Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit
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Kiss Kiss! Bang Bang!

21 February 2024, 09:30
Words by Jen Long
Original Photography by Elyza Reinhart

For New York breakouts Lip Critic, innovation is the only constant. As the four-piece unveil their debut long player for Partisan Records, Jen Long hears their story.

“I'm trying to make some kind of a meta circle back to the original idea of having a totally cohesive aesthetic by just having my aesthetic be recognisable as unrecognisable,” laughs Bret Kaser, lead vocalist and one quarter of Lip Critic.

Satirical mavericks with just a hint of nihilism, the genre-defying and aesthetically amorphous Lip Critic challenge – even to their own disadvantage. Playing live with two drummers, they actively chose a setup that constantly proves a logistical and practical nightmare. “Alex Cameron, he wrote this Facebook post when I was in college; ‘Get Your Good Ideas Away From Me’ was the headline. He was saying, all my good ideas have failed me forever. They've cost me endless amounts of money and time and all this stuff. He’s like, any time I've had the worst idea and I've tried to do it, it's always been very fruitful. It's the one that always works out,” explains Kaser.

Named as ones to watch across the board, the quartet recently signed with fellow New York upstarts Partisan Records, the internationally renown label heralded with breaking the likes of Idles and Blondshell. Fresh from dates supporting Screaming Females on their farewell tour and a slot at Pitchfork Paris, it seems Cameron’s advice has been paying off. “It's so funny because this is the worst idea ever and it's been the most fun, opportunity-opening thing where we've gotten to play with so many groups that we love. We've gotten to travel and play shows and all this stuff when it's like, this one that’s working? It's so sick,” Kaser laughs.

Announcing their debut album proper, Hex Dealer, today, it’s a record that’s ready to sucker punch any unwitting music fan. A raw and abrasive collection of carefully conducted chaos, it grips for every second of its brief play time. It’s not a relaxing listen, but is thrilling, progressive and ferociously addictive. Getting a release on 17 May, it primes the band for a summer of festival stages where they’re guaranteed to obliterate audiences with the dizzying spectacle they’ve become known for calling a live show.

Completed by producer/sampler-firer Connor Kleitz and drummers Ilan Natter and Daniel Eberle — who joins the call from a non-descript New York bedroom, the four members had fairly pedestrian starts.


Kaser grew up in Connecticut. His parents taught high school and would commute daily into New York. While they weren’t explicitly musical, their tastes and approach had a big influence on him. “They were super exploratory listeners. That was the big thing, they would listen to new stuff all the time,” he says. “They were just very open to stuff, so I always have had this relationship with music where I'm obsessively listening to new stuff. If you have the choice to repeat or try something new, I'd always go with the new thing.”

His mum loved Motown, while his dad was a big Talking Heads fan, taking Kaser to his first proper gig - David Bryne and Brian Eno on their Everything That Happens Will Happen Today tour. “That was the first show I ever went to that was something I actually wanted to go see,” he smiles.

Eberle grew up on Staten Island, his formative influences tidily crossing over with Kaser’s. “My dad's two favourite bands are the Talking Heads and The Cure,” he says. “We were listening to a lot of alternative radio, so The Strokes, Arctic Monkeys were new at the time when I was very young. My dad showed me The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Who, anything like that.”

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In likely teenage fashion, it was Green Day that opened the door for Eberle to discover a world of heavier music. “It kind of put me into a world of punk-rock and soon that became hardcore, and soon that became metal,” he says. “That was my gateway, when I was around thirteen, into a lot of punk and hardcore music and then hip-hop as well.”

Sharing a similar musical history to Eberle, Natter grew up in Manhattan. “I know his parents were huge Grateful Dead people, and that was kind of like the thing until he started to listen to this pop-punk, alt sort of genre of music that pulled an entire generation into heavier music,” says Kaser.

Kleitz was raised in Rockland County, Upstate New York, his formative influences aligning closer to those of Kaser. “We were listening to a lot of really internet-focused rap groups; Raider Klan and a lot of the Chief Keef stuff that was coming out at the time. His whole family was very musical, loved listening to stuff and going to a lot of shows and everything,” Kaser says.


With all members of Lip Critic now in their twenties, their teenage years were defined by the decade when the blogosphere exploded, bedroom producers were propelled to infamy, disappearing just as quickly, and a niche, DIY approach was not just accessible but acclaimed. “So much of this stuff I listen to now is just a result of things that I was digging around on the internet for and discovered,” says Kaser. “We grew up on the internet where you could look at anything at any time and listen to stuff from every corner of the world and from any era.”

Eberle is the glue that brought Lip Critic together. He and Natter were friends in their early teens, playing together throughout high school in a band called Chalklit. “It was like Captain Beefheart meets Nirvana, kind of grungy post-hardcore, very interesting. It was a fun band, it was a good time and we used to play some sick shows,” says Eberle.

The group formed while studying at SUNY Purchase, a liberal arts college in Westchester, New York. Kaser, Natter and Kleitz were all in the conservatory, sharing classes in studio production, while Eberle was there to study anthropology, journalism and media studies.

At the time, Eberle was playing with school friends in the band On Pink. “They didn't go to Purchase so I was also looking to be in another band, like an on-campus band. That's when Bret, Connor and Ilan came along,” he says.

Kaser was releasing music as Folded Voices, Kleitz was producing club music under his own name and Natter was mixing records for other bands in their social circle. “We were always in each other's spheres and I'd seen Danny play and I was just like, I want to play with that dude,” says Kaser. “It was kind of like, we're basically all just trying to play with Danny. That's how the band starts, we want to play with Danny on drums.”

Their big chance came in the second week of Eberle’s freshman year when his band Chalklit were booked to play a show, but bassist/frontman Jonah Pomerantz was unavailable. Instead of cancelling the gig, he and Natter began to put together a plan b. They brought in Kleitz on bass and started to learn covers, mastering “Sabotage” by Beastie Boys and “Tired of Sex” by Weezer. Realising it wasn’t enough to fill the set, they invited Kaser to help. “We decided to bring Bret along and we kind of just did this silly improv-jam thing,” says Eberle. “It was me on drums, Connor on bass, Ilan on guitar and then Bret doing some sort of character as a vocalist.”

“It was improvisational stand up with a jam band behind it and no one was into it,” laughs Kaser.

“It was rough,” Eberle sighs.

After the show, Kleitz and Kaser continued to scheme and a year later at a Machine Girl show, they approached Natter and Eberle to form Lip Critic. “We had this idea for a bit, like a punk band called The Milkman of America. It would be songs about the plight of the milkman, how nobody needs a milkman anymore,” says Kaser. “Then we eventually just did it and it turned into more of an actual musical project than a joke, but it’s still somewhat of a joke.”

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Taking the performance art roots of their debut improv show in 2018, the quartet began to piece together the postmodern tenets of what would become their debut EP Kill Lip Critic, released in the summer of 2019. A relentless assault of rhythm taking influence from hardcore to jungle, it’s like listening to the screams of a fever dream, but somehow with hooks.

The decision to record and perform with two drummers was, logistically perhaps, a bad idea, but for Kaser it was more than a flippant decision. While he took piano lessons growing up, it was always drums that had fascinated him, pouring his money into a secondhand Tama kit and trying to teach himself. “I was really into electronic music, but the thing that sucks about electronic music is you never get too physical to really play stuff. A band like Disclosure or something, they'll have drum pads and they'll have keyboards to make it feel more like you're seeing a performance, but there's never that same feeling of like, you're locked in with a bunch of musicians that are having really good chemistry,” he explains.

After being shown a video by Natter of Brian Chippendale from Lightning Bolt playing drums with Greg Saunier from Deerhoof, Kaser began to develop the inspiration behind Lip Critic’s setup. “It was a full hour of, I believe totally improvised, playing together, except they're just such good listeners to each other. It was like them playing off of each other and it legitimately holds your attention, just these two guys playing drums off each other,” he says. “That was the first thing that instilled in me this two kits thing is really cool, because you always get to hear drummers play off of bass players and keyboard players and even vocalists and stuff. You never get to hear kit players play off a kit, two kits interacting, and it was just so satisfying and so cool.”

“When that idea was first pitched to me I was definitely like, it's not a good idea but it's not a bad idea either,” laughs Eberle.

Originally Kaser wanted two of everything; drums, guitars, bass etc., like a weird musical Noah’s Ark, but somewhere along the way reason prevailed and he and Kleitz resigned themselves to playing samplers live. “That'll kind of make up for the lack of instrumentation we'll have, that we’ll be able to play any instruments that we want off of our samplers,” he explains. “It was formed out of wanting that interplay between two drummers and not having other people on board to do anything.”

As the pandemic began to affect universities in early 2020, the members of Lip Critic realised the implications. “We decided then and there, the day before we leave, we're going to track drums for a new Lip Critic record,” says Eberle. “We went from being in college to being home with our families, just like there's nothing going on in the world. It ended up making the band super productive. I know Bret and Connor were spending hours upon hours working with those drums that me and Ilan had tracked at Purchase, creating new tracks.”

"It's so funny because this is the worst idea ever and it's been the most fun, opportunity-opening thing."

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For their previous releases, the group had worked together in the practice space, building and editing songs as they progressed, their outcomes raw and heavy. Through the confines of the pandemic, Lip Critic found a new freedom to write and create. “As crazy as it sounds, it just allowed us to work more freely because everything was already happening in the computer, but now we're not on a college campus trying to book out studio time to go work on stuff,” says Kaser. “You just had a lot of time to think and try more stuff.”

Alongside the space to experiment, the anxiety of endless lockdowns also instilled a panic of productivity in Kaser. “We didn't know what boat we were in, if we were gonna try to find remote jobs and all this stuff. It was a really weird window,” he says. “We all felt like; we’ve got to do this right now because we don't know what's coming.”

Across the previous year, Lip Critic had released six tracks. Across the pandemic they released a further fifteen, including their DIY record Lip Critic II and the blistering EP Lip Critic: The Truth Revealed. Approaching their work with the gift of space, the song ideas are deftly executed, the juxtaposition of influences smartly done. At times there’s even melody. Both releases marked a clear progression in their form and artistry.

For Kaser, the restrictions forced him to get creative, to let go of certain rules or preconceptions and instead rely on his own sense of innovation. “I just feel like it allowed us to come into our own,” he says. “We're cool with having tracks now that are not just trying to be obliterators, like super distorted heavy things. We're cool with trying tracks that are sort of pop songs, we're cool to make tracks that have weirder elements to them. Not every track has to have really nicely engineered drums on them. Not every track has to have vocals that are clear and hooks and stuff like that. It was this time where we could really just do whatever we wanted.”

As lockdown restrictions began to lift, Lip Critic didn’t just have to figure out how to realise their new creations as a live act, they also had to figure out how to perform to the growing audience that had discovered their music in the pandemic’s sprawl. “We used to make this joke that if the Lip Critic set goes over 21 minutes and 50 seconds, you're doing it wrong,” laughs Eberle. “Our return show back was at a place called Market Hotel and that show, I think it opened up a lot to us. It was the first time playing since we had released a lot of these new songs. There were a lot of people there and those people were very excited to hear the new music. People that weren't just friends came, there were people that were actual legitimate fans.”

They began to accept more and more shows around New York, building a reputation for their visceral performances, careful to keep a distinction between their live approach versus what they could achieve in the recording process. “We always say that we're like two separate bands,” says Kaser. “On the record, we're one band that is much more amorphous, there's tracks that are gonna sound like completely different arrangements as you go through. Then live, it's like all the tracks are remixed for making the best possible live show and making everything work with just two drummers and two samplers. So it's like two bands for the price of one. It's hella good value.”

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Word spread, and a year after their first show their now manager reached out via a cryptic Instagram DM. Intrigued, the band began to build a team around themselves, sharing demos with interested parties. “We didn't really feel anything super strong with any of the labels because we're all just sort of inherently independently-focused people. We're pretty cool with doing stuff on our own, so we weren't crazy in a rush to sign to anything,” explains Kaser.

It wasn’t until they met with Partisan Records that their principals began to shift. “We were like, we should do this,” Kaser smiles. “They were about it for the same things that we were in it for, which was just letting us do the work we want to do and giving us more of the resources that we need to execute things fully. Partisan’s just been a big part of allowing us to execute some of the more ambitious ideas, especially with video. I couldn't imagine a better place to be us right now.”

Speaking to Best Fit about the signing, Partisan co-founder Tim Putnam explains, “Lip Critic's music was arresting on first listen. It seemed like a band who didn't take themselves too seriously given the humour in the lyrics, but instead took the music very seriously. The songs felt altogether new, like it was breaking untouched ground artistically, even though the amount of references felt endless. Also, Bret's vocal delivery is one part carnival barker, one part mad preacher, yet he's authentically himself. After seeing Lip Critic live, which was mesmerising, then meeting everyone and hearing about their singular vision, it felt like a perfect match for us to work together. With some bands you have a basic idea as to what they're going to make. With Lip Critic, I genuinely have no idea as to what's ahead... and that is beautiful."

Releasing their debut album proper this May, Hex Dealer is certainly a collection of the unexpected, the only constant being its ability to blindside and astound in equal measure. Refining their writing process through the pandemic, Lip Critic approach each song as an evolutionary affair. “Connor and I were producing these little really rough song forms that were essentially just loops butting up against each other,” explains Kaser. “Most of the songs, the big collaboration aspect comes when the second round of edits happen, where we make the idea, they send drums back and then judging from what sort of aspects of the drum parts are the most promising, we'll fully rebuild the song from there.”

With Kaser and Kleitz working as a production unit, it’s down to the two drummers to challenge and disrupt the creative flow. “I really like that idea of playing drums, where the drums can completely change what a track sounds like,” says Eberle. “Say they give me some Jersey club sounding track, then I start playing like a blast beat over it or something, like some death metal or grindcore type drums on it. There's been times where we'll do something that sounds like a Memphis rap song and it's like me and Ilan play more hardcore drums, and then it’s like, now this song's becoming its own thing entirely and I really like that element of Lip Critic’s sound.”

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The dizzying mess of genres that sprints through their debut makes Lip Critic impossible to easily class. On album opener “It’s The Magic,” their first single to be shared from the release, they introduce themselves with incendiary intent. “It's sort of like this mission statement for the whole record,” says Kaser. “It was the first one that we finished. It kind of feels like we're roughing out the whole album through the course of this song, so it felt like a good one to open the record because it's like you basically heard the whole record in elements of this first track. It's kind of like a taster for everything that happens after it.”

Recent single “The Heart” is a bolt of hyperpop adrenaline, inexorable in its attack. “We were in the studio, they were recording in the same room, the two drummers, and it was just like this idea was so crazy ambitious rhythmically that we would have had to steadily practise it for a while to actually execute it. So they had locked in this crazy groove for the verses and then I was looking at the session afterwards, I'm just in my apartment and I'm like, we just have to make this a pop song. It just feels like such a pop song,” says Kaser. “It's the most Lip Critic-y thing, just jamming a different drum groove and sound right in the middle of the song and then cutting back to the other one.”

Hex Dealer isn’t explicitly a concept album, but across its twelve tracks Kaser creates dark and complex characters that hold mirrors to today’s warped socio-political predators. A self-declared “inquisition into the state of the spiritual marketplace and the isolating effects of mass consumption,” its message is delivered through immediate vocals and anarchic production. “‘The Heart’ is about this character that is noticing that they're getting hyped up and feeling powerful and adrenaline-rushy from doing things they were initially thinking of as bad or evil, that they're doing just as a means to an end,” explains Kaser. “This character, who's like an evil character, is having that realisation during this pop song. That’s supposed to feel like the heart beating inside of him, amping up. So it was, I'm only gonna say stuff whenever the drums are moving. I'm only gonna say lyrics on top of the biggest movements in the drums so we can all feel like one giant, pulsating heart.”

Another album highlight is “Spirit Bomber,” a deep galvanising groove that jars with the tracks discordant synths, its vocals again accentuating the rhythm. “I would burn a couple bridges if you say so. Let my spirit bomber go and drop its payload,” warns Kaser until the song accelerates into turbo sprawl. “That one honestly came together probably the fastest out of any of them. I had demo drums laid out that were extremely simple, that were just kick, snare through the whole thing, to try and not give myself too much,” says Kaser. “I didn't want to marry myself to anything. That groove that they're playing, I just knew that one was gonna be in their wheelhouse. It just felt so straight to it.”

"I really like that idea of playing drums, where the drums can completely change what a track sounds like."

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For Eberle, he was drawn to the sparseness of Kaser’s construction. “I love that one. In a similar way to ‘It's The Magic,’ it's much shorter, but it's also very bare bones,” he says. “I feel like it’s led by the drums and there's that little arpeggiator synth thing going on and that's really the track. I like what Bret's doing on it, too. I feel because it is a very, almost like mid-00’s pop vocal style but over this super strange bare bones instrumental, it's like a punk song and then it's over in two minutes.”

Racing into the capacious industrial opening of “Death Lurking”, the track marks one of the record’s two collaborative moments, bringing in Kaser’s long-term partner Izzy Da Fonseca on one brief but pivotal vocal. “‘Death Lurking’ was turning out to be this mess of a song that was super confusing and really long and I just needed something to put a pin in it and that was the thing. It's just the word ‘infernal,” he explains.

Repeated throughout the song, it becomes a manipulated hook, so integral it's almost invisible, while the end of the track is closed out with a similarly warped refrain, as a call to “fuck that selfish man” is demanded by a computerised voice. “That's Amazon Alexa that's singing that, that's not even Izzy,” Kaser laughs. “My mom got mad at me because she was like, ‘Why do you have songs with bad words in them now all of a sudden?’ I was like, ‘I didn't say a bad word on this record at all. It's an Amazon Alexa being co-opted.’”

On the dizzyingly filthy “Bork Pelly,” Lip Critic bring in Philadelphia punk-rap duo Ghösh – who have since disbanded – and producer Habib Fall who goes by the moniker ID. Sus. “The first time I think all of us saw Ghösh was when we played a show two summers ago in Brooklyn. They just had this incredible mixture of new metal, new jack swing, kind of like 90s club music and 90s hip-hop but completely unique and just incredibly abrasive, incredibly fun. I literally had never seen anything like that before,” says Eberle. “I think we really just wanted to have them on a track and I think ‘Bork Pelly,’ because it was so in line with their bouncy heavy hip-hop sound, I think that one worked perfectly.”

Closing out the track with a rush of visceral verses, Fall ups the ante with nihilistic intent. “I met him in college when he came to play a show in an art gallery on campus and I was doing the speaker set-up. I saw him play and I was like, this is the best thing I've ever seen, and we've been in contact ever since,” says Kaser. “The track is essentially about a guy faking a miracle. It's like this overly kind of masochistic joke song type thing. I was thinking, what is the closest we can get to a Lip Critic posse cut? Habib is a really, really out of the box thinker. We’ve worked on some music together over the years and he's so hard to pin down, so I wanted him to work on one of the tracks and I was like, oh my god, him with Ghösh would be the most hilarious combination. I feel it's one of the more peculiar tracks on the record.”

One of the album’s standout moments is “Sermon,” an imposing, sluggish tirade that descends into bellicose beration. “Honestly that might be my favourite one we perform live,” says Eberle. “I always like the crowd's reaction. We've been doing that song now for a while and it starts as this slow burner, sermon type thing where I'm doing like a bossa nova groove and Ilan’s doing this George of the Jungle-tom thing. Bret can get up in the crowd and sing this preacher man type thing to everybody in the front rows and then it builds up into this hardcore song and you can imagine the crowd reaction.”

For Kaser, it continues Hex Dealer’s themes of dark and despicable bogeymen whose spellwork is only a mere exaggeration of real life. “A lot of the inspiration for the vocal delivery and lyrical content came from a lot of faith healers. I just got very into the textures and the patter of these preachers. It all feels very insidious to me. A lot of the faith healers and miracle church things really cater to people who have terminal illnesses and ailments that are incurable, people who do not have access to good health care or do not have insurance. It's very predatory,” he says. “It’s this character running throughout the album, embodying all these weird, blamey, loan shark-y sort of tropes. He's basically putting the blame on everyone but him, saying, ‘I'm the only one here to help you.’ In the second part of the song he drops the persona of being a religious man of god and reveals himself to be this evil little goblin devil.”

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“In The Wawa (Convinced I’m God)” delivers a final blow of violent sonics, melding hardcore-intoned delivery with deep-driving, jungle basslines. The penultimate track on the album, it closes with an abrasive drone, a false end that’s obliterated by the playful but abrasive electronics of “Toxin Dodger.” For Kaser, it acts as something of an encore, a final bow. “It’s like that scene at the end of Shrek 2, they all come back and they do that song together,” he laughs. “All the characters from the movie come back together and they have one last hurrah together despite diegetically them all having massive problems with one another. ‘Toxin Dodger’ is the little cherry on top to something that is overall pretty concerning and worrisome, but we don't want to leave you with that.”

“It's reiterating the narrative,” continues Eberle. “I feel like it was just a fitting way to end the record. Like, that's a good way to leave off this whole odd narrative in this extremely intense, extremely abrasive record, and then we kind of just end with another pop song.”

Across Hex Dealer, Lip Critic disobey traditional song construction, vex with distorted recordings that furiously grate and refuse to align with anything that might be considered a comfortable consistency. Yet somehow, it’s a cohesive body of work, fascinating in its ability to switch through genre, tempo and aesthetic. It embodies the car-crash idiom - completely disastrous but equally compelling.

The same disorienting approach applies to their videos and artwork, the album cover a surrealist, floating collage of a smiley face. Lip Critic’s imagery is created by Kaser with input from the other members. He even prints their merch, the press lurking behind him during our call. “It's a cottage industry. We're really focused on trying to do as much of it ourselves as we can. I think my favourite quote is, ‘The act of being in a band is the art that you produce with the band.’ Everything you do should be factored in, as a band is not just a musical entity in my head. It's the way your album covers look and the way that your stuff is marketed and the way that your merchandise looks and is produced and all that stuff,” he explains.

While their first video was edited by Kleitz, recently the band collaborated with friend Aaron Fenichell on their “The Heart” clip, while new single “Milky Max” comes with a desktop-nostalgic computer game designed by Natter’s brother, Jesse. “We've been really cautious about bringing people into it because anytime we do, we’re like, we're gonna be insanely controlling and opinionated basically about everything,” says Kaser. “We wanted it to be someone that we could really try to brainwash into our school of aesthetics. People will be like, the aesthetic feels almost random, like uber-eclectic, there's not that much of a through line. And we're like, that is our through line. That is it. There is no connection.”

In the creative process of Lip Critic, there is no end, just constant evolutionary innovation. And so the cycle continues.

Hex Dealer is released on 17 May via Partisan Records

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