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

Wednesday, Dec 29 2004
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 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.

As if all that weren't enough, the DVD also contains six hours of MP3s documenting nine complete live shows, and four Easter eggs (i.e., hidden tracks, which can be found on the ViewMaster-like main menu by hitting "up" then "enter" on your DVD remote), including a video of Sagan's goof on "Chariots of Fire" by Vangelis. With such a bounty of entertainment, the slick Unseen Forces package offers much bang for the buck. It also took a long time to make and release. After fishing around at various labels, the band opted to put it out via Matmos' Vague Terrain imprint. Matmos member Daniel feels it was a logical choice.

"I'd seen Sagan and really loved what they were doing," he says. "There was something totemic about their shows, there was always this sort of animal thrust. The first show I saw was a cat show, with a single static image of a cat dreaming. Then I saw a bird-oriented show, and then an ants-oriented show; it just seemed like such a departure. It wasn't what I was expecting from them."

After a while, though, you get used to expecting the unexpected from Sagan. Take the notorious Sacramento performance where the band started drinking around 5 in the afternoon, and didn't play until around 11. "That was my blackout," Lesser confesses. "It was really hot, and they were bringing us pitchers of beer to cool us off. By the time of the show, I was rrrrrripped! Sagan played, and then I just kept playing. The only thing I remember is thinking, 'Who's fucking making that noise?' I was getting really pissed, and it took me, like, 10 minutes to realize that, 'Oh, it's something that I'm doing.'"

Then there was Kelley's impromptu mike work while opening for the Country Teasers at the Hemlock Tavern, inspired by persistent heckling from an impatient crowd. "[The audience was] ready for sloppy country-punk with rude lyrics," explains Leidecker. "They saw us set up with several laptops, and there was some animosity. So Bevin took the microphone and began screaming, 'Spring Break '99!' over and over again. Somebody yelled from the audience, 'We hate opening bands!' Bevin paused for a second, then said, 'Hi! We're the Country Teasers!' We started with a five-minute wall of grinding noise, and Bevin kept screaming over the top. It was tough; people were impressed. A bunch of people said they'd never seen an electronic music show like that before."

Immediate plans for Sagan include shows in L.A., San Diego, Europe, and perhaps Japan in April. Recently, the band played three dates on the East Coast and recorded a show for New Jersey radio station WFMU. At Brooklyn nightspot Galapagos, Sagan did a performance called "The Mote in God's Eye," which featured a Junell-shot video appropriate for an NYC gig: a field of moths swarming above the two massive beams of light at Ground Zero commemorating Sept. 11.

"It takes a long time to realize that they're moths," notes Lesser. "It just looks like some hyperspace star field or something, these millions of little globes of light."

In a follow-up e-mail after the East Coast shows, Leidecker says the Brooklyn gig went "OK," with the musicians managing to wrap up their set around the same time the moth video ended. But at New York's Tonic the following night, the audience witnessed the band's more cantankerous side. "The Sagan Tonic set had wilder weirder heights and people actually got to see the dysfunctional noise family," Leidecker writes. "Bevin had a microphone and shouted directions to J and I, but the mic wasn't on. At one point I shouted 'HEY BEVIN YOUR MIC ISN'T ON' and she shouted 'YOU FOOL IT'S PART OF THE CONCEPT.' Then I drank a lot and don't remember too much more after that."

Just before press time, it was announced via the Sagan Web site -- -- that resident filmmaker Ryan Junell "has decided to take a leave of absence from the band to focus on a feature film and some extreme bodybuilding in 2005." The announcement went on to read: "We've had a ton of fun with [Junell] and wish him the best. We're pretty sure our orbits will cross again soon."

About The Author

Mike Rowell


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