Circlesquare is Vancouver, British Columbia’s Jeremy Shaw, a margin-walking artist who for a decade has been refining his singular vision: a fusion of electronic music and post-punk songcraft, at once detached and deeply expressive. Unlike the vast majority of his comrades in circuitry, the content of Circlesquare’s music is as important as the form—his lyrics aren’t meant for marking time and filling out space; they function as keys to unlocking the vast, bewitching puzzle of which his recordings and artworks are but constituent parts.
Like so many of his clubland colleagues, Jeremy is today based in Berlin, but don’t assume that his music is minimal techno or spangled electro. His new album, Songs About Dancing And Drugs, is intimately linked to a subculture associated with late nights, loud systems and powerful pharmaceuticals. But it’s also a critique of the same—or, at least, a view from a distance. That distance is what gives Circlesquare’s music its charge and its uniqueness, drawing equally from established styles and a dark, private place, and spinning it all into something at once familiar and strange.
While Circlesquare’s musical career is a decade long, the story of the project is relatively short. Circlesquare first came on most listeners’ radar in 2003, with the release of his debut album, Pre-Earthquake Anthem. Four years prior, at the age of 22, he had released his first single, The Distance After, also on Trevor Jackson’s influential Output label. But Earthquake was an uncommonly confident album debut (if “confident” can be the right adjective for something so anxious), and it sounded like nothing else: a velvety version of opiate post-punk, like chopped ‘n’ screwed new wave cut with techno at its most minimal. Jeremy’s droning vocals and guitar, the consistency of a Texas oilslick, topped it all off. The results simmered like hot air above asphalt.
In 2006, Circlesquare followed up with the Fight Sounds EP, which found him twisting his signature sound into new shapes, from the bleepy to the unplugged. The same year, Output, an early victim of the music industry’s ongoing contraction, closed up shop—an inopportune time for an artist just beginning to hit his stride. Jeremy wasn’t deterred, however, returning to the studio to begin work on Songs About Dancing And Drugs, an album he would continue to craft and shape for nearly three years. The immediate differences between Songs… and its predecessors—it’s a bigger album, more voluminous and intricately detailed—owed in part to the record’s extended gestation period; songs might go through four or five radically different incarnations before finding a final form. The expanded Circlesquare sound also owes much to the increasing role of Jeremy’s collaborators, drummer Dale Butterfield and guitarist Trevor Larson, whose distinctive playing styles deeply inform the album’s supple contours. The increasing cohesion of Circlesquare as a group affair becomes even more readily apparent in the band’s live show, which finds the music morphing into a new shape—lean, dynamic, even rock’n’roll—while accompanied by hypnotic video imagery tuned to Circlesquare’s thematic frequencies: altered states, subculture, violence and transcendence.
But there can be no doubting the fact that Circlesquare is very much Jeremy’s baby, especially given the way that it dovetails with his artistic practice—a side of his life that few listeners may have glimpsed. For as long as he’s been recording music as Circlesquare, Jeremy has also been exhibiting his own conceptual-based artwork with equal rigor. Inspired by artists as diverse as Dan Graham, Jeff Krulic, Kasmir Malevich, Adrian Piper, Jeff Koons and Mark Leckey, Jeremy’s art shares Circlesquare’s preoccupations with altered states and transcendence-seeking subculture, although discussed via far more didactic strategies . Incorporating video, photography, readymades, and commercial production techniques – often recontextualized from one form into another – his pieces speak to a profound sense of melancholy lurking behind popular culture’s hedonistic drives and point to a lineage in humanity´s age-old quest to leave the present.
Taken together with Jeremy’s artistic investigations, Songs About Dancing And Drugs resonates even more powerfully as a response to the post-rave culture of the ’00s—as an expression of desire, and of loss. As Jeremy told Fact magazine in a 2009 interview, “I think that hedonism can become mundane, just like anything in excess, and especially something that’s meant to include euphoria and even epiphanies as such; how boring to be constantly having them!”
It takes a certain kind of experience to understand that epiphanies don’t come cheap, or even frequently. It’s precisely that emotional honesty that makes Circlesquare’s music, like all of Jeremy Shaw’s work, such a revelation.