The other day a mysterious communiqué from the “Ninja Watchgroup” informed me of a Pacific Northwest Ninja Invasion taking place in July. “Only with your presence can we hope to survive the Ninja Onslaught,” it read. “Please help us bring a large enough crowd to drive back the Ninja Madness.”
Despite the slightly menacing tone, there’s no cause for alarm, for these are friendly Ninjas. Specifically, Surrounded by Ninjas, a promising young electronica band from Portland, Oregon. Well, I use the term “band” loosely, as SBN is actually a duo - keyboardist Asher Fulero and DJ Joel Barber – that uses traditional instruments right alongside electronic gear and gadgetry to spontaneously create music, sound, and mood. A sound that’s 100% improvised, with Asher and Joel inventing new songs from the ground up each time they perform together with no beat records, pre-looped grooves or laptop sequencing. They call it “Electronic Music with a Heartbeat.”
Though new as a duo, these two young lads have been on the Pacific Northwest music scene for some time. You’d be hard pressed to try to fit their extensive individual resumes into a short blurb, but just to give you a little background... Asher Fulero has performed throughout the Europe and the West Coast (most recently with Matt Butler’s Everyone Orchestra at the The Crystal Ballroom in Portland last weekend, which featured Steve Kimock, Jessica Lurie and a host of other quality players) and has shared the stage with a diverse array of artists including Critters Buggin, Zony Mash, The Slip, Fishbone, The Motet, Drums and Tuba, Living Daylights, Das Rut, Siamese, and Carlos Washington, to name a few. Joel Barber was introduced to the ‘90s Los Angeles rave community while in art school, and after graduation returned to the Northwest where he started producing and promoting underground parties in various cities.
Asher Fulero and Joel Barber
Asher and Joel met while playing with local folk/pop performer Ashleigh Flynn, and the two decided to join forces. They took on the name Surrounded By Ninjas (an excellent and appropriate choice) and in August began a residency at Eclectic Electro, a new music series hosted by 4th Rail Productions at the P-town neighborhood haunt the GoodFoot Lounge.
Surrounded by Ninjas began to record its performances at Eclectic Electro, and subsequently self-produced and released its debut CD Realtime Modify, culled entirely from music performed during the duo’s six month residency.
According to the liner notes, Realtime Modify was “100% improvised with no prearranged notions or arrangements of any kind, and was created 100% live with no overdubs or post-production. Every sound was created with 4 hands, 4 feet, 4 ears, and 14 pieces of gear, with no sequencers or automation of any kind.” At this point you might be inclined to ask, “So what does that sound like?” In the hands (and feet and ears) of Asher and Joel, the result is 80 minutes of fluid, often dark and melancholy grooves with numerous quirky sound effects.
The first time you listen to this disc, if you want to get a quick taste of the overall album, I recommend starting with these three tracks: “Subplot,” “Moody Vibes/Dub Ahm” and “Out of the Loop.” Starting off with Asher on piano, “Subplot” has an almost jazz-like underlying theme coupled with Joel’s futuristic samples. “Moody Vibes/Dub Ahm” captures the true SBN formula - if in fact the word “formula” really exists between these two – with Asher’s sad, lovely keys and Joel’s solid drum & bass work as well as hollowed-out sounds from one of the many pieces of gear they employ. And there’s just something about the high-pitched tones in “Out of the Loop” that appeal to me, reminding me of nighttime descending over the horizon... in some slightly off-center realm.
“Crowded Space” is a smooth, short (in SBN terms) piece that starts off the album. “Deconstrain” contains echo-like samples and a nice little melody that bleeds into the next track, “Hear Us Create” (which is really a continuation of/variation on the previous composition, with some added layers) and then later seeps into “Play With Sound.” “Acceptance” is a slow-moving piece with haunting trumpet effects and Tabla, and “Several Things in One” is just that: a series of distinct themes contained within one track. “Play With Sound” is drum & bass with futuristic noises and a goofy sample/frog effect at the very end, and there is more Tabla to enjoy in “Conversation Peace,” one of the other short tracks on the album. “Sleepytime Music For Robots” is another apt name; at first Asher’s delicate keyboard interludes remind me of STS9, but then Joel busts out the mechanical-sounding effects in true Ninja-like fashion.
Though the CD can be somewhat repetitive, it seems that the duo is just getting its feet wet and naturally would fall on similar themes throughout a series of improvised pieces. And though the production might appear somewhat raw in places, therein lies the uniqueness of this ambitious endeavor. It is electronic music of the moment, whenever and wherever it might be.
While, in theory, stage-to-studio transition might seem effortless for a live electronica group, it’s still a challenge for these bands to make their performances sound fresh on stage while trying to effectively capture that sound in the studio. This blurring of the lines between stage and studio is an interesting concept for me, since many of the bands I’ve come to love - based on going to their live shows - were not exactly known for their recording prowess. That tide seems to be turning, however, and Surrounded By Ninjas take it a step further with this approach. The CD captures the duo’s live performances on disc exactly as you would have heard them in the club. But I wouldn’t necessarily call this “dance music.” They’ve got some upbeat numbers, but more often than not I find myself listening to Realtime Modify late at night (or early morning) while winding down at home with the lights turned low, or when I wake up after a particularly rage-y evening and need something to ease me into the day. They’ve got quite a bit of creativity and technical skills, these two, and I’m curious to see what their next endeavor brings. I’ll also look forward to catching them live one day soon. SBN is poised to bring its fresh improvisation to the masses, so I'll be sure to stay in contact with the Ninja Watchgroup and remain prepared for future Ninja invasions.
In the meantime, here are the prospective Ninja Targets for this month. You can also catch Surrounded by Ninjas during a radio/internet performance on Friday, August 1st on KWVA 88.1 FM Eugene.
Surrounded By Ninjas | Summer NW NinjaTour
Monday July 28
Club Ohm | Portland, OR
With DJ Grasshopper
Part of the Down Comfort series
21+ | 10pm | $3 at the door or FREE with Service Industry Card
Tuesday July 29
Portland State University
Park Blocks Series | Portland, OR
All ages | 12 noon–1pm | FREE!!
Wednesday July 30
TosT | Seattle, WA
With Detective Honey
21+ | 9pm sharp | $5 at the door
Thursday July 31
Savino's | Hood River, OR
With DJ Grasshopper
21+ | 9pm | $2 at the door
Friday August 1
Wild Duck Brewery | Eugene, OR
With Eleven Eyes
21+ | 9:30pm | $6 at the door
Friday August 1
KWVA 88.1 FM Radio | Eugene, OR
5pm on “One Hour, One Band”
Interview, live tracks, DJ selections...
Saturday August 2
Q's Bar and Grill | Ashland, OR
With local DJs
21+ | 9:30pm | $3 at the door
JamBase | San Francisco
Go See Live Music!