Outsound New Music Summit: VOCO and Surplus 1980

Each night of the Outsound New Music Summit is different, but some more different than others. Such was the case with the fourth night of this year’s festival which featured two loud rock-oriented bands.

The tone of the evening was set with the opening sounds from VOCO.

Voco

The group features Alex Yeung (of Say Bok Gwai) on guitar, Tim Sullivan on drums, and Josh Martin on bass, with guest Joshua Marshall on saxophone. Think rock power trio meets experimental jazz. The band is at times punk, at times metal, at times experimental, but with serious chops. There were the periods that were Zappa-esque, mixing rock and experimental guitar with saxophone and bass runs. There was the dub-metal onslaught at times, reminiscent of the bands Last Exit, or Blind Idiot God. And there was also softer complex drones and percussive sounds from Yeung on guitar, with an array of interconnected effects pedals.

Alex Yeung
[Alex Yeung. Photo peterbkaars.com]

These more experimental moments, enhanced with electronics, brought to mind the story about the band’s name coming from Neal Stephenson’s science-fiction writing (discussed during the pre-show Q&A). In contrast, there was a particularly fun moment when drummer Andre Custodio walked up on stage from the audience and sat down at a second drum set. What ensued was an epic double-drum performance that was much funkier than the set as a whole, and also reminiscent of the multiple drum sets we saw a few weeks earlier with King Crimson. This was followed by a final segment that brought the set to a sonically intense close.

It was then time for Surplus 1980 to take the stage.

Surplus 1980
[Surplus 1980. Photo peterbkaars.com]

I did play with Surplus 1980 as part of the regular lineup from 2012 through 2015. I have seen them several times since then, but I have to say the current lineup and set has taken the band to a new level. The performance is tighter and there is increased variety among the tunes. The set began with two new tunes: “Pigeon Obstacle Course” and “Temporarily Present”. “Pigeon” was a short instrumental with Moe! Staiano and Melne wearing pigeon heads.

Surplus 1980 Pigeons

“Temporarily Present” was a longer song, about 10 minutes, and quite reminiscent of early New Wave from late 1970s and early 1980s. Indeed, the call-and-response vocals between Moe! and Melne and new bassist HR Nelly reminded me a bit of early B-52s performances. The remaining “newish” song was “Question After Ended Question”, which features members of the band playing tuned bundt pans.

After this, the band continued with some familiar songs. I have to admit, I did feel pretty nostalgic hopping up and down during “Failure of Commitment” as I did when I played with them. The new feature on that tune was Moe! on saz. And Melne has come into her own on staging, providing energy and character enough of the whole band. One often just sees her as a bright pink blur as she dances about the stage.

Melne Melne

Guitarist Bill Wolter was solid as always; and Mark Pino was a force of nature on drums, even overcoming a somewhat rebellious kick drum (you can read more about it on his blog.

CDP and Lingua Incognita Session at All Tomorrow’s After Parties

Last week we reported on the the first night of NextNow Presents All Tomorrow’s After Parties that featured a performance by Vacuum Tree Head. Today we look at the next night of that festival, which took place on June 4 in Berkeley.

CDP Trio

That event marked the debut of one of my new bands, Census Designated Place (or CDP). For this set, I was joined by Mark Pino on drums and Rent Romus on alto sax. The concept for this group is to combine my increased focus on jazz and funk with experimental sounds and ideas. We did two compositions of mine, plus an improvisation based on a graphical score painted by Mark. You can see and hear our full performance in this video.

CDP at Berkeley Arts, June 2016 from CatSynth on Vimeo.

Overall I was quite pleased with the set, and we all had a lot of fun. There is still some work to do tightening up the tunes (particularly White Wine), but that will come with time and practice. We were at our best with the rhythmic and idiomatic improvisation sections in all three pieces, especially the straight-eighth jazz and “disco” sections. And Rent did a tremendous job sitting in with the group, bringing a unique sound and style that I hope to continue in future performances.

All three of us also participated in the Lingua Incognita Session a project conceived by Mika Pontecorvo that also debuted at this event. The large ensemble featured two bassists (Eli Pontecorvo and Robert Kehlmann ), two drummers (Mark Pino and Aaron Levin, four wind players (Rent Romus, Kersti Abrams, Jaroba and Joshua Marshal, trumpet (Tony Passarell), keyboard (myself), and experimental electronics (Jack Hertz).

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This was quite a cast of characters to put together in a single group, let alone a purely improvisational group that had not rehearsed together before. And it could have pure cacophony, but everyone did their part to make this work. We started with a concept based on A Love Supreme, with different performers moving in and out of the texture, which moved between sections of rhythmic jamming and more abstract tones. I know I had a lot of fun, as did others, and we hope to do this again sometime.


The day began quite a bit earlier with Shiva X, which featured Tony Passarell on tenor saxophone and Robert Kehlmann – both of whom were part of the Lingua Incognito set – along with Jim Frink on drums.

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This group has some conceptual similarities with CDP, combining noisy elements with steady rhythmic drums and bass, but with a more freeform upper layer provided by Passarell’s saxophone. My favorite moments were when things converged on a groove.

Shiva X was followed by Trois Chapeaux. The group featured Jaroba, Kevin Corcoran and Jorge Bachmann (with regular member Tania Chen absent on this occasion).

Trois Chapeaux

This was a much more abstract sound, combining both small electronics and acoustic elements along with Bachmann on modular synth. Recognizable sounds and fragments came in and out of focus throughout the set, while clouds of noise and complexity coalesced and then dissipated.

Jack Hertz was next with a solo electronic performance. Sitting alone and unassuming at the from the room, he brought forth a variety of sounds from synthesizers, recordings, and other sources into a continuous force of music and noise. There were some soft but still delightfully crunchy moments in there as well.

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The following set shifted from electronic to acoustic, but in such a way that many of the same sonic elements were preserved. There is probably few acoustic duos that sound as “electronic” as T.D. Skatchit, featuring Tom Nunn and David Michalak on sketch boxes.

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The sounds of the sketch box are quite unique, and particularly tuned with the musicians who play it the moment. But there is still a tremendous variety.

Then it was time for Reconnaissance Fly, featuring the new lineup that now includes Brett Carson on keyboards along with Polly Moller (flute, guitar, voice), Tim Walters (bass), Rich Lesnick (winds) and Larry-the-O (drums).

Reconnaissance Fly

The played a variety familiar tunes from the band’s catalog, including a couple from the first album, the recent regular rotation, and a couple of brand new songs. The overall sound of the group has coalesced into something that has strong jazz elements also quite whimsical and esoteric.


After CDP was v’Maa, a “drone band based upon Sami shamanism and spider mythology” (as described on Mark Pino’s blog). The group featured video and music with Mika Pontecorvo, Eli Pontecorvo, Kersti Abrams and Mark Pino. They were joined on this occasion by Lau Nau on voice.

v'Maa

After the intensity of many of the previous sets (including CDP), there was a more subdued quality, a bit more floating and meditative. The swells and ebbs in the overall texture worked will with the changes in the video; and it was a great way to relax musically after performing.

Next up was the “Bill Wolter Project”, featuring Bill Wolter on guitar, Moe! Staiano on percussion, Ivor Holloway on horns, and Ron Gruesbeck on synth.

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The entire set, which was shrouded in mystery ahead of the evening, focused on made-up tunings anchored by Bill on fretless guitar. The music unfolded truly as an experiment, as the performers moved in out of various sounds within the confines of the new tuning.

The Bill Wolter Project was followed by Earspray, featuring Ann O’Rourke, Carlos Jennings and Mark Pino, who is definitely the hardest working man in the new music scene.

Earspray

The set was a full explosion of noise, lights and video, made more stark by the performers’ lab coats. The sounds were a mixture of samples, synthesis and drums.

The final set of the evening was Tri-Cornered Tent Show. The current line-up for band features Philip Everett, Ray Shaeffer, Anthony Flores and Valentina O.

Tri Cornered Tent Show

As with previous times I have heard the group, there was a foundation of explosive electronics and drum phases and free improvisation that moved between disparate rhythms and melodic lines. And there is a theatricality to the performance. But this performance with Valentina O was more cabaret style with humor and a certain intimacy. Between vocals, drum hits, and electronic sounds from Everett there were bits of quiet and silence perfectly timed for the theater of of the set.

This was an exhausting day of music, both as a performer and an audience member, but a rewarding one. I’m glad we stayed around for the entire day to hear everyone and the wide variety of sounds and styles. Thanks again to Mika Pontecorvo and Eli Pontecovro for putting on this evening, bring together so many musicians for a good cause.

Chris Broderick Farewell Bay Area Concert

Our friend and sometime bandmate in both Reconnaissance Fly and ReCardiacs Fly has left the Bay Area for a location a bit further north. But before leaving, he staged a farewell concert at Berkeley Arts which featured some of the artists that most influenced his musical life here.

The evening opened with a solo set by Josh Pollock on guitar and looping/effects pedals.

Josh Pollock

One of his pieces featured layered funk riffs, including the all important bass line. I am sucker for good funk bass and guitar, so I found it quite captivating.

The next solo set featured Moe! Staiano on percussion. In addition to a standard drum kit, he had additional floor drums sundry other items floating around.

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It was his signature intense frenetic style of playing. A central element in the softer sections were a pair of superballs (remember those?) mounted on sticks which create loud eerie drones when rubbed on resonant surfaces.

Next up was a duo featuring Chris Broderick with Ralph Carney on various reed instruments.

Chris Broderick and Ralph Carney

In addition to concert B-flat clarinets and bass clarinet, Ralph Carney had several other more exotic single-reed instruments, including the one in the photo above. I wish I remember what it was called. He is also quite the comedian on stage, with a terse, dry, cynical style that I enjoyed.

Finally, it was time for everyone to come on stage for an extended jam.

Chris Broderick farewell quartet

I will miss Chris’ presence in the Bay Area new music scene, but wish him – and his little black kitty Conundrum – all the best for their new adventures up in Seattle. One day we’ll visit.

Base 4 and the Bay Area Improvising Tag Team Ensemble

Despite being extremely tired from a major event as well as a rehearsal this past weekend, I did manage to catch a performance of jazz and improvisational antics at Berkeley Arts this Sunday evening. The evening opened with Base 4, a jazz trio featuring Bruce Friedman on trumpet, Derek Bomback on guitar, and Alan Cook on drums and percussion.

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They performed very abstract versions of standards, including Afro Blue and Solar, two favorites of mine. There was also free improvisation and some lesser-known compositions. It was a technically strong performance, a full of creative details.

Then we switched rooms for a completely different experience with the “Bay Area Improvising Tag Team Ensemble.” Not really an ensemble, this cast of characters assembled by Moe! Staiano performed free improvisation “refereed” by Gino Robair. Basically, performers were given signals of when to start and stop, and could within that context tag one another to play together and switch instruments. There were, however, penalties that could be levied against performers. A penalty meant holding a can of motor oil and not playing until it lapsed or another penalty was committed.

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As with sporting events, one could find disagreement with the referee. In this case, I strongly disagreed with Gino’s giving Polly Moller a penalty for using a wah-wah pedal. We at CatSynth approve of wah-wah pedals.

Here are some other scenes from the evening’s performance. We begin with Matt Davignon on turntable and Moe! Staiano on drums.

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Bandmates Polly Moller (Reconnaissance Fly) and Melne Murphy (Surplus 1980).

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Mark Clifford and Kyle Bruckmann. Mark does not usually play bass.

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Brian Tester and Yacob Roli Glowniss.

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Rounding out the ensemble for the evening were Dominique LeoneJacob Felix HeuleJason Hoopes, and others who I have missed.

Overall it was a lot of fun to watch, especially when things got more rhythmical or when a penalty was eminent. The performers who I talked to seem to have a lot of fun as well.

Quick takes: MAS attack LAxSF and Surrey Street Salon

It’s been a while since I have reported on one of those evenings with multiple cultural events that enrich life here. One recent rainy evening involved a visual art opening and a salon with a variety of performances.

I started at 17th Street Studios in the Mission for MAS Attack: LAxSF, a one-night show that featured 30 artists from Los Angeles and San Francisco, respectively.

One of the particularly intriguing pieces in the show was Miri Chais’ Rabbit Hole, with its organic circular forms but technology-inspired details and changing blue patterns of light. The mixture is intentional, and the title is inspired by Alice in Wonderland.

Miri Chais Rabbit Hole

Utopian Heads by L.A. artist Mark Dutcher caught my attention for its evoking of painting styles and concepts of the early twentieth century experiments. The title of the piece seems to fit with that as well.

Mark Dutcher, Utopian Heads

It seemed that the artists from L.A. dominated my attention at the show. As with the above pieces and the one below by Steven Wilkoff, they seemed to unapologetically modern.

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But these piece from Oakland-based artist Scott Greenwalt did provide a contemporary take on abstraction.

Scott Greenwalt

It was then off to Glen Park, just a short trip south from the Mission along the miniature freeway known as San Jose Avenue. (But that’s a story for another time.) My destination was the Surrey Street Salon for a fun evening of performance with a circus theme. So of course there were clowns with vaudeville-style musical numbers.

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There was also serious musical talent on display. I was quite impressed with Tin Sandwich, an all harmonica band.

Tin Sandwich

Their instruments ranged from tiny inch-long specimens to the large bass harmonica.

bass harmonica

Their arrangements, while mostly traditional songs, were quite tight, and included some impressive solos. I would definitely want to see them again.

Surplus-1980 bandmate Moe! Staiano also performed, this time on solo percussion.

Moe! Staiano

His avant-garde percussion playing is frenetic, moving quickly from on idea and one instrument to another, whether it is part of his traditional drumset or superballs against the window.

In all, it was a great evening of music and art, and the two events provided quite a contrast in style.

Surplus 1980 and Fred Frith Trio, Brick and Mortar

A couple of weeks ago, Surplus 1980 joined the Fred Frith Trio at the Brick and Mortar in San Francisco from a night of energetic avant-rock and jazz. It was a show we have all been looking forward to for quite a while.

Surplus 1980 went on first, with a set that combined songs from our recent album Arterial Ends Here with older selections. In addition to Moe! Staiano and myself, the band includes Bill Wolter and Melne Murphy on guitar, Thomas Scandura on drums, and Steve Lew on bass.

Surplus 1980
[Photo by Michael Zelner.]

For this set, we expanded our Fred Frith cover “Cap the Knife” into a full medley featuring excerpts for some of his other songs. In a brief exchange back stage, it sounded like he appreciated the gesture, and even suggested that his group perform a “Moe! Staiano medley”, which would have been fun. But overall, it was our strongest performance as a band to date, with rhythms and phrasing much tighter as well as more sophisticated use of all parts.

After Surplus 1980 was done, Fred Frith took the stage with his trio that included Jordan Glenn on drums and Jason Hoopes on bass.

Fred Frith Trio
[Photo by Michael Zelner.]

It was quite a contrast, going from post-punk to avant-jazz. The trio played through longer pieces that moved between fast intricate sections and more familiar idioms with ease. The polyphonic sections were certainly impressive, but I do find when technically strong musicians play in unison or at least synchronous rhythms, it leaves a more memorable impression. Frith deftly filled up the otherwise sparse texture of the music, but not so much that one would get lost or overwhelmed.

Overall, it was a successful show, with a good turnout. Surplus 1980 is now looking forward to our next show in December, but I hope we get to play with the Fred Frith trio again.

Jay Korber Benefit Performance, Berkeley Arts

Last Friday, a large portion of the Bay Area new-music community gathered at Berkeley Arts in an evening of large-ensemble improvisation and to raise money to help fellow local musician Jay Korber. Korber had been seriously injured recently when he was struck by a street sweeper truck in San Francisco, and this concert was a benefit to raise funds and support his recovery.

The first half of the concert featured a specially convened Moe!kestra conducted by Moe! Staiano. The ensemble consisted of woodwind, percussion and electric-guitar sections. I managed to incorporate myself into the “guitar” section with an iPad and amplifier. Moe!’s conducting consisted of a series of simple gestures aimed at individuals or groups of performers that led to both an expressive and varied performance and entertaining conducting.

In the above photo, Moe! is actually giving a “V” sign to some of the guitarists, and not giving them “the finger”, although that gesture was used by both conductors during the course of the evening. You can hear our first piece from the performance here (recording courtesy of friend and fellow participant Neal Trembath):

The second half of the concert featured an ensemble conducted by Gino Robair:

This group was heavier on horns, and overall had a jazzier feel to it. While the majority of the set consisted of large-scale free-jazz improvisation with dynamic runs, hits, and responses, the final piece was based on a Miles Davis riff that was initially repeated and then deconstructed. It was a bit of a musical in-joke, but I for one like having familiar idioms alongside experimentation.

In all, it was a fun night of music and fellowship, and the event raised quite a bit of money for Jay Korber. We wish him a full and speedy recovery.

Surplus 1980, Satya Sena and Electric Chair Repair Company, Bottom of the Hill

Today we look back at the December 5 show featuring Surplus 1980 with Satya Sena and Electric Chair Repair Company at Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco. It was a “post punk” affair, a night of loud, intense, and creative rock music. It was also my first time playing on stage with Surplus 1980.


[Photo by Polly Moller.]

I am somewhere there in the “back line” along with Thomas Scandura on drums and Steve Lew on bass. With guitarists Melne Murphy, Moe! Staiano and Bill Wolter in front. We were loud and aggressive with a lot of percussive pounding on otherwise tonal instruments, but there was also just the right amount of complexity with metric changes and chromatic riffs. Things were also deliberately out of tune, which when combined with ring modulation and other effects made it challenging to follow in a traditional melodic sort of way. But that would not have been the point. And the audience got that, enjoying moving along with our noisy percussive lines. It was also fun to play the vintage toy piano for our improvised piece and our finale Ed Saad (though I wish the contact mic had not fallen off halfway through it).

The evening opened with a performance by Electric Chair Repair Company, a self-described “post-punk noise trio.”

They lived up to their description with their instrumental performance, a bit more of the traditional sound that one would expect with loud driving chords and drums and switching between fast and slow tempos. During the set. they also joined forces with guests from “The Girlfriend Experience”, who were quite entertaining.

Electric Chair Repair Company was followed by Satya Sena, a duo of Jason Hoopes on bass and Peijman Kouretchian on drums. They also had a huge column of amplifiers.

Satya Sena was impressive to say the least. Their music was full of complex and intricate rhythms and they had a full dense sound that one wouldn’t necessarily expect from just bass and drums. I found myself watching Kouretchian’s frenetic drum playing through much of the set. It was almost impossible to capture a moment where he wasn’t in motion like this:

Hoopes of course was technically strong as well, and was interesting to see him performing in a different context like this.

Overall it was a fun night of good music. Our audience (on a Wednesday night in San Francisco) was not particularly large but was certainly appreciative, and I look forward to more performances with Surplus 1980 next year.

Surplus 1980 10″/CD release. Please support us!

I am excited to be part of not one but two upcoming recording releases. In addition to Reconnaissance Fly, I will be appearing on the next release of Moe! Staiano’s Surplus 1980 project. This is also my first recording that will be released on vinyl :).

Surplus 1980 is a post-punk band of a rotating line up of some fine musicians, many extending from great bands to be heard on this project including members from the Ex, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, and Faun Fables, among others, including Mute Socialite…Musicians, besides Moe! Staiano (drums, percussion, guitar, bass, piano, vocals), on this release will include guitarist Bill Wolter and Melne Murphy, Bassists Alee Karim and Vicky Grossi (also doubling on violin), percussionist Jordan Glenn, keyboardist Amar Chaudhary, alto clarinetist Aaron Novik, and on oboe, Kyle Bruckmann. Possible vocal guest from G.W. Sok, formerly of the Ex (and currently with the French band Cannibales & Vahinés).

You can find out more at our Kickstarter page, and please consider supporting us so we can make this release happen!

ReCardiacs Fly, Surplus 1980, PG13 at Hemlock Tavern

Today we look back at ReCardiacs Fly’s show at the Hemlock Tavern in San Francisco last month. It was a great show of music in prog and post-punk styles together with experimental/avant-rock groups PG13 and Surplus 1980.

The evening opened with PG13, the “power trio” of Phillip Greenlief (saxophone), John Shiurba (guitar), and Thomas Scandura (drums). I had originally heard them a few years back at the Skronkathon. They did have the loud-rock-trio thing down at the time, but in the intervening time they have become more finessed and detailed without losing that original intensity.

[Photo by Michael Zelner.]

They opened with driving syncopated rhythm and power chords. The rhythmic textures brought all three instruments (saxophone, guitar and drums) together. This was undeniably rock – held together by Scandura’s drums – but later sections did have a more jazz-like quality, which I thought worked when done with sudden changes in volume and texture. I of course did like that one of their songs (composed by Greenlief) was The Totally Unbelieable but Absolutely True Adventures of George Cleaver the Cat. Loud music with complex rhythms about cats works for me any day.


[Photo by Michael Zelner.]

After PG13, it was time for us to take the stage. For those who have not read the previous ReCardiacs Fly articles, we are (possibly the only) tribute group for the UK avant-prog band Cardiacs. We model our line-up after the original band, and don suits and creepy theatrical makeup reminiscent of their appearance in the 1980s. This music is complex and intense, and challenging to play, but a lot of fun for us and for the audience when we pull it off. A few songs came out quite well at the Hemlock, in particular “Burn Your House Brown”, which you can see in this video:

“In a City Lining” also came out quite well. On a technical level, the sound was the best we have had for any ReCardiacs Fly show, with the mix between the amps, speakers and acoustic space balanced so that we could hear everyone even in the loud parts. And we were quite loud, appropriately so.

As always, the performance was full of energy, and we got a great response from the modestly sized but enthusiastic audience. The full lineup of the band features Polly Moller on lead vocals, Masc Laspina on guitar, Chris Broderick on saxophone, Tim Walters on bass, Amar Chaudhary on keyboard,
Moe! Staiano on drums, and Suki O’kane on percussion.

The final set features Surplus 1980, a post-punk project led by Moe! Staiano with a rotating cast of band members. This evening features Moe! together with Bill Wolter and Melne Murphy on guitars, with Thomas Scandura returning on drums and Jason Hoopes on bass.


[Photo by Michael Zelner.]

The band was incredibly tight rhythmically and harmonically, as if they had been playing these songs together for years. In particular, there is the challenge of getting all three guitars to be in sync, which they were able to do, will Bill Wolter front and center. And the group’s lyrics were often quite funny (this in the context of our just completed Cardiacs’ set). It’s difficult to recall any particular line at this point, but they definitely worked at the time. Most of the musical techniques were standard but with complex rhythms and phrases, but Wolter did have quite an array of effects pedals, and during one of the final songs Moe! pulled out a vinyl record which he proceeded to use on his guitar like a pick and destroyed in the process (the record, not the guitar).

Overall, it was fun night of loud rock music from friends and colleagues whom I usually here in more overtly experimental contexts. I hope our bands will get a chance to play together again sometime.