By Cory Sklar
By Alee Karim
By Christina Li
By Dave Pehling
By Ian S. Port
By SF Weekly
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
Mike got a raw deal. Orphaned at an early age and raised in suburban hell by a hessian deadbeat of an older brother, life was less than rosy. Then, to make matters worse, his pal Tommy mysteriously dies and little Mike gets into a tangle with a sinister mortician from outer space. Backed by a posse of bloodthirsty monk-midgets, Mike's cadaver-snatching nemesis uses a flying Swiss Army ball to lobotomize unsuspecting victims and damn their brainless remains to an eternity of hard labor on a distant planet.
So begins the storyline of Don Coscarelli's 1979 horror flick Phantasm. The artfully low-budget movie may have been short on plausibility, but the power of Coscarelli's imagination made it a box office dark horse and instant cult classic. If Hollywood ever tries a remake, we're going to suggest that San Francisco's Crime in Choir pen the soundtrack.
"One of the best comments we got after a show was when this older guy came up to me and told me we totally sounded like the soundtrack to the movie Phantasm," says Jesse Reiner, one of Crime in Choir's keyboardists. "He was really excited about that. I've never actually seen the movie, but I definitely like the idea."
In the band's cramped SOMA practice space, Reiner stands amongst a snarl of cords connecting vintage synthesizers and electronic gadgets. He is one-third of the group's core, which includes guitarist Jarrett Wrenn and Kenny Hopper on Rhodes piano and bass-piano. Together with stand-in drummer Ian Hill, the group has just finished rehearsing. The air is thick with the smell from warm amps and ripe dudes. After packing up, the band members head out to a Mission bar for cheap drinks. As it turns out, their confessed affinity for horror films makes the reference to Phantasm all the more relevant.
"When I first started the band we had this idea to be a somewhat mysterious instrumental band," Hopper says. "The name Crime in Choir comes from the idea of young kids sneaking out of their parents' house late at night and getting into trouble, having fun, that kind of thing. I wanted to make soundtrack music in the vein of Goblin or some of those European horror movies."
Over beers, Hopper and company ramble though their musical histories and speak of various members who have been in and out of the band. The current quartet's personal relationships stretch back the better part of a decade, but Hopper is the only remaining founder. In 1999, after he relocated to San Francisco from Texas (where he also happened to be a founding member of a little band called At the Drive-In), Hopper and his then-roommate started playing together. Early formations of the group included spazz-rock band Hella's Zach Hill, who would take the Greyhound down from his home in Sacramento, crash on the guys' couches for a few days while they rehearsed, and bus back. Today, Crime in Choir's lineup has solidified around Hopper, Wrenn, and Reiner, who have more of a penchant for creating heady instrumental rock than slasher scores. But, even without the Swiss Army death ball, a conversation about the group's music is still all about evocative visuals.
"I think a lot of the music comes out of the pictures in our heads when we're writing," Reiner says. "The music certainly invokes certain moods and conjures up different imagery. We have this idea that someday, when we have a huge budget, we'll put on an elaborate stage show, complete with choreography and multimedia -- maybe a ballet," he half-jokes. He muses about a day when Crime in Choir shows include 40-foot-tall cereal boxes dancing down the aisles of the theater. "Up until now we've just been focused on getting the music together," Reiner says, "but I think there is definitely a visual element we've yet to explore."
If the band's sophomore release The Hoop is any indication of the group's musical togetherness, we can expect the dancing cereal boxes any minute. The record is packed stem to stern with dark melodic lines, synthy dance-rock, and turn-on-a-dime changes. Even without lyrics, the band's visual obsessions come through loud and clear with suggestive song titles like "Strong Beautiful Suspicious Horse," "Night Bandit," and "The Perfect Cover for This Is Fur."
"When we are writing new stuff we are always telling each other what we are picturing in our heads," explains Wrenn. "And, yeah, a lot of the song titles reflect that. 'In Search of Plunder' is an example. The clumsy, struggling feel of it evoked the image of pirates making their way through some newfound port city, tearing shit up."
The Hoop suffers from no lack of tearing shit up. The muscular intensity of "Hot Slant" smears the Talking Heads' punk-disco rhythm section with sweeping synth parts, a double-time guitar, and bass ostinatos. The double-quick beat of "Magneto" (perhaps the record's finest offering) races under a fringy saxophone solo. It adds up to some pretty compelling stuff, more lyrical than the math-rock instrumentals of Don Cabillero and more earnest than cool Chicago post-rock darlings Tortoise. Although the technical prowess displayed on every track of The Hoop is impressive, it is never overbearing. Even when songs are augmented by Melvins/Fucking Champs guitarist Tim Green and Hella's one-man drum show Zach Hill, it still doesn't come off like frightful wanking.