Album Stream: Godswounds’ Death to the Babyboomers

Godswounds: Death to the BabyboomersGodswounds: Death to the Babyboomers (Sonichimaera, 5/20/14)

A heart-racing synthesis of heavy metal, horns, and videogame scores, Godswounds’ debut album is half psychedelic trip, half nutty science experiment gone right. It’s an electrifying collaboration between the Australia-native band—whose members include Lachlan Kerr and former Mr. Bungle drummer Danny Heifetz—and guest artists like Big Business, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, Marriages, and (the) Melvins.

The result is a playfully dramatic fusion of styles and sounds—one that pulses with melody and drama without letting gimmicks hold it down. Listen to the album in its entirety below.

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Best Albums: Relentless metal, risk-taking pop, and bluesy psych rock

This week’s best albums:

– Boston metal quartet Revocation returns with its fourth full-length — a self-titled collection that, as the name suggests, might best reflect the band’s brand of relentless thrash and technical death metal.

– Each with boundary-pushing credits a mile long, wife-and-husband tag-team Carla Kihlstedt and Matthias Bossi (Sleepytime Gorilla Museum) create a collection of omnivorous, risk-taking pop as Rabbit Rabbit.

Black Moth Super Rainbow’s Tom “Tobacco” Fec and MC Zackey Force Funk collaborate for synth-pop weirdness and rap/funk leanings as Demon Queen.

– As Old Baby, Young Widows guitarist Evan Patterson unites with the folksy baritone of Jonathan Glen Wood (plus members of Slint, Shipping News, and Phantom Family Halo) to deliver heaving rhythms, reverberated tones, and bluesy psych-rock swagger.

Honorable mentions

The Civil Wars: s/t (Sensibility / Columbia)

Explosions in the Sky & David Wingo: Prince Avalanche soundtrack (Temporary Residence)

Volto!: Incitare (Fantasy / Concord)

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Tag-teamwork: Hear wife-and-husband Rabbit Rabbit’s “Curious One”

Rabbit Rabbit Radio Vol. 1Rabbit Rabbit: Rabbit Rabbit Radio, Vol. 1 (8/6/13)

“Curious One”

Rabbit Rabbit: “Curious One”

Each with boundary-pushing credits a mile long, wife-and-husband tag-team Carla Kihlstedt (Tin Hat, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, 2-Foot Yard) and Matthias Bossi (SGM, The Book of Knots, Skeleton Key) are one of those consummate couples — the kind of musical pairing that belongs together.

The multi-instrumental duo recently launched an audio/video subscription service, named Rabbit Rabbit Radio, to deliver new material and behind-the-scenes stories at a low, low price. Now the two are releasing said material as Rabbit Rabbit, and the forthcoming album’s first single, “Curious One,” is a true team effort — built around a head-nodding groove, bouncing upright bass, glistening pizzicato plucks, deep distortions, and, of course, Kihlstedt and Bossi’s harmonized vocals.

Add this to your August pickup list, and keep an eye open for summer tour dates!

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Grand openings: Sleepytime Gorilla Museum members offer Free Salamander Exhibit

After a dozen years, three studio albums, and some of the strangest haircuts in the business, art-metal ensemble Sleepytime Gorilla Museum closed its doors in 2011. Now three of its core members — guitarist/vocalist Nils Frykdahl, bassist/vocalist Dan Rathbun, and multi-instrumentalist Michael Mellender — have grabbed a few cohorts (including original drummer David Shamrock) to offer the presumably bizarre Free Salamander Exhibit.

The band’s debut performance will take place July 5 at The New Parish in Oakland, California, with Stolen Babies and Mirthkon. Be there if you dare.

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Members of Faith No More, Mr. Bungle, Nels Cline Singers, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum score silent film

The San Francisco International Film Festival has made a tradition of assembling a live musical group each year to score a silent film. In the past, this has included artists like Stephen Merritt, Yo La Tengo, Deerhoof, and Black Francis. In 2013, the festival has put together an ensemble including Mike Patton (Faith No More), Scott Amendola (Nels Cline Singers), Matthias Bossi (Sleepytime Gorilla Museum), and William Winant (Mr. Bungle) to score the 1924 fantasy-horror classic Waxworks, directed by Paul Leni.

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Carla Kihlstedt and Matthias Bossi launch Rabbit Rabbit Radio

Sleepytime Gorilla Museum‘s Carla Kihlstedt and Matthias Bossi have teamed up to bring you Rabbit Rabbit Radio, their latest of many musical forays. For just $1-3 per month, RRR subscribers will receive a brand-new song crafted by the duo along with a video, a behind-the-scenes look at the recording process, and personal stories and musings.

Watch the teaser below for a brief introduction to Rabbit Rabbit Radio and its first installment, “Hush, Hush,” which is available today.

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50 Unheralded Albums from 2011

In just one more trip around the sun, another swarm of immensely talented but under-recognized musicians has harnessed its collective talents and discharged its creations into the void. This list is but one fraction of those dedicated individuals — admittedly, based mostly in the Western world — who caught our ears with some serious jams.

For us, 2011 was another year of taking in as much as we could and sharing the best with you. Next year, however, will be a homecoming of sorts, a return to rock-‘n’-roll roots. We’ll soon be able to share the projects that we have in store — across multiple mediums — but for now, dig into this rock-focused list of must-own albums.

Presented in chronological order.

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Guest Spot: Carla Kihlstedt’s Necessary Monsters

Carla Kihlstedt & Matthias Bossi: Still You Lay Dreaming: Tales for the Stage, IICarla Kihlstedt & Matthias BossiStill You Lay Dreaming: Tales for the Stage, II (12 Cups, 2/1/11)

Carla Kihlstedt & Matthias Bossi: “Subsequently”

[audio:|titles=Carla Kihlstedt & Matthias Bossi: “Subsequently”]

Oakland-based multi-instrumentalist Carla Kihlstedt has had a hand in upwards of 50 albums in less than 15 years. As a member of groups such as Tin Hat, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, and The Book of Knots, Kihlstedt sings and plays violin, organ, percussion, and just about everything else.

Currently, she’s set to premiere Necessary Monsters, a song cycle based on Jorge Luis BorgesThe Book of Imaginary Beings, in San Francisco on July 29 and 30 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Read more about the project and the corresponding Kickstarter campaign on the Imaginary Beings Project website. We gave Kihlstedt the opportunity to write about her personal relationship with these monsters and how they unlocked a world of objectivity and imagination.

How Monsters Changed My Life
by Carla Kihlstedt

At first, they’re all so cute. Even the one with only one arm, one leg, one wing, and half a tongue; the one who goes around with hatred in his heart stealing speech from animals; the one who weeps in the forest, and if she’s caught dissolves herself into a heap of bubbles and salt; the little one made of string, dust, and a broken spool of who-knows-what; the one with one eye and a maniacally monotonous, monocled perspective.

But then you let them in for long enough, and as the spectacle wears off, they start just looking like friends with foibles. OK…large foibles, exaggerated features, caricatures for sure…nonetheless familiar, and almost friendly. And that’s when you’re in trouble, but believe me, it’s a necessary kind of trouble, a trouble that teaches you more about yourself than perhaps you were prepared for.

I’m referring, of course, to imaginary beings. My encounter with them begins with an innocuous moment when I was in college, home for vacation, looking at my parents’ bookshelf for something to read. The Book of Imaginary Beings jumped out at me, both because of its title (scholarly yet full of fantasy) and because I had heard this fellow, Jorge Luis Borges, referred to with an equally compelling combination of reverence, amusement, and excitement.

There were those who had read Borges and those who had not. I had not. Having read Borges was a kind of a badge of intellectual hipness. He would laugh to hear such a thing, he who said, “I think that what I have read is far more important than what I have written. For one reads what one likes. And one writes not what one would like to write, but what one is able to write.”

Now, I normally whinny, rear up, and gallop in the other direction when faced with a peer-pressure-inspired badge of anything! But in this case, my curiosity led the way, and since then, I have grown to love him as if he were my own grandfather. (Listen to his set of three lectures from Harvard’s “Norton Lecture Series” here, here and here, and perhaps he’ll become your surrogate grandpa too!)

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John Vanderslice with The Magik*Magik Orchestra: A “Wild” Analog Opus

John Vanderslice with the Magik*Magik Orchestra: White WildernessJohn Vanderslice with The Magik*Magik Orchestra: White Wilderness (Dead Oceans, 1/25/11)

John Vanderslice with The Magik*Magik Orchestra: “Sea Salt”

[audio:|titles=John Vanderslice with the Magik*Magik Orchestra: “Sea Salt”]

In San Francisco’s Mission District, the small but bustling Tiny Telephone is booked four months in advance. John Vanderslice is there everyday. Things are smooth. When he first opened the studio almost 15 years ago, this wasn’t the case. There were problems. Floods. Power outages. He would get calls while on tour. “At the beginning, it wasn’t a celebration,” he says. “It was just a grind.” But about three years ago, between albums, Vanderslice returned from the road and decided to take a break from touring. He was recently married, and he had the itch to explore not the world but the life that he had in San Francisco.

“When I came back, I was happier,” he says. “I was with my wife everyday. She’s a teacher, so I would [go to the studio] every day and just help bands. I would figure out stuff. And I started to make the studio a lot better. I got in this feedback loop where everything I was doing was helping the studio.” He admits that life could’ve taken him somewhere else — the studio might’ve not been a success. Even now, success is relative. Not long ago, Vanderslice got an E-mail from his bank. “Available balance: $0.22.” It was Christmas Eve. So though he’s not getting rich, measured other ways, things are better than ever. As he says of rough times in the past, “Everything kept pointing to all music, all studio, all the time.” They still are.

John Vanderslice with The Magik*Magik Orchestra

Vanderslice’s latest offering, White Wilderness, is a collaboration with Minna Choi’s Magik*Magik Orchestra (M*MO). Despite its size — nine tracks that fill only 31 minutes — the record has the power to engulf: like a controversy, the more one digs, the more complex it seems to get. What at first sounds like a thin, quirky rock album becomes instead a contained magnum opus. Portentously, White Wilderness was released exactly a week before a monstrous snow storm blanketed two-thirds of the United States, transforming the Midwest into a white wilderness of its own and bringing Chicago to a standstill; 20 inches whipped into eight-foot drifts proved too much, even for the city of broad shoulders.

Initial inklings for the project came two years ago, when Vanderslice played a show with M*MO at the Great American Music Hall. “Within the first 10 minutes of being in the center of 20 string players, I was like, ‘This has to be the next record.’” He and Choi had just begun a new partnership. Her collection of classical musicians would serve as a modular, in-house orchestra for Tiny Telephone, a solution to a problem that Choi had noticed for a while: it was always difficult to find classically trained musicians to record her arrangements, so why not create a group with that as its primary aim?

It was the perfect opportunity for a studio owner who owns every Gustav Mahler and W.A. Mozart symphony on vinyl. “The color — the use of oboe, French horn, and clarinet on Mahler symphonies — I just wanted to taste that,” he says of his passion for classical music. “I wanted, like, 0.1 percent of what I heard there to show up in my music.” Fueled also by artists like Sufjan Stevens and Joanna Newsom, who’ve skillfully woven orchestral music into other genres, Vanderslice wanted to get away from the typical, rock-music-with-string-overdubs sound: “I wanted to…just flip it around, where the orchestra is driving everything.” This meant that Vanderslice had to take himself out of the equation. After penning the original demos, he passed the material to Choi and didn’t hear the music again until three days before recording.

John Vanderslice with The Magik*Magik Orchestra

“It was as far as I could get from my usual process,” says Vanderslice, who normally does everything himself in his basement before even heading to the studio. “I told Minna, ‘Listen, I have a very high tolerance for dissonance, and I would love to include as many woodwinds as possible.’ End of sentence. I didn’t say another word to Minna about music. Ever. I never changed a note. I never made a suggestion about orchestration — after a 30-second conversation.”

In her bedroom, surrounded by piles of paper, Choi had a significant amount of work ahead of her, but with Vanderslice encouraging dissonance, one of her main hurdles had been leapt. “As an arranger, dissonance is the thing that I have to worry about most,” she says. “I compare it to a caterer being hired to cater a wedding — that’s kind of what I’m doing. I have to get inside their head and create something that’s to their taste. Dissonance is like spiciness; everybody has a different idea of what’s spicy, just like everyone has a different idea of what’s dissonant. It’s totally subjective, it’s totally personal, and there’s no right or wrong.”

“When I think of wilderness, I think of something unknown — there’s a little bit of anxiety, a little bit of unsettledness to me. But then the whole idea of a white wilderness is different. It’s very peaceful and very beautiful.”

For Choi, “White Wilderness” set the tone for the record. It was the first song that Vanderslice played for her, and as they listened, he said that he loved the dissonance in a recurring chord — “some version of an augmented fourth,” Choi recalls. So she paired that sound with the visceral imagery of the title. “When I think of wilderness, I think of something unknown — there’s a little bit of anxiety, a little bit of unsettledness to me,” she says. “But then the whole idea of a white wilderness is different. It’s very peaceful and very beautiful.” The tension there — itself a sort of thematic dissonance — became the fulcrum on which the rest of the album balanced.

* * *

Vanderslice and Choi click. On the album, much like in real life, they respect each other enough to not talk over the other, or step on toes, or do those things that could poison promising collaborations. And so, at times, the orchestra will disappear completely; other times it’s Vanderslice’s voice that vanishes. These absences enhance the record’s topography and keep it from becoming pallid. “After It Ends,” for example, might not withstand critique on its own. It’s not a single. If untethered, it would fade into the background and be lost. But within the record, it serves as respite between two of the record’s more overgrown tracks.

Without M*MO, the same might have happened to White Wilderness. Distilled down to micro-vignettes and a few instruments, the album might’ve faded into the background, barely registering, the equivalent of a nine-page book of poems sandwiched between John Ashberry and Charles Bukowski on the shelf of a crowded bookstore. This allusion is not unfitting. Actual Air, a collection of poems by David Berman (of Silver Jews fame) is such a book, agonizingly difficult to find, often buried among more formidable names. But there’s a hint of it in the way that Vanderslice constructs his vignettes, and when his songs are compared to Berman’s poetry, it becomes clear as to why. “Aw man, that guy’s my hero,” he says. “I’m a huge fan of his. David Berman has actually given me a lot of titles for a lot of my songs. He sends me lists of titles for me to use. I mean, that’s fucking incredible, right? It makes me feel like a really lucky person.”

John Vanderslice with The Magik*Magik Orchestra

Such informal, casual collaborations are not anomalies in Vanderslice’s world. Even the title, White Wilderness — the lyrical, musical, and conceptual anchor of the entire project — was suggested by John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats. And by the time that Vanderslice came to Choi with the name, he was already under its spell. “I’m making an album called White Wilderness,” he told her, “and it’s going to be all magic.” Whether he meant “all magic” or “all Magik” is unknown. Both would be accurate.

Darnielle also influenced Vanderslice’s lyrics, which are more personal here than in the past. “He’d really been encouraging me to write about my family, my father, and my childhood,” Vanderslice says. “I’d told him stories about my life and growing up, and he’s like, ‘Man, you have to write about some of this stuff.’ So I just started writing. ‘Convict Lake’ is as true as I can tell it. It’s basically an experience I had taking acid and getting altitude poisoning. And it was in some ways beyond surreal; and in other ways, it was the most horrific experience of my life.”

This gives the following “White Wilderness” — already a sort of dream sequence — an even heightened ethereality. As tough as autobiographical writing can be, Vanderslice is an adept storyteller, deft with the details of childhood. In “The Piano Lesson,” an anonymous teacher is in charge (“Place your thumb on the middle C”), and so M*MO’s musical roughhousing, led by a great bari-sax riff, becomes the rebelliousness of a kid stuck at a piano. “There are rules when you strike the drum,” the young Vanderslice is told. He doesn’t like that notion.

John Vanderslice with The Magik*Magik Orchestra

The songs are made stronger by Vanderslice’s plain, unadorned vocals, sometimes almost spoken, and by bits of well-fitting fantastical language, the vernacular of a young boy’s imagination. “20K” is the exaggerated deep-sea adventure of a Florida tour boat, the name a reference to Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. “English Vines,” a gentle folk song replete with pedal steel, becomes a Poe-like tale: “By night, our neighbors’ invading vines / rooted into my dreams from underground / twined their nooses ’round our lives / branching out maniacally / they choked our sycamore / and grew thicker and thicker / and when I finally scaled their fence / to kill the source of this malevolence / were my neighbors watching me / from their house?”

Choi’s style here is modern, relying heavily on strings, brass, and simple, warm percussion to give muscle to the skeletal compositions of piano or acoustic guitar. Her orchestral arrangements feed off Vanderslice’s imagery as well as his brevity, respecting his selectivity even as they flesh out his stories. Some of the album’s most triumphant moments are in her graceful but compelling interludes: the pregnant phrasing between sung lines of “20K”; the seemingly endless rising and falling action at the end of “White Wilderness”; the end of “Sea Salt,” where a gorgeously layered orchestral volley becomes the air currents on which Vanderslice escapes, singing, “For the first time I could take to air / I was free now / I could go anywhere.”

In a way, this record is that same escape. No longer slave to savage condemnations of far-off political affairs, Vanderslice offers an honest, eager reflection of his past. So though it opens with a foreboding reference to the Gaza Strip, the album veers away from the political track and into new territory. “Sun shines on the Gaza Strip / smiles on the back alleys of Madrid / comes off the stone like a burning whip.”

* * *

As Choi arranged White Wilderness, Vanderslice planned his next project: a new studio, right next to Tiny Telephone. Vanderslice sits in his car, commenting on the progress. “They’re putting up mirrors and windows and doors today,” he says. “It’s incredible. It’s the most exhilarating feeling I’ve had in years. We’re sick of turning down work. We had Islands call us, we had Philadelphia Grand Jury — we always have these really great records that we can’t do.”

Bands love Tiny Telephone. Thao, Spoon, Ra Ra Riot, Mark Kozelek (Sun Kil Moon, Red House Painters), Death Cab for Cutie, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum — all these and more have spent time at Tiny Telephone, partly because of Vanderslice’s belief in the sanctity of a more traditional recording process, which favors analog tape, live takes, and a host of other once-again-popular techniques. (He was recently interviewed by Wired magazine for a story on the growing use of ribbon mics.) “We always encourage bands to be confident in what they’re doing,” he says. “We’re here documenting and recording what a band does, and there’s a lot of power in what four people do in a room together.”

Or consider the power of 19 people — 20 if you count Choi, whose siren-like vocals appear on “Overcoat.” Produced by seasoned engineer John Congleton (who’s worked with St. Vincent and the Walkmen, among others), White Wilderness strings, horns, winds, piano, and drums were all recorded live. M*MO came in, set up, and for two days straight, it made music. “We said three days in the press release because we honestly didn’t think anyone would really believe us,” Vanderslice notes.

Vanderslice is adamant that recording together, on analog tape and in full takes, is exactly what gives an album energy and life. Comparing the world of infinite overdubs to a mirror that magnifies things 100 times, he says that it’s ridiculous to obsess over such a distorted image. “That’s not what life is, and that’s not how people listen to music,” he says. “People listen to music in the totality and for the commitment to the performance. So yeah, we’ve done everything we can to fight this micro-management of performance.” One way is by giving bands free tape, which means that they’re on a linear format. “It encourages performances, it encourages whole takes, and it encourages not cut-and-pasting and correcting minor imperfections,” he says. “It endorses the music as it is. And it’s a strong endorsement because it sounds really good — it sounds better than digital.”

John Vanderslice with The Magik*Magik Orchestra

Another strong endorsement is the one that Vanderslice gives M*MO. He gives it all the credit for White Wilderness, and he encourages every band that comes through Tiny Telephone’s door to work with it. This isn’t surprising. After all, his approach to music isn’t really about the profession. It’s about life. The musical community that he’s a part of and has helped create is how he interacts with the world — professionally, yes, but also socially, civically, and politically. And the same goes for Choi, in a very tangible way. In March, Choi will finally abandon her bedroom office for a real office space between Tiny Telephone and the new studio, which opens its doors June 1. Vanderslice is no doubt happy to weave her more tightly into his daily collaborations, but it might be Choi who’s most thrilled with the move. Because of its solitary nature, arranging can be a lonely task, and Choi will be happy to inhabit a space where she’s not alone in her creative efforts.

“I’m really excited about how I’ll change, socially,” she says. “Because I spend so much time arranging, that meant before [that] I was spending a lot of time alone. Like on a Friday night, writing a string arrangement isn’t the most social activity, but now, I can come here and write here, and I’ll hear bands on both sides of me also doing something creative. We can, like, take breaks together, and go out for coffee, and it’s so much more fun-sounding.”

John Darnielle. David Berman. And now Minna Choi. Vanderslice seems to collect talented people. With a brilliant new partner in crime and an already solid community of collaborators, increasingly, Vanderslice has more reasons to stay put than to go on tour. “I love touring; I love that,” he says. “But man, this can compete toe-to-toe with being on tour any day. It’s that exciting and that fun.”

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Morrow vs. Hajduch: Faun Fables’ Light of a Vaster Dark

Scott Morrow is ALARM’s music editor. Patrick Hajduch is a very important lawyer. Each week they debate the merits of a different album.

Faun Fables: Light of a Vaster DarkFaun Fables: Light of a Vaster Dark (Drag City, 11/16/10)

Faun Fables: “Light of a Vaster Dark”
[audio:|titles=Faun Fables: “Light of a Vaster Dark”]

Morrow: Borne of principal songwriter Dawn McCarthy, Faun Fables is a powerful, somber, and multifaceted brand of neofolk songs and theatrical performance.  The group’s works also are developed by co-conspirator Nils Frykdahl of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, and their breadth of instrumentation comes courtesy of assorted guests.

Light of a Vaster Dark is Faun Fables’ first album in four-and-a-half years, and it again is led by the dynamic vocal interplay of McCarthy, Frykdahl, and others — blending elements of the 1950s/’60s American folk revival, medieval and Celtic music, and the catchall “psychedelic folk.”

Though McCarthy’s clear intonation and wavering vibratos are the real star, Frykdahl’s backing vocals add a necessary baritone presence, and the album’s range of sounds is just as vital.  Guitars, violin, flute, bass clarinet, autoharp, Theremin, and homemade instruments all offer different sonic flavors behind a vocal presence that can sound a little homogenous from time to time.

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Sleepytime Gorilla Museum: Apocalyptic Art Rock and Absurdist Humor

Sleepytime Gorilla Museum: “Helpless Corpses Enactment” (In Glorious Times, The End, 5/29/07)
[audio:|titles=Sleepytime Gorilla Museum: “Helpless Corpses Enactment”]

Many children dream of running off and joining the circus, but only a few brave souls pursue fire eating and tightrope walking as adults. Sleepytime Gorilla Museum has done something even wilder: it has invented its own freak show, something more bizarre and beautiful than any clown-filled big-top.

The fearless five-piece performs one musical stunt after another, bleeding into performance-art territory as it carves genres such as metal, prog, and avant rock into strange new shapes. But this is no novelty act: the group has some substantial — even shocking — things to say about the nature of human life and 21st Century culture.

Most recently, Sleepytime has explored the theme of human extinction, which it began to dissect on its 2004 LP, Of Natural History. Described as a debate between Unabomber Ted Kaczynski and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, founder of the Futurist movement, the album seems to boil down to a central question, phrased as a song title: “What shall we do without us?” This question leads to another too: “What might those last days be like?”

“I realized pretty quickly that one of the most direct ways to have a unique, original sound is to play instruments no one else is playing.”

The group’s Fall 2005 tour provided a few answers via Shinichi Iova-Koga, a movement artist who specializes in Butoh, an avant-garde dance form that grew out of student riots and cultural taboos in 1950s Japan. After hanging beneath a sheet, upside down, for the first half of each Sleepytime show, he would emerge as “The Last Human Being,” painted head to toe in white, writhing like a demon-possessed corpse as his shadows danced upon the wall.

These days, the band — clad in tattered tutus, bad-ass boots, and braids — provides a soundtrack for these eerie encounters whether or not Iova-Koga is part of the act. But to take a closer look at this theme of extinction, Sleepytime will soon release a short film called The Last Human Being that explores Iova-Koga’s character while presenting a few new songs.

“During the [2005 tour], we would talk about the human being and what had happened to them, how they used to be all over the place,” says Nils Frykdahl, Sleepytime’s guitar- and flute-playing vocalist. “The film takes that idea even further. It looks like that 1970s TV show In Search of… where Leonard Nimoy was the host and would ‘investigate’ something. We have actors playing a panel of scientists on a talk show. The human is the mysterious creature being ‘investigated.’ It’s fairly comic at its roots.”

Frykdahl says that the film and its music were also inspired, in part, by the story of Ishi, the last of California’s indigenous Yana people. After crossing paths with a group of cattle butchers in 1911, Ishi was quickly put on display at the University of California-Berkeley’s Museum of Anthropology. Though Ishi helped scholars learn about his tribe’s rapidly dying customs and language, he also functioned much like a circus attraction, entertaining guests by making crafts and arrowheads.

“He’s this touching, tragic character,” Frykdahl says. “His life went from a tribal world that was decimated, where he’d seen only a few dozen humans in his entire life and survived, in isolation, in very rough terrain, to suddenly being exposed to Ocean Beach, with thousands of people. He probably stood there with his mouth open, shocked that there were so many human beings in the world.”

Sleepytime taps into this sense of wonder mixed with horror in many of its songs, especially newer offerings like “Salamander.” A mix of apocalyptic sonics — machine-gun drumming, theatrical vocals, commanding rhythms, and loads of distortion — illustrates the struggle to survive in a hostile environment while the band’s absurdist humor seems to mirror the cosmos, laughing at each tiny creature’s fragile existence.

A few tracks from past albums may find their way onto the film’s soundtrack as well. One possibility is “Phthisis,” a song from Of Natural History that imbues Sleepytime’s live act with the essence of an ancient death rite. Beginning with a dose of wailing vocals and metaphorical lyrics from violinist Carla Kihlstedt, the song descends into a primordial ooze of passionate melodies and precise, pounding rhythms. And it’s one of the group’s more straightforward compositions.

Another contender is “The Greenless Wreath,” from the band’s 2007 release, In Glorious Times. Frykdahl’s voice scrapes and scratches like Tom Waits‘ as custom-made instruments create a jungle of futuristic sounds. Built by bassist Dan Rathbun, these instruments create a new lexicon of sounds with which the band can communicate its vision. (Examples include the Pedal-Action Wiggler, a pedal-powered version of the Brazilian berimbau, and the Electric Pancreas, a set of thin metal slices that make a crunching sound when whacked with a stick.)

Then there’s a metal spring, inspired by the one that Einstürzende Neubauten plays in “Selbstportrait mit Kater.” Sleepytime uses it as a percussive instrument and a zany stage prop, along with a bicycle wheel, a kitchen sink, and other found objects.

“Bands like Einstürzende Neubauten — just the number of different things they would make into instruments is inspiring,” Rathbun says. “I realized pretty quickly that one of the most direct ways to have a unique, original sound is to play instruments no one else is playing.”

Frykdahl admits that it’s hard for the band to stick to simple musical concepts — or traditional instrumentation — in its recordings because it has mastered so many daring feats onstage. “Our natural tendency as composers is to fill the space with notes and harmony and melody, which means not leaving room for listening to the noise,” he says. “What we often wish we could do is make beautiful, simple music with a focus on the sound itself, but we like playing notes too much to do that. It seems like the people who do that best are non-musicians who don’t really practice their instruments.”

In other words, Sleepytime isn’t just another prog band with death-metal growls and guitars; it’s an ensemble of classical musicians making high art from unconventional sources. Frykdahl is more likely to gush about modern classical greats Pierre Boulez and György Ligeti than experimental contemporaries Meshuggah and Melt-Banana — when he’s not wrapped up in fairy tales, that is.

Frykdahl, his baby daughter, and Dawn McCarthy—his wife and bandmate in psych-folk project Faun Fables — recently traveled to Idyllwild, California to take in the scenery and make a “fairy-tale rock musical” with a bunch of high-school musicians. Like The Last Human Being, it’s a tale of being left behind. It’s also the perfect story for a tiny hamlet that’s mile high in mountains.

“We arrived with the idea of doing something with the Pied Piper story, where there’s a town that’s infested with rats and the piper leads the rats away,” Frykdahl says. “When the town doesn’t pay the piper, he leads all the children away too, except for this one kid who has a bad foot. That kid doesn’t reach the mountains with the other kids, so he spends his life haunted by what he missed. So, of course, we decided to focus on him.”

The updated fable begins 30 years later than the original, with the bum-footed kid as town mayor. One day, his childhood playmates begin to reappear, as young as the day that they left. Pretty soon the village is filled with orphans, and he must decide what to do with them. According to Frykdahl, using lots of orphan characters makes for lots of acting roles, which allows all of the kids to play themselves—or wilder, more mythical versions of themselves—as they write original songs for the project.

“Right now, we’re madly finishing up parts they can sight-read on French horn and cello, and we may need to do a polyrhythms workshop,” he says, swept up in a flurry of creativity. “But hey, we get to indulge our obsession with fairy tales and mythology, which is really where it all started for us as performers—with cool stories.”

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