Before a recent Post Sixty Five band practice, frontman Hicham Benhallam sat on a patch of grass outside the rehearsal space and stared into the trees nearby. The muggy June air blurred his vision, so he took off his dark-framed glasses and blinked a few times before acknowledging that there was no relief from the Virginia heat.
Not that he minds it. “For whatever reason, I am very capable of focusing, especially on writing,” when it’s hot and humid and “it feels like every breath you take is almost too much,” he says. Benhallam often shuts off the air conditioning in his apartment when he writes, and the resulting heat finds its way into the band’s songs.
Last September, Post Sixty Five released its debut EP, I Think We’ll Be Okay, featuring five gorgeously moody, atmospheric, post-rock-influenced songs that will break your heart and tenderly suture it back together for you.
Since then, Benhallam and his bandmates —guitarists Kim McMasters and John Matter, and bassist Matt Wood, with either Max Bollinger, Ryan Wood or Rob Dunnenberger alternating on the drums—have been performing those songs and a handful of new ones in some of the most emotionally charged sets being played in Charlottesville right now.
Benhallam says most of the songs deal with “particularly painful things,” like the infidelity of past lovers, feeling unworthy and longing for sex, intimacy and attachment to another person. They’re nearly universal experiences, but there are few platforms to deliberate most of this, he says, so he does it in song. “There is no social context in which it is okay for me to say [something like] ‘I look like a bruise,’” he says, as he does in “Fever,” one of the tracks off the EP and a mainstay in the Post Sixty Five live set.
“Fever” begins with a pretty guitar line that ushers in nervously quick drums and Benhallam’s sonorous voice singing with a hint of despair: “Yes sir, that’s my name / I think I look the same / I’m not growing, I’m afraid / Make sure you never age.”
The music and the lyrics dance delicately through the verse, building anxiety under the surface that quietly, forcefully erupts with cutting guitar and a crash of cymbals and bass once the chorus hits: “I look like a bruise every time we go out / I’m filled with pink I think I got you / Baby I’m gonna lose, I wanna stay in your car / I’m filled with pink, baby I got you.”
This is typical Post Sixty Five: the beauty of lush music, lovely guitar lines, rumbling bass and splashy drums pushing up against the lyrics’ ugly imagery of running a fever, of bruises and flesh, of aging bodies, doubt and inevitable loss.
The band’s songwriting process is slow, meticulous and emotional. Each song begins with a sketch—a small instrumental line—that Benhallam writes and shares with the band. Each band member then writes his or her own part, taking care that every note, tone, pause and word has purpose; it’s what makes the songs so intense.
These are not necessarily easy songs to hear, and the band knows it. There’s a lot going on, and “we demand a certain amount of emotional energy” from the listener, Benhallam says. McMasters says that Post Sixty Five’s music has been criticized for being too “sad,” and here in Charlottesville, “America’s happiest city” according to one study, that’s a tough label to break. It’s also an unfair assessment. (And hey, people still get sad in this town.)
Yes, Post Sixty Five songs can be sad “Will anybody love me? / Will anybody love me?” Benhallam sings on “Beginners”—but they’re visceral, exciting and sexy in their exploration of the dichotomies of beauty and ugliness, of fullness and emptiness, of silence and chaos. “That kind of contrast can be very jarring and arresting,” Matter says.
Benhallam says while writing lyrics for one of the band’s forthcoming singles, “I’m Not Saying This Right” (listen for it in the middle of their live set), he realized that he didn’t want to be a man singing to men about a woman who broke his heart. That’s “boring and overdone,” he says, not to mention unfair to a woman who made the right choice for herself.
The song is about longing. Its music and lyrics together insist that space can be as suffocating as a Virginia summer when you see something momentous happening between two people, but you’re not one of them.
“Virginia felt so swollen,” the song begins, before guitar and bass jump in and follow each other closely as the song continues: “He talks to you sometimes / and casts the net so wide.” As emotional and physical distance grows between Benhallam and other people in the lyrics, the instruments start to spread apart. Drums shimmer more urgently, and the bass reaches a heartbreaking register and splashes out and away from the two guitars. “I’m not good enough yet, I’m not good enough yet, I’m not good enough yet, I’m not good enough yet,” Benhallam sings while the instruments, once together, now separate and fall away, one by one.
The song ends with a single, reverse-looped guitar that swells and contracts, building unresolved harmonic tension with each go-round. It stops short at last, lurching you forward before snapping you back into place. You’re back where you started, but you’ve been moved. And if you’ve learned anything from listening to Post Sixty Five, you know you’re better off for taking the ride.