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.
Of the body of players that have shared the stage with the band, Wrenn explains simply, “We find somebody we think would do a good job and just ask them to do it.” Reiner adds, “As the band continues to develop different aesthetic directions and grow musically, we hope good musicians will continue to collaborate with us and experiment with new sounds. There are several bands we like that have done this well — the Flaming Lips, Talking Heads — where a core group of musicians collaborates with others to realize interesting ideas.”
Custom tailoring of the lineup to suit the interesting ideas du jour has made Crime in Choir's heretofore infrequent live engagements unique happenings — stylized must-see sequels to their premiere two years ago as an opening act for Creeper Lagoon. The roster of players who fill out the band's orchestration remains in flux, but the familiar characters that bind the group's sound are Hopper's Rhodes piano, Wrenn's baritone guitar, and Reiner's electronics.
“The instrumentation does do a lot to shape the sound of the band,” Reiner admits. “The interplay between the Rhodes and the synths does seem to catch people's attention as unique. Combined with the loud drums, intricate guitar and bass, it creates a kind of dramatic presence we like. We'd like to keep that intact as players and instrumentation varies over time.” Just don't hold your breath waiting for a singer.
“We have people come up to us after almost every gig and say, 'Hey, have you ever thought about adding a singer?'” Hopper says coyly. It's clear from the half-scoffs around the table that Crime in Choir's message has little to do with a pining vocalist.
“It's rare that I care what songs are about,” Wrenn says. “To me they often evoke visual or emotional responses, and those will certainly be different for everybody. I guess I would suggest unlearning how to listen to or approach music, to listen with a clean slate and expect aural rather than story-based engagement.”
“I guess it depends on the person's relationship to music,” Reiner explains. “A lot of people really listen to lyrics and respond to them emotionally. I've always responded more to sounds.”
It's a comment that almost brings the conversation full circle, back to Don Coscarelli's nightmare on celluloid. The real thrills during Mike's crusade against the forces of evil aren't found in dime store one-liners like “Let me release you from this imperfect flesh” or in spurts of fake blood. Any lasting excitement springs from the dark, more shadowy corners of the imagination.
Into the Woods
A Minor Forest: 1992-1998.
WHAT: This local trio had a knack for dense, math-rock instrumentals that were akin to many mid-'90s Chicago exports. It's aggressive, sinister, and constantly surprising.
LISTEN TO: Flemish Altruism (Constituent Parts 1993-1996). Recorded by Steve Albini and Bob Weston, A Minor Forest's debut LP was the record of 1996, released by Chicago's Thrill Jockey.
WHAT BECAME OF THEM: They split after a final gig at the Great American Music Hall in November of '98. Guitarist Erik Hoversten pursued a love of avant-jazz with the Threnody Ensemble. Bassist John Trevor Benson and drummer Andy Connors continued to play together for a handful of projects, including Ticwar.
The Fucking Champs: 1995-present.
WHAT: When the Darkness was still in grade school, this S.F. trio was preaching an unfettered adoration of metal riffage that was way ahead of the curve. The Champs specialize in unapologetic, unironic Judas Priest-isms and unforgiving guitar wank.
LISTEN TO: V. If you can't tell by the cheeky Roman numeral name, this is the fifth LP by the trio, and probably their best. They lighten up their power-rock head bangers with cutesy synthesizer interludes and display good humor and lots of technical prowess by taking on Bach's Air on a G String.
WHAT BECAME OF THEM: Fucking Champs guitarist Tim Green appears on Crime in Choir's debut The Hoop and spends a lot of time recording area bands at his studio, Louder.
WHAT: Specializing in sprawling, ambient ballads, Tarentel has quietly been turning out cult collectibles for the better part of a decade. Their sleepy, Eno-influenced compositions put them on the forefront of the “post-shoegazer” movement, if there is such a thing.
LISTEN TO: Ephemera, a near-epic retrospective of five instrumentals that drones along for well over an hour, giving nods to luminaries like My Bloody Valentine and Mogwai.
WHAT BECAME OF THEM: The original quintet has slimmed to a trio, which continues to play locally, tour, and release new music. Later this spring, Temporary Residence will release a compilation titled Thank You, with new material from Tarentel, and the band recently announced plans to release its next full-length in the fall.
Natural Dreamers: 2003-present.
WHAT: An art-damaged supergroup with two parts Deerhoof and one part Dilute. They might be likened to Trout Mask-era Beefheart, but Chris Cohen (guitar), John Dieterich (guitar), and Jay Pellicci (drums) are better regarded as a trio of rock dudes trying their hand at the experimental free jazz of the early '70s.
LISTEN TO: Natural Dreamers. The self-titled debut is a twisting ride of tangential musical spazzing and warbling chaos. Sound awful? It can be, but if you're in the mood, the Natural Dreamers' inspired experimentations can be a good trip. Think of it as James Blood Ulmer for people who have never heard James Blood Ulmer.
WHAT BECAME OF THEM: While Deerhoof is busy winning the hearts of indie America, the Natural Dreamers are currently on the back burner.