Two dudes dressed as ninjas are sporadically shouting "Buy our shit!" from the 924 Gilman Street stage. That's strange enough. But they also happen to be absolutely killing a groundbreaking 1959 jazz number written by East Bay legend Dave Brubeck. On rock drums and overdriven electric bass. And the kids in the audience are moshing.
Brubeck's "Blue Rondo à la Turk," written in 9/8 time like a Turkish zeybek but with an unorthodox meter, has been reborn as the considerably heavier "Blue Rondo a la Ninja" by Los Angeles duo Ninja Academy, and it's never going back. Perhaps even Brubeck would agree if he'd made it to the show last May; after all, he lives only twenty miles away in Concord. Likewise, one wonders how Ninja Academy's young fans at Gilman would've reacted if they'd been told the song was written by a now-wrinkly old man for an old-fashioned jazz quartet around the time their parents were born.
True Ninja Academy fans, accustomed to the unusual, wouldn't bat an eye. "People never know what to expect when they first see us setting up on the stage," said drummer Outdo-Ninja. Sure, the ninja outfits — all-black cloth suits that expose only the eyes and, in Outdo's case, the arms — are part of that, but so is the fact that the band can play circles around your typical instrumental rock duo and thus shares bills with a wide range of bands in an equally motley assortment of spaces. Since creating Ninja Academy in 2003, the longtime friends (they formed their first band together in high school) have played art galleries, hip-hop benefits, punk rock shows, even hushed jazz gigs.
They've also performed at all of Los Angeles' big rock clubs, including Spaceland, the Echo, Safari Sam's, the Viper Room, the Roxy, Whisky a Go Go, and a sold-out five-week residency at Silverlake Lounge. And they've opened for both avant-garde hero Nels Cline and Minutemen/Stooges member Mike Watt. They've even played an acoustic set at a private party for singer-songwriter Rickie Lee Jones' birthday. Bassist Indo-Ninja joined Jones' band after a chance meeting over two years ago, leading to international touring and an appearance on her last record. "She liked weird musicians," he explained. "And she wanted musicians to take chances. That's why she liked me."
But weird doesn't adequately describe Indo's unique playing style. His bass can double — both in sound and in technique — as a guitar, and he picks so stealthily and strums so furiously that his hands must truly possess some ninja DNA. It's a large part of what allows Ninja Academy to cover so much territory.
That said, Outdo is no slacker on the drums. The backbone of a rhythmically complex band, he keeps Indo's excursions in check while adding prodigious emphases and accents to the song structure. He recently had a side gig of his own with the newly reunited Devo, laying down tracks in the studio for their upcoming album. He's not certain they'll be used (Josh Freese of Nine Inch Nails is his competition), but he also has hopes of turning the relationship into an opening slot on Devo's tour. And if that doesn't work out, the band can still boast it was the recipient of a "Hear in L.A." prize in 2008 — which allegedly earned its songs "Consequence" and "Insects" spots on the hold music playlist at Los Angeles' 311 call center — and was recently awarded an arts grant from the City of Pasadena.
At this point it may as well be noted that the whole ninja thing is something of a joke, or at least it began that way. Even the stage names don't really mean anything. "It started off as a silly thing," said Indo. "We basically thought, 'Wouldn't it be cool to have a band called Ninja Academy?'" At first they didn't wear costumes, but when audiences responded to early experiments in masks and all-black clothing, they decided to run with it. And the academy aspect snowballed, too, taking on implications of teaching, community, and camaraderie. That's why Outdo and Indo now incorporate a number of guest performers into their albums and shows, such as Taiko drummer Gongis Khan, vocalist Ninjamamalickum, martial artist Donkey Punch (who's appeared on stage with the band doing crazy stunts like blindfolding himself and going nuts on a pair of nunchakus), and others on guitar, violin, electronics, and keyboards.
Earlier this month Ninja Academy embarked on its first national tour, a 32-city trek timed well in advance of the release of its third (and, by the looks of things, finest) album later this year. Outdo and Indo have booked and promoted the entire tour alone, a task that's taken four months and still isn't finalized. But they maintain high hopes. "It's hard to ignore people dressed as ninjas," rationalized Outdo. If all goes as planned, this tour will prime the pump for a follow-up national tour once the record's out this fall.
Recalling how well "Blue Rondo" went over last year at Gilman, Outdo looks forward to Ninja Academy's forthcoming appearance, its fifth at the venue so far: "You don't even need to work the crowd," he said. "The kids are just so rowdy and crazy." If that's all it takes to get teenagers to mosh to Dave Brubeck, then by all means, bring on the ninjas.
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