Art of noise

Sleepytime Gorilla Museum derives inspiration from the long-defunct, little-known American Futurist movement.

The members of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum are driving to San Diego for the first gig of their current tour. It's 10 a.m. on a Friday, but bassist Dan Rathbun is still waiting for the sleep that he failed to get the night before. Rathbun didn't spend his night pumped up on various chemicals while engaging in rock 'n' debauchery. He simply helped his bandmates load their gear. As he explains, "It's always hard to get out of town and get everything ready."

This avant-garde Oakland quintet struggles to get packed and mobile because it's not carting the usual collection of guitars, keyboards, amps, and drums. Its van carries a wild assortment of instruments hand-crafted by Rathbun: everything from a spring-nail guitar to a slide piano-log to clanging pieces of metallic percussion. For a band determined to make a big rock noise without succumbing to the sonic conventions of rock, Rathbun's woodshop experiments are not gimmickry, but a fundamental component of its philosophy.

Rathbun began hammering out his own axes 15 years ago, shortly after he began playing cello in a rock band. He decided that he wanted a solid-body cello, and rather than simply buying one, he set out to build it. After spending the better part of a year on a barely functional cello, he adopted a policy of building only instruments that couldn't be found at a store.

"Gradually, I came to see that if you want to sound like nobody else, you have to play an instrument that nobody else has," Rathbun says. "There's always room for a new guitar sound, but there's not a lot of room for it. But if you're playing a scribble, it sounds like a scribble."

When pressed, Rathbun concedes that he has yet to actually devise a "scribble," but he's crafted a pedal-action wiggler ("a very wiggly bass-like instrument on a hi-hat stand") and The Thing, a piece of maple wood with up to seven gadgets screwed on it, and a contact microphone attached.

Sleepytime Gorilla Museum doesn't exactly play tunes. It plays loud, breakneck eruptions of sound, with a force and iconoclastic wit that alternately recalls Mr. Bungle, Frank Zappa, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Primus. On its 2004 album, Of Natural History, the band's third album and debut for Mimicry Records, SGM explores violinist Carla Kihlstedt's theory that music is a "safe and fun place to explore all sorts of emotional extremes."

The band raises a frightening, blood-curdling ruckus on "The Donkey-Headed Adversary of Humanity Opens the Discussion Adversary"; offers dramatic starts and stops with the Goth grandeur of "Phthisis"; and unreels a bombastic, black-metal gypsy anthem with "FC: The Freedom Club," which opens with this spoken line: "Let us never forget that the human race, with technology, is like an alcoholic with a barrel of wine."

SGM formed from the ashes of the '90s dada collective Idiot Flesh, which included Rathbun and his UC-Berkeley housemate Nils Frykdahl.

"We were living together in a student co-op infamous for bad living and artistic expression," Rathbun says. "There were people doing art and drugs instead of going to class. We started playing music together then, and there were years when we tried to figure out what we were doing.

"We always knew what we were fishing for, but at least for me, it took me a long time to develop a language to express myself. It's easy to have an abstract idea of the kind of music you'd like to make, but it's not that easy to sit down and make it."

   Sleepytime Gorilla Museum

Sun, Feb 27
1818 N. Main

Idiot Flesh defined its aesthetic as "rock against rock," a vague concept to which SGM adheres. Both bands also share a broadly theatrical bent, courtesy of Frykdahl, whose parents were avid patrons of Oakland theater.

Decked out in black cutoff trousers with matching suspenders and rubber boots, the group resembles an 18th-century pagan cult more than a 21st-century music ensemble. Like the Residents, another Bay Area band with a sense of presentation, SGM cultivates a certain sense of mystery. Along those lines, the group embraces the ideas of the American Futurist movement, an early 20th-century group associated with painter and writer John Kane. SGM even took its name from Sleepytime Gorilla Press, a printing house which published Kane's murky ramblings.

Frykdahl is the band's resident authority on Kane, and when he talks about the long-deceased artist, you get the feeling that he's as entranced by the obscurity - and utter failure - of his movement as by the movement itself.

"Part of the fun of it for me in using John Kane as a figurehead is valorizing this art movement in America that never really got off the ground as far as attracting a lot of public attention," Frykdahl says. "And it wasn't their whole purpose anyway. At a certain point, they seemed to have gone the other way and buried any traces of their activities."

For a while, Frykdahl corresponded with an elderly member of an East Coast group called the John Kane Society, but he's now convinced that his former pen pal either passed away or became irate that SGM printed excerpts of Kane's writing on its records.

"I think he wasn't really a fan of the music," Frykhdahl says with deadpan understatement. "He didn't think it was appropriate use."

By Gilbert Garcia

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