About a year ago, the circus came to town, disguised as a couple from Chico. It's a circus without a big top, and without that frou-frou "du Soleil" poop. In fact, this circus is quite minimal, dark, and satiric. It's entertaining, sure, but instead of trapezes and stilts, it's got samplers, Casio keyboards, a megaphone, and a vibrating silver dildo. The performers are self-described recluses, living together and making their music in relative seclusion, far from the corruptive influence of the Bay Area's trends. The music they play is a damned sight better than the cheesy Wurlitzer vamps you hear at your average Rankling Brothers Burn'em and Buy-me yawn-fest. And while no animals are hurt in the proceedings, the band does have songs about deer, cows, and Ike Turner.
"There's a whole list of things, bands, and certain films that influence us," says frontman Jesse Hall. "The City of Lost Children, French circus, definitely Twilight Zone ... and I like 1984 a lot."
Experimental Dental School subverts garage rock not unlike the Cramps, only instead of sleazy horror flick and Russ Meyer fetishes, XDS takes its cues from absurd carnivals and sci-fi, cobbling together campy sounds, onstage antics, gloomy disco, and intense time changes like three mad-scientist carnies huddled together in the back room of a record store. Many of the songs have funky undertones (largely due to drummer Ryan Chittick's elasticity), but the danceability is interrupted often, and complicated by layers of noise, ingenious samples, and mysterious sound sources processed through Rube Goldberg effects. Despite her solemn stage demeanor, Shoko Horikawa's organ stylings lean toward the whimsical, sounding at times like the folk music from some unnamed Eastern European nation, and at others like the theme from The Munsters. There's a strong Tom Waits effect to the XDS sound, but Waits has never rocked as convincingly or consistently as XDS does on its debut full-length, Hideous Dance Attack.
Hall and Horikawa's former band, Meyow (not to be confused with the mid-'80s Cath Carroll-fronted British indie band Miaow) was notorious in Chico for its sampledelic, Mr. Bungle-ish sound. When that band dissolved, the duo rechristened itself Experimental Dental School ("It kind of rhymes," notes Hall) and brought the act to Oakland for all the usual reasons: bigger audiences, more places to play. "We graduated college and wanted to move on," says Horikawa, seated between Hall and Chittick at an outdoor cafe on College Avenue. When she adds that she had come to Chico straight from Japan, all three laugh. "I thought, 'What have I done?'" she says. Turns out that not only was the sleepy college town Horikawa's first stop upon arriving in the US, but once there, the first place she walked into was a Taco Bell. Welcome to America.
Soon after, Horikawa began to speak English, and things got a lot easier. "I met Jesse, and my life got a lot nicer and funner."
There's an easy intimacy between the members of XDS -- they're three people who live together and have been playing together constantly for more than a year, so they understand each other implicitly, defer to one another quickly, hand questions off, and tease gently. When Chittick says that the band's "drummer wanted" ad on Craigslist stood out because "I kind of thought that they were both not from the United States, because it was worded strangely and it had all kinds of strange stuff in it," no punches or dirty looks are exchanged. And Chittick is diplomatic when asked whether, being in a band with a couple, he ever feels that he is a third wheel.
"It's definitely Team Jesse and Shoko, and then Ryan," he says.
"But," interjects Horikawa, "it encourages him to find that one special girl."
"The first month that we were hanging out and playing together," he continues, "it was very ambiguous. I had no idea that they were a couple. It's not a negative thing at all."
This playful, mellow interaction is a far yelp from the band's live show. With Chittick's massive presence behind the kit, switching seamlessly between drums and sampler; Horikawa standing stiffly behind her Casio and sampler, mechanically mashing keys like a zombie court stenographer; and Hall shouting through a megaphone into the strings of his custom-made "guitar-o-bass" (or using knives or said dildo as a slide), Experimental Dental School live is easily one of the greatest shows, if not on Earth, then at least in Oakland.
Though insistent that they can come off like "a sedate indie band," Hall all but assaulted the audience a few months ago at the 40th Street Warehouse Hall, walking through the crowd and falling onto people, his instrument held tightly in his hands. "That's the whole idea," says Chittick, "allowing ourselves to be how we aren't in our daily life, while we're playing."
Hall's alter ego may act like a belligerent goon on occasion, but his lyrics speak of loftier things. Take for example "Tractor Loves to Shuck Some Cows." It starts out as a fuzzy rocker with a stripper's cadence, then takes some speed and goes into "Hava Nagilah" (no, really), and quickly lurches into sample-spiked hefty metal riffage as Hall yammers in Mike Pattonesque tones about the downtrodden of society, and the machine that does the crushing.
"I consider myself political," he says, "or sociopolitical. I'm interested in the politics of human interaction, and what's socially acceptable. Like the idea that women can't go without shirts, or the way people treat each other. I don't know whether that's political. But the way society interacts, I think that's where a lot of politics start."
This idea comes across on "She Is My Ike," which is the disc's shortest and weakest track. The band succeeds most when it gets bizarro, and this number is too close to the soul-rock it purports to satirize. But the commentary on control and abuse is clearly implied among the random skreek and go-go drums.
Another socially conscious track on Hideous Dance Attack is "Deers Love Heavy Metal." The song, which relies heavily on space noises and lurching rhythms, has something weighty, albeit sarcastic, on its mind.
"It's about Ted Nugent getting caught petting and loving deer," Hall says, smirking slightly, "and he doesn't want anybody to know. Somewhere deep down, underneath all that Ted Nugent, he loves the deer." He stops and gets a little more serious. "The deer just want to be left alone, is the whole idea behind that."
Actually, everything that could be said about XDS and, more specifically, Hideous Dance Attack, is pretty much moot since the band is rerecording the album. Chittick has gotten rid of his sampler and stripped down to a three-piece kit, Horikawa found a new Casio CZ 101 (circa 1985), and Hall acquired a MIDI converter so he can play samples on his guitar.
Experimental Dental School thinks that people come to shows to be surprised, or at the very least they know that playing music can't be predicted. "You can't work a situation like that," says Hall. "We've had enough bad shows, boring and horrible shows to know that you can't make a good time happen." But maybe, just maybe, the band might get the crowd dancing. "I never would have thought anybody would dance," says Hall.
I guess that in rock 'n' roll there really is a sucker born every minute.
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