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"Our approach is to find a new instrument and figure out what new things it can do," says Sleepytime Gorilla Museum's Dan Rathbun. "And then we write songs around those abilities of the new instruments."
When Rathbun speaks of finding new instruments, however, what he really means is hammering, welding, and otherwise assembling them by hand. Besides playing bass in the Oakland-based art-rock ensemble, he's also the group's chief instrument builder. But as forward-thinking as that may sound, this Museum's curators looked to the past for inspiration, to a time, nearly a hundred years ago, when a ragtag crew of Italians turned noise into art.
Just after the turn of the last century, a group of pesky upstarts who called themselves the Futurists decided that poetry, art, and music had become idle playthings of the rich and unimaginative. The Futurists saw museums as graveyards and attacked what they viewed as useless admiration of bygone times. They embraced speed, noise, machines, and pollution. They wrote endless manifestos on everything from dance and architecture to language and lust. While notorious composer/anarchist Luigi Russolo championed the art of noise, the movement's poster boy, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, had the audacity -- mamma mia!-- to glorify war as "the sole hygiene."
Trampling one's ancestors, it would seem, never goes out of style: After World War I killed off the Futurists, copies of Marinetti's manifesto soon inspired none other than the Nazis to fly their freak flag at full mast. As time marched on, the Futurists' utopian ferocity seemed to recycle itself over and over in one form or another. The Black Panthers asserted themselves "by any means necessary." Andy Warhol praised soup cans over landscapes. And Joe Strummer declared that "phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust."
The Futurists' spirit comes full circle with Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. Taking its name from an old factory in Manhattan's meatpacking district that was converted into a printing press and gallery, today's five-member Museum bangs out a dark and startling sound. Prog-metal slams headfirst into industrial opera, complete with strings and silly costumes. And for a bunch of overeducated music geeks, they sure make a racket.
"The Futurists' concept of trying to bring in the sounds of the city was pretty influential on Throbbing Gristle and Einstürzende Neubauten, who in turn influenced us in our pursuit of found sounds amplified and shaped," says guitarist Nils Frykdahl.
A former headbanger and classically trained flutist, Frykdahl explored the outer reaches of music and spectacle in Idiot Flesh, with David Shamrock (Acid Rain) and Rathbun, the sound engineer for Polymorph studios. When Flesh disbanded in 1998, Frykdahl and Rathbun enlisted violinist Carla Kihlstedt from a vocal-centered side project called Charming Hostess. As one-third of Tin Hat Trio, Kihlstedt, an in-demand session player who's collaborated with the likes of Tom Waits and Willie Nelson, brought a chamber-minded sensibility to the Museum -- plus a vocal range to match Björk's. Drummer Frank Grau, from Species Being, rounded out the rhythm section with industrial-waste percussionist Moe! Staiano (whose unruly, forty-member Moe!kestra! performs unconventional scores with wine glasses, oil drums, and air-raid sirens). After Grau and Staiano left, the Museum acquired the final two pieces of its current lineup: drummer Matthias Bossi (ex-timekeeper for New York's Skeleton Key) and junk banger Michael Mellender, co-founder of the Bay Area's Immersion Composition Society. Along with a spring-nail guitar, slide piano-log, and a pressure-cap marimba, the Museum clutters the stage with enough unusual, hand-built gadgetry to make Harry Partch salivate.
"They're all difficult to play, but there's an element of compromise in them, because they're all built to produce brand-new sounds," Rathbun explains. "And you can't just stick them into any old song. Very early in the process, we often try to incorporate a homemade instrument, and that will really guide the process. And that, to some extent, dictates what can be done and what can't."
If the band's 2001 debut, Grand Opening and Closingis any indication, the possibilities of creating elaborate music with primitive sounds are endless. They don't always make for an easy listening experience, though. Disjointed and sprawling, the densely layered arrangements recall Art Bears, Henry Cow, and even local avant-garde outfit Thinking Plague. Challenging to the extreme, the album pays homage to chaos, doomsday, and obscure Scottish philosopher John Kane, the founder of black math who believed in a theorem for invisibility. With a booming voice as raw as prison pruno, Frykdahl sings the praises of insomnia ("Sleep Is Wrong") or softens his baritone for a creepy lullaby that ultimately derails into noise and nightmare ("Sleepytime").
But for all its grandiosity, odd time signatures, and impressive technicality, is the band sometimes too wanky for its own good?
"Absolutely," Rathbun admits. "It's really easy, when you're educated in music, to stick a bunch of shit in there just because it's interesting musically. You've got to remember that the song has an emotional thrust -- that's the first purpose. I'd be quite happy if people thought of us as being a band that evoked a lot of emotion rather than a band that's just smart."
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