"Gambling is a nihilistic endeavor,” Graham Watling, aka Ice Machine, says on a recent Monday night in Atlantic City, leaning over a $5-minimum roulette table at the Tropicana Casino. “And I see making music as basically a nihilistic endeavor.” Watling is wearing an oiled-leather jacket, a wild beard, and a light-blue visor, which he thinks may have subconsciously influenced the female croupier’s decision to give him light-blue gambling chips. It’s an observation befitting a songwriter interested in hidden patterns and “the back part of the brain.” We’ve met in Atlantic City, on his insistence, to discuss S + Cuba: The Anthology, the first full-length album by his band Miami Ice Machine, self-released in March.
Watling, a thirty-one-year-old from Illinois now living in Alphabet City, formed the band in 2005, after a stint playing drums for the flirtatious carnival-pop band Gal and Lad. “They were originally a circus-y girl duo,” he says, “and I came into it with Phil Spector–type ambitions. I thought they might work in an old-fashioned, soulful pop way, à la the Ronettes.” Broke and unable to tour, however, he left and teamed up with his older brother Paul Watling (guitarist and front man of Lungs of a Giant, a self-described gothic western swing band from Greenpoint) and drummer Ted “Prego” Harrison. Lately the trio has been producing some of the most danceable and optimistic rock in Brooklyn, aided by their hilarious live shows at the Knitting Factory, Cake Shop, the Brooklyn Lyceum, and Anthology Film Archives.
The songs on S + Cuba (or “scuba,” a subliminal nod to Watling’s Caribbean fixation) are fast, efficient, and short, only one of them more than three minutes long. Yet you could imagine each track originating from a different backward sub-tropical island, each with its own musical touchstones and cultural dilemmas. The paranoid, hyperactive “We Don’t Take Platinum Mastercard” is a punkish single concerned with communists, cocaine, and obsessive-compulsives. Watling, playing a Radio Shack Concertmate 450 keyboard, rants in a stylized, high-pitched voice: “You put all of your things on a well-aligned established bookshelf / You put a Post-It note on something to show you that it’s there.” By contrast, the sedated, Pixies-ish melody of “So Goddamn Humid” conveys the almost corrupt atmosphere of a muggy summer day, routine violence tapping at the screen door. The narrator regrets not having listened to an ex-girlfriend, who warned him not to build his glass house on the side of a volcano. “You said the molten rocks will break the glass,” he repeats, calmly, before exploding “It’s so goddamn humid, it’s taking a toll on me!” like someone about to heave his broken air conditioner out the window. “Glory to God in the Highest” is a heavy, straight-faced rock narrative about stress-induced spirituality, reminiscent of the first Electric Six album. And “Cake Shaped Like a Payphone” sounds something like the Fall, at least when the Ice Machine’s singing resembles Mark E. Smith’s blurred intonations. It has a funny, surrealist urgency, as if the cake’s shape is dangerous and must be explained, or else.
Urgency might be S + Cuba’s binding agent. The songs seem to announce: Shit’s bleak. Whether the problem is global warming or the mysterious “blue-eyed doe with a password” who shows up unannounced in the beginning of “Going to Golgotha,” the most effective way to deal with it, they suggest, is through highly disciplined raging. Not raging against the machine as much as inviting the machine to the rager, to try and soften it up. This may be what Watling has in mind when he describes the band’s philosophy as “left-wing nihilism.”
Miami Ice Machine’s sound could be described as playfulness taken dead-seriously (see photo above). One of the pleasures of the band’s live show is watching the audience’s initially bewildered reaction turn gleeful. The mix of burly testosterone, thumping backbeats, and bearded stoicism onstage perfectly belie the delicacy of the verses. “A Steakhouse Your Hair,” a spoken-word hybrid and the album opener, is a gentle encomium to a girl’s morbidly black locks. They opened their set with it during the record release party at Glasslands Gallery, the band flanked by wooden cut-outs of the Chrysler and Empire State buildings with towels around their “necks.” A skeptical-looking guy next to me was staring at the band with a kind of all-consuming concentration. He seemed to be trying to determine whether Graham, Paul, and Ted were cooler than him, and, if so, what it was about them that made them so cool. When the song ended, he snapped out of it and smiled warmly at his girlfriend, as if to say, “I’m glad we’ve come.”
The Pixies, with their mix of humor and intensity, may have influenced the Miami Ice Machine’s sound more than any other group. “They’re my all-time favorite band for life,” Watling says. As an eighth-grader in 1990, his brother Paul took him to see the Pixies at the Riviera in Chicago, part of the Bossanova tour. “It was my first show—a landmark moment. They opened with a cover by the Surftones, ‘Sicilia Ann,’ and they were playing behind the curtain. Then they went into ‘Rock Music.’ When the riff kicked in the curtain dropped, and there was the band. It was so intense. If I hadn’t been at that show I might never have started playing music.” He pauses as if realizing this for the first time. “I think Doolittle is the best work of art of the twentieth century. I like how nobody can argue with that, because it’s so good…. Just kidding. People can argue with that.”
The last time Watling came to Atlantic City, he says, was during a showless tour Gal and Lad embarked on in 2004. That is, the band traveled to different cities without playing any shows, just hanging out and filming music videos for songs that didn’t exist. These videos, however, sometimes inspired songs. Such is the case with “Summer Hit ’02” from S + Cuba, a deceptively simple AC/DC-esque number that begins: “I got hit in the face / With a discount piece of meat.” One of the girls had in fact hit Watling in the face with two pounds of cheap packaged beef on camera. The impact was so shocking that it inspired the melody for the song, which eventually found its way into the Miami Ice Machine’s catalogue.
“Inspiration comes wherever you can get it,” Watling says, before betting a stack of twenty $1 chips on black. The number comes up red, but he is admirably unperturbed, considering he’s already lost $160 in the last half hour. “I was on a plane that was threatening to crash when the idea for ‘Glory to God in the Highest’ came to me. My soul felt like it was on fire. I can’t really control it—the songs just come to you or they don’t.” “Glory to God” was fleshed out after an argument he had with a friend over Jesus’ fate, in which Watling strongly endorsed His martyrdom. “I just felt like Jesus had to take it there,” he says.
The Ice Machine is never willfully obscure, however. He aims for universal appeal. “Our songs are meant to sound good to everybody,” he says. “Like, they should be appealing to people who listen only to the Beatles, or modern rock radio. I want my mom to like our songs.” (She does, evidently. Mrs. Watling was dancing near the back at Glasslands.) “Actually, I tend to get most of my song ideas when I’m at my parents’ house.”
The vibe of the Tropicana Casino and Resort on a damp night in April is one that might spawn a Miami Ice Machine song: the smell of ancient cigarette smoke, the drunks stumbling into slot machines, the ruined cocktail waitresses showing cleavage, all overshadowed by the possibility of cashing in. Watling seems at home, and almost invigorated by losing his money, which he earns as an art handler. “Ah!” he says, inhaling deeply as we exit the building. “It feels good to rid myself of all that dirty art money.” The landscape outside is almost cheerfully bleak and depressing, the boardwalk a deserted rain-swept path to nowhere. Black waves are crashing a hundred feet away as Kenny Loggins (or Kenny Rogers?) blasts out of the faux-brothel façade of the Wild Wild West Casino. Watling chuckles a little at the scene. So far he’s only given away his record (which cost about $5,000 to record), Columbia University owes him $150 for a gig he played months ago, and the roulette table just took him for $200. He knows making music is a gamble, but that’s what makes it interesting. “Did I tell you I already got five new songs for the next full-length?” he asks. “I’m thinking of calling it Hot Guys Wear Space Suits.”
JED LIPINSKI used to play tambourine in the band Hexa.