Weird Science

Laptop glitch, experimental video, copious booze -- meet the audiovisual SWAT team that is Sagan

Electronic music performances are often less than riveting affairs. As sounds skitter and bleep through the house speakers, a musician hunkers over the wan glow of a laptop screen, dutifully slaving over some arcane software program, perhaps nodding his head to the beat. Then again, maybe Mousemaster Mike is just trying to look busy up there; for all we know, he's actually shooting aliens in a mad dash for the next game level. Meanwhile, audience members -- arms folded and bored silly -- begin to play mind games like Is It Live or File Playback? and Name That Sample.

Compare that to the performances put on by local overachieving AV squad Sagan. Video images of everything from Martian landings and snowplowing Japanese trains to lawn sprinklers and various animals have found their way into this group's live show, not to mention the occasional drunken spectacle. Then there's the music itself, a layered, sample-heavy sound that ranges from the ridiculous to the sublime, from confrontational noise to hypnotic atmospherics. Sagan shows, while having a central narrative theme, are far from heavily scripted or preprogrammed. Rather, the musicians compose their sets together on the fly, and, depending on circumstances ranging from audience reaction to band members' moods, those sets can be as pummeling as they can be serene. Indeed, if there's a unifying quality to this band's output, it's that Sagan is always experimenting, and never predictable.

"There's this constant sense of trying something new, and exploring something that we've never done before," says Sagan videomeister Ryan Junell.

"The neat thing about Sagan is it's the first 
band I've been in where I can play drunk."
"The neat thing about Sagan is it's the first band I've been in where I can play drunk."

"The few times we've attempted a set list, or tried to predetermine the mood, the exact opposite happened," adds keyboardist Jon Leidecker. "So it's more important just to listen [to each other]. Every single gig is completely different."

Multi-instrumentalist J Lesser synopsizes it best: "If we didn't suck sometimes, we couldn't be good other times."

For a group that takes its name from scientist Carl Sagan and its inspiration from his 1980 miniseries Cosmos, Sagan members Junell, Leidecker, and married couple Lesser and Bevin Kelley (aka Blevin Blectum, formerly of electronic duo Blectum From Blechdom) are a fairly down-to-earth bunch. Gathering around cheese and crackers in the Mission District living room studio of friends and co-conspirators Drew Daniel and Martin Schmidt of Matmos, it's obvious there's a salonlike camaraderie amongst this crew: They're as interested in discussing books, movies, obscure composers, and video games as they are the band. When asked about band meetings and practices, Junell comments, "We're more likely to get together and scarf Mexican food. And drink a lot of margaritas."

The seeds of Sagan were planted in 2001, after Lesser ended a marathon tour serving in Björk's backup band with Matmos. "I got the Cosmos DVDs as a birthday present for him when he got home," Kelley recalls. "We watched that every night until we were done with it. We hung out, laid low, watching and thinking about starting a new project where we'd play together." Inspired by the historic TV series, the band concept expanded into something that was equal parts audio and visual; since both Lesser and Kelley had worked with filmmaker Junell in the past, they proposed he get on board. "We were talking about how we wanted to have a similar feeling [to Cosmos]," Kelley says, "that slow, very non-MTV, science-based documentary sort of approach."

Toward the end of 2003, Leidecker, who also performs and records sample-shredding solo work as Wobbly, was asked to join after sitting in for a couple of live shows. "This is the band where I get to play keyboards," Leidecker says of the prog-rock washes and Casio melodies he adds to the mix. "J and Bevin lay down the rhythms and the spines, and I get to just kind of cut loose over the top. The neat thing about Sagan is it's the first band I've been in where I can play drunk."

Getting shitfaced, however, is not the only thing this group is good at. Last September, Sagan released a double-disc CD/ DVD titled Unseen Forces. The audio CD is a sample-delic instrumental suite of loops, digital crunches, gurgles, and bird squawks, arduously compiled and composed in Pro Tools from the source material of some 40 hours of live recordings, and embellished with overdubs and planetarium-soundtrack aesthetics. The CD shares only intro and outro themes with the DVD, and as a visuals-free listening experience the 12-track music disc stands on its own as an engrossing sonic fun house. While dense, the tracks are no random glitch-storm, and have a steady undercurrent of rhythmic and melodic compositional anchors running throughout. There's subtle humor, subversion of the electronica paradigm, and plenty of attention-deficit composition: On "Closest Living Relations," Sagan manages to cram funk bass, syncopated beats, metal guitar, squishy synths, and more into a single cut.

Meanwhile, the DVD is a whimsical collection of vignettes paying homage to the scientific dramatization of Cosmos. There's a re-creation of the big bang with flashlights, and an "extremely fictionalized" version of the discovery of radiation starring Lesser and Kelley as the Curies. In other sketches, the members of Matmos use the unlikely venue of a San Francisco soda fountain to illustrate the discovery of air circa 440 B.C., and Junell and local musician Dave Cerf play Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler, respectively, having a literal pissing contest for "HeavenData" -- at Mission Street restaurant Foreign Cinema. With a pervasive, upfront soundtrack by Sagan, hilarious subtitles, and Leidecker standing in as Carl Sagan's body double -- turtleneck and all -- the 39-minute movie makes for entertaining viewing. It even screened at December's Santa Fe Film Festival to a packed house.

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