He's not complaining, exactly. Contemplating might be a better word. And it's not so much the arthroscopic surgery he had on his knees recently as it is his place in San Francisco music. Both Palmatier and his musical collaborator, Brian Fraser, moved to San Francisco within the past five years, having spent most of their creative lives in Chapel Hill, N.C. Realizing that the scene there was dying -- or at least falling into dormancy -- both went looking for a place that seemed to have a vibrant music community. "I wanted to live out here as soon as I visited," says Palmatier.
Five years ago, Palmatier was DJing at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill radio station WXYC, and got the impression there were dozens of kindred spirits here at the other end of the country. "I was listening to Caroliner, American Music Club, Thinking Fellers [Union Local 282], and I thought those things were typical," he says. "Then I came here and realized, 'Oh, that's not true.'"
In other words, Palmatier, 27, and Fraser, 26, make music that doesn't quite fit in, and that doesn't necessarily mean they fit in in San Francisco either. The band they've formed, Brian and Chris ("We couldn't think of anything better," says Palmatier), is more a loose collaboration than anything else, and doesn't sound much like any of those above-referenced bands. But they do, however, draw from a freewheeling, experimental spirit that taps into folk, post-rock, jazz improvisation, and a variety of electronic musics.
About two years ago, Fraser and Palmatier were approached by a filmmaker friend, Jonathan Parra, to come up with soundtrack music for a film he was working on, as yet unfinished. The two gathered their instruments -- and there were a lot of them, including guitars, basses, organs, pianos, synthesizers, turntables, and things that simply made an interesting sound when you hit them. In the process of putting together ideas for the soundtrack, they began to tinker with the idea of making something more genuinely songlike with the mass of instruments they'd assembled. "We wanted to do something a little more 'finished' in terms of the songwriting," says Palmatier. "Film music doesn't really lend itself to songs."
But sometimes the laboratory approach to musicmaking -- two guys building songs out of layers of overdubs -- doesn't lend itself to conventional songwriting either. Still, Fraser, who played drums with the Atlanta-via-Chapel Hill band Tractor Hips and hadn't been making music for a while, warmed to the approach. "It's a real challenge, and it's different from projects I've worked on in the past," he says. "In the past, you would always work up songs and then record them, whereas now it's a different process." Adds Palmatier: "The process is very organic. You start off with something as simple as a click track, six or seven minutes of one drumbeat or whatever, add in a bass line or guitar, and just build off of that. And even if he [Brian] is the person who plays on the drum track, he's open to other ideas with guitars. We're usually thinking similar things anyway."
Without that symbiosis, the self-titled and mainly instrumental record they released together could've been a grand, overearnest mess, as so many Tortoise-influenced records are. The opening guitar epic, "March to the Sea," is egghead rock in the tradition of King Crimson's finer moments (Red, say), but each of the album's 11 songs explores a different direction. "Jet Piedmont" is built around small brushstrokes of guitar and syncopated drum rhythms, held together by the loose and powerful saxophone of local improviser John Ingle, who contributed to three of the album's tracks. There are smaller touches: the sounds of a BART station that bookend the maudlin, eight-minute "Transbay Tube," the tinge of bluegrass on "The Uncertainty Principle," the John Fahey-esque folk of "Undone Undine," and the ripple of Indonesian gamelan percussion that percolates throughout "Jakarta International Airport," which Palmatier says was inspired by a local gamelan concert he attended. "The Science of Vectors" and the clattering "I'm Just Trying to Get a Seat at the Bar" seamlessly combine all of those ideas, and wouldn't sound too out of place on a Mo' Wax or Ninja Tune compilation.
Friends and associates of Palmatier and Fraser have taken a stab at giving a name to their music, inventing genres like "a new folk music" and "hillbilly drum 'n' bass," which suggest more the uncategorizable quality of the music than anything else. "A friend told me once, 'I'd love to have a band that's sort of a cross between the Buzzcocks, Nick Drake, and [avant-garde saxophonist John Zorn's] Naked City,'" says Palmatier. "I told him, 'That's a tall order, but ... OK.'"
Finding a live performance home for their music has been difficult -- the duo has performed just three times in San Francisco, though they have three more concerts scheduled for January, filling out the band with Tom Petersen and Jeff Van Earwage. So their efforts have been limited to the small but busy Bay Area experimental music scene that revolves mainly around Mills College's Center for Contemporary Music, though neither actually attended the school. "I thought about it," says Palmatier. "And then I thought about being $20,000 in debt."
In Chapel Hill, Palmatier and Fraser used to perform at an improv event called "Shortwave," which included like-minded folks such as Eugene Chadbourne; here, they've participated in the jazz-improv "Cultural Labyrinth" and its accompanying art-rock "Whatever Doesn't Fit" shows at the old Komotion in the Mission ("Cultural Labyrinth" is currently looking for a new home). Its coordinator, Bob Boster, now lives in Detroit, and knew Fraser and Palmatier in North Carolina. "There's flashes on the [Brian and Chris] record of things I heard only occasionally when they were in Chapel Hill, DJing at parties," he says. "It's like imagining an adventurist, whose music crosses all these different boundaries."
The pair are trying to see if they can't make a larger scene out of what they're doing. "In Chicago it seems like every record is [made by] the same group of people," says Palmatier. "That's a bit of what we're trying to do here." Pressing a thousand copies last month, Brian and Chris is the first release on their imprint This Record Label, which they hope to expand into more releases from local musicians they know -- or don't -- who have a similar sensibility, even if figuring out the mechanics of recording, releasing, distribution, and general scene-mongering is new to them.
"It's actually been a blessing in disguise," says Fraser. "We're learning a lot of things that I think musicians should learn."