Droning feedback. Static. The mechanical thrust of distorted, blown out drums. These are the first few sounds you hear on CHARMS’ debut album, Human Error, out June 16 on Killroom Records (which you can stream below). Even before the song descends into a flurry of manic, sharp riffs and guttural synthesizer wallops, these first few seconds could be a thesis statement for the ethos the band exudes. It’s the hum of a world overrun by machines, fighting for its humanity against overwhelming synthetic pressure. Or, you know, Seattle.
"Everything in our world today is exponential,” says CHARMS synth-bassist Josh McCormick. “Growth of technology, the gentrification of a neighborhood. Everything speeds up. I think that adds to the anxiety.”Human Error is an anxious record made by anxious players in an anxious city. The narrative of the city being overrun by tech companies has been tread again and again, particularly when talking about artists struggling to find their place amongst the rising rent and cultural shift. The members of CHARMS are no different in their frustrations and worries, but their frenzied energy isn’t a just a condemnation at corporate assimilation but an internal conflict of their own consumption.
“How many people in this town complain about Amazon but use Amazon?” guitarist and vocalist E.J. Tolentino questions, including himself in the crosshairs.
“We sound the way we sound because of this technology or because growing up we played hella video games, watched hella movies about sci-fi nightmares,” drummer Ray McCoy says. “We're simultaneously thematically inspired by these things while also terrified of the fact that this city is becoming these things. We couldn't sound the way we sound without those things… It's definitely something that's on our minds constantly and seems to shape the way we sound a lot.”
In the video for their song “Sirens”, the band gives a literal interpretation of nature vs technology. Microchips and motherboards emerge from the ground, wires around rocks and plants while the band pummels through ghoulish and dissonant riffs. The band describes it as akin to an infection of Mother Nature or a parasite. The parallels to the Evergreen State are clear, but the band cautions on taking it as a total condemnation.
"Parasites aren't always bad,” McCoy says. “There are benefits to having symbiotic relationships with things. I think that is the source of a lot of anxiety in this town right now, too. People's guilt from being like, 'This sucks, but at the same time, I need it! I'm benefiting from it!'"
It’s this conflict that propels CHARMS’ music. As avid sci-fi fans, they intimately understand the complexity of change. They joke about seeing headlines of Terminator-like robots framed in fearful tones, noting the irony that the scientists working on these projects likely grew up on the same apocalyptic stories that they did. Progress is inevitable, but it’s the stewardship of people that takes the ultimate responsibility.
“The record is almost a warning about how we need to be careful about what we're doing,” McCormick says. “[Technology]’s not going to go away. This is what's happening. We need to be smart about what we're doing.”
It took some time before CHARMS could become the frantic, noisy act that they are today. Fans who’ve been paying close attention might remember some of the band’s earliest work, such as the 2013 Hillary EP. If you don’t remember, the band would like to keep it that way. As they made the shift away from the bright and jangling indie rock of their early days, the band scrubbed the Internet of all their old work. The band even jokes, “if you can find any of it, let us know so we can burn it.”
“We mostly pulled all of it so it doesn't exist anymore,” McCoy says. “Honestly, it's just misleading. We've had people come see and been like, ‘This isn't what I thought you were’ and have not been stoked on it. It feels bad, you don't want that to happen to people.”
The band attests much of their dramatic sonic shift to wearing themselves out on the older material on tour, as well as their dramatic change in approach. Originally the band would work with Tolentino bringing songs he’d written to the band and fleshing them out from there. Instead, they started to take a more collaborative approach.
“It was actually all of us writing and playing together and that's kind of how the sound changed,” Tolentino says. “That is just naturally what we write all three of us together.”
"It's usually us just slamming into each other until something happens, which makes everything take fucking forever compared to other bands," McCoy adds.
With the new approach, CHARMS’ music quickly began to reflect the type of music they were actually influenced by; harder, raucous, and feverish. The band began embracing their whims and focusing on their live performance. From 2014 onward, there was virtually no recorded CHARMS music available except for a demo of eventual Human Error track “Separator,” but even that was only available for streaming on Bandcamp and didn’t allow downloads. The songs that appear on Human Error have largely comprised the band's sets in those three years.
“We always laugh at how many things we've been able to get to play and opportunities we've had with just that one song that we're so sick of,” McCoy reflects.
The band’s successes thus far are a testament to their live performances which are filled with mounting energy that builds and combusts repeatedly, constantly raising the stakes. McCoy says that any given time during a song, each member is doing something that could stand out on its own. Having them all going at the same time keeps the band members themselves entertained, but also creates the wild energy that they've built a reputation around. When they went into the studio with producer Randall Dunn (Wolves in the Throne Room, Sun O))), Earth), they sought to capture this sound as accurately as they could. Dunn agreed and encouraged them to use the same gear they perform with on the record. Listening to Human Error feels like hearing the band in one of their basement shows, which is a hard feat to accomplish given just how arresting their shows can be. But the band is quick to give credit for their buzzed about sets to the unofficial fourth member of CHARMS, projectionist Kevin Blanquies. Blanquies doesn’t just pre-create the visuals he projects onto the band; he’s performing with them in real-time. The vibrant colors and glitches are a distorted live feed of the band, reflected back on top of them. It’s a striking image (seen in the press photo at the top of this article) that feels intrinsic to the band.
“Kevin had just moved here from California and he watched us play the in-store [at Everyday Music]. Later that night I ended up at a bar by myself and he was there, too,” Tolentino remembers. “We just started talking. I just randomly ran into him there. We ended up just getting trashed together. He showed me on his phone...I asked him, 'Well, I play music. What do you do for fun?' He showed me this crazy video stuff he'd been working on and I was like, 'We need you to do this. We need you to get this live for us.' Keep in mind, this is the first time we ever hung out. We just got so drunk and I was like, 'You should move in with me!' And then he did!”
Since then Blanquies has been a fixture of the band with all of the members saying they get bummed whenever there is a show he’s unable to perform with them. It’s an understandable feeling – it’s hard to listen to Charms and not imagine the flashes of strobes and morphing colors covering their faces while they clamor against their instruments on the stage. But even outside of Blanquies crucial component, the band throws themselves into their performance. For Tolentino, performing the songs means putting himself back into situations that inspired many of the tracks.
“It's weird because almost all the songs are about real situations like past relationships, break-ups, family shit, family health problems, all those type of things,” Tolentino explains. “It all goes to this theme of fantasy, fiction, magic, whatever technology dystopian type of things that make it so it's more of an escape. When you sit down to watch any of those type of movies, escaping reality. It's kind of ironic because I'm an escape that is based in real situations that I was in. It's almost like I'm turning these bad situations into an entertaining movie for myself.”
That’s part of what makes Human Error such a thrilling listen. There’s the flurry of noise, the ominous apocalyptic rhythms, and underlying internal conflict of being an artist in a world overrun by commerce. But none of that carries such an impact without one crucial element: being a human. The conflict of man vs. machine has prevailed as a theme in modern literature for a reason. It’s a fear of being outclassed or made obsolete by humankind’s own creations. CHARMS embody this idea astutely throughout the music on the record and even with the name Human Error as well.
“For me, [the title] ties back to that whole technology angle,” McCoy says. “It's like referring to real mistakes that a living, breathing human being makes but the way that it's referred to in like fucking sterile studies.”
Dissociated and dimed out, CHARMS have created a record that feels like walking the pavement every day in the city. They capture the feeling of scoffing at tech conglomerates right before checking the shipping status of your new guitar cables on your brand new iPhone 7 Plus. That a record this loud and chaotic can capture these subtleties so well shows that they band is exemplary at their craft. If there are any hiccups hidden beneath the layers of fuzz, it’d be safe to just chalk them up to human error.
Human Error is out tomorrow. Stream the album in its entirety below.
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