Friday, June 29, 2007

I'm almost finished with another issue of Unrestrained! We've got some upcoming masthead shakeups that I hope will result in an even better magazine. I know I have some ideas...

For the second issue in a row I've interviewed a band that intrigued the hell out of me, only to have that band's new album get a drubbing in the reviews section. That's fine by me; I realize I'm hardly the typical U! writer or reader. The band in question last issue was Phazm, and this time it's Sleepytime Gorilla Museum.

I'm a crummy journalist; something I realized during my Voivod junket in Montreal last year, watching Martin Popoff working the room with his voice recorder. Interviews fill me with dread, although I suspect I'm getting better at them—thinking on the fly and following up on morsels of unexpected information dropped by my interviewee. The best parts about writing for U! are clicking off my tape recorder after a good chat, then (much later) clicking Send after I've finished the piece. Getting the finished magazine is cool too...just to see how my article looks. I can't actually read it again very closely. The nonsense I spew is just too painful.

I knew Nils Frykdahl of Sleepytime would be one of the good ones about a minute into the interview. He was just a staggeringly cool and articulate guy, and I'm sorry my piece couldn't have been twice as long. Here are some of the outtakes (Gorilla droppings?) from the interview.

While explaining SGM's adherence to the principles of "Rock Against Rock" (which he described as "a recognition of the need to destroy rock music in order to preserve what have been the useful elements of rock music") he mentioned that the movement had a number of historical precedents. With that in mind, I asked him if these historical precedents had anything to do with Rock In Opposition.

"I would say any movement in rock that has ambition has been a precedent. Punk rock certainly had strong elements of that. The Rock In Opposition movement was a big inspiration for us. Actually we'd been using the Rock Against Rock name for many years before knowing the name Rock In Opposition. When I discovered that I thought, 'Oh my god, wait a minute!' But I knew the groups. We were big fans of Art Bears, Henry Cow and a number of those bands before we knew that they called themselves Rock In Opposition. I think Rock In Opposition is explicitly political whereas Rock Against Rock is not explicitly political, although certainly a lot of what we’ve done has political connotations. The Rock In Opposition movement had strong ties to a European tradition of anarcho-communism, which, incidentally, we could use a dose of in the United States. Rock Against Rock is maybe more philosophical and more reckless."

Bearing in mind how amazingly dense and involved their music is, I had to ask the inevitable question about their songwriting process: what does an SGM song sound like when it’s in its “first draft” form? Is the hyper-complexity built into it from the start?

"No, not at all. Actually, that’s not true. Sometimes it is. There’s very different writing styles that are the basis for the songs. Sometimes the hyper-complexity is there from the beginning and somebody comes in with a score, essentially, and passes out parts. Dan Rathbun [bass] tends to write that way. He doesn’t typically write a lot of material, but every album has a song or two of his, and his have tended to be that way, just conceived from the ground up. My tendency has been the opposite—to come in with the most bare-bones version of a song, almost something you could sing around a campire with a guitar part and some vocal refrains or something. I’ll bring these things in and I’ll toss them out to the wolves of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum and they just get ripped apart and layered and built up until I’m saying 'Yes, yes, yes! That’s it.' So everyone writes their own parts on their very idiomatic instruments in ways that I certainly could not conceive of while I was sitting around the riverbank or wherever I was writing the song. That’s part of the process. Often those things will get built up very slowely, very rehearsal intensive, with very little going to paper. I’ll write the very minimum down to paper or one specific section that has an interlocking melodic thing that is easiest to work out on paper. Everybody is comfortable with that format, but that isn’t the way we end up working most of the time."

And then there's the video, which I hope you've all seen by now. Why did the band choose the very, very crazy “Helpless Corpses Enactment” when there were one or two more casual-audience-friendly choices on the album?

"The fellow who made the video, Adam Feinstein, chose that song. He was actually working on a video for 'The Companions.' He had the whole thing storyboarded out to the last detail, and it sounded like a really interesting video. Just as we were about to start production on that, our label, who was helping fund the whole thing, pointed out that on most video channels you can’t show anything longer than 4 and a half minutes. That song weighs in at around 10 minutes. We tried doing an edit to get it down to 4 and a half minutes, and we weren’t satisfied with it. We had just finished a mix of the Helpless Corpses song and said, 'Well, um, gee, this is a really different sounding song from that, but check this out. What do you think?' We weren’t finished with the album by a long shot at that point, so we didn’t have that many songs to choose from. So we sent him this mix of that, and he just loved it.

"Not having worked on metal stuff before and not having really listened to metal before, Adam was just excited at the idea of making a very non-metal video to a very metal song. That song is actually 6 minutes and it’s something very easy to make a 4 and a half minute version of. He immediately had all these ideas for it. He could right away picture the whole thing. Maybe someday we’ll make a little movie of 'The Companions,' but with today’s Internet-based video world you need to be able to make these little bite-sized packages, so… The video director had some strong ties with the lyrical material, to corpses. The song was—and I have to be somewhat cryptic about this—written by an Irish sorcerer, as we mention in the liner notes. He was well acquainted with that particular Irish sorcerer, so he immediately was excited about working on it. The song of course ties in lyrically very strongly with all of the other themes on the record—the themes of death and recycling of matter and rebirth and persistence of form and all those things...although it’s very hard to understand, I realize. We didn’t print the lyrics for reasons which I will have to leave undiscussed for now."

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Sleepytime Gorilla Museum—In Glorious Times (The End)
Sleepytime Gorilla Museum’s music is dense, tricky and ultimately rewarding once you get past its initial “what the hell?” factor. You plug this CD into iTunes and it comes up under the genre “Rock,” which is a woefully inadequate description of the tangle that tumbles out after pressing “play.” They claim to pursue something called “rock against rock,” a contradictory, negating slogan that actually suits their music better. They generate enough bombast and chaos to rival any metal band, but they manage to do it without the conventional metal weaponry—no power chords, no cod-classical/medieval melody lines, no climactic guitar solos. Instead they create an onslaught comprising odd homemade instruments, slashing dissonant guitars, percussion that skitters around every obvious possible beat, and vocals that range from Nils Frykdahl’s slavering rapid-fire rantings to Carla Kihlstedt’s beautifully plaintive singing. No matter how much the quintet piles on—and the songwriting does take an all-hands-on-deck approach—just when the clutter and counterpoint become too much to absorb, branches of musical accessibility eventually emerge as little handholds to which to cling. The folk/hymn opening of “The Companions,” for example, has a great deal of appeal, with Frykdahl singing beautifully and dramatically against a tinkling backdrop. But SGM can’t help themselves, they build and build upon that opening theme before finally exploding into the inevitable cacophony in the final three minutes. The next song, “Headless Corpses Reenactment,” is a more concentrated burst of dramatic ferocity, kind of like Univers Zero interpreting Suffocation. This, of course, is the song they blew their wad on a splendid video for. I would have thought they’d pick the user-friendlier Kihlstedt-voiced “Formicary,” a perfectly pleasant number that veers into King Crimsonville only at the end. As if the music wasn’t challenging enough, cryptic phone messages are interspersed between several tracks, inviting you to imagine and construct a storyline for the album. Who are these people and why are they saying these things? So many questions…some of which Frykdahl answered when I interviewed him last week. I won’t say anything more here. You should give this album some time, wait for the questions to come, and start chipping away at your own conclusions. The most important conclusion I’ve drawn is that this is one of the year’s best albums.