In the underground of the Los Angeles music scene, there’s a sound brewing that combines the mentality of an after hours club with bursts of rock, jazz and funk. They are a trio of musicians with jazz backgrounds and have as much love for Orbital and Kraftwerk as they do for Medeski Martin & Wood. Add the contrasting sounds of King Crimson and P-Funk and you get subthunk.
Their second release, Just A Few Notes Before You Go, has been in my car for the past month, and I haven’t skipped a song yet. I don’t know any of the song names, but each one has served as perfect background music to whatever situation I may have found myself in. The music is not too intense, but not complacent either, and seems to be very representative of the band’s live show.
I missed much of a previous show at Zen Sushi in Silverlake, but caught a full set from the band in Santa Monica recently at The Temple Bar.
Onstage the band lurks in the shadows proving to be just as mysterious as the name subthunk suggests. They make an interesting group, an Englishmen crouched with his guitar, teasing notes out of the instrument, a machinelike drummer of Irish decent punishing his kit and a second, bespectacled guitarist with light hair that fusses with an iBook while providing guitar-synth and swaying to the effects the computer produces. The music is fast, but smooth.
Lead guitarist Ant has absorbed all the best sounds from his native Britain, and bits and pieces of each genre spill out of his Fender. Dark moody blues riffs play tag with rock and flow through jazz tempos.
Alex utilizes the iBook onstage to produce effects and trigger loops. He essentially is the keyboardist, using a guitar hooked into a pedal and a sound module to mimic a Fender Rhodes, a Hammond organ and various other synthesizer sounds. While performing, his body contorts like a boxer taking body shots from the effects triggered by his laptop.
At Zen Sushi, the band performed in low light, hidden in fog with projections coloring everything in shimmering shades of purple and blue. I couldn’t really see Joe, the drummer, but I could feel him, working in the darkness. Even though they were virtually in the dark, the boys know how to play together, and fed off each other’s leads. The fog flowed, the screen glowed and subthunk won over a new room of fans.
At The Temple Bar, Ant lingered in the darkness on the right of the stage, Alex focused on his playing while surveying the room silently and a stray stage light illuminated Joe on the drums. The manic look in his eyes was visible. Perhaps due to the spotlight, he used his microphone to make random shout-outs during the performance. He might have a screw loose, but he’s a drummer, and performs his job like a well-oiled mechanism.
Ant spoke between songs, mentioning, “a song about toast,” but his English brogue was difficult to understand. His guitar playing was near flawless, and it's very apparent that he and Alex share a strong musical chemistry. Ant records loops live, and then layers them to create unique variations. After the set, I asked him about this and he said, “When we play, we try to have a conversation, and use the machines to throw in pieces of recorded conversations that we also interact with.”
Their set was limited to an hour so that the next group could perform, and after the band moved their gear off stage, I went upstairs to the band room with another music junkie in attendance, Gavin Heaney from slackstring, to hang out with subthunk and get a glimpse inside their heads.
What I got was some new friends and plenty of conversation about the struggles of being a band in the pyramid scene of Los Angeles. Ant talked quickly, and said quite a lot, and the burning desire to be heard spilled into my microphone.
Forrest: Do you record your improvisation live, or do you bring a melody to the table and go from there?”
Ant: I write the main structures of the tunes, we'll have melodies, but then we tend to have sections that are pretty much free form. It depends on what we feel like playing. Coming from a jazz background, it's hard to play the same, straight thing every night. I just can't do it. I'd be fired, because that's shite. So that’s a really cool aspect of this band, I can just totally kind of jam on something and see where it goes. Someone will come up with something and we'll get it to go in a certain direction, like Joe will do a certain rhythmic thing or Alex will play something and we'll kind of go somewhere and sometimes it works really well and sometimes it's total shite. That's the beauty, that's the whole point. And if you go and see bands, I think, there are some nights you know, well, what I mean is, if you aren't capable of having a bad night, you're probably not pushing yourself, you know what I mean? Because (artists) can just play it safe (onstage). I can play it safe, and just chill out, like no worries, just go through the night. But that's the whole point; being on the edge and saying, whoa!
When people go to shows they don't want to see a train wreck, but as a spectator, you think, "Can they pull this off?"
That's just it! And that's part of the fun, yes. You see where it's going and you start to see what you can do with it. And it's amazing, because we've done stuff that's just started out like "Holy fuck what are we going to do here.” That is why we recorded our album live, the full band. We just recorded the tracks a few times and then picked what we liked.
You guys recorded and mixed Just a few notes by yourselves?
We did, we mixed it and we recorded it. We did have help from a friend of Alex's named Jamie Ledner. He helped us out for initial sounds. We cut the album in about three days, and did three takes of most of the tracks and then chose the best versions of each song.
There are other bands doing live electronica, but there really isn't a basis point.
Yea, our thing is, there are all these cool new instruments to utilize, you know, like using laptops and it's so cool! Why can't we use it as part of the band, why do we either have to be electronic or not electronic? These are the new instruments of tomorrow, I think. So that's what we're trying to do.
Joe interrupts: Even though we use the computer, the sounds are organic.
Speaking of homegrown music, are you guys hitting any of the festivals this summer, like High Sierra?
Alex jumps in: Well, we aren’t yet, because we don’t really know how to do it. There isn’t a big scene in Los Angeles, or much exposure to the promoters that organize those festivals. We’re still figuring out how to do it.
Gavin (slackstring) gives Alex a high five.
Amen to that, man! (hand-slap) It’s hard to be a ‘jamband’ in L.A.
Joe: And we’re not only a ‘jamband’ we’re like drum and bass. We’re torn between two lovers, and we feel like a fool.
Gavin: I think that if you were based out of San Francisco you’d have a huge buzz.
This strikes a chord with Joe: The worst night of our life was in San Francisco.
Laughter from the band ensues, and Gavin asks, “What happened?” Despite the efforts of Alex and Ant to silence him, Joe tells a story. We played this show and the band before us was like this whole Miles Davis conglomerate, really good, with two drummers, the whole “Bitches Brew” thing, and they were like going off, it was really good, that kind of new jazz, and one of the guys that played in the band, I guess because he didn’t like us, invited us back to his house, which was actually in Richmond. We slept on wooden benches in an old gothic house, with satanic symbols drawn everywhere in black. There were asphalt floors, upside-down crosses on the walls, and puddles of vomit. Horrible. There was cigarette macramé on the floor, and piles of filth everywhere, and the house just stank. There was a steady stream of traffic throughout the night of these Goth-types, and all we wanted was some sleep. And Alex was laying down in the worst place possible, and went to sleep immediately, and he has the cleanest house on earth.
Ant: I don’t know how he slept guilt free. Earlier at the gig, he dropped one of our laptops.
Alex: It was bad, I dropped one of our two laptops, and Ant walked by and said, “I’ll pretend I didn’t see that.”
Joe: And the guy we hired to drive us got too drunk to drive. He was supposed to be one of those straight up Fugazi types, and the motherfucker got wasted.
Alex: It was a comedy of errors.
Ant: To continue the story, we got out of the vomity punk club, after three hours of sleep, go into the van, and the van breaks down. We had to rent a van and a car to get to SLO (San Luis Obispo) for our show the next night. It was hell. We were paying penance for our sins in an earlier life.
I accused Ant of “using the English tactic of making up outrageous stories for journalists,” but his eyes got wide in horror of the memory, and he said, “No, it’s true, it’s true.”
Ant: The only thing you want out on tour is to get a good night of sleep.
Alex: In that house, there wasn’t a place on the wall that wasn’t covered with a sticker or a poster. It smelled of piss and beer.
We swapped stories of staying in cheap hotels teeming with drug dealers and prostitutes or getting to a hotel late and finding out that your room has been rented. Gavin told a story of a bizarre experience slackstring had in Santa Cruz.
Gavin: “The hotel clerk gave us a room that had already been used that same night, messy bed and everything. It was after midnight, and we didn’t have much choice. Right after we got settled in the room, this random dude opened the door and walked right in! He said, “You don’t want to leave your door unlocked, because people around here will just walk right in." And we were like, “You mean like you just did?”
Joe: And how many times have you gotten to the club and your box of promotional materials is still sitting there, unopened? Why the fuck would a club owner not put the stuff up?
Ant: Or you arrange a show with a booker, show up at the venue and that person has been replaced, and someone else says, “Oh, we stopped booking bands on Friday night because it’s hard to get anyone to come in.”
Gavin busts out in song: “On the road again...”
Joe: Saying all that, there hasn’t been one member of the Temple Bar staff that has been rude at all. They are so nice. I love it here.
This is probably the best place in town to see shows.
The night was getting late, and our conversation was winding down. The guys listed their influences, which were as eclectic as one might think, (Stewart Copeland, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, propellerhead, orbital, The New Deal and MMW were their top picks).
Ever the outspoken one, Joe summed it up, “We just need a chance. I mean, there are bands that I idolize, but we can hang with anyone, I really think we can.”
Right now subthunk is doing everything on their own, which includes producing their own CD (after-hours at work) and handing out demo-CDs outside of venues. At Particle’s December show at the Roxy, Alex handed a CD to keyboardist Steve Molitz, who was impressed enough with what he heard to give the guys a call. Their schedules haven’t worked out yet, but a future guest appearance may be in the cards. Molitz’s keyboard work would add another dimension to the already lush musical sound escapes subthunk creates. Expect to hear much more from these guys, their version of jazz/trance/dance will move you.
Interview and Images by: Forrest Reda
JamBase | Los Angeles
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