Mi Ami's sound packs a punch; lyrics on 'Steal Your Face' can also grab you

By David Malitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 9, 2010

Daniel Martin-McCormick doesn't take lyric-writing lightly.

"I'm interested in exploring the way the dissolving of close relationships can create an intense cocktail of feelings where you're trying to let go and you're mourning the loss of a person. And you're also furious and angry, and you whiplash back and forth," says the 26-year-old D.C. native, who sings and plays guitar for San Francisco-based trio Mi Ami.

Other themes include "that people have ideas and prejudices that basically turn someone from a human being into a commodity" and "experiencing life as somebody who is disconnected from their own self." Heavy stuff.

Thing is, you can listen to "Steal Your Face," the band's firecracker of a new album, and the lyrics might not even register until the seventh or eighth time through. What will hit you right away, and hit you hard, is the exhilarating sonic stew that Martin-McCormick and bandmates Jacob Long and Damon Palermo have cooked up.

Mi Ami exists at the intersection where punk, funk, dance and blissed-out jams meet and mingle. The ingredients -- which include tribal drums, rumbling bass and even Space Invaders-keyboard effects -- tug against one another to create a feeling of unhinged mayhem. But chaos never reigns. In fact, "Steal Your Face" is an amazingly tight collection. It alternately slashes and glides through a sea of unsettled sounds, but the band is always in control of the noise it makes.

There's another reason Martin-McCormick's words might not resonate right away: They aren't exactly delivered in the most audible manner. He's much more of a shrieker than a singer, favoring a spastic, high-pitched yelp that adds greatly to the urgency, if not necessarily the coherence, of the songs. His is such a sharp, piercing wail that there are moments on the album, particularly on "Secrets," when it's hard to tell whether the sound is Martin-McCormick's voice or a high-pitched guitar note. Maybe it's both.

"I first started exploring singing when I was, like, 16," he explains, citing British post-punk band Huggy Bear as a major influence. "I was trying to do something high-pitched and aggressive because I didn't really know how to sing. Now it just comes pretty naturally." Still, Martin-McCormick is trying to expand his repertoire by adding a twist on "Steal Your Face," even if he doesn't know exactly how to describe it.

"I've been getting into this . . . not moan . . . but maybe a whimper? An aggressive whimper?"

Not long after Martin-McCormick began exploring the upper registers of his voice, he found himself in one of D.C.'s best bands, Black Eyes. The five-piece group had released an album on iconic local punk label Dischord and established itself as one of the most explosive live acts in the city. The group's shouty, percussion-heavy shows were cathartic adrenaline rushes that consistently left both audience and band members drenched in sweat.

But Black Eyes was a comet on the D.C. scene, shining brightly for just a couple of years before disbanding two months before the release of its second and final album. Eventually Martin-McCormick and bandmate Long moved to the other side of the country, and Mi Ami was born.

"I really loved living in D.C., and I still think of it as home, obviously," Martin-McCormick says. "But at a certain point it was time to go explore a new environment. It was definitely an exciting shift and good for some artistic renewal."

The primal nature of Black Eyes is still evident in the music of Mi Ami and is decidedly influenced by Washington's musical past. "Some of the biggest things that got me excited about music in the first place were watching the Fugazi documentary ['Instrument'] and reading Henry Rollins's 'Get in the Van' -- this idea that you'd want to have your band be really intense."

Even if the intensity has come down just a notch from those teenage years, Mi Ami is still not for the weak of heart. Or ears. It may trade in some spiky moments for spacey ones, but the trio is constantly on the attack, armed with jagged edges and propulsive rhythms that separate it from many of its peers.

"It's interesting to be making this music now, since most people seem like they'd rather just have basically mellow pop music," Martin-McCormick says. "I don't really have a stance. That's cool. You gotta mellow out."

Sounds like San Francisco has gotten to him after all.

MI AMI Appearing with Maxmillion Dunbar and Steve Summers on Thursday at the Velvet Lounge, 915 U St. NW. Show starts at 9 p.m. Tickets: $7. 202-462-3213. http://www.velvethttp://http://loungedc.com. The Download: For a sampling of Mi Ami's music, check out: From "Steal Your Face": "Latin Lover" "Secrets" From "Watersports": "New Guitar" "Echonoecho" -- Daniel Martin-McCormick

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