As my radio listeners know, I’ve snagged a few cool musicians on their way to or from the Lemp Neighborhood Arts Center, a fantastic venue for experimental and difficult music in St. Louis. Over the past few years, I’ve hosted Jon Mueller, Jim Schoenecker, Bryan Day, Alex Boardman, Joseph Jaros, Luke Polipnick, and P.D. Wilder. It’s safe to say that without the draw of a fine tour stop like Lemp, I would not have been able to draw these musicians to the area.
I decided to make it up to Lemp for a show featuring Zelienople; Mike Tamburo; Learn Artist; and Epicycle, a project of Lemp Arts founder Mark Sarich. I was also hoping to have some time to visit the highly-recommended Apop Records store, having recently visited Vintage Vinyl and finding nothing that interested me.
Of course, I brought my family along– there are too many interesting things to see and do in St. Louis to have come by myself. Our hotel was actually hosting a Pez convention, where I saw a Pez Dispenser selling for no less than $850. I was quite taken with the style of the headless Japanese dispensers, but for $8, I wasn’t prepared to eat peppermint-flavored Pez. In my opinion, Pez should only come in grape anyway. It was interesting to see people who were obviously super-enthusiastic about something, and to contrast it with my own indifferent attitude. I assume this is how many people perceive my love for experimental music– some sort of harmless waste of time. Thankfully, I have yet to be persuaded to drop $850 on any recording!
Before the show, we tried to go find some pizza– usually, a simple vegetarian option for dining out in any city. But having been burned on an Imo’s Pizza some years ago, we were looking for something different. For those of you who aren’t familiar, let me describe an Imo’s Pizza– which I think of as a pizza in name only.
To begin with, it’s incredibly thin. I won’t turn down a well-made thin pizza, but this thing is ridiculous. It looks a lot like the cardboard disc a microwave pizza comes on, and tastes about the same. It’s the first pizza that made me seriously consider whether Saltines were an ingredient. The sauce is rather like warm ketchup, and the cheese appears to be something like Velveeta. All in all, Imo’s is an incredibly unappetizing, unpleasant wreck of a pizza.
Well, I didn’t starve, but it did take a while to find something decent. Later that evening, I followed my Mapquest directions, and got over to Apop Records. What a place! I was completely overwhelmed, experiencing that “what do I look at first?” butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling I hadn’t had for so long at other record stores. There may be plenty of fine albums at a place like Vintage Vinyl, but there are relatively few I’m actually excited about– and for me, this makes all the difference.
After a few moments of just being stunned, I found myself at a large bin of mini-CDRs, oddly-packaged self-releases, and general weirdness. I have to admit, it was very strange to actually browse through stacks of 3″ discs. There just isn’t anything like this around Southern Illinois. Apop also had a great selection of magazines and journals– I ended up getting a couple issues of the great Sound Projector, and an issue of Idwal Fisher. I haven’t had a chance to read the latter, but those Sound Projector mags are full of fantastic interviews. Don’t be disappointed if you’re not in the area– Apop does mailorder, too.
Speaking of interviews, I bopped out of Apop Records, and over a few block to Lemp. I had made arrangements to interview Zelienople before the show. I was a bit nervous about it, knowing what I wanted to ask them, but not exactly sure how to convert this question into any sort of understandable English! That’s one difficulty I occasionally experience with doing reviews and interviews of experimental music– some of the thoughts and concepts I understand mentally are rather hard to describe. I have gotten better at it with practice, but I’m definitely not as practiced as I would like to be.
Despite my dalliance at Apop, I still made it to Lemp before the bands. This turned out to be a great thing, because it gave me some time to introduce myself to Mark Sarich and take a look around Lemp a bit. First off, Sarich is a really great guy. It was a real treat to meet someone obviously as appreciative and passionate about experimental music as I; so we had a nice conversation hitting on all sort of topics– higher education, Jack Wright, and the history behind the Lemp Arts building.
In a nutshell, Sarich’s family has owned the structure for a long time. Initially used as a drugstore; the surrounding area went through many years of hard times, and decreasing value. The store, but not the building’s ownership, changed hands many times. Following a robbery that left one employee injured, the structure was subsequently the target of an arsonist. It’s testimony to Sarich’s hard work (and surely, of others as well) that today, Lemp Neighborhood Arts Center is part of a noticeably progressing revitalization project in the area.
Now where was I? Oh yes! The show… the interview. After Mark and I talked for a while, he introduced me to Brian Harding of Zelienople, who had just come in with some bad news– the other two-thirds of the band had gotten delayed in Arcola with car trouble. Despite Brian’s modest insistence that all questions be directed to the other members of the band, we hit it off. We discussed the numerous upcoming and released Zelienople albums, our families, and the role that venues and radio play in growing an arts community.
By the time Matt Christensen and Mike Weis had arrived, I’d really covered much of what I wanted to know– and had confirmed my belief that Zelienople could be pronounced in many ways!
My biggest question, though, did have to wait for Weis. I wondered how a band from Chicago would end up with one of their first albums released by the free-folk Finlanders at 267 Lattajjaa. But like a lot of my questions, Weis kept his answers close to the vest– telling me that he simply sent some music there, and couldn’t remember much more about it. Referencing his peculiar contributions to Zelienople with scraped percussion, small brushed noises, and transient percussive sounds; I brought up Uton as a possible influence… and while Weis certainly lit up at their mention, he said that it wasn’t until recently that he had actually heard this material.
Matt Christensen was also rather elusive. In retrospect, my questions weren’t exactly mind-blowing– honestly, it was all over the place– band members’ day jobs; homemade percussion instruments; and Neil Young, who Christensen cited as a big influence musically. Judging by his slightly bemused look, it seemed Christensen would have been far more happy just letting me suss everything out for myself while Zelienople played. Don’t get me wrong, Zelienople is a genial bunch– but aside from the nuts and bolts of touring, rehearsing, and album discographies, they’re more than happy to keep the deeper thoughts about their music to themselves. “Better to figure it out during the performance,” I thought.
Let’s backtrack a moment. Prior to the arrival of the remaining members of Zelienople, I was finally able to make the acquaintance of Mike Tamburo. Although he seems to cross the country every few days, I’ve been unable to snag him for a radio appearance yet. I had hoped to catch him this time, but Spooky Action Palace got to him first, in what I understand may be their final show. Keeping in mind that Spooky Action host Mike Ferrer got Davenport, Islaja, Lau Nau, Kuupuu, and The Skaters a few years back; I hope this isn’t any more than a scare tactic to drum up new attendees.
Anyways, Tamburo is a really terrific guy. He seems genuinely thrilled to be touring and making music– just really passionate about the whole process, from initial creation on through to connecting with the audience following a performance. I was also impressed with his willingness to discuss how much of his work is improvisational or composed, both strategies seeming to be equally important throughout his recordings.
On with the show!
Sarich was up first, performing as Epicycle. Although I didn’t think of the night’s performances in an adversarial fashion, I have to say that I was most impressed with Epicycle. Sarich, performing on cello, opened with the slightest of sounds– mouse yawns, dandelions on a chalkboard, the ‘plink’ of floss catching upon a tooth. Aside from my impression that Sarich was able to cajole a startling variety of sounds from his instrument, I was especially struck by his ability to render the sound so physically. Throughout, I had the wonderful sense that Sarich was actually manipulating the resonance of the instrument, which seemed to grow with each stroke of the bow.
Eventually, Sarich passed over to working with a series of electronics, generating numerous bubbling tones and screeches from the remainder of the neglected cello’s previous sounds. At one point in time, Sarich gave a misbehaving piece of gear it’s head, working around and with its tendency to create a high-pitched whine. This was a lovely set, which I was quite happy to witness. Even a fine recording can’t match the pleasure of really feeling sounds generated live; and while an album can feature musical forms not available to performers, I was reminded that many albums are essentially poor simulacra for the live experience.
Mike Tamburo followed St. Louis locals Learn Artist, whose set was dramatically marred by an improperly grounded amplifier. Against the pulsating patterns of his own film work; Tamburo stacked layer upon layer of acoustic guitar, voice, hammer dulcimer, and breath noise to create a wonderfully stunning composition of real beauty. Although I’m fully aware of the human tendency to search for connections between unrelated phenomenon, I was more than a little convinced that the music matched the film in far more than superficial ways. I was also touched at Tamburo’s gesture of cutting his set short so Zelienople would have an adequate amount of time to perform– a classy move.
Before I go on, here’s a note on my photos– I didn’t use any flash, and they were taken in very low light. With Tamburo, using a flash would have been inappropriate, given the film playing behind him– and Zelienople requested to play with all the lights off, save the table lamp kept on by Lemp staff to meet a fire code. I did the best I could to get some decent photos, so keep any complaints to yourself.
Finally! It was Zelienople’s set. By this time, I was seriously eager to see if a live performance might help ‘gel’ some concepts I had bopping about in my head. With their intent to play a live version of their new “His/Hers” album, (and the review of this album will be up in a couple days) I wondered if I wouldn’t just be adding more information into an already-taxed system.
For starters, Zelienople played a great set, no matter what they’ll tell you. A little amp hum couldn’t begin to interrupt the combination of dynamic swells, bombastic drumming, and furious sweeps of rising noise. My personal attraction to their work, though, had primarily been due to what I interpreted as the ‘free-folk’ element; the heady guitar strums, the reverberant drone, and the frequent use of small percussive elements. I was wrong– Zelienople is definitely following their own path here. Zelienople is far more of a true ensemble, working together to push a single sound forward; rather than the free-folk model where a loose collection of sound events is shaken about, and expected to congeal into something of note. Also noticeably lacking is the slow build. From the start, their set was as vital as any other portion– no wading through 20 minutes of muck to get to the payoff here!
This isn’t to say that Zelienople presented a performance without dynamic. Indeed, Weis’s sudden contributions of drums startled me on more than one occasion! Rather, each sound had a place and purpose, with nothing that felt like filler. Impressive stuff!
I’m looking forward to getting back to Lemp Neighborhood Arts Center, and catching another show. In the meantime, I’ll be watching their upcoming shows list, and seeing who I can drag my way!
Mike Tamburo will be playing at the Red Door House; Colunbus, Ohio 6/29/07
Mark Sarich will perform with other improv jazz artists at Lemp tomorrow, 6/28/07
Learn, Artist performs with Tree Heart Orchestra at STL locale Crummel’s 9/14/07