There are two common misconceptions about Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, the East Bay's best Dadaist death rock band.
"The first is that we rehearse all the time," says guitarist Nils Frykdahl. "The second is that we want some LSD."
Neither turns out to be true. The cult quintet spends a recent Wednesday evening in its rehearsal space off San Pablo Avenue autographing 111 black and white publicity photos. After two years of touring the country in a 1968 bus straight out of Almost Famous, and stopping more than two hundred times, the mysterious crew decided to catch its collective breath in 2006. The band took a six-month break that ended with two rare, spectacular shows at the Oakland Metro on July 7 and 8.
Over the next couple of months, Sleepytime's musicians plan to finish recording a fourth album while a new, business-minded label called the End rereleases their critically lauded 2001 debut Grand Opening and Closing with two extra new songs.
Consequently, the End needs some public relations help. Autograph signing, though, doesn't really fit a band founded on the post-World War I Dadaist principles of silliness and nonsense. Its name comes from an actual Dadaist project where a plaque was hung on a building, proclaiming it the Sleepytime Gorilla Museum of course, nobody ever saw the exhibits. Since the band members are averse to idol worship, they sign their promo stills with poems, pictures, and errata.
"The blight will consume us all," writes 42-year-old bassist and SGM cofounder Dan Rathbun, standing bare-chested with a giant canyon buzzed through the center of his hair: a No-hawk.
"It's all Pleistocene from here on out," another promo says.
"Betsy, Wow, nice tumbler. XO," one reads. "Cape Goggles."
"On a mattress made of moose."
"Jessica, I will never forgive you, Billy."
Their levity is matched only by how seriously they go about destroying the tenets of hard rock and metal. Guitarist Frykdahl is a Cal classical music grad, class of '89. Lead vocalist and tremendous violinist Carla Kihlstedt, also known for her role in Tin Hat Trio, opted out of a post-Oberlin College career in classical music after growing up a violin prodigy. "Some of the most important lessons I learned, I learned in that world," she says.
Kihlstedt's petite 5-foot-4, 130-pound frame belies the huge pipes and terrifying violin licks she unleashed in front of 150 metal nerds at the Metro. The place reeked of body odor and booze as she ripped through the new album's "Flinch," screaming with unmatched fury before tearing into her electric violin. Behind her, two percussion sections one traditional and one experimental banged on tuned bicycle wheels and snare drums. This goes beyond mere theatrics with its white face paint and blacked-out teeth; the act jells in a way that would make a symphonic violinist envious.
When asked to describe his aesthetic, drummer Michael Mellender can respond only, "It's too hard." He repeats it four times.
Indeed, the band doesn't drink or do drugs before shows because the music is too challenging. It usually features recurring motifs and thematic development, but such landmarks are buried in soundscapes of off-rhythm drumming and little flourishes. "Our only real drug is no sleep," Frykdahl says. "And you can get pretty fucked up on no sleep. You just can't mix it with anything."
For now, the musicians are up late at night working on songs. They've got eight done, but more need to be written. And the band has signed up with the End to do another CD after this one. "We started this album writing on paper as opposed to jamming. Then we come in here and push around the songs, sometimes for five hours on just one song," Frykdahl says. "I can hear them in my head at night, and sometimes that's helpful because I can think of the whole song, instead of wanting to mess around because I have my guitar in hand."
Of the album's progress, Frykdahl says, "So far it's very dark and brooding, but it's got some rocking moments in it."
Indeed the three-song sample they gave Press Play registers extremely heavy, sometimes totally dissonant, but always returning to huge percussion themes or string themes that resonate long after the screaming is gone. This isn't a band for everyone; SGM says its fans tend to be nerdy hessians, including a thirtysomething geologist from Davis who films every show.
"I wouldn't say we have an actual cult, though," Frykdahl says. "We don't feed into that and make them crazy. We're available. We talk to anyone who wants to chat."
But they're not interested in your LSD.
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