Sleepytime Gorilla Museum turns a crowded, smoky bar into an eerie, disjointed dream. It plays monster music -- as if Maurice Sendak's Wild Things were collaborating with the members of King Crimson in a bad mood. The band writhes and jerks as it plays, sometimes gazing distantly into space, sometimes glaring, catlike, at some unseeable object just beyond the crowd. There isn't the sense that the band members are just some folks like you and me who happen to play music; SGM has a distinct presence, and uses that presence to change the venue into an extension of itself.
The band is Nils Frykdahl on guitar and vocals, Carla Kihlstedt on violin and vocals, Moe!Staiano on percussion, Dan Rathbun on bass and vocals, and Frank Grau on drums. Everyone except Moe!Staiano went to school for music, and it shows -- not in the chaos, heaviness, or just plain weirdness of some of Rathbun's instruments, but in the arrangements and the old-fashioned skill with which all the members play. The musical influences driving the band are diverse, but are at least partially rooted in progressive rock, which Rathbun grew up with (and Frykdahl grew into after a high school career as a metalhead). Kihlstedt also plays in the group Tin Hat Trio, and Frykdahl is in Faun Fables, a duo that plays folky/elf-lover-type tunes. The music that comes out of this nerd collective quickly transcends its components. It is melodic, loud, haunting, heavy, scary, melodramatic, violent, and humorous by turns (sometimes all at once), incorporating the technicality of prog rock, the epic sensibility of heavy metal, and the percussive insanity of Staiano -- throwing out a free-form, uninterpreted musical narrative of the sort that turns acid trips into harrowing nightmares or religious experiences.
To understand the whole experience of SGM, it helps to know that two of its members are from the now-defunct "art rock" band Idiot Flesh, a highly theatrical band that developed at Berkeley's infamous Barrington Hall in the mid-'80s. Idiot Flesh shows were like a musical circus. "Idiot Flesh did have a surround element," says Rathbun, bassist for both Idiot Flesh and now Sleepytime. "To be at an Idiot Flesh show was to be surrounded by visual things: people hanging from the ceiling, somebody on the rear balcony doing an interjection -- strange things were always happening. The focus would go back to the band onstage, and then something else would happen -- you'd have some strange costume thing happening -- we'd change costumes two or three times a night, and it was wild."
This group is more surrealistic Dada fun, but still retains bits of the first band. "Musically," says Rathbun, "SGM is no surprise. Anyone who carefully followed the career of Idiot Flesh from start to finish could see that we were heading in this direction." This time though, the music seems to be crafted with more care. "Idiot Flesh was impatient music," says Rathbun. "[The music was] actually moving to its 'next thing' pretty rapidly. In Sleepytime, whatever sound or movement is afoot gets to say its piece before it gets swept away."
And an SGM show is not a crazed circus. Though the band members dress in costumes, wear facepaint, and take on distinct stage personae (particularly Nils, whose metal roots show through in his demonic appearance), ultra-dramatic chaos is kept to a minimum. "As Sleepytime, we decided to approach theatricality slowly and carefully, but we are going to go there," says Rathbun. "We're going to continue the development -- develop the band as a theatrical unit; we're just doing it slowly."
SGM's first album, Grand Opening and Closing, is nine tracks that feature a big chunk of a typical SGM live set. The songs retain some of the intensity of a live show ("Sleep Is Wrong" and "Powerless"), but the chaos has been stripped out. The songs have been reduced, in some ways, to their essential elements. "A record represents a sort of perfect performance," says Rathbun, "where everything is performed just right, and there's no compromises. You can really hear the compositions in their idealized forms."
Whether the album captures SGM's "magic" is a difficult call. "Some people feel that the live show is really the thing," says Rathbun, "and that the album [should be] a representation of that. Other people feel the album is the important thing, and that the live show is a representation of the album." Where you stand as a listener depends on which you prefer. "Some people are more visually oriented, and some are more sonically oriented." This dichotomy doesn't seem to concern the band. "I also understand that a live show has all this human energy that you can't really convey on a record," says Rathbun. "We've tried to make that record be the most interesting thing we possibly could. In the end, though, it is the listener, not the band or producer, that decides whether the album succeeds. You can't construct magic. You can push as hard as you can, but whether it turns out to be magic or not is still a little bit of voodoo."
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