Lushes are a band born of tensions – between art and math, order and chaos, planning and chance. You can hear it in their songs – taut, twitching art-punk that balances anxiety and elation, often within the space of a few bars. This is push-pull music, songs that temper the jagged fitfulness of groups like June of 44 and Slint with the soft-focus sweetness and open-ended song structures of The Sea & Cake and The Notwist. That moods so diametrically opposed can peacefully coexist is part of Lushes’ mystery and allure.
This duality extends to the group's background. Their personalities were different – James was outspoken and gregarious, Joel introverted and reserved. Guitarist and vocalist James Ardery grew up pillaging his father's record collection, getting turned on to Nirvana and Wu-Tang Clan by his older brother, and attending hardcore shows by pioneering bands like Fugazi at the age of 12. Drummer Joel Myers started listening to composers like Rachmaninoff and Bach from age 11 after finding classical CDs lying around the house from his father, a classically trained organist. He spent years teaching himself classical piano along with several other instruments, and only started playing drums a year before Lushes began, when he came into owning a drum kit by chance.
The fusion of their disparate influences is what animates Lushes – the anarchy of punk and hardcore colliding with the precision of a classical background to create music that is marvelously ordered while still feeling seconds away from detonation.
That tension pulses throughout What Am I Doing, the group's warring influences making for music that feels brittle and vital. Album opener "Harsh" glides along slowly, feeling like a moody and measured art-rock meditation until you zero in on the words in the chorus: "Harsh on my ears, that's the way I like it." "One Right Word" is as coiled as a rattlesnake, clattering drum patterns colliding with a lockstep bass loop, its lyrics ominous as prophecy. The music drops out in time for an unsettling refrain: "Is the ship gonna sink? I don't know, it's getting deep."
"Traffic," the first song the duo wrote together, volleys from a lurching, stop-start guitar pattern to a woozy, waking-nightmare middle section thick with howling feedback before accelerating into a panicked, feverish finale, pinwheels of guitar circling dizzily, eerie soprano voice singing from the shadows. That song provided the template for their songwriting approach: dense, grinding tracks built from dozens of interlocking parts, each song’s mood and tone changing without warning. "Garden," a dysfunctional love song that opens with a thicket of backwards-looped piano, is a masterpiece of sustained mood, James's vocals drifting like fog across the night sky.
What Am I Doing was produced by their good friend Annabel Alpers, better known as Bachelorette (Drag City), and she expertly controls the group's varying moods. As James explains, "I want people to think, 'Wait, this is loud and guitar-heavy one minute, but the next song opens with backwards piano loops.' I want them to feel like they're constantly being caught off-guard." It's that unpredictability, that swing between light and dark, calm and catastrophe, that makes Lushes so alluring and their music so riveting.