“The better a performance feels, the more wrecked you are afterwards,” says Lip Critic frontman Bret Kaser, and it might as well be the band’s motto.
The New York City-based group, whose music rides high on a lightning bolt of primal energy, have established themselves as the must-see live act of the moment. NME saw it for themselves at the band’s debut UK performance at The Waiting Room in north London last November. “They often feel like three or four bands rolled into one; the fervid hardcore thrashers, the hip-shaking dance heads, the sardonic post-punks – and beyond,” concluded a glowing five-star review.
If their shows are special, then it’s because the band have worked extremely hard to make them so. Performances to date have typically run at little over half an hour, an uninterrupted onslaught of digital hardcore frenzy that requires almost militaristic preparation.
“It is 100% like a fitness and conditioning challenge,” says Kaser over Zoom from his Brooklyn apartment. “Before our tour, I went through six weeks of vocal and diaphragmatic breathing coaching. We all went through a really conscious effort. It’s masochistic, but I like feeling completely emptied at the end of a night – that feeling where you’re constantly trying to push yourself to be more entertaining and more captivating.”
The Lip Critic stage set-up is as unconventional as their sonic palette: two drummers, Ilan Natter and Danny Eberle, thrashing at opposite ends of the stage, separated by Kaser and Connor Kleitz at sampler desks in between. The visual evokes the central dichotomy of the band’s music: the animalistic bloodrush of hardcore punk bucking up against the transcendent, eardrum-bursting euphoria of 808s. The band’s latest single ‘The Heart’ is the perfect embodiment of this approach – bold, aggressive and blisteringly fast.
The band consider the Lip Critic that you see on stage to be a largely separate entity from the one you hear on record: “You’re listening essentially to a remix album that you’re never going to be able to get on a streaming platform,” says Kaser about their shows. The argument has merit, and yet Lip Critic’s studio releases also bottle an undefinable energy that is all their own.
Since signing with Partisan Records [IDLES, PJ Harvey] last year, they have released the incendiary singles ‘It’s the Magic’ and ‘The Heart’, with an equally arresting, currently-unannounced full-length album on the way later this year. The beats come fast and the vocals are tight and brash, as if the band have hand-picked the most visceral elements of a range of musical styles – hardcore, industrial, hip-hop, hard electronic – and mashed them into a final form that makes them distinctive from virtually all of their contemporaries.
“It’s hyper-eclectic, accelerated pop music, really,” says Kaser, by way of an explanation of the Lip Critic sound. “It’s obviously got a hardcore and punk tilt; we’re not doing anything too complex in terms of song forms, they’re short and hard-hitting. But you never know what sound is going to pop up next – our focus is to not get pinned down into a set of aesthetics, but to stay nimble and keep it natural.”
“Our live shows are 100% like a fitness and conditioning challenge” – Bret Kaser
The band’s roots can be traced back to the high school band Chalklit, formed at the liberal arts school Purchase College, just north of New York City, in 2017. Natter played guitar in the group, with Eberle on drums, but when the other half of the band bailed on a show one day in late 2018, a far more intriguing trajectory opened up to them by chance.
The ebullient Kaser was already on friendly terms with the members of Chalklit, so in a moment of crisis they turned to him to get them through the night, while Kleitz filled in on bass. Kaser improvised a series of free-form stand-up bits over the band’s serrated post-punk tracks and immediately, something gelled. Before long, the current lineup of the band had crystallised, and they were soon making friends and enemies in the local community in equal measure.
On a college campus containing largely indie and folk groups, the nascent Lip Critic were a disruptive force. “We had no songs, we just had samples and rhythms loaded up and some general ideas,” Kaser recalls. “We’d play 20 minutes of semi-improvised digital hardcore music, and I would explode my voice every single night. We were a shock to the system – it was probably more shocking than it was good, we were just doing it for the sake of doing something that felt fun and different.”
He continues: “I remember there was an online forum for the campus and we were practicing one day, and someone commented, ‘What the fuck is going on in that room, I can hear it from my dorm’. And we were literally hundreds of yards away. Not everyone was on board with what we were doing.”
Natter and Eberle brought the rock credentials to the table, while Kaser and Kreitz were more in thrall to the world of electronic production. What united them was an obsession with fast-paced, adrenaline-pumping music, and they started to imagine what a band that existed simultaneously in both planes might sound like.
“Everyone who DJs and makes electronic music, the one thing that sucks about it is the intangibility of the craft you’re making – you never get to pick up an instrument,” Kaser says. “And the same thing goes for when you’re in a band, the one thing is you never get to slam an 808 through a giant subwoofer and have it be the most powerful fucking feeling in the world. We thought this band could be the perfect cheat code to have both of those feelings.”
“Our focus is to not get pinned down into a set of aesthetics, but to stay nimble and keep it natural” – Bret Kaser
They rejected a number of early band names in favour of Lip Critic, which they admired for its “Dada-esque nonsense” qualities, and started playing regular shows at underground venues such as Brooklyn’s Bohemian Grove, quickly establishing a name for themselves. Their commitment to sticking to their own esoteric tendencies, though, meant that for some audiences, they were a tough sell.
“It felt like we were a little too goofy for the hardcore scene and a little too hardcore for the more poppy electronic world,” says Kaser. “We fell into a weird middle ground by being very uncompromising, aesthetically. And I wouldn’t change that for anything in the world.”
A series of early EPs, including 2019’s ‘Kill Lip Critic’ and follow-up ‘Lip Critic II’, released through their own label Birdbeak Records, cemented this momentum. The band were refining their sound, shearing off the frayed edges, while all the while building a hometown following that started to catch the attention of outside observers.
Their shows have since expanded over the years, leading to that aforementioned UK debut last autumn, which they remember fondly. “We went as hard as we possibly could,” remembers Kaser. “I was sweating so much, I felt like I had stepped in a shower with all my clothes on. I spilled a bottle of water directly over a power strip, and somehow it kept going. It really was a fun show.”
It is the plight of most great new bands to be lumbered with comparisons with pre-existing artists, and much of the early hype about Lip Critic has seen them linked inextricably with Death Grips. While the band are eager to point out their countless other influences – Melt-Banana, Soul Coughing and Deerhoof included – they do accept that the Sacramento band looms large in their collective psyche.
“It’s hard to deny that Death Grips are one of the most influential bands for all of us,” says Kaser. “The stuff they’ve achieved is pretty astounding. They are a symbol of a lot of the things that we believe in – and musical and creative freedom – that feeling of putting your all into stuff. It’s comforting to know they exist.”
The same anarchic chaos that is synonymous with Death Grips seems destined to follow Lip Critic around, too. After a run of shows opening for the likes of IDLES and Screaming Females in 2023, and with the prospect of an extensive international headline tour on the horizon to support their forthcoming record, they are hungrier than ever.
“This album is the most unified piece of work we’ve made,” says Kaser. “It is the sound of us trying to make the most visceral, poppy, sweet candy moments and the most dark, disgusting, viscerally gross moments too. It’s the heaviest and the fastest stuff we’ve done – we tried to hit on every single cylinder that we could.”
If that is a measure of the deadliness of the new album, then God only knows what carnage is set to be unleashed when Lip Critic hit the stage again this summer. We suggest you start training now.
Lip Critic’s new single ‘The Heart’ is out now via Partisan Records
Listen to Lip Critic’s exclusive playlist to accompany The Cover below on Spotify and here on Apple Music
Writer: Max Pilley
Photography: Sam Keeler
Label: Partisan Records