In the loop
There are three members of the Reno band Applied Ethics—two humans and one guitar pedal. The humans are drummer Mark Mazurowski and guitarist PJ Wilkerson, who are also both 20 year old students at the University of Nevada, Reno. The guitar pedal is a Boss Loop Station, a pedal that allows the user to create a short recording and then play back that recording ad infinitum. That pedal is a central part of Applied Ethics’ songwriting and performances.
“His name is Looper,” Mazurowski said. “We’ve personified him.”
During performances, for songs like “Ancient Aliens” and “Don’t be Flaky,” Wilkerson will often record short loops, a rhythmic phrase or even just a drone that establishes a tonal center. This allows him to then play another part, usually one that’s more complex and more melodic. In other words, during performances, he’ll first play a rhythm guitar part, record it, and then play a lead guitar line. And he doesn’t just use this trick at the beginnings of songs, but often does it in the middle of a tune.
The band sounds like a mix of classic ’60s-style surf rock, post-rock spaciness, and post-punk urgency. Wilkerson plays a Fender Stratocaster and Fender Twin Reverb amp—the classic guitar set-up used by surf rock bands for nearly 60 years—but his guitar playing is very influenced by the angular melodicism of Bernard Sumner of Joy Division and New Order fame. Mazurowski’s playing is more impressionistic, heavily influenced by post-rock bands like Explosions in the Sky, and Applied Ethics songs like “Head Trauma” have a post-rock-inspired U-shaped structure—starting loud and fast, followed by a slow, mellow middle section, and then finishing with a rock-out.
The music has some rhythmic complexity, with the two musicians often hitting synchronized, syncopated notes, and they’re very meticulous in their compositions, so why rely on the tricky Loop Station instead of just using pre-recording samples?
“It’s so revealing when you get it,” Mazurowski said. “It’s like a weight lifted off. … We just try to get tight enough to do it live. It’s so much cooler to us when you finish a concert up. Those are the hardest parts and we made it through them. Even if they’re not perfect.”
Another unpredictable element is the duo’s approach to vocals. Although they carefully compose and practice their instrumental parts, Wilkerson usually improvises the vocal lines during performances.
“We really don’t practice singing much. … I just watch a lot of Talking Heads videos and try to do what David Byrne does. … We don’t have any written lyrics. On ’Ancient Aliens,’ I just talk about the show Ancient Aliens.”
The band members see vocals and lyrics as less important than the instruments during live performances. And in fact, the songs are so catchy in their instrumental form, that the vocals aren’t even really necessary, although they add a nice unpredictability to the duo’s live show.
Mazurowski and Wilkerson grew up in Reno. Wilkerson studies environmental engineering, and Mazurowski is in pre-law and psychology at the university. The band name was taken from the title of one of Wilkerson’s textbooks.
Anyone who’s ever struggled through the difficulty of scheduling a meeting with four or five busy people—especially using, say, a text message thread that regularly devolves into dick jokes and Simpsons quotes—can recognize the simplicity of the duo’s scheduling with envy.
“There are less personalities, less egos, less people to connect with musically,” said Mazurowski. “Both of our tastes are in alignment. … And when you want to jam? You just meet up.”
The third member of the band is already there in the practice space, waiting for them.