Psychotic Reaction

With a mind-boggling debut album, the Lowdown proves how to love pop music -- to death

In 1984, the Replacements swiped the title for their fourth album from the Beatles. To some this was considered heresy, an act akin to Philip Roth titling a novel The Bible. But there was a method to the Minneapolis band's mirth: By blatantly borrowing Let It Be from rock's biggest sacred cow, the group suggested that nothing was sacred.

Sixteen years later, the Lowdown has taken a similar (if more reverential) tack. While the Santa Cruz trio's debut LP, Revolver II, is indeed named after the Beatles' 1966 opus, it is intended as more of an absurd homage than a musical middle finger.

“We had finished the [album's] mix down,” remembers guitar and keyboard player Josh Alper, 27. “We were pretty happy with it but kind of blown out mentally at that point. Someone asked us what we were going to call [the record], and we were just tossing out the most absurd album title names imaginable, and someone just said it.”

“It seemed like a really bad idea — it's just so arrogant,” adds guitarist Hugh Holden, 25.

“It's just this total impossibility,” says Alper. “It's something that just can't ever be. And that was the appeal, I guess.”

As ridiculous as the title is, the more one listens to Revolver II the more the name begins to make sense. One can imagine the album as some sort of gory, B-movie sequel to the original — Dawn of the Bride of Revolver. Recorded by Phil Elvrum (The Microphones, D+) at Dub Narcotic Studios in Olympia, Wash., and at home on a four-track, the record squeezes 22 chaotic numbers into its 37 minutes. Taking cues from '60s garage and '70s punk, art rock, and no wave, Revolver II is a thoroughly engrossing and bewildering sonic nightmare. Like psychedelic music taken to its post-apocalyptic conclusion, the songs reel with schizophrenic vocal mood swings, hyperkinetic guitars, squealing horns, clattering Casio beats, and blasts of noise from a hot-wired guitar tuner, all buried alive under Elvrum's signature wall of distortion. If you listen closely, you can hear the elements of pop history ripped, torn, shredded, and subsumed. Revolver II is the musical equivalent of a child who loves his pet so much, he unwittingly tortures the poor thing near to death.

Alper and Holden met through mutual friends while attending UC Santa Cruz in 1997. A shared love of underground music and off-kilter humor immediately attracted Holden to Alper.

“Josh was playing in a band called Love Story, and as soon as I met him, I thought, “I want to be friends with this guy,'” Holden remembers.

“Hugh just started coming by the house a whole lot, and it kind of freaked us out,” Alper says with a laugh. “It was really good though. There's a lot of boredom involved in student life, and we would just wreak havoc to kill time.”

While playing together in a band called Make Fuck, Alper and Holden began recording Casio keyboards and hilariously twisted vocals onto a home karaoke machine. By the summer of 1998, Alper and Holden were playing shows as a duo, under the name the Lowdown ( the title of a song by Olympia's Some Velvet Sidewalk).

“[The Lowdown] was my favorite band in town,” remembers drummer Noel Harmonson, 22. “I had a four-track, and we talked about recording a little bit. So one night I came over, and we worked on a song. I was listening to the tape a few nights later and I started thinking, “Wow, they'd be really cool with a drummer. Gosh, I'd really like to play drums for them.' But I'd never played drums before and I never told them. And then, a couple weeks later, right before they left to go record up north, they just asked me to join the band. And I thought, “Wow, that's great. That's really weird. That's actually really creepy.'”

After seeing the band perform in Holden's living room, Yo Yo Records honcho Pat Maley asked the trio to record at his small Olympia studio. After a cassette release that combined those early karaoke numbers with the Maley-recorded material, the trio released the Ghost Dew EP on Holden's fledgling Aporia label. Recorded at home by Harmonson, the four-song record featured handmade covers decorated with electrical wire and duct tape. The 7-inch managed to get into the hands of several local music fans, including KFJC DJ Jack Soil, who began playing the record religiously on his show. The record also helped the Lowdown form a kinship with like-minded Bay Area bands such as Deerhoof, Erase Errata, and Boxleitner. It was only a matter of time before the trio would begin reaching a wider audience.

Unfortunately, the Lowdown's strict policy of playing only all-ages shows has limited its Bay Area live performances. When it does play at underground venues like San Francisco's Clit Stop and Oakland's Club Hot, the group adds to its brain-scrambling mishmash of sounds with inspired costumery. On occasion, Holden has performed in a gorilla costume, Alper has played in a Sgt. Pepper jacket, and Harmonson has appeared in a white suit, aviator goggles, scarf, and handlebar mustache. It's safe to say that a Lowdown performance is as much about befuddlement as about entertainment.

After seeing the Lowdown live, Revolver II might come as a surprise: Amidst all the madness reside tightly arranged compositions with honest-to-goodness hooks. Songs like “Extraspecial Existential” and “Saved by God” are downright catchy, although not the sort of thing you could sing in an elevator. The title of the song “Absurd Reaction” hints at just the sort of relationship the Lowdown has with pop music.

“I feel [our music is] reactionary,” says Harmonson. “I usually get inspired when I'm reacting to something. I feel confident when I know I am making an ass out of myself or doing something that seems totally ridiculous. But it's a reaction to everything I love, too. I don't just listen to noise music.”

The band members offer a litany of musical genre-benders as influences, from well-known artists like Beck and (early) Pink Floyd to more obscure groups like arty electro-rock collective Witchy Poo and free-form noise-punks the Swell Maps.

“For me, it's wanting to make something that I wish was there, but isn't,” explains Holden. “It's like there are these gaps between the music that other people have made. There's some kind of void that I see that I think needs to [be filled].”

“For me it just roots into this whole question of what do you do with music nowadays. I'm very much caught up in '60s pop music right now, and you look at [current] pop music, and it's “Oh, God,'” says Alper, shaking his head. “Where we're at in our history, there have been so many amazing bands, and it's a little overwhelming. It's hard to know what direction to go in. But at the same time, I'm not saying that the direction we have is necessarily all in reaction to that; it's also just a personal reaction to the world.”

Alper occasionally plays as Kaleidoscopic Jelly Bean Gnomes, a one-man outlet for his continuing Beatles fixation. Along with his Sgt. Pepper jacket, Alper has been known to perform wearing a framed portrait of the Beatles hanging around his neck.

“I guess I wear the Beatles' portrait in reference to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, where the guy kills the albatross, and it's supposed to be this terrible luck so they make him wear it around his neck,” Alper explains. “The Beatles are like this metaphoric albatross for me, I guess. I'm not trying to say that we're trying to kill the Beatles and rock music necessarily. I don't know. I'm just obsessed with the Beatles.”

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