American Idles 

Making "instinctual" music with the Immersion Composition Society.

If, as Thomas Jefferson once wrote, the caliber of any clandestine group can be measured by the barbecues they throw, the Immersion Composition Society will soon be appearing alongside the Masons and Shriners on conspiracy theory Web sites everywhere.

The manically creative sect -- founded in 2001 by East Bay musicians Michael Mellender and Nicholas Dobson -- is dedicated to the grilling arts, elevating the wedding of charcoal and chickens to a holy rite. They also excel at such barbecue sideshows as snapping beer-bottle caps long distances and balancing on imaginatively broken lawn chairs.

Mostly, though, the ICS exists to make music. A lot of music. Every two weeks, each member wakes up, rolls out of bed, and writes and records a "day album" of between six and twenty songs. Then, at 9:27 p.m., each member trudges, CD-R in hand, to a listening party, where the day's cerebral haul is laid out to the hooting acclaim of other members.

For Nicholas, the idea of ICS started out of personal necessity. "It was taking me four years to write a song," the boyish, hyper blond remembers. ICS was a way for him to quit obsessing about quality, and immerse himself completely into the creative process.

And it paid off. The reams of songs he and fellow ICS-ers produced weren't always good, but they were always plentiful. Motivated by the ticking clock and amiable inter-lodge competition, the group tapped into that fertile domain known as "instinctual songwriting" -- a gruesome and beautiful realm that coughs up triumphs and tragedies in equal number.

"You find out what your mind looks like with no clothes on," Nicholas says, laughing.

Curious to hear the fruit of these naked minds, I wormed an invitation to the ICS's International Volume Day get-together, a special, pan-lodge songwriting event where members have an hour to compose as many songs as possible.

Set in the backyard of a run-down Victorian in West Oakland, the IVD had all the trappings of a typical Society get-together: meats stacked tantalizingly by the grill and a motley assortment of songwriters -- each sporting a vague attempt at lodge colors -- milling about clutching the day's CD-R. It felt a little like a cocktail reception for a middle school science fair: The atmosphere was charged with a drunken, geeky energy, as everyone chatted self-deprecatingly about the results of their day's experiments.

By the time a dozen or so ICS-ers had arrived, Nicholas and Michael declared a quorum and the listening party commenced. Nicholas went first, debuting an '80s R&B, synth-heavy composition that sounded like Billy Ocean retooling the Revenge of the Nerds soundtrack. Nicholas had run out of time for lyrics, so he held his painfully memorable melody in place by singing "If this doesn't work, I'll kill myself" over and over.

The song was a hit with the barbecue, and a beaming Nicholas stepped aside for cofounder Michael to cue up his composition. "I had to go butt rock today," he warned to loud applause.

Over the next two hours, there were plenty of amazing moments. One member managed to record eleven free-associative hillbilly blues songs in an hour; another vacationing ICS-er dialed in his composition -- a five-minute symphony for voice and cell phone button tones -- from Vermont. There was banjo-tronica and snarly prog-punk, and a catchy, lovestruck ode to one of the lodges called "White and Blue Today."

Though the ICS Web site lays out rules of etiquette for the listening party (pay attention to everyone's songs, etc.), the whole thing operated more like a family dinner where the shy and demure kids tend to get talked over and the bossy ones repeatedly tell people to shut up, and food gets thrown and feelings get hurt and then healed again through the twin salves of affection and pork products.

It seems, in short, like the kind of family that any musician would want to belong to. And many do. Nicholas and Michael's lodge had to stop taking new members because its ranks had swollen to the point of unmanageability. The two other East Bay lodges are becoming similarly crowded, and Immersion Societies have sprung up in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Vancouver, Canada.

As ICS grows, Nicholas has already started to hear some rumblings of a backlash from "serious" musicians who feel that music needs to take an eternity to be eternal. Nicholas just chuckles at the idea. "They object to the silliness," he says with a twinkle in his eye. "But if you go through the silliness, the other side is profundity."

I'll eat to that.


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