sounds like someone left their vinyl copy of Fix Your Hearts Or Die out in the sun for too long.

For another example, go no further than album-opener “DFP” (down for pack-hunting?) which could and should serve as the soundtrack to a horror-movie werewolf transformation sequence. From the opening moments of the track the sense of tension is gradually ratcheted up bit by bit (“consume my brain and make it spin / don’t recognize the place you’re in […] there’s a sound that’s humming inside / a feeling that something’s not right”) until finally after several minutes the full on full moon lycanthropic metamorphosis takes place (from about 3:13 to 4:03 to my ears) after which a sudden state of calm descends and it sounds like the song may be over (AVSE are pros at the fake-ending fakeout) before a concluding coda that sounds like a wolf baying triumphantly at the moon. (Jason Lee)

   

A Very Special Episode go for a "Night Drive"

The “very special episode” is a venerable tradition of the televisual arts wherein our society faces down its most vexing problems with the help of inane plot contrivances, buffoonish acting, and howling laugh tracks. All often oddly endearing nonetheless. The ‘80s and ‘90s were perhaps the golden age of this particular art form with VSE’s used to warn the wider populace against such menaces as marauding punk rockers, pedophile bicycle shop owners, and drunken suicidal birthday clowns. Aficionados today savor the delectable discomfort produced by the best of/worst of (same difference) these “episodes” with their bizarre tonal mashups akin to a saccharin diet soda garnished with a dash of strychnine.

The Queens-based band A Very Special Episode likewise merge the sweet and the serrated and in the process make you a more upstanding and aware citizen. Take their latest single--a bedroom production by obvious circumstance--which is a lo-fi, high-sheen number called “Night Drive.” It starts innocently enough with some rollicking drums, four-on-the-floor bass and sing-songy keyboard over which bassist and lead singer Kasey Heisler lays out the scene: “You see it all stretched before you / purple sky painted over blue.” Sounds lovely! But any hopes for a laid-back evening excursion are soon dashed when suddenly “the night is speeding faster / fade to black” and on cue we change channels to a shimmering-distorted blur of guitar and keyboard with Heisler dropping all social niceties: “Hey, you know what / you got it all but I can’t get you off.” From there we circle back to the opening disco-punk groove now overlaid with a layer of buzzsaw guitar (or maybe a neighbor was testing out their new power-sander next door?) that weaves in and out of the song until its crashing climax.

This all can’t help but remind one of the very special episode of Saved By The Bell where Zach gets Jessie addicted to caffeine pills because I'm thinking those guitars must be the sound she heard in her head by the end of the episode. I mean sure it all starts off innocently enough at the ‘50s diner with our girl Jess sharing her dreams of applying to Stanford and debuting her neat little pop-singing combo with Lisa and Kelly. But by the final act Zach is pumping our future Showgirl full of uppers to help her study for midterms and going all Lou Pearlman on her ass with his girl-group svengali schemes. It’s no wonder Jessie aka “Nomi” would soon find herself working the pole and all thanks to that jerkface Zach! (please rest assured, dear reader, The Deli is sex-worker positive!)

OK so I got a little distracted there. Whatever its lo-fi origins, “Night Drive” is the best encapsulation I’ve heard so far of AVSE’s live sound with its mixture of melodic hooks and knuckle-dragging noise. To end things here with the requisite musical-calculus equation I’m gonna go with equal parts Garbage, The Walkmen, and My Bloody Valentine. Or if you prefer metaphors of the TV/movie variety I’ll give you “Saved By The Bell meets David Lynch” (especially Lost Highway on this particular song, not to mention the band’s logo is a VHS videocassette hmmmmm). If it all sounds up your alley check out “Gravity” below for a slightly more polished version of the AVSE sound. (Jason Lee)

 

   

A Very Special Episode rip (in moderation) on "Cut for Time," play Our Wicked Lady 3.14

Brooklyn post-punk trio A Very Special Episode know how to keep things in control. While discordant, shoegazing guitars and a healthy serving a feedback perforate their 2018 EP Cut for Time, the production and format hits a finely-tuned middle ground between cacophony and run-of-the-mill indie rock, opting to incorporate Fender-friendly sounds in a manner that’s aggressive, yet well-curated. At the center of the storm is singer and guitarist Kasey Heisler’s impressive vocal performance, one that imbues the band’s latest offering with an energy that’s characterized by an energy that’s as devil-may-care as it is triumphant — standout song “Crazy” is a succinct encapsulation of what makes AVSE tick, a track well-suited for a highway singalongs and pit-opening alike. Give it a listen below, and catch the band at Our Wicked Lady on March 14th for the Rizzo’s sixth annual PROM FOREVER.