Joe Pug went from playwright to tunesmith

Joe Pug

Considering how many 20-somethings still live under their parents’ roofs, it’s easy to laugh at the notion of a quarter-life crisis. However, for 23-year-old folk musician Joe Pug, existential angst is no joke. Plus, it struck before he was old enough to work it out over a beer.

“I remember sitting down for a cup of coffee and thinking, ‘I am profoundly unhappy here,'” he says of his experience at the University of North Carolina, where, until recently, he was pursuing a bachelor’s degree in playwriting. Within weeks of this realization, he made his way to Chicago, got work as a carpenter and began composing songs.

By nearly all accounts, the shift from playwriting to songwriting has been a success: Pug’s lyrics have garnered praise for getting audiences to slow down and think — really think — amidst the hyperactive multitasking that’s so difficult to avoid if you have an iPhone, a Blackberry or even a simple e-mail account. This quality stems in part from a commitment to old-fashioned, pen-and-paper songwriting techniques and a focus on human problems that are pretty timeless: greed, loneliness and the passage of time.

Pug says playwriting allowed him to explore these themes, but the medium didn’t fit his message the way he’d hoped.

“I looked at some of the plays the people around me were writing and felt that I could never write those kinds of plays. Eventually I realized that what I was doing should take a different form,” he says.

To start, Pug took an outline for a play he was writing and restructured its ideas into lyrical stories much like those that launched the careers of John Prine and Bob Dylan. He set these poems to music, added a minimalist guitar track, and an EP called Nation of Heat soon emerged.

With lyrics like “I say the more I buy, the more I’m bought / And the more I’m bought, the less I cost,” the EP quickly caught the attention of the Chicago’s roots-music community, as well as the producers of NPR’s Second Stage program, who featured his song “Hymn #101” in October.

Meanwhile, Pug’s been touring the country, opening for Rhett Miller’s East Coast gigs earlier this month and the BoDeans’ Dec. 26 show at the Barrymore.

He’s also turned an unfortunate twist of fate — a pink slip at the carpentry job — into a music-making opportunity, using his time between shows to prepare material for a new full-length album.

In fact, realizing how many people have been laid off of late, he’s decided to offer free copies of three of his songs on his website, as well as a sampler disc to those who e-mail

“It’s been great getting the word out,” he says. “I hope I can stay laid off for the rest of my life.”

The Handsome Family’s gothic country gets romantic

Few bands have been able to infuse Americana music with a sense of the sublime quite like the husband-and-wife duo the Handsome Family. Channeling the witty verve of Edward Gorey, Rennie Sparks’ story-poems, set to Brett Sparks’ melodies and baritone voice, speak of burying the dead, reveries in psychiatric wards and mysterious signs of comfort from nature.

The Handsome Family

Isthmus recently spoke with Rennie Sparks about the band’s enigmatic moniker, its new album, Honey Moon, and Santa Claus’ evil twin.

What are the origins of the band’s name?

We used to be in this other guy’s band, and he’d call Brett handsome all the time. Then, Brett’s parents, when we got married, got us this subscription to Reader’s Digest, and when it arrived, the name on the label said “Handsome Spjinki.” Everyone started calling him that, and the band grew out of it.

Many of your songs tap into the fantastic tradition of English and Scandinavian murder ballads, and you’ve mentioned in interviews that you were brought up believing Santa is a pretty evil guy. Has this led to any songs about the Krampus, the demonic Santa?

I have a friend from Finland who says Santa’s clothing is made out of reindeer skins soaked in blood, and I’ve heard that in Holland he’s got black slaves carrying the presents instead of reindeer, so he’s definitely got a dark side.

My parents were brought up as religious Jews in a time where kids their age were being thrown into the oven for being Jewish, so they tried to keep us blissfully ignorant of holidays and things like Santa. My mother once told me that Santa Claus started World War II, and though I don’t think he’s a bad person anymore, I haven’t written about him.

There’s a death theme running through many of your lyrics, but not so much on Honey Moon. What’s up with that?

This record is more about love. I’ve always wanted to write a whole record of love songs, but it’s trickier to write about the transcendent rather than the abyss. When you hear a great love song — not a sappy, trite one — it can change you a little bit. We’d been listening to a lot of Platters and Mills Brothers, so that got us thinking about romanticism even more than love, and all the heightened emotions and connections to nature that go along with it.

Six tales of improbability in six days

Tony Trout doesn’t believe in fate. Despite this, the impresario of Are We Delicious? Ensemble Theatre chose to helm a production about magic and the uncanny ability to defy human logic. It’s called Musical Fantasy, and its concept sounds slightly nuts: Six actors who can write and sing team up with six musicians who can compose and teach, and together they create a half-dozen mini-musicals in less than a week. Writing began on April 24, and performances take place at the Brink Lounge on May 1 and 2.

The thing is, Trout does believe in trust and the power of the creative process. Along with a team of associates, he hand-picks the stars of Delicious shows, creating a who’s who of local talent for each cast. Though he’s led about 10 of these whirlwind productions since 2012, music has never been part of the mix until now. But he revels in the dance with danger, the possibility of failure that drives these shows to be great.

“We’re trying to perfect the process,” Trout explains. “We believe we can make a great show in a week, or that people can. We want to be those people.”

Epic stories

Creating an entire production in a few days is an enormous challenge, so it makes sense that the creators have epic stories on their minds when they enter Central Library for the first writing session. There’s talk about fairy tales and fables, and sci-fi adventures like Star Wars, a series that’s changed the lives of many cast members.

Several of the writer-actors, including Matt Sloan, Brad Knight and Karen Moeller, have ties to Blame Society Productions, best known for the web video series Chad Vader. Its comic tales about Darth Vader’s less-famous brother helped Sloan become the voice of Darth for Disney. In addition to appearing on Chad Vader, Knight leads local improv troupe Monkey Business Institute and Moeller serves as an artistic associate for Forward Theater Company. Other familiar faces include Kelly Maxwell, who starred in Mercury Players and OUT!Cast Theatre’s Xanadu; Dave Durbin from Strollers’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; and Sarah Streich, the leading lady from Four Seasons’ My Fair Lady.

Writing begins in a glass-walled room nestled in the back of the library, after Trout delivers a motivational speech about risk-taking.

“I believe in you,” he says earnestly. “Let’s go for it.”

The six playwrights gather around a table with a few other collaborators, such as assistant producer Autumn Shiley and music director Andrew Rohn. Two stage managers linger nearby. Surrounding the group are props and costumes, which remain cloaked until the writers have completed their warmup activities. Each writer has contributed one costume and one prop to the collection, whose contents range from faux chain mail to a small, squeezable orb aptly named “the blue boobie.” But in the beginning, all the writers have is the thing they dread most: a blank page.

Giving good prompts is essential to guiding the writers toward their five-minute tales. Trout clearly adores being a story sherpa. He and Shiley pose questions, the type one might hear in a creative writing class or improv workshop. Some are whimsical (What’s a real place you found magical?), and some are inspirational (What’s the most heroic thing you’ve ever done?). Some encourage the group to ponder personal shortcomings (What’s one thing about yourself you wish you could change?), while others explore morality and social justice (What is standing in the way of the world’s growth and freedom? What’s a curse you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy?).

Lists of answers are passed around the room. The richest story seeds are then plucked from them and distributed to the writers. Through an elaborate card game of sorts, each actor gets cast in the lead role of another writer’s play. One writer gets to star in her own play.

“This is so confusing and crazy!” Shiley squeals, grinning. She’s helping Trout keep track of the details. Though his idea-generation process is meticulously organized, things feel chaotic at the moment.

Several writers giggle at an answer to the curse question: “It must be a play about Vietnam.” This comes from Moeller, who acted in such a play with Trout, her husband, when they both lived in New York City.

Then the props and costumes are unveiled, adding more constraints to the writing process. Each item comes with a backstory. A sword is “endowed with an indomitable will and a desire to sing.” The chain mail once helped a gardener save his neighbors from vicious birds. A flowered raincoat “makes its wearer impossible to overlook.” It can help a shy person face her fear of standing out in a crowd, but it can also be used to drive her insane. Add to this a chimera statue, an olive-oil sprayer that teleports its user, and a wish catcher resembling a deep-fryer basket, and the writers have plenty of material for crafting fantastical tales.

With one source of anxiety out of the way, the writers start worrying how the music will fit into their plays. Should they pen lyrics or propose spots in the script for songs?

“No,” Trout says. “Think of the musicians as magical people who show up and give your play another dimension.”

He compares the composers to characters in a cartoon he watched as a kid. Elves snuck into a home late one night and cobbled shoes for the family living there. Everyone laughs. This kind of image would be a blast to bring to life onstage.

Now for the music

As the playwrights work their way through a few drafts of their scripts, the musicians begin their writing process. Each composer gets paired with one script. Any style of music is acceptable, from ballads with bawdy lyrics to something more subtle, like an ambient soundtrack. But the inspiration must come from the writers’ words. After receiving their assignments, the musicians disperse to tackle their tasks as they see fit.

For Meghan Rose, the best route leads home, where she can concentrate quietly. Serendipitously, she’s been paired with Maxwell, her bandmate in local rock act Little Red Wolf.

“In Delicious, a lot of people err toward comedy, but Kelly chose to do a serious piece, which provides a nice change of pace,” Rose says. “It’s about a sorceress…who needs to sacrifice herself, so I knew I needed to add a tragic song at a moment of high emotion. I had to try to make people cry.”

A pianist since age 4, Rose has long loved grand melodies from Broadway hits like Phantom of the Opera. She used Andrew Lloyd Webber as inspiration for her piece, “I Have To,” an orchestral work featuring Gomers frontman Biff Blumfumgagnge on violin and composer Scott Lamps on upright bass.

Sean Michael Dargan also looked to Broadway when putting together a song called “Unicorn Love.” He doesn’t often write about mythical creatures, but composing music for a play about mermaids seemed to call for something out of the ordinary.

“It’s sort of a cross between West Side Story and Hedwig and the Angry Inch, with a little bit of Little Shop of Horrors,” he says.

He had to indulge his love of jangly pop, too.

“A bit of Crowded House or the Smiths usually sneaks into my songs,” he says.

Lamps, meanwhile, wrote a Celtic-sounding war hymn called “Overcoming Family” for Brad Knight’s play, which features the singing sword.

“The sword is asked for advice in certain situations, so I started by thinking, ‘What’s the character of the sword?’ Since it’s an ancient weapon, I’m using battle music that’s very rhythmic and drum-heavy and exciting,” he says.

Excitement is also at the heart of a fable written by Streich. As she explains how a witch has banished music from the kingdom, the rest of the cast acts out the story with exaggerated expressions. Though their lips move, no sounds emerge. But Blumfumgagnge’s gospel-tinged “Sing for Your Supper” helps tell the story as Streich belts out the vocals.

Down to the wire

Trout admits that the plays were in relatively rough shape on Saturday. But within 24 hours, they evolved in miraculous ways. The musicians convinced him the production was on the right track.

“They were just sitting around a table with keyboards and guitars. The music was absolutely beautiful, and the lyrics were hilarious. It brought tears to my eyes,” he says. “Usually I trust we’re going to make it to the finish line, but that morning I wasn’t so sure. That moment with the musicians is when I stopped doubting.”

Now it’s down to the wire to polish each play as much as possible. Sunday was filled with rehearsals in the basement of First United Methodist Church, with the actors in one room and the musicians in another. Since then, the group has completed “tech day,” in which the cast and composers gather to run each play three times — in three hours, if possible.

The musicians have sounded more confident with each rehearsal, and now that all of the songs have names, they seem more real. For instance, Stephanie Rearick’s catchy ditty is named “Salty Demon,” and Rohn’s hard-rocking number is “Scream at the Silence.” And the actors have learned their lines so well that they can seek out opportunities for extra fun. Moeller hams up her role as a maiden who rebuffs a king’s marriage proposal, and Maxwell wants to choreograph a dance for the forest creatures in the fable. Durbin, the forest’s snowy owl, realizes he needs an instrument to play during a song. The blue boobie becomes a tambourine he thwacks against his hip.

With just a little more time until the curtain rises, anything seems possible.

Fueling the Economy with Green Jobs, New Ideas

Green jobs have been a cornerstone of President Barack Obama’s economic recovery plan since the early days of his campaign. It’s a concept that’s gotten people roaring with energy, ideas and an appetite for progress.

But what, exactly, does this term mean? “Green jobs” seems to be so vague that it can be applied to everything from launching wind farms to building hybrid vehicles or selling secondhand clothing.

But the goal of each green job is to reduce our nation’s carbon footprint while boosting the economy. What’s more, it involves something that’s often overlooked in all of the buzz about greening the economy—changing the way we think about consumption, not just using cleaner energy sources.

In other words, those engineering the green economy in Milwaukee and beyond need to promote a cultural shift that involves less driving, more reuse and a philosophy that less is more when it comes to material goods and energy use. Supporters argue that green-jobs initiatives should benefit both blue-collar and white-collar workers, people early in their careers and people who are further along and who’ve lost their jobs due to the economic downturn.

Jobs with Environmental Benefits

Some people assume that green jobs are confined to industries that develop technologies that reduce pollution, decrease fossil fuels use or in some way reduce many people’s carbon footprints at once. Others stress sustainability-enhancing efforts of individual people at individual organizations, regardless of types of goods or services the organization offers.

While the city doesn’t have a specific definition of “green jobs,” it has a few ideas about what they might look like. These ideas tend to focus on large companies and well-established institutions such as universities, which pioneer measurable green technologies and turn them into products and services that help many people, as well as the environment.

“In general, ‘green jobs’ are those associated with products, services and technologies that have environmental benefits,” says Ann Beier, director of Milwaukee’s Office of Sustainability.

Beier notes that jobs involving the design, construction and maintenance of renewable energy sources—from wind turbines to solar panels—are obvious examples, but that jobs involving storm-water and wastewater management may also be key for greening the region’s economy. “Manufacturing done by Milwaukee’s water cluster—Badger Meter and A.O. Smith, for example—creates products that may improve water quality and lead to water conservation or energy efficiency,” she says.

However, the word “green” gets a lot of flak because it “sounds a bit tie-dyed,” says Ryan Thompson, the founder of Greener Milwaukee, a local consortium of more than 200 different stakeholders, including civic organizations, research institutions and small businesses. “What we’re really trying to communicate here is optimization,” he says. “The optimization of resources, technology, cutting-edge everything.”

Green jobs, by extension, stress innovation and economical, sustainable use of resources. Equating cost savings with Earth-saving is a paradigm shift, but it’s essential to making the movement work, Thompson says.

While the idea of dismantling our consume-and-dispose culture has only recently begun to gain momentum, green jobs aren’t as shiny and new as you might think. You may have one and not even know it, says Dan Kohler, director of the citizen advocacy group Wisconsin Environment.

“Green jobs really end up being a lot of the same types of jobs people have now, but we’ve moved to a clean-energy economy where we’re doing more with energy efficiency and better, cleaner transportation options,” he says.

The options are many: research, agriculture, manufacturing and construction, to name a few. And southeastern Wisconsin has most of the necessary building blocks: universities, farmland, factories and buildings aching for retrofits.

It’s also got a lot of folks who work in offices, restaurants and hotels—people who drive to their jobs, get takeout for lunch and work in buildings that could use less energy and make less waste.

While the latter type of job retrofit simply involves greening existing jobs, the Milwaukee region is an ideal incubator for new blue-collar and white-collar jobs in emerging environmental-technology industries, Kohler says. “For blue-collar green jobs, there’s construction and retrofitting of buildings, weatherizing homes and businesses, and manufacturing renewable-energy components such as batteries—and developing the technology that goes along with these components,” he says.

A number of area companies are already leaders in green technologies. Kohler points to Johnson Controls, which just won a contract to make batteries for Ford’s hybrid vehicles. He also stresses that the region’s researchand-development resources, both at universities and in the private sector, are strong in areas such as bioenergy and next-generation biofuels, wind and solar power, and water technologies.

Then there are all of the other white-collar jobs—from marketing to legal services—that surround the new products that are being developed in the labs and emerging opportunities such as local and regional light rail, Kohler says.

Kohler assures that the demand for these products and services is real, as does Joe Jacobsen, associate dean of the environmental studies program at Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC).

“People are really thirsty for this stuff: They want to learn how to make their buildings more energy-efficient, use more post-consumer materials and get LEED-certified—and they want to get their employees excited about these things,” he says. “It’s just a matter of learning how.”

But energy savings isn’t the only motivation: Replacing older workers is also a factor. Jacobsen says that many local companies are seeking employees to manage energy-efficiency projects simply because their current supervisors are retiring. “[Local renewable-energy implementation firm] Franklin Energy needs 30 people today, and they’re going to need 150 next year,” he says. “And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.”

Greening the Economy

Obama set a campaign goal of developing 5 million green-collar jobs as a way to promote energy efficiency and self-reliance. The cratering of the global economy hasn’t deterred him from pushing forward with this pledge. In fact, the economic downturn may have given him an opportunity to spur green-collar job creation on a large scale.

The $787 billion federal economic stimulus package, signed into law on Feb. 17, provides $32.8 billion for clean energy, $26.9 billion for energy efficiency and $19 billion for green transportation. Of this money, $3.1 billion will fund the State Energy Program and $3.2 billion will bolster local governments’ energy-efficiency and renewable-energy projects via block grants.

The package also includes a renewable energy manufacturing credit and $500 million for the Green Jobs Act—and the 70,000 renewable-energy workers it’s expected to train—and numerous other measures to create green jobs.

Meanwhile, for Milwaukee business and community leaders, green jobs mean fuel for the local economy. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett partnered with Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker and Tim Sheehy of Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce to launch Metro-Milwaukee Green, a countywide initiative to promote and support businesses’ efforts to adopt sustainable practices such as building retrofits, cutting-edge recycling programs and green office-cleaning programs.

Participating businesses met in January to share ideas and are currently developing energy-saving strategies custom-tailored to their offices, which they’ll present at a summit on Earth Day.

The city’s Office of Sustainability— the brainchild of an 11-member “Green Team” of local development, planning and environmental experts—has also been instrumental in bringing together the parties necessary to get several local green initiatives running.

The sustainability office and the Green Team have provided recommendations for existing job-creation efforts at the Menomonee Valley development venture, the 30th Street industrial corridor project and the Milwaukee 7 Water Council. It’s also working to make sure that southeastern Wisconsin gets a healthy piece of the Green Jobs Act cash, Beier says.

That, however, will involve tightening up the region’s definition of “green job” and showing the feds that Milwaukee-area jobs are among the greenest—and most beneficial—in the country.

Matthew Dear is a musical shape-shifter

In the world of electronic music, Matthew Dear is known for making sharp-edged Detroit house and other dance-floor dazzle under three monikers: Audion, False and Jabberjaw.

Yet when Dear records under his real name, anything goes. While his first full-length album, 2003’s Leave Luck to Heaven, revolved around minimalist techno masterpieces, he’s been emphasizing his songwriting skills over his DJing and production talents as of late. Black City, his newest release, ranges from funky, synthy, vocal-driven pop to dark, house-inspired dance-rock. Plus, he performs it with a live band, not a computer.

I recently spoke with Dear about the album, the live show and his curious collection of appellations.

How do you keep your many identities straight?

In the past, having different names and identities was just a way to get music out there. The identity I used was a reflection of what I was feeling that day in the studio. If I was feeling like a weird, minimal techno song, I’d have that come out under an alias. It was a way of organizing the many different types of music flooding out of me at that time.

I think you surprised a lot of fans by starting a band and becoming its front man. Why did you decide to go that direction with your live act?

I didn’t want to go onstage with a laptop and microphone and rehash the synthetics of an album. A live performance deserves more in terms of presentation, so now I have a trumpet player and a synthesizer player. [A band] gives the music more life onstage, and it’s more engaging for me to have to remix and rethink what the songs can be.

What surprised you most about Black City after you finished it?

When I compared it to [2007’s] Asa Breed, I was like, “Wow, this is so much darker and slower. Why did everything get so dark all of a sudden?” I was pretty happy with that, and I think it became darker and slower because I was concentrating a bit more on the nuances than before.

Justin Townes Earle loves George Michael

Though he’s named after outlaw country legend Townes Van Zandt and is the son of the genre’s current torchbearer Steve Earle, Justin Townes Earle doesn’t lurk in their shadows. His new album, Midnight at the Movies, a melancholy journey from one corner of the Americana landscape to another, might be the most critically praised album of 2009, earning near-perfect marks from Paste, Mojo and Rolling Stone.

I spoke with him last week as he geared up for Bloodshot Records’ Beer-B-Q. The sold-out show sizzles the High Noon’s stage Aug. 22.

Justin Townes Earle

What are you looking forward to most about the Beer-B-Q?

Getting together with some good folks and catching my breath. I tour so much that I don’t get to see a lot of other Bloodshot artists, so this’ll be a good chance to catch up.

Are you a big barbecue fan offstage?

Not really. I do like barbecue, but I don’t like being behind the barbecue. I know so many people who are better at it than me.

Tell me about the process of making Midnight at the Movies.

It had only been seven months since I released The Good Life, and I had been on tour all year, so we blew through this one like a whirlwind. I played a show the night before we started recording it and had to leave twice during recording to play shows, so it was a huge relief to sit on my ass for a little while.

You’ve been pretty open about having your own fall from grace — a drug habit — when you were younger. How has getting clean shaped your approach to music making?

I was a raging heroin addict for most of my life, but there’s something so personal about it that even as someone who’s admittedly a “personal” songwriter, it’s not for the whole world to know about. I did my best to make sure the process of getting clean didn’t have an impact on my music.

You list the Pogues as an influence. What do you like best about them?

Shane MacGowan is one of the best songwriters around: His use of imagery is fantastic, and I’ve liked If I Should Fall From Grace With God for a really long time.

What’s another musician you consider an influence but that your fans might not expect?

George Michael. His Faith record is one of the best there is, and “Faith” is an amazing rock song.

Alash and the art of Tuvan throat singing

Tuva is a Siberian republic surrounded by two majestic mountain ranges and peppered with tiny deserts, lush valleys, and more than 9,000 rivers. Population-wise, it’s about the size of Iceland and shares a similar history of being isolated from much of the world for thousands of years due to its location and chilly temperatures. Music-wise, it’s one of the most amazing places you’re likely to discover.

Much like the home of Björk and Sigur Rós, Tuva is immersed in a musical tradition that’s deeper than its permafrost. This tradition revolves around throat singing, an art form in which multiple voices seem to spring from one vocalist thanks to the magic of harmonics and overtones.

Scientifically speaking, a singer can amplify different parts of a sound wave by changing the shape of various cavities of the mouth, voice box, and throat, allowing sounds that are subdued in most vocal performances to take center-stage. The result is a sound that’s been described as a “one-man quartet” and even a “bullfrog swallowing a whistle,” as the 1999 documentary film Genghis Blues puts it.

The Alash ensemble, a quartet composed of Bady-Dorzhu Ondar, Ayan-ool Sam, Ayan Shirizhik, and Nachyn Choodu — four twenty-somethings trained in this ancient art by their parents, grandparents, and a healthy dose of intuition — serves as Tuva’s musical ambassador to the United States.


“Things like Jimi Hendrix and the [Sun Ra] Arkestra are slowly but surely having an effect on our music; it’s not so much about directly mixing these artists’ sounds with throat singing but how it affects the way their music feels.”

Over the past three years, the group has performed with the Sun Ra Arkestra, recorded a Christmas album (Jingle All The Way) with Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, and introduced numerous students to a style of music that sounds like a mix between Tom Waits and a flock of swallows.

The band’s flagship song, “Alash,” with its bouncy melody, could be a tune from the Appalachian Mountains or the hills of Ireland. At other times, the group’s sound is more abstract, reminiscent of distant trains, or the yip-yipping martians from Sesame Street.

The music inspires comparisons to nature and the great beyond. Alash is named after one of the most majestic rivers in Tuva, symbolizing the band’s connection to the water from which its ancestors drank thousands of years ago. And just like the movement of water from clouds to streams to lips and back again, Tuvan songs pass from the spirits of nature to the souls of humans, released back into nature via the lips of throat singers.

Though many of Alash’s melodies have cycled through Tuva for centuries, the way the group presents them to the cosmos is very new.

“Things like Jimi Hendrix and the [Sun Ra] Arkestra are slowly but surely having an effect on our music; it’s not so much about directly mixing these artists’ sounds with throat singing, but how it affects the way their music feels,” the band says, via manager and translator Sean Quirk. “We have a new song about reindeer herding. Even though the piece focuses on this practice that’s very much about Tuva, you can sense these other influences if you’re listening closely.”

This is a huge breakthrough for a musical tradition that still considers stringed and woodwind instruments new additions. These instruments include the igil, a two-stringed instrument that’s played like a cello; the doshpuluur, a three-stringed instrument that’s plucked or strummed like a banjo; the byzaanchy, which has four strings that represent the udders of a cow and are “milked” to create a sound; the chadagan, which resembles a zither or a koto; a jaw harp known as a xomus; the murgu and limpi, two types of flutes; and a large drum called a kengirge, which often comes with a set of reindeer bells.

Alash uses all of these instruments and a few others to create a sound that’s lush and layered, with rhythms that duel one moment and collaborate the next. And unlike most bands, Alash will even teach you how to play the instruments — as well as how to build a yurt and cook up some Tuvan snacks — at its concerts, if you have the time and the money. It’s all part of an effort to welcome people from other cultures — especially Americans — into the fold.

“The touring is all about creating a good impression of Tuva and conveying something about the lives of people who live there,” Quirk says, “and maybe attracting a few visitors. Tuva loves guests.”

It’s also a way of bringing bits of the West back to Tuva, which still shows relatively few signs of capitalism. Though many Tuvans descended from nomadic tribes, they are not immune to pangs of homesickness.

When traveling the roads of Texas and Oklahoma, the lonesome cowboy is one American figure Alash can relate to, but not for his cigarettes. It’s because he also feels incomplete without his trusty steed. To keep spirits high, the band adopted a wrangler look — ten-gallon hats and all — when traveling through Texas, stopping in Fort Worth to ride a mechanical bull and visit some friends with a horse ranch.

“Like many people from Tuva, they feel most at home when riding their horses,” Quirk says.

Carolina Chocolate Drops give new life to old-time string music

Carolina Chocolate Drops knows a thing or two about blending in. On the cover of the trio’s 2010 album, Genuine Negro Jig, Rhiannon Giddens makes camouflage out of a bright-red dress. Draped on the sofa like a blanket, she matches her surroundings (a red velvet curtain and Oriental rug) so well that she almost disappears. That’s no small feat.

Maybe she’s remembering the old days of the band’s home base of Durham, North Carolina, where until the ’60s, black faces occupied the backs of buses and the margins of their local community, even though they’d created a thriving center of industry, culture, and especially music.

Or maybe she’s channeling the spirit of writer Mary Mebane, who likened her 1930s Durham childhood to an elaborate game of dress-up. Mebane described this Durham as a place where “black skin was to be disguised at all costs” and where those with the darkest faces drowned their insecurities in makeup and whiskey.

Though Appalachian tunes have become the music of all Americans, there’s another truth lurking in the shadows: the story behind the music has been whitewashed.

So perhaps standing out is an even larger feat for Giddens and her bandmates, Dom Flemons and Justin Robinson. They can’t help it, given their musical chops, but they don’t just accept it. They embrace it. And they get their gusto from the ghosts of North Carolina’s past, the black folks who pioneered much of the Appalachian music that launched the careers of white guys like Bela Fleck, the New Lost Ramblers, and the Avett Brothers.

Surprisingly, it was Fleck and the Ramblers who helped Giddens, Flemons, and Robinson find one another at the 2005 Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, NC. The three expected to learn about the instrument’s African and African-American roots, not come away with a globetrotting ensemble and a record deal.

The timing must have been just right. Fleck had recently returned from an African tour, and Mike Seeger of the Ramblers had left New York for a southern sojourn. Flemons traveled all the way from Phoenix just to learn from them. But it was an 86-year-old fiddler named Joe Thompson who sealed the deal, transforming three wandering souls into a tight-knit ensemble.

Now 91, Thompson is thought to be the last living performer from the golden age of Piedmont string bands. In the early 20th Century, he and his family were playing socials and square dances for black and white families alike. At the time, it was one of the rare instances where the racial divide softened, if only for a few hours.

Many people are familiar with the white fiddle-and-banjo music of the southern Appalachian region, but the Piedmont tradition is slightly different. Unlike other Appalachian music, it gives the leading role to the banjo, which sets the tone and tempo of the tunes. The fiddle tends to come second, providing backup along with instruments such as the jug and spoons. This unique combination was pioneered by families of black musicians. Although the banjo was created in the USA, it was inspired by a few lute-like West African instruments. Banjo music was often passed from one black family to the next, and it eventually made its way to other ethnic groups. Until the early 20th Century, young white musicians usually befriended an older black musician if they wanted to learn it.

Learning the banjo also helped the Drops find its identity as a band. Though the group is an old-time string band steeped in Piedmont’s unique blend of folk and blues, it’s a melting pot of other influences as well: some hip hop here, some bluegrass there, with rock and jazz essences filling the gaps. But the three musicians didn’t meld together until Thompson entered the picture.

Somebody had to figure out how to integrate the styles of Giddens, an opera singer with a soft spot for Irish jigs and jazz, with those of Robinson, a classically trained violinist, and Flemons, an Arizona native with a background in folk, jug bands, and old-fashioned country and blues. A Piedmont fiddler through and through, Thompson decided that the best way was to teach them to accompany each other in music and in life.

“We’d go down to his house on Thursday nights and learn how to back him up,” Flemons says. “He’d tell us about some of the older ways of [Southern] living, things like tobacco auctions and frolics, which are square dances in the black community. We really learned about the social functions of the music.”

Pretty soon the band was swapping melodies and instruments, do-si-do style. Now Robinson takes the lead on fiddle, adding banjo, autoharp, and jug as needed, while Flemons lends his skills on various banjos, plus the jug, quills, and harmonica. Giddens plays fiddle, banjo, and kazoo when she’s not wowing the crowd with her vocals.

The audience has added instruments to the lineup too. One fan gave Flemons a set of bones, which also spice up the rhythm of minstrel songs, zydeco, and bluegrass.

“She insisted that I learn how to use them, then showed me how to play them,” he says. “There have been a lot of interesting and wonderful experiences where people have shared songs, instruments, and memories with us. For some reason, our music has opened that up inside of them. Being able to do that is truly amazing.”

Though the group’s goal is to make great music and build a bit of community, it comes with a side of history, especially at its live shows, where Carolina Chocolate Drops is interested in telling the history that history books left out. The trio isn’t breaking out Howard Zinn’s books on stage, but it’s telling it like it is: black people pioneered much of the traditional folk music that spawned country songs. And the banjo wasn’t invented by Bo Duke and The Balladeer. It evolved from several types of African lutes, thanks to the ingenuity of slaves — a fact that banjo players themselves often are surprised to learn.

In other words, though Appalachian tunes have become the music of all Americans, there’s another truth lurking in the shadows: the story behind the music has been whitewashed. We tend to remember the white banjo students but not their black teachers. As a result, much of tradition’s richness is buried, along with the bones of those who played the minstrel shows of the 1880s and the hoedowns of the 1920s and ’30s.

Carolina Chocolate Drops makes music that breaks down cultural barriers and brings together people from various walks of life, but it’s making those black musicians and teachers stick out — in a good way. It’s also helping them gain their rightful place in history and in the imaginations of those listening to the music today.

This theme of rewriting history is heavy one moment and lighthearted the next, much like the songs of Genuine Negro Jig. At least half of the album is good, old-fashioned hoedown fare. There’s hooting and hollering and crazy kazoo solos. There’s more banjo than the Dukes of Hazzard theme song and plenty of material for stomping, swinging, and square dancing.

The other half has some frank messages: advice on how to treat a cheatin’ man and exorcise one’s inner demons. It’s the kind of stuff that gets you talking after passing out from moonshine and dancing. You can’t help but get to know your neighbor.

This is a novel concept for people who spend most of their time on Facebook and iPhones. Yes, the Internet is great at bringing people together, but you can’t dance with it. That’s why Carolina Chocolate Drops blends the whimsy of eras past with the stuff that makes people human today: getting drunk, making out, showing off, and screwing up.

Flemons says that the group marries old and new with the West African concept of Sankofa, which means “go back and fetch it.” It takes good ideas from the past, brings them to the present, and gives them new life.

“We’re not trying to bring the old times back, but we’re using them to help people enjoy themselves,” he says. “Building community by getting people to sing and dance together at a concert makes sense in the modern world.”

But there’s more to it than that. They’re creating something new as well.

Most recently, the music opened the doors of Nonesuch Records, the label that the Magnetic Fields, Brian Wilson, and David Byrne call home. This, in turn, unlocked a Pasadena mansion that once belonged to President Garfield’s widow — and where producer Joe Henry now lives. It was the perfect place to record an album built upon American history.

These sessions led to a haunting rendition of Tom Waits‘ “Trampled Rose” and a fiddle-hop take on Blu Cantrell‘s “Hit ‘Em Up Style.” On the latter, Giddens’ vocals create shivers as she alternately sets the track on fire with her fiddle. Underneath, Flemons’ beat boxing conjures the streets better than a cranked-up bass and a set of chrome rims. Then on the old Charlie Jackson tune “Your Baby Ain’t Sweet Like Mine,” the band traces the blues back to its roots and gives them a Vaudevillian twist, while the Carolinian standard “Trouble in Your Mind” creates the insanity of which it warns with an out-and-out hootenanny. It’s hardly the way to blend in with the crowd.

Flemons says that the album is more of a genre-bender than the band’s earlier releases, but don’t expect Carolina Chocolate Drops to change its tune anytime soon.

“We’re proud to be who we are: an old-time black string band,” he says. “We don’t need to turn into a ’60s girl group or a hair band to stand out.”

Sleepytime Gorilla Museum’s absurdist art rock

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.”

Dan Deacon Is a Nerd’s Nerd

With gargantuan, Steve Urkel-style glasses and an obsession with the bleeps and bloops of computers, Dan Deacon could be the second coming of Revenge of the Nerds’ violin-toting Arnold Poindexter.
dan deacon by josh sisk
Deacon, 27, grew up in the midst of the Long Island ska explosion, performing songs like “Bionic Man Hands” with his band Channel 59. He then went to the local art-nerd institution of choice, SUNY Purchase, to study computer music composition and electro-acoustic instruments. Though Deacon mastered a number of traditional instruments, from guitar to tuba (which he’s played with fellow Purchase alum Langhorne Slim), he chose to record collages of random sounds and sine waves from a Wavetek 180 signal generator.

While his early efforts were more sound art than popular song, Deacon found a fan-friendly formula in his 2007 album Spiderman of the Rings. He mixed goofy-yet-nostalgic lyrics such as “My dad is the coolest dad in dad school / He does not break any dad-rules” with layers of melody that recall Philip Glass. His brand-new album, Bromst, has pleased critics and fans alike, showcasing both his sense of humor and collages of samples that are a bit more grown-up, like a mind-bending round made from a Native American chant.

However, it’s Deacon’s live performances that have made him a household name — if your house is anywhere near an art school or a hipster enclave — by getting disaffected-looking concertgoers to smile genuinely, spill Coke on their vintage pants and abandon their posturing for an entire evening.

How? Deacon’s personality has a lot to do with it. Hooking himself up to a grid of musical machines, he plants himself in the audience and leads fans on a trip that’s as much a spiritual journey as it is a return to grade-school recess. At his Forward Music Fest performance last fall, Deacon invited concertgoers to take part in a Grease-style dance-off to a soundtrack of his tunes. Then the lights went out, Deacon’s LEDs began to blink, and the crowd became a writhing amoeba of sweaty fans simultaneously shouting out lyrics and immersed in their own imaginations. It was as close to a rave as one can get these days, but something else as well.

Viewed from afar — or from above at the Majestic, where he performs May 4 — the scene is performance art, with the audience unaware of its role as performer. That’s the kind of engineering that someone who’s both a math nerd and an art dork could achieve.

Ahleuchatistas Deconstruct Rock ’n’ Roll

Most bands rely on the pipes and charisma of their lead singers to tell a story. Sometimes, though, it’s the voiceless, abstract messages of our surroundings — flickering streetlamps, wrinkles on faces, magnetic fields — that have the greatest impact on our actions and memories.


In the case of Ahleuchatistas, an instrumental avant-rock trio from Asheville, North Carolina, the band’s music, in many cases, is as stunning for what it isn’t as for what it is. Forget vocals, forget distortion, forget the whole concept of studio effects.

This is instrumental performance at its purest, captured and bottled like a cloud of frenzied fireflies. But unlike a jarful of lightning bugs, Ahleuchatistas’ sound doesn’t wilt inside its packaging. It thrives in the space between past and present that recordings generate, gaining a new layer of meaning each time it’s played.

Ahleuchatistas was started in 2003 by bassist Derek Poteat and guitarist Shane Perlowin. Poteat and Perlowin were friends from a short-lived improvisational jazz and rock group that did the club circuit in Asheville, but they had bigger ambitions for their new project. When original drummer Sean Dail was brought in, the trinity was complete.

Poteat says that Ahleuchatistas has never consciously sought to impress. “I think we’re more focused on creating mood and feeling rather than trying to blow the listener away,” he says. “There’s a big technical aspect to the music too, but it’s never technical just for the sake of being technical.”

“There are some elements of what we do that are similar to math rock, but math rock is more about riffs and repeating. What we’re trying to do, especially with the newer songs, is push the boundaries of what people would perceive to be rock ’n’ roll.”

More than anything, the music is about getting people to think. As Poteat puts it, “People really don’t think enough about things before taking them in, so we try to get them to pause and figure out what they’re hearing, what they’re consuming, before they swallow it.”

The band does this by using unexpected sounds and, more importantly, by breaking the silence at unexpected times. The resultant songs pull you in with their emotion but demand careful listening due to their complexity — and the element of surprise. They don’t just invite you to deconstruct them; they require it.

It’s tempting to call Ahleuchatistas’ sound math rock due to its complex rhythms and technical precision and because, like calculus, it can require some cerebral calisthenics to fully comprehend. “There are some elements of what we do that are similar to math rock, but math rock is more about riffs and repeating,” Poteat says. “What we’re trying to do, especially with the newer songs, is push the boundaries of what people would perceive to be rock ’n’ roll.”

For Ahleuchatistas, this self-exploration has involved burrowing into the nooks of jazz and the crannies of avant-garde classical compositions, such as those of John Zorn. Poteat and Perlowin have been listening to Zorn’s music for longer than they’ve been playing together. What they didn’t know was that Zorn was listening to their songs too.

Two years ago, when the band was trying to re-release its second album, Perlowin sent some tracks to Zorn on a whim. A few weeks later, Zorn was on the phone, expressing his admiration for the band’s work and volunteering to put out the disc on his own label, Tzadik. Things were quiet on the Zorn front as Ahleuchatistas toured and wrote new material in 2009, but once it composed enough songs for an album, there Zorn was again, volunteering to record them.

It all has felt a bit strange, Poteat admits, because each of these collaborations has happened over the phone or in cyberspace. “People will ask what he’s like, and I’m always saying, ‘He seems like this really nice guy, but I don’t really know him,’” Poteat says. “I know I really like his work and how he handled the production of our work, but he’s still sort of a mystery to us.”

A similar sort of mystery shaped the group’s recent search for a new drummer. Before Ryan Oslance joined Ahleuchatistas’ ranks in 2008, the band notified its MySpace friends that it was looking for a new member, a move that’s typical of a band just finding its bearings but unusual for one with an established fan base and a sound that requires some serious talent to create.

“We parted ways with [Dail] and had five weeks until our next tour, so we were trying to think of ways to find somebody good pretty fast,” Poteat says. “A lot of people replied and said, ‘You’re kidding, right?’ But then we got these audio tracks from Ryan, he flew down from Chicago, and it came together like puzzle pieces.”

Since adding Oslance to the lineup, the band has veered away from the overtly political messages of earlier albums, which included tracks called “Al Jazeera,” “Post-Colonial Nausea,” and “Remember Rumsfeld at Abu Ghraib.” The tracks on its new album, Of the Body Prone, released in September of 2009, tackle similar topics but with oblique, sometimes humorous titles.

“Dancing with the Stars” starts with spacey guitar transmissions and wiggly bass lines that sound like muted alien conversations. Swiftly shifting time signatures create a sense of being drawn off course by a very strong magnet. When drums burst into the song, it’s as if you’ve been sucked into the wormhole.

Meanwhile, on “Why Can’t We Be in Jamaica?”, a solo of percussive popcorn gives way to a drum-and-bass duet that begins in perfect unison, then unravels into an explosive juggling act in which fiery drum beats, bass barbs, and bombshells of guitar somersault and ricochet off one another.

Watching this chaos unfold slowly, carefully controlled by the musicians, is perhaps even more exciting — and shocking — than seeing it self-destruct at warp speed. Not only is this level of control difficult to pull off, but it reveals the details and precision that go into creating anarchy, building anticipation in the process.

Though a marketing executive might call it mood music for the post-9/11 era, for Ahleuchatistas, Of the Body Prone is more of a psychology experiment, one that ventures into the realm of mad science.

“We really tried to say, ‘Let’s work within these parameters and see what we come up with,’ and do things like adjust the timbre of the song to see how it affects listeners’ emotions,” Poteat says. “We’re not just using the changes between the parts of the song to do that anymore, so I think the album shows how much our songwriting has progressed.”

Poteat also hopes that artistic progress will sow the seeds of social progress — or at least a bit more social criticism. Whether this happens isn’t up to the band, however, but through the listeners’ ears and lovely, languishing brains.