I don’t know how to explain Mobile Steam Unit to you because I don’t know what Mobile Steam Unit is. They’re a band, sure, and they released their first full-length album, Desk Jockeys, earlier this year. Past that, things get murky fast.
See, Mobile Steam Unit is a band that writes songs about business, often enough for specific businesses. Their Bandcamp page states that they are “part band / part brand / all business.” The recurring theme at the open and close of Desk Jockeys is a simple harmonic refrain: “At the end of the day, we’re all customers, anyway.” The outro appends this little tidbit: “Make no mistake, there’s no escape.”
At this point, you might be inclined to say something like, Brennan, you thickheaded dunce, they’re being ironic. They’re clearly using Colbert-ian satire to show how much capitalism sucks! And sure, right, yes, I am a thickheaded dunce, and you make a good (hypothetical) point about how these lyrics seem to point towards mocking business rather than celebrating it. And your position is strengthened by songs like the titular “Desk Jockey” which follows an (un)intentionally hilarious bit of spoken word with the lines “I wear a cornflower blue tie / I’m just a yes man / don’t ask why.” The next track laments erectile dysfunction before hitting a legitimate breakdown that wails, “I got to get out / I’m in the cab to a steakhouse.”
This is comedy, right?
Well, if you go to Mobile Steam Unit’s website, you’ll find the band’s name wedged in the top left corner. The bolded headline staring you down says Music for Business and suggests that you—well, your business—commission a song from the band. Remember, Mobile Steam Unit isn’t just a band—they’re “part band / part brand / all business.” Their website reads like what you’d expect from one of the tech startups that they’re pursuing as customers rather than what you’d expect from a band releasing funky rock records. (“Store” is the best of Desk Jockey’s funky tracks; it’s got a Steely Dan-met-ELO-and-they-both-got-locked-in-a-closet-with-a-bunch-of-synthesizers thing going on and it’s quite catchy.)
But if it’s a joke, who is it on? If Mobile Steam Unit is laughing at businesses, they’re doing it to their faces, all the way to the bank, as detailed in this scene about performing for a corporate crowd from Time’s 2018 feature about the band:
A bewildered crowd, piled into a building along the waterfront that occasionally serves as a cruise ship terminal, watched musicians take the main stage and start to perform a catchy techno-pop tune. “I used to be a bitter CEO,” lead singer Sam Huntington crooned, “thought I had to do it on my own / I was dismissive in my tone / But now I’m a better humaaaaan.” By the time the song reached its hook — “Using feedback from the insiiiide / Building culture from the insiiiights” — the “campers” at the back of the room, clad in yellow T-shirts, were swaying and throwing their arms in the air.
The band has performed for Salesforce and Slack and its members have occupational backgrounds in finance and government. Where is the joke, exactly? For real, I’m asking. These guys sure seem to be all-in on the band-as-business approach, from their website to their choice of venues. And if I’m confused about how to interpret Mobile Steam Unit, I’m in good company. The band doesn’t seem to know the answer any more than I do, as further explained in that Time profile:
“This project is very heavy on the dualism,” says Huntington, who sports a haircut that exists somewhere between a mohawk and a man bun. They’re not out to “jeer” at tech companies, he says, even if they compose musical critiques of texting on their own time. “There’s room to celebrate the utility there,” he says, while on the phone outside a co-working space in New York, “but at the same time take a larger examination of the place these companies have in society.” (During the call, he noted that he has become an ardent user of Slack since doing the first gig last December.) … “No one is still sure, is it ironic, is it totally earnest?” Huntington says. “There is a shred of mystery here.”
I’m not arguing that Mobile Steam Unit needs to choose between being a band or being a business or being a joke. I’ve argued before that it’s a mistake to write off the music of bands that don’t take themselves very seriously, and I’ve also argued that writing music for profit is totally fine and can result in quality songs. What’s so fascinating about Mobile Steam Unit is that the complete lack of clarity regarding authorial intent completely overwhelms the listening experience for me. I’m big on meeting art on its own terms, but in this case, I just have no idea what those terms are. I don’t know how seriously the band takes themselves, or how much they profit from their music, or what the joke really is. I can’t count (or link) all the times I’ve talked about how the author is dead, and yet the ghost of Mobile Steam Unit hangs so heavily above all of the band’s songs that it’s impossible to dismiss.
So here’s how we’ll leave this. Mobile Steam Unit can be whatever you want them to be: a joke, a classic funk-rock act with some legitimate talent, an annoyingly ironic display of millennial corporatism. Whatever you want! As Huntington sings on “Store,”: What you need, you will find.
In aisle five.
Next to the cheese.
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