Retro No Retro 

Oakland's Lumerians reject the old classifications of music to come out on their own terms.

In an industry that relies on easy classification of a band's sound and image to effectively market it to its desired audience, Oakland up-and-coming band Lumerians are a hard sell. "We don't really want to be seen as a retro or a genre band," insists bass player Marc Melzer. With the advent of the blogosphere that has created new micro-genres at a dizzying pace, Lumerians' self-titled debut record, recently released on the Subterranean Elephant imprint, has many critics scratching their heads. Some bloggers have already tried to refer to them as "psych rock." But in interviews, members seem bemused at such talk. "We are not trying to re-create the '60s and '70s psych-rock sound," Melzer clarified. "We like the exploration aspect of psychedelic music, but really, Miles Davis' Bitches Brew record is more psychedelic to us than the Electric Prunes."

The band's ambivalence about being pigeonholed is understandable considering that the members came from disparate music backgrounds — from playing in electro-industrial bands, to working the noise-punk circuit, to metal, to '90s indie rock. They started as a duo in 2005 with guitarist Jason Miller and sound engineer Tyler Green in a Berkeley apartment, consisting of guitars, keyboards, and a drum machine. "We soon realized the use of a drum machine was a really bad idea," Miller said, laughing. Green was then hired at Recombinant Media Labs in San Francisco, the home of Asphodel Records, and this is where the band rehearsed and began to evolve.

"I had just gotten back from a two-year art residence overseas and heard these two guys playing downstairs at Asphodel and I was electrified," recalled drummer Chris Musgrave. "I said to myself, whatever is going on down there is good." Musgrave, who had already cut his teeth playing in many metal and punk bands before, was added to the group shortly thereafter. They wrote songs and rehearsed, but still felt something was amiss. The addition of Melzer on bass proved to be the missing component they had been looking for. "I had really started off as a guitar player but really I'm a much better bassist," he said. Melzer had been a member of the now-defunct Cincinnati band, Radiolaria, a four-piece that had been courted by Matador Records and earned comparisons to Stereolab.

At the bass player's Temescal home recently, the band sipped bourbon and ate pizza while debating music. "We don't really think any one take of our music is a definitive one," said Melzer. "We are always expanding on the songs, and live you can't expect note-for-note what you hear on the record." Their take on music and the industry is skewed, due to their long history within and around the scene and also their divergent talents in other areas. Most of the members are established visual artists in their own right: Musgrave has had his digital video art shown in galleries in the US and Europe, while Miller has worked on films as a screenwriter and director, and Melzer's recent video work for Obscura Digital includes working on a public art project sponsored by Google.

It's this kind of visual approach to music that is largely evident in the results of their first release. In the propulsive first track, "Corkscrew Trepanation," a Vox keyboard riff driven by tight lockjaw drums and an insistent meticulous bassline give way to surreal lyrics based on ancient trepanation surgeries. Although the record has a disjunctive approach that brings to mind William S. Burroughs' cut-and-splice method, the songs are all tightly wound and cohere around a central theme or sound. "Orgon Grinder," which may be the only track on the record with appeal to a mass audience and features the ethereal female vocals of Lovage Sharrock, doesn't sound out of place next to "Olive Alley," a track that couples Musgrave's hushed vocals with a Vietnamese jaw harp. The polymorphous nature of the record is an attempt at a fully immersive experience, and its effect is that of watching a Jodorowsky film.

At a recent show at the Uptown in Oakland, Lumerians played a set of songs culled from the record but also showed another side of the band. With newly recruited percussionist Luis Vasquez, adding an extra layer to their sound without devolving into jam-band gimmickry, and vocalist Hannah Brady, who's now working with the band on its next record, Lumerians appeared poised and confident in their delivery, with tight polyrhythmic percussion, two keyboards that played counterpoint to each other, and guitar work that made use of elaborate effects pedals. The crowd responded with approval to the new material with more vocals, added percussion, and a less self-conscious approach. The show also featured the work of local video artist Cosmic Hex, who complemented the cinematic quality of their music with deft synchronization of sound to image that recalled the Daft Punk concerts that have electrified audiences in the last few years.

What's on the horizon for the group? They have plans to release a 7-inch this year and are currently working on their next record, which they say will use a wider sonic palette by implementing new recording techniques, Vasquez, and Brady. Initial listening indicates that old fans will not be disappointed while still having something to look forward to. "We just want to make music that speaks to people," said Musgrave, "something they can really get lost in."

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