System Overload

El Guapo no ms: Supersystem is (from left) Justin Moyer, Josh Blair, Rafael Cohen and Pete Cafarella.

"Sally Field," a song from the Edie Sedgwick disc Her Love Is Real... But She Is Not, pays tribute to the you-like-me actress's Oscar-winning performance as a union activist in the 1979 film Norma Rae. Yet Field's depiction of a woman suffering from multiple-personality disorder in the 1976 telepic Sybil would have been a more appropriate touchstone. After all, the original Sedgwick was an Andy Warhol scenester and unintentional Paris Hilton role model who died of a drug overdose in 1971, while her current incarnation comes to life when Washington, D.C.-based musician Justin Moyer puts on eye shadow, lipstick, a sparkly blouse and a brunette wig (Edie the First was blond).

In addition, Moyer fronts an idiosyncratic band dubbed Supersystem in the guise of Justin Destroyer, who looks a lot more like the man playing him than Sedgwick does -- for one thing, he eschews cosmetics -- but differs in other substantial ways.

"Justin Destroyer is the guy who jumps around on stage, jumps into crowds and has this musical life that's kind of crazy and kind of cool, too," Moyer says. "And Justin Moyer is the guy who's like, 'What happened?' I mean, I was supposed to go to law school."

Instead, Moyer has devoted himself to an array of creative ventures, including John Cazale Is Dead -- Long Live John Cazale, a novel he's written about the romance between drama queen Meryl Streep and the late actor best remembered as weakling brother Fredo Corleone in the Godfather movies. "I've had a really hard time getting a publisher," Moyer concedes. "I think part of the problem is that the book is really bad."

He's been luckier with music. In mid-April, shortly after Her Love Is Real was issued by De-Soto Records, a D.C. indie, Chicago's Touch and Go released Always Never Again, the official Supersystem debut -- although the latter's lineage, like everything involved with Moyer, is quite complicated. Supersystem is essentially El Guapo -- a band named for the villain of the cinematic masterpiece Three Amigos -- which bassist/ drummer/vocalist Moyer co-founded with guitarist Rafael Cohen in 1996. The next year, the duo put out an EP called The Burden of History on the Resin imprint, and followed up with a full-length, The Phenomenon of Renewal, the year after that. Circa 2000, Cohen and Moyer, joined by keyboardist Pete Cafarella, made a live recording titled The Geography of Dissolution for another smallish label, Mud Memory, before leaping to Dischord, an ultradisciplined, high-integrity operation whose signature acts remain hardcore heroes Minor Threat and Fugazi.

From a musical standpoint, El Guapo had little in common with these groups at the time of its Dischord pact. "We were kind of an emo band in the early days," Moyer says, "but then we became more of a free-rock band" with a taste for avant-garde jazz, experimental structures, electronic fiddling and the occasional accordion solo. They switched things around so often that "we probably alienated our entire fan base," Moyer admits.

This approach began to moderate with the first Dischord offering, 2002's Super/System, which wasn't quite as eclectic as the recordings preceding it, and 2003's Fake French, an album that pushed danceability to the forefront. This unabashedly pop gesture departed even more dramatically from the classic Dischord sound -- so much so that when Moyer and his mates received an entreaty from Touch and Go, a firm that doesn't equate marketing with selling out, they decided to accept it.

"I had, and continue to have, the utmost respect for Dischord," Moyer emphasizes. "I was raised on that music, and the people are great. But you know, we were never sure if we really fit in to the extent we thought we could, and I think everyone who's a musician maybe wants a little more attention and wants their record to sell more. So when someone says, 'Do you want to work with an in-house publicist who's going to send out your records to magazines and try and get people to write about you and create a buzz about you?' that's fine with me."

Unfortunately, a new problem cropped up around the time the record-company shift was finalized. A Latin-rock collective in Chicago was using the El Guapo handle, and its members had gone to the trouble of trademarking it. Moyer's El Guapo would have to die. When new drummer Josh Blair joined the band, El Guapo was reborn as Supersystem.

Most who've heard the newly rechristened band's Always Never Again agree that the material is the project's most accessible to date. "My aunt came to a show a few months ago, and she, for the first time, liked it -- and my mother likes our music for the first time, too," Moyer reports. "It's nice that instead of saying, 'For this song, we're going to use Anthony Braxton's fusion of improvisation and composition, and we need to have our sheet music out,' we can relax and play around with pop songs. It's a little more casual."

Stylistically, "Everybody Sings," "Six Cities" and plenty of other tracks sport abundant hooks and invitingly superficial grooves that give off a jittery, electroclash vibe. Still, Moyer is reticent to embrace that classification. "Someone told me, 'Oh, no, electroclash isn't good. It isn't cool anymore. This record came two years too late.' Well, whatever. I could give a fuck, pardon my French. We made the music when we made it. You can't sit and puzzle through all these supertrendy buzzwords and spend all your time on the Web searching for reviews of your latest single. It's not helpful. And even though this record has been portrayed as a sort of dance-a-thon, it's definitely not. 'Click-Click' is a song that sounds like stuff I contributed to our last album, and 'Devour Delight' is this kind of world-beat song that could have been on one of our first records."

As for the lyrics, which Moyer delivers in an exuberant yelp during his turns at the mike, they tend to accentuate personal politics over the global kind. "Defcon," for instance, pairs couplets such as "Defcon goes from '1' to '5' / So we can know to run and hide" with a hyperkinetic rhythm that pumps at around 130 beats per minute. "It's a song about the world we live in today, where there's all this paranoia going on about who's got a bomb, who's going to have a bomb, is it a dirty bomb, is it a hostile weapon. I don't feel I'm in a position to say, 'We shouldn't ever have a war' or 'All war is bad.' But I feel I am in a position to say, 'I'm scared as hell to leave my house with all these people so angry at each other.' "

Such fears help explain why Moyer's feminine alter ego espouses a cheeky philosophy that embraces escapism. As he writes on, "Edie Sedgwick subverts the illusory opposition of substantial/substanceless, and so subverts the tired opposition of modern/postmodern." Or, in simpler terms, "Think about the last time you traded snide remarks about the end of history at a cocktail party. Wouldn't you rather have been talking about how you wept when Ralph Macchio died in The Outsiders?"

Sure, but because Her Love Is Real's music is more rudimentary and considerably less catchy/clever than the Always Never Again fare, Moyer's off-kilter meditations on celebrities such as "Martin Sheen," "Molly Ringwald" and "Haley Joel Osment" quickly wear thinner than Kate Moss. For that reason, some reviews of the disc have been downright vicious. Nevertheless, Moyer favors nastiness to indifference.

"Of course I'm bummed when someone isn't into my album," he says. "But I would rather be memorably horrible in kind of a funny way than be mediocre. There are so many mediocre bands that exist in the world. You see them; you play with them. It's a litany: 'We're four dudes in an instrumental guitar-rock band.' And after a while, I'm like, 'Can't we just have a law against this?' At least I tried something different. Maybe it failed. Maybe it got through to some people. It was something I tried, though. It was my vision, and maybe it made someone think, as opposed to them just turning off their record player."

Edie has generated oodles of publicity for Moyer, but the press hasn't necessarily translated into ticket sales. Despite a slew of write-ups in advance of a recent Sedgwick show in Minneapolis, Moyer says, "only ten people came." No wonder he's so enthusiastic about Supersystem and his Justin Destroyer persona. "I never thought I'd be able to do what I'm doing now: living this life, having so many wonderful people being so supportive of this music and touring to so many places," he says. And then, the next morning, "I'm Justin Moyer again. I wake up; I make oatmeal; I read a book; I go to poker nights. I'm just me."

Sybil couldn't have said it better.

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