"The idea of the Muons started in 1993 during the grunge era, which seemed [to me] like a watered-down version of punk," Bianchini says. "I couldn't find a band to join, so I started doing all these folksy songs on my own. I didn't want to do the whole "Bob Dylan fake hick' thing, so I figured I should make some new instrument. That way I'd be sure to have a different sound. I was tied to the past, but I wanted to look forward into the future. That's why I decided to make a see-through plastic lute."
Bianchini quickly realized that plastic was too difficult to work with, so he settled on a more practical wood design -- albeit one rigged with electric guitar pickups. The resulting 14-stringed instrument had the shimmer of a 12-string guitar but with a deeper, more arcane tone. Taking the name Muons from a kind of subatomic particle, he brought in several friends to fill out the sound: Zo MacFee on conventional 12-string guitar, Rickey Reneau on Appalachian dulcimer (also outfitted with pickups), and Nick Duplessis on percussion.
"When we started [the band] was incredibly unfashionable," Bianchini remembers. "Maybe we weren't very good at first, but it was hard getting shows -- especially dispensing with the whole bass/drums/electric guitar thing. A lot of the people who booked shows were evasive and obviously thought it was lame, but were too polite to say so."
MacFee left town in 1994, and a year later Duplessis split. In 1996 Jerry Vessel, bassist for local legends the Red House Painters, agreed to play drums/percussion and homemade, nylon-stringed tenor guitar with Bianchini. "I guess the attraction was somebody thought enough of my drumming to let me be in the band, so I had to accept," Vessel deadpans. Self-professed nonmusician Kt Vogt joined later on keyboards and metallophone (a kind of xylophone). "I'm not a keyboardist," she admits. "This is my first band."
The current members have been perfecting their craft in Bianchini's SoMa warehouse space since 1999. Inside, the building is littered with archaic and homemade instruments, German field tube mikes, gutted antique speaker cabinets, and dulcimers built from mail-order kits. Bianchini proudly points out the Orchestron 5, a homemade hurdy-gurdy the size of a septic tank that hangs from the ceiling. The Muons once hauled it to a show, only to find it too unwieldy for performances.
"Having weird instruments forces you to look at songwriting from a different perspective," Bianchini says. "Playing the same guitar day after day can be pretty uninspiring. When they invented the Fender Telecaster, people were inspired to come up with surf music or rock. Technology and art are always feeding off each other."
But the band aren't trying to break ground for its own sake. "We're trying to do a little technical innovation to push the music, but I need some emotional fulfillment. Basically I'm just trying to write good songs. Ultimately, music is all in your head, so whatever can inspire your head is good."
The group's 1999 self-titled debut (which Bianchini humbly describes as "basically a demo") is indeed inspired music. On the disc, Vogt's spacey drones and Reneau's processed dulcimer engulf Bianchini's thick lute chords as the leader's soaring-but-reedy vocals drive the lilting rhythms forward. Bianchini's lyrics are almost phonetic, like some alien tongue. "I'm not embarrassed by the lyrics; I just tend to slur a lot," he says in explanation.
"Fishes" is the most immediately appealing track, with its tambourine rhythm, pop chords, and uplifting chorus. "Under a Tree" revives an English folk traditional, while "Weeds" approximates a waltzing sea chantey, complete with a bowed dulcimer mimicking sea gull cries. With its hopalong rhythm and prairie synthscapes, the album's instrumental centerpiece, "Hopping Katydids," sounds like the theme to a spaghetti western set on Mars. The album has one foot in the future and one in the past, a point spelled out further in its packaging: The front cover features subatomic particles in a pilfered Lawrence Livermore Lab photo, while the insert depicts the band, dressed in druidic cloaks, making its way through a dense forest.
This dichotomy is further exemplified by the band's recording method. The Muons worked meticulously in Bianchini's warehouse for four months, first capturing everything on cassette and then transferring the songs to compact disc at the final moment. "I like to go retro until the very last second," Bianchini says. "Usually bands take their master and start doing computer editing on it so it sounds like you should be in Wal-Mart or something."
During live shows, Bianchini's solid strumming forms the band's foundation. Reneau appears lost in space, mesmerized by the bagpipes-to-Hawaiian-steel-guitar sounds his dulcimer makes. Vessel provides a simple gypsy beat with a two-piece kit that features temple bells in place of a kick-drum, while Vogt plays the bass parts on an analog synth perched precariously on a giant Plexiglass tube. The total effect is hypnotic: a simple yet orchestral wash of seductive tones.
"With music you're trying to get into a unique mental state," Bianchini explains. "The music is this tape that you play that has special tones -- like dial tones on a phone -- that get you into a certain state. We don't jam; we're not hippies. When you write songs, you're not looking for anything, but when you find it, you know. When performing, you try to recapture that."
"For me, it's a kind of meditation," Vogt adds.
Over the years the Muons have received little recognition, either from labels or the music press -- in part because the group hasn't been seeking it.
"I guess we should be getting the music out to the people. I guess I just don't really care that much about the people," says Bianchini. "When we first got started, I got turned off because everyone I talked to seemed to be more interested in the hype than the music."
With so little feedback, it's a wonder the band hasn't packed it in. "It seemed like we were doing something important," Bianchini asserts. "There didn't seem to be any reason to quit. The primary motivation wasn't adoration from the public, even though that's always nice. I didn't expect to get any response at all. We all love music enough. We played it for its own sake; we had a belief in it."
"It gets me out of the house," says Vessel with a shrug.
Once Bianchini finishes repairing a 1950s tape deck that he recently discovered in a barn in upstate New York, the Muons plan to record the huge backlog of material that the members have composed. In the meantime, in an effort to raise its visibility, the group took part in a photo session and is booking more local shows. "This interview is more media than we've had to deal with since the band started."
"If I were to sum up the philosophy of the band, I would say we're trying to do a futurist version of the Arts and Crafts movement with music, if that makes any sense," Bianchini says. But he hedges his revelation with a warning: "It seems like the things we do next are secret and shouldn't be revealed."