Under the Microscope

The Muons' futurist folk conspiracy goes aboveground

"I've yet to start pretending I'm a "rock' musician," says Greg Bianchini, singer/lute player for the Muons -- a claim that isn't surprising when one considers his in-depth knowledge of mid-20th century scientist/philosopher R. Buckminster Fuller, his use of ancient folk instruments, and his rustic lyrics. Over the past seven years, Bianchini and the Muons have endeavored to create their own musical universe, one that bypasses rock music's limitations.

"The idea of the Muons started in 1993 during the grunge era, which seemed [to me] like a watered-down version of punk," Bianchini says. "I couldn't find a band to join, so I started doing all these folksy songs on my own. I didn't want to do the whole "Bob Dylan fake hick' thing, so I figured I should make some new instrument. That way I'd be sure to have a different sound. I was tied to the past, but I wanted to look forward into the future. That's why I decided to make a see-through plastic lute."

Bianchini quickly realized that plastic was too difficult to work with, so he settled on a more practical wood design -- albeit one rigged with electric guitar pickups. The resulting 14-stringed instrument had the shimmer of a 12-string guitar but with a deeper, more arcane tone. Taking the name Muons from a kind of subatomic particle, he brought in several friends to fill out the sound: Zo MacFee on conventional 12-string guitar, Rickey Reneau on Appalachian dulcimer (also outfitted with pickups), and Nick Duplessis on percussion.

Aaron Henderson

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Sample of The Muons' "Fishes," from the CD The Muons. Click the "play" icon in the control console below.

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"When we started [the band] was incredibly unfashionable," Bianchini remembers. "Maybe we weren't very good at first, but it was hard getting shows -- especially dispensing with the whole bass/drums/electric guitar thing. A lot of the people who booked shows were evasive and obviously thought it was lame, but were too polite to say so."

MacFee left town in 1994, and a year later Duplessis split. In 1996 Jerry Vessel, bassist for local legends the Red House Painters, agreed to play drums/percussion and homemade, nylon-stringed tenor guitar with Bianchini. "I guess the attraction was somebody thought enough of my drumming to let me be in the band, so I had to accept," Vessel deadpans. Self-professed nonmusician Kt Vogt joined later on keyboards and metallophone (a kind of xylophone). "I'm not a keyboardist," she admits. "This is my first band."

The current members have been perfecting their craft in Bianchini's SoMa warehouse space since 1999. Inside, the building is littered with archaic and homemade instruments, German field tube mikes, gutted antique speaker cabinets, and dulcimers built from mail-order kits. Bianchini proudly points out the Orchestron 5, a homemade hurdy-gurdy the size of a septic tank that hangs from the ceiling. The Muons once hauled it to a show, only to find it too unwieldy for performances.

"Having weird instruments forces you to look at songwriting from a different perspective," Bianchini says. "Playing the same guitar day after day can be pretty uninspiring. When they invented the Fender Telecaster, people were inspired to come up with surf music or rock. Technology and art are always feeding off each other."

But the band aren't trying to break ground for its own sake. "We're trying to do a little technical innovation to push the music, but I need some emotional fulfillment. Basically I'm just trying to write good songs. Ultimately, music is all in your head, so whatever can inspire your head is good."

The group's 1999 self-titled debut (which Bianchini humbly describes as "basically a demo") is indeed inspired music. On the disc, Vogt's spacey drones and Reneau's processed dulcimer engulf Bianchini's thick lute chords as the leader's soaring-but-reedy vocals drive the lilting rhythms forward. Bianchini's lyrics are almost phonetic, like some alien tongue. "I'm not embarrassed by the lyrics; I just tend to slur a lot," he says in explanation.

"Fishes" is the most immediately appealing track, with its tambourine rhythm, pop chords, and uplifting chorus. "Under a Tree" revives an English folk traditional, while "Weeds" approximates a waltzing sea chantey, complete with a bowed dulcimer mimicking sea gull cries. With its hopalong rhythm and prairie synthscapes, the album's instrumental centerpiece, "Hopping Katydids," sounds like the theme to a spaghetti western set on Mars. The album has one foot in the future and one in the past, a point spelled out further in its packaging: The front cover features subatomic particles in a pilfered Lawrence Livermore Lab photo, while the insert depicts the band, dressed in druidic cloaks, making its way through a dense forest.

This dichotomy is further exemplified by the band's recording method. The Muons worked meticulously in Bianchini's warehouse for four months, first capturing everything on cassette and then transferring the songs to compact disc at the final moment. "I like to go retro until the very last second," Bianchini says. "Usually bands take their master and start doing computer editing on it so it sounds like you should be in Wal-Mart or something."

During live shows, Bianchini's solid strumming forms the band's foundation. Reneau appears lost in space, mesmerized by the bagpipes-to-Hawaiian-steel-guitar sounds his dulcimer makes. Vessel provides a simple gypsy beat with a two-piece kit that features temple bells in place of a kick-drum, while Vogt plays the bass parts on an analog synth perched precariously on a giant Plexiglass tube. The total effect is hypnotic: a simple yet orchestral wash of seductive tones.

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