Sound Bites

For over 10 years, Mandible Chatter has explored the outskirts of experimental music

While the band's music was taking on a decidedly dark ambient-industrial hue, the duo also molded its raw soundscapes into recognizable movements and songs. On 1994's Hair Hair Lock & Lore, there's even a gorgeous acoustic guitar sonata ("Chinese Duck Stroll") amidst the eerie horror film- style atmospheres.

Vince Harrigan, head of Tennessee experimental label Manifold Records, discovered the group through Hair Hair. "Something to me that always set Grant and Neville apart from many other experimental acts is how well these guys can play their instruments," Harrigan says via e-mail. "This isn't some haphazard bedroom four-track noise project that doodles around with guitars. I mean, these guys can really play the hell out of their instruments."

The group's next album, Grace, was released in 1995 on Manifold and remains Mandible Chatter's best work thus far. "That [record] was the closest we got to what we were trying to do," says Miller. Grace deftly melded abstract percussion improvisations with near-classical guitar picking, effect pedal noises, and cathedral-size drones. The title of the first track sums it up: "Nevermind the Credits; Start the Dream."

Grace sparked Mandible Chatter's most prolific period. The act performed regularly at the Hotel Utah and other clubs, while serving as musical support for local butoh dance group Collapsing Silence. Miller and Harson added longtime collaborators Trent Kollodge, Jonathan Wright, and Walter Funk on occasion, with Funk bringing along his "waterphone," which Miller describes thusly: "It's like a cooking pot that has metal rods fused to the sides. It's filled with water, and you bow the rods, and it makes all these ethereal tones."

The shows and album led to features in Alternative Press and Guitar Player and a smattering of attention in the Bay Area. "Some people started to catch wind of us here, but usually they would tell us, "Oh, my friend in Seattle told me about you guys,'" says Miller. "We always got a good response from Europe and especially Germany. This is before the Internet really took off, so it was amazing to get these passionate fan letters from mysterious -- to us -- places like Latvia and Romania."

By 1997, the pair felt that their live shows were becoming redundant, so they abandoned them to concentrate on recording. Food for the Moon, released on Manifold in late 1997, continued Grace's ambient path, with a couple of major deviations: a not-very-experimental dance song called "Sad Tree Song" and a straight cover of Spaceman 3's "So Hot." Suddenly the mysterious noise band was singing pop songs, and not everyone was happy about it.

"We got reviews ranging from "This album is terrible' to "This is pretty good once you get past the first track,'" Miller says.

For 1999's Measuring the Marigolds, Mandible Chatter tried to transform itself into a happy psychedelic folk-pop band, with the help of Steven Roback. While there are some great moments -- the Yeats interpretation "Silver Apples of the Moon" and the Richard Fariña cover "Children of Darkness," in particular -- the overall album is a bit precious and undercooked. Miller attempts to explain: "We wanted to do something completely different, and there were some really fine moments on there, but it was getting off the track for me."

Harson has a slightly different take. "That album, though flawed, is the one Mandible Chatter record that I listen to. Part of why it is unsuccessful is that at that time in my life I was no longer interested in giving my dark side a voice; I didn't want to make "scary' music anymore. I was walking around Children's Fairyland in Oakland every day at lunch. In short, I was only half a person, and I think the album suffers from that lack of perspective."

Soon after Marigolds, Harson left the Bay Area to pursue a graduate degree at the University of Colorado at Boulder. This month, the duo will reconnect to see if the old magic still holds. Harson, for one, is cautious. "I am always afraid my muse will leave me for a younger man, someone who has more energy than me. That said, I am optimistic about working with Grant in the next few weeks. The plan right now is simply to record some stuff and then sit with it for a few weeks and see if it holds up for us. It has to pass the "So?' test. If we listen to it, and our only response is "So?,' then it hasn't passed."

"We always try to make timeless sounds instead of using whatever equipment, style, or sound is current," says Harson. "I used to think about art as a disease: Like, it's something you have, and not something you choose. It grabs hold of you and makes you feel horrible when all you're trying to do is live a normal life. And the only way to cure this disease is to create something."

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