CMJ 2014: Heidi Sabertooth


By Matt Lehtola

Photos courtesy of Heidi Sabertooth.

After spending Tuesday night of CMJ soaking up various strains of rock music, I decided to focus on more electronic fare for Thursday night’s festivities.

When I got to the warehouse at 234 Starr Street, “Skulls” by Misfits was on the PA. The place smelled of paint and construction sites. I felt no hot water in the bathroom sinks. A massive American flag provided the backdrop behind the stage. Perfect.

Brooklyn’s own Heidi Sabertooth played first. She’s got two EPs out on Bandcamp currently: 2012’s The Milkteeth and 2013’s Lucid Dreams. You can also hear her sampling, playing synthesizer, and making beats in the Cleveland, Ohio based-band Opal Onyx.

Standing before a table packed tight with pads, guitar pedals, knobs, and wires (with a synth on a stool to her right), she reminded me of a bee working over a flower box. There was no laptop visible and it seemed like she was doing everything manually, which meant her focus couldn’t waver. I don’t think she looked up once during the entire set.

I had first listened to Sabertooth’s music on Soundcloud earlier that day. The songs near the top had seemed perfectly suited for space stations but this (though similarly trancey) was much darker. It struck me as music you might hear at a dance club behind an unmarked black door after 2 am; the kind of place you walk by at first, because there is no sign implying a club exists there.

But oh how it does…

The set began with an overture of warped waves crashing, like hearing the ocean through a series of corrugated metal pipes. Then Sabertooth slowly built layer after layer of different textures into a thrumming, ever-evolving beat. Long, sustained synth notes floated like fog over a cobblestone of krautrock-ish clicks. Vocal samples recurred throughout, but they were so heavily modified they sounded less like speech and more like instruments. In fact they were barely recognizable as human.

She did it all in one continuous 25 minute piece, cleverly transitioning between each new section by keeping certain elements continuous while at the same time introducing new beats. Everything flowed beautifully. It was actually more like a series of movements instead of songs, and the way she ended it was probably my favorite part. Instead of bringing back the warpy waves from the beginning, Sabertooth slowly revealed what I interpreted as a low-pitched train whistle.

It was a long blast, too; the kind where the conductor just won’t let go, letting the note hang in the air like a ‘0’ in American Morse code. Similar to many train whistles I’ve heard in my life, it sounded like it was coming from far, far away, forever altered after bouncing across the sky and miles.

She repeated it over and over, and though I can’t explain why, it made everything else that came before it make more sense. I don’t know, maybe it’s because waves and train whistles are both sounds that mean movement. Or maybe it’s because both can be heard from a certain distance. Yes, one is man-made and one is eternal, but both are sounds most people on Earth would instantly recognize. Dammit, something links them, and the fact that Heidi Sabertooth knew it speaks volumes.

Curious about her sampling process, I caught up with her after the show. She said all her samples come from things she recorded herself and then modified. In addition to singing she plays trumpet, guitar, mandolin, piano, some strings, and even a few woodwinds.

Unsurprisingly Sabertooth is classically trained, and both of her parents are music educators. “I went to a lot of symphonies as a baby and all the way through childhood, so I approach my music as a symphony,” she said.

Nerding out a bit, I asked who some of her favorite composers were. Without a pause she listed Tchaikovsky, Shostakovitch, and Debussy. I said I had finally started getting into Debussy this year–specifically the piano Preludes. She then told me about how her mother was a private piano teacher and that, in addition to all the symphonies, she grew up going to tons of piano recitals.

As far as her own music, Sabertooth said her main goal has always been “to move the body.” She noted that she usually plays dance clubs or parties, and tonight’s show was in fact the very first in which she hadn’t done any live singing. She seemed surprised at this. Apparently it was also a lot less dancey than her usual thing.

I found this intriguing. Sabertooth had said she makes a unique set for each performance, and as I walked to the L train later that night I thought, why was this one so different?

Was it the echoing, cavernous space that inspired these changes? Was it the CMJ-ness of it? Was it the fact that she played first, and people hadn’t woken up yet? Was it the clientele? I could be totally wrong, but the facts seemed to imply that Heidi Sabertooth’s subconscious reaction to the environment significantly changed the style and mood of her set.

That’s the sign of a true artist.