Last Wednesday, at the end of a dock that juts from Quincy’s Squantum Point Park, Mark Johnson and Adam Kohl waited for 6 a.m. and tried to stay warm. It was almost time to launch into their first concert of the day as Bang! Bros., kicking off the duo’s attempt to break the world record for most live performances in different cities within 24 hours.
At 5:58 a.m., the pair decided it was time to power up their instruments: an array of mixers, drum machines, and other electronic devices strapped to a card table with yellow tape. They switched on the camping battery they brought along, and it lit up. The rest of the equipment did not. Nothing was turning on.
Solutions were proposed and turned down, and before long Kohl, 30, and Johnson, 27, decided to scrap that first show. But they denied being disheartened. They were convinced that they would still play 12 shows in 12 cities, four more than the Flaming Lips had done when they broke the record in June.
“I don’t feel discouraged at all,” said Johnson, a lanky man with a full beard and scraggly hair, as their van left Squantum Point Park.
“I’m not even considering just breaking the record,” said Kohl, who has a chin curtain beard and a bigger build than Johnson.
Several hours later, Bang! Bros. hit their goal with hours to spare. But it’s unlikely that Guinness World Records will acknowledge their journey as an official record. The way Bang! Bros. interpreted playing 12 shows in 12 cities did not quite align with Guinness’s requirements. The pair knew this would be the case before setting out that morning.
Johnson and Kohl, who performs as Arkm Foam, both live at the Jamaica Plain artist residence and do-it-yourself venue the Whitehaus. They formed Bang! Bros. on July 4 this year, and have since rapidly released a series of recordings of their improvised live shows on small labels. Johnson has described their music as “free noise / bleak jazz.” The band is named after an Internet pornography service, but the moniker also nods to the duo’s tendency to literally bang their equipment. In an avalanche of buzzes, snaps, crashes, and hollers, Johnson and Kohl manhandle their portable setup, which they’ve dubbed “Bang! City.”
Over the summer, Johnson had heard about the Flaming Lips’ record-breaking feat and brought it up to Kohl. It soon became a conversation about how it didn’t seem like an inconceivable mission.
“Eight shows? What is that even? We could do that!” Kohl recalled saying.
They began planning, and the original intention was to get the attempt verified by Guinness World Records. The band enlisted Sam Potrykus, a fellow Whitehaus resident, and Frank Hurricane, a former Whitehauser, to drive and navigate. Kristin Mendes was tapped to document each set on camera.
When they saw Guinness’s requirements, it did not take them long to decide that they would not follow all of them.
“We said, ‘Here are some of the rules. Do we want to play by them?’ I think the answer was ‘no’ pretty much right away,” Kohl said. “We prefer to blow out the notion of what they think a concert is.”
He said it would take too much money and time to arrange (plus, the band didn’t want to abandon the numerical alignment of 12 shows, 12 cities, on Dec. 12, 2012).
Besides, following the rules would sacrifice some of the grass-roots approach that often defines the city’s do-it-yourself scene in which Bang! Bros. thrives. Guinness requires that all the performances take place in registered venues with capacities of at least 300, and says they must have a paying audience. Dec. 12 and into Dec. 13, they played in apartments, makeshift venues, studios, a parking lot, and various public spaces to audiences of friends, collaborators, strangers, and, on Revere Beach, a curious dog.
Each city they visited was not, as Guinness requires, 50 kilometers away from the previous one. After the flub in Quincy, the voyage brought the group through Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, Medford, Revere, Lynn, Salem, Newburyport, Lowell, Worcester, Pawtucket, R.I., and Providence between 8 a.m. Wednesday and 2 a.m. Thursday. Only five of those had a population above 100,000, while Guinness requires half.
Two rules they did meet: Each performance was at least 15 minutes, and every city they played in had a population of at least 15,000.
Guinness World Records adjudicator Amanda Mochan, who verified the Flaming Lips’ record-breaking attempt, said the requirements ensure that breaking the record presents a significant challenge.
“We want to avoid a guy in a pickup truck going from town to town to town,” she said in a phone interview. Mochan declined to confirm, though, that the Bang! Bros. way of going about the record would disqualify them. She suggested the band submit an official application.
For Boston’s underground music scene, such challenges to rules have a way of coming up. In August, Kohl led a festival where hundreds of artists performed short sets on Boston Common by citing the rights granted to street performers. Subversion doesn’t always go so smoothly: Police cracked down on the Whitehaus in October after the concerts frequently held at the house caused too many noise complaints. Still, Kohl says he is dedicated to defying definitions.
“That’s, like, our lifestyle. . . . If it’s something that’s rigid, isn’t founded in real truth, I’m prone to finding a way to undermine it,” he said at the Whitehaus a few days before the attempt.
The crew had left Jamaica Plain at 5 a.m. for Quincy, and was back at the Whitehaus by 6:50 a.m. to figure out what went wrong. A power strip was identified as the problem. When it became clear everything else was functional, Johnson admitted the experience in Quincy threw him a bit.
“That was, like, so disturbing,” he said.
At 8 a.m. on the dot Bang! Bros. performed their first show of the day in the Whitehaus office to 11 fellow musicians and friends.
By 12:25 p.m., they had completed four shows and were two hours ahead of schedule. They hastily squeezed in additional shows in Revere and Lynn before hitting Salem, a move that would simultaneously put them back in line with the itinerary, make up for Quincy, and allow them to finish earlier.
Once they found their spot on Revere Beach, Potrykus flagged down a woman walking by, Corinne Casazza, and asked her to be the audience. She stayed for the whole 15 minutes.
“I like the creativity and spontaneity and freedom of all this,” she said after the set. She called it a message from the universe that creativity is everywhere.
The show at Lowell’s UnchARTed Studios was the ninth, ostensibly the record-breaker. But both Johnson and Kohl said it didn’t feel much more significant than the others they had played so far. They still had their sights on number 12.
“It feels like another one done, and that’s different enough,” Kohl said. At this point, his creativity was beginning to stretch thin, too. “I’m starting to feel desensitized to how I’m playing every show.”
But the band got a jolt two shows later in Pawtucket. About 10 minutes into a set outside Slater Mill, the camping battery died. Johnson and Kohl paused briefly, realized what happened, then launched into a cappella noisemaking through their battery-powered amps. The crew, too, jumped into action. Potrykus banged one of the band’s metal chairs against a fence. Frank Hurricane repeatedly hollered “Bang! Bros.!” in a German accent. Mendes, camera still in hand, joined in with yelps of her own.
Luckily for them, the battery wasn’t necessary in Providence, where they played a final show to a packed, pulsing house at the do-it-yourself venue P.R. Matrix Hex. Kohl, usually less spastic performing than Johnson, went wild, his baseball cap flying off. At 1:53 a.m. on Dec. 13, exhausted but excited, Bang! Bros. completed the 12th and last show.
Amid cheers, Hurricane handed them a trophy, which together they raised above Bang! City in triumph. Asked how he was feeling, Johnson replied, “Ready to sleep. I’ll know better when I do.”
Johnson later said that he slept Thursday from 4 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Kohl and Johnson have not decided whether they will officially submit to Guinness World Records.
“I think not. That was our original plan. It depends. I think they’d have to consider us for a different record, or consider changing the rules for the one that they have,” Kohl said over the phone on Friday. “I’m not interested in that too much. I’m happy with the outcome.”