Getting Past It
The Duo Behind Metal Hearts Discovered a Musical Chemistry That Led to a Mind-Blowing Debut Album. But First, They Had to Get Over Hating Each Other.
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Metal hearts band mates Anar Badalov and Flora Wolpert-Checknoff didn’t get off to an auspicious start when they first met about a year and a half ago. “I really hated her,” says Badalov, occasionally sipping from his coffee at a Charles Village coffee shop. Clad in nondescript jeans, button-down shirt, and sweater, the tall, sleepy-eyed 17-year-old utters that without any animosity, without blinking, and without any change in his voice. He actually sounds like he was responding to a multiple-choice question. “I was really arrogant and I felt that she was competing with me.”
“I insulted him all the time for no reason,” Wolpert-Checknoff offers in agreement. The direct 18-year-old says this equally as deadpan, her short, curly hair framing a face that sometimes breaks into a smile that lets you know she realizes how silly it sounds when said with such a lack of emotion. Especially since the pair has come together to talk up their debut self-released, self-recorded CD, Escapists, about which they say they’re quite excited. Especially since Escapists is the result of a slow, yearlong burn from assumed enemies to well-tuned musical partners. Especially since Badalov and Wolpert-Checknoff really only dedicated themselves to seeing what this whole Metal Hearts thing could become about, oh, a month ago.
Yes, Metal Hearts—named after a particularly anguished Cat Power song from 1998’s Moon Pix—have really only been a band in the making-music-together sense of the word since December. Each entered college last fall as a freshman—Badalov at Rhode Island College in Providence and Wolpert-Checknoff at Concordia University in Montreal. And all through that first semester Badalov, who moved to Baltimore with his family from Azerbaijan during the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union, sent sound files and correspondence to Wolpert-Checknoff, who’s lived in Baltimore since she was 2. She replied with e-missives and additions or new sound files of her own. Eventually, each decided that college wasn’t the right place at the right time, and they returned to see what they could come up with together.
What they’ve produced is a rather startling 18-song open vein of intimately taut, emotionally wrought electric guitar duos and twinned vocals that deflect off one another and swirl into ghostly harmonies. Escapists is a self-contained world of anxiety in the moment, each song a mini-manifesto to flight.
“Every song came down to escape,” Badalov concedes. “We’re just always on the move. We want to always be on the move, always wanting to go somewhere.”
And so far its songs have caught the ear of Young God Records’ honcho Michael Gira, who invited the duo up to New York to open for his Angels of Light CD-release at Tonic on March 11. Gira has a pretty good ear for new talent. The last barely-old-enough-to-drive youngster he plucked from obscurity was a curiously named neo-folky by the name of Devendra Banhart.
The duo just had to notice the musical chemistry they shared, which they did immediately after they got over their mutual hatred and started to exchange ideas. “I met her through an ex-girlfriend, and [Wolpert-Checknoff] and I were both doing our own music things,” Badalov says. “That’s how we got really arrogant and competitive. It was all about music. I was like, ‘Here’s a new song.’ And then she’d write one really quick and send it over, and I’d be, ‘No, that’s not fair.’ And go back and forth like that.”
“And then he just e-mailed me one day and said, ‘Want to come over and play?’” Wolpert-Checknoff adds. “And there’s something about his solo stuff that, I don’t know, it had real substance to it that lots of people who write things who are my age don’t have. There was just something very unique about what he was writing.”
“I played with other people, too, and the second we sat down, the first song, it was done within minutes,” Badalov continues. “We just put it together, our first song, ‘I Don’t Expect You to Know.’ And, ever since then, whenever we got together something would get done. We both have the same idea, really, the same influences.”
Not exactly the same influences, and definitely not the sort of influences you’d expect from such young people. The arresting intimacy of Cat Power comes into play via the duo’s name, sure, but that’s merely a surface allusion. Badalov cites Glasgow’s misery spelunker Arab Strap and Canadian rake Leonard Cohen (“I don’t like The Future,” he clarifies, “I prefer the gloomy Songs of Love and Hate”). Wolpert-Checknoff prefers After the Gold Rush-era Neil Young and Bob Dylan.
“I’m a Dylan obsessive,” she admits. “I’m only on, like, the first part of the Chronicles, but I tried to read Tarantula, which [Badalov] gave me for Christmas. And that’s a little strange. I don’t know, good for him. But I watch Don’t Look Back almost every night. Something like that.”
And, true enough, Escapists at times sounds like 4 a.m. Gold Rush guitar gossamer as heard through a Glaswegian smoky exhale of dark moods. Spartan notes trace a skeletal melody for Badalov’s breathy reading of “My dreams plummet into me/ tossing turning” in “Forget It All.” Badalov and Wolpert-Checknoff speak-chant, “Who’s right? Who cares? Who’s waking in the middle of the night gasping for air?,” the throat-grabbing first line of “Vampire Song,” like a sound effect in a horror movie. An ornate guitar line plays off an abstract pattern of guitar notes in “Fucking Man, You Know This Face” as Badalov’s voice slides from passionate disinterest to knife-point focus during the single line “I don’t care, I don’t care about you/ I know it’s easier to take what you want and leave.”
Nuzzling right up against such stark portraits are Barbara Manning-lovely melodies such as “That’s Only Mine,” in which the duo’s guitars sparrow-trace a singsong heartbeat backing Wolpert-Checknoff’s dreamlike vocals, and the John Fahey-baroque “Adirondack.” Escapists meanders through such beautifully forlorn terrain with a stately grace, recalling the hushed prettiness of early Yo La Tengo and the haunted razor blades of Charalambides’ Market Square. And the pair knows that such a sound isn’t exactly what’s hot right now.
“We always try to hear ourselves and think, Oh, is this good or bad?” Badalov says. “And then we hear emo-pop music, which I despise and hate it so much. And it seems to be making it really big, and I don’t understand it really.”
“It makes my stomach hurt,” Wolpert-Checknoff says. “It makes me ill.”
“And we’re thinking, If people like that, how are they even going to be able to relate to this and enjoy it?” Badalov says. “So I’m kind of nervous about it.”
Over four trying days last April, a very early, rudimentary, and naive version of Metal Hearts took its music to the people and stoked the embers of that nervousness into a hearty flame. The duo had a female drummer at the time, and its four-day tour of New York City turned into the “worst experience we ever had,” Badalov says. “We thought it would be incredible to play four shows in New York. We didn’t think about promotion, didn’t think about separating the shows. We were just going to play four shows straight in New York, and it was the stupidest idea ever.”
Metal Hearts played to “about 10” people at CBGB the first night—“The bartenders said they liked it,” Wolpert-Checknoff notes—and then moved to Siberia Bar near Times Square. “We thought it was a great-looking place, it was all red lights,” Badalov says. “They took us downstairs, said, ‘Set up,’ and then the sound man disappeared. He just turned things on, said, ‘You have 30 minutes,’ and left.”
The following night at another club near Times Square, a Sublime cover band opened for the duo and their equipment was stolen before they performed. They performed with borrowed instruments that night and the following night, in front of about “10 other people,” at Continental.
“It was a disaster,” Badalov says. “We came back and decided to lose the drummer, who was, really, like bipolar. But I guess we’re a little bipolar, too.”
“We’re pretty much just depressive,” Wolpert-Checknoff concedes. “We fell into depression.”
The NYC “tour” left Badalov and Wolpert-Checknoff reeling, though they continued to write music separately over the summer. Once ensconced in college, the pair started talking music to one another again, trading song ideas back and forth, and then everything just started to click.
“We were talking a lot,” Wolpert-Checknoff says. “And we were both writing music, and we were like, ‘I really don’t want to be here. Let’s just do this.’”
“I didn’t expect to come back here,” Badalov adds. “Neither of us expected to come back. But if we’re not famous in six months or, you know, at least making money, I guess there’s always school.”