One of the weirdest music and art venues in the world is in, of all places, Phoenix, Arizona. There, the self-described “world’s oldest gay Canadian rapper,” Space Alien Donald, does shows and hosts art exhibits in a little house near the airport called Funny World. We hope to visit soon, because it sounds like the kind of place that The Man could shut down at any moment. Especially in a place like Arizona, where anyone suspected of being an alien is just one broken taillight away from getting deported.
Actually, when Space Alien Donald bought Funny World in 2011, he was apparently told by the city that it would be torn down in six months to make way for a parking lot. But three years later, it’s still there. Even in Arizona, the weirdos are winning.
How did a 70-something gay Canadian rapper wind up hosting semi-legal punk shows in his house in Phoenix? We’re a little hazy on the specifics, but according to this article in something called the Downtown Devil, the man born Donald Roth moved to the U.S. from Ontario in the ’60s to work in electronics. After working in Silicon Valley, where he faked his school records to get jobs, he eventually settled in Prescott, a small city north of Phoenix, where he began developing his sci-fi inspired alter ego, Space Alien Donald.
Donald calls himself a rapper, but that’s not quite accurate. He really just kind of sing-speaks lyrics about science, astronomy, aliens and one of his favorite topics, a hypothetical particle called the tachyon that, like many things in Space Alien Donald songs, may be legit science or may be a bunch of pseudo-scientific hooey. He does this over synth backing tracks that sometimes are just the preset beats and chord progressions built into cheap electronic keyboards. So basically, he’s like nerdcore meets Mission Man meets a less schizophrenic Wesley Willis. Only older and more Canadian.
Donald just released his latest album, Must Be Funny, on Related Records. It’s got songs about how aliens built the moon and it has penises on the cover and it’s awesome. You can stream the whole thing over on Bandcamp and buy it for five bucks if you’re awesome, too. Here’s one of our favorite tracks:
To get more of the full Space Alien Donald story, this documentary, made by one of the residents of Funny World (yeah, people live there, too), tells you all you need to know:
Big thanks to Kai of Toxic Chicken for introducing us to Space Alien Donald’s weirdness.
So our last Weird Band Poll™ got a little…contentious, let’s say. In the end, L.A.Drones! won by a pretty wide margin, but not before freaking out and accusing this week’s weird band, Shibboleth, of cheating. To which we say: Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t. We’re not high-tech enough to track every last vote. We believe in the honor system.
But however they got all their votes, Shibboleth deserve an “A” for effort and a belated, runner-up shout-out as our Weird Band of the Week. In most months, they would’ve won the poll. Not because our polls are that easy to game…more just because it doesn’t take all that many votes to win one.
So who or what is Shibboleth? Actually, we’re still not sure. We know they’re from Ireland, there seems to be three of them, and one of them is named Jonathan. We know one of them plays a banjo. We know they like to wear masks and weird sunglasses. We know they have a four-song EP called Farewell and they followed that up just a few weeks ago with a new song called “Crooked Frame.” We think the other two guys might be named John and Joshua. And that’s about it, really. Like a lot of good weird bands that haven’t been around long, they’re a bit shrouded in mystery.
Musically, Shibboleth veer between creepy, ambient doom-rock and full-blown, guitar-bashing noise. Throw in that banjo and some backwards vocals and they’re like a Celtic bluegrass version of Sun O))).
Here’s the video for their song, “The Cannibal’s Standpoint”:
And here’s their video response to the Great Weirdest Band Cheating Scandal of 2014, which we’re pretty sure is the first time any band has made a video specifically in response to something that happened on this blog:
After we saw that, how we could not make them Weird Band of the Week?
Another Weird Band Poll is in the books here at Weird Band HQ, and the band poppin’ bottles this time is from right here in our hometown of Los Angeles. So give an imaginary high-five to L.A.Drones! I wasn’t shouting, by the way…their name has an exclamation point at the end. Just thought I’d clear that up.
L.A.Drones! (not shouting, I swear) are a synth duo who perform wearing black bandit masks because one version of their name, “ladrones,” means “thieves” in Spanish. And because, as they told us, “we steal samples from the music we like.” I thought that was pretty much every synth band these days, but maybe L.A.Drones! are more thievish than most.
In another version of their name, it means “Los Angeles drones,” which could be a reference to the droning sound of their music, or the fact that we Angelenos increasingly live in a police surveillance state. Seriously, the cops here have drones. Which are supposedly not in use at the moment, but if there’s one thing every halfway intelligent American just learned in the wake of all that shit that went down in Ferguson, it’s that we should not trust our local police forces with all their new high-tech gadgets. You may as well give a box of fireworks to a bunch of 10-year-old boys and say, “Now you be sure to find a grown-up and get permission before you light these.”
Anyway, where was I? Oh, right. L.A.Drones! So far, the duo of Vulcanito and Tormentas Gonzalez has only released one track, an ass-shaking little jam called “Horrible Dreams,” which you can watch in the performance clip below and also buy on Bandcamp for less than a cup of gas station coffee.
When we asked if they had any other songs, Vulcanito explained that L.A.Drones! really has to be experienced live. “Horrible Dreams” is just the first part of a 45-minute “capsule” of music called “The Dreamlike World of the Midnight Walker,” which they never perform the same way twice, and any versions of it they release online will just be recorded live in the studio. They’re working on other “capsules” of music, each of which will be played at a different BPM. “Midnight Walker” is at 127 BPM, apparently.
Here’s a live clip of the second part of “The Dreamlike World of the Midnight Walker,” which is called “Give Up.” Musically, they’re not the weirdest band we’ve ever featured, maybe. But I do dig that their music is kind of freeform and dancey at the same time, and the whole concept of an electronic act that never plays anything the same way twice. Some of the “live” dance music acts Andy’s dragged me to over the years should really take a page from that playbook.
So congrats again to L.A.Drones! for winning the poll. I believe that makes them the first L.A. band ever to win a Weird Band Poll. About damn time somebody represented!
We’re cheating a bit with this week’s “band,” which is really more of a multimedia art project. But music is an integral part of the Japanese “art unit” Maywa Denki, so we’re giving them a pass.
Maywa Denki specializes in creating what co-founder Novumichi Tosa calls “nonsense machines”: mechanical objects that may or may not serve some useful purpose, but achieve that purpose in absurd or impractical ways. Their most famous creation, which Novumichi is brandishing in the above photo, is a note-shaped musical instrument called an otamatone, a made-up Japanese word that sounds (intentionally, we presume) quite a bit like “automaton.” You play the otamatone by sliding one finger up and down the instrument’s neck to hit specific notes, while squeezing the instrument’s “mouth” to control volume, tone and pitch. They come in various sizes and, in the right hands, can be made to produce all sorts of different (but always vaguely silly) sounds:
Maywa Denki has mass-produced some smaller versions of the otamatone, which has helped spread its popularity and led to some pretty great YouTube videos by other musicians. But the otamatone is just the tip of the nonsense machine iceberg. Maywa Denki has an entire product line called Tsukuba dedicated to ridiculously elaborate (but, usually, easy to play) musical instruments, like a set of six guitars played via a pedal organ and a “rhythm-making machine” that’s basically just a series of on/off switches attached to a turntable, all of which can be worn like a keytar.
Most of Maywa Denki’s larger instruments haven’t been mass produced, for obvious reasons, but Novumichi and his brother, Masamichi, occasionally take their nonsense machines out for concerts—or, as they like to call them, “product demonstrations.” Dressed in DEVO-like matching blue jumpsuits, the Tosa brothers and their assistants put a dizzying array of different machines through their paces in the service of creating music that is, surprisingly, pretty catchy and accessible. Videos don’t quite do the whole spectacle justice, but this Slovenian clip is one of the better ones we could find:
More recently, Maywa Denki have launched their own fashion line, Meewee Dinkee. Naturally, they produced an indecipherably bizarre video to promote it:
Sadly, most of the coolest pieces in the fashion line are already sold out. But we have no doubt the brothers Tosa are already hard at work on their next art “products.”
Our thanks to reader Frederick for posting the Meewee Dinkee video on our Submit a Band page and sending us plunging down the Maywa Denki rabbit hole. We’d like to dedicate this otamatone video to you, sir!
This week’s band is usually described as “math rock,” a style Jake and I have bagged on in the past, partially out of sheer ignorance (back in 2010, we tagged Little Women as a math rock band…um, no), partially because, let’s face it, there are a lot of crappy math rock bands out there. Start-stop tempos and unconventional time signatures, in and of themselves, don’t make guitar-based music interesting, or even all that weird—but our inbox overflows with such dreck on an almost daily basis. So to all you struggling young math rock bands out there, we say: Study the catalog of Tera Melos, and then get back to us. If you can make music half as challenging and (here’s the important part) fucking fun as these guys, we and all the other jaded hipster music blogs might actually start paying attention to you.
Guitarist Nick Reinhart and bassist Nathan Latona started Tera Melos in Sacramento, California in 2004. Initially they were an instrumental quartet, with guitarist Jeff Worms and drummer Vince Rogers, although Worms quit pretty soon after the band started. Their debut album was an untitled collection of eight untitled songs, just labeled “Melody 1,” “Melody 2″ and so on—which was a bit ironic, given that most of the tracks were not so much melodies as kaleidoscopic explosions of processed guitar churning over insanely intricate drum patterns and basslines.
The band’s second full-length album, 2010’s Patagonian Rats, marked a major leap forward. Reinhart had occasionally contributed vocals in the past, but now he was a full-fledged lead singer, and new drummer John Clardy was every bit as technically precise as Vince Rogers but could lay down the occasional in-the-pocket groove. Now Tera Melos sounded like something new: a flashy, complex math-rock band with a fondness for melody and atmosphere, sort of halfway between two of their tourmates, Dillinger Escape Plan and Minus the Bear.
It was also around this time that Reinhart emerged as a bona fide math rock guitar god, with a unique way of using pedal boards to extract maximum sonic impact from his instrument. If you can stomach the host of this video and his relentless ass-kissing, some of the tricks Reinhart demonstrates are pretty impressive. This live in-studio performance gives an even better idea of his guitar/pedal wizardry:
But at the end of the day, it’s not Tera Melos’ math rock chops (or even their refreshing sense of humor about the genre, as seen in the banner art at the top of our site this week) that earn them Weird Band of the Week honors. What really puts them over the top are their music videos, which are nearly always amazing. Here’s “The Skin Surf” from Patagonian Rats, in which they engage in a bit of crustacean osculation while dressed up like the world’s lamest Weezer cover band:
And here’s “Weird Circles” from their latest album, last year’s X’ed Out. Who’s hungry for some Yum cereal?
But their crowning video achievement to date has to be “Bite,” also from X’ed Out, in which music and visuals merge into some kind of overlapping Battles/Primus/Kyary Pamyu Pamyu hallucination. By the way: It’s worth noting that all of these videos were directed by the same guy, a Los Angeles-based filmmaker named Behn Fannin who is clearly some kind of dark, twisted genius.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t once again thank the reader who turned us on to Tera Melos, matp662. I bet matp1 thru matp661 put together are still less cool than you, sir!
Update: Right when we make Tera Melos our Weird Band of the Week, they drop yet another crazy video! Please to enjoy their fresh-pressed latest, “Sunburn”:
If you heard a loud cheer in the distance on Monday intercut with what sounded like a skipping CD player, you heard the sound of Richard D. James’ fans rejoicing at the news that, for the first time in 13 years, there will be an official new album from Aphex Twin, the production alter ego through which the reclusive, mercurial man from Cornwall released some of the most game-changing electronic music of the ’90s.
True to form, James didn’t make the announcement with a simple press release. Instead, he launched a goddamn blimp with the Aphex Twin logo inside the zero of “2014” over London, then sent fans treasure-hunting into the deep web to uncover the new album’s title and track list. Turns out the new disc will be called Syro; no word yet on a release date. (If you, like us, have no idea how to get to the deep web, some kind soul mirrored the hidden Aphex Twin page here. But you might still need some help deciphering it.)
James has never really done anything conventional over the course of his 20-plus-year career. After first making a name for himself primarily as a producer of ambient music, James helped invent a twitchier, more experimental style of electronica that came to be known as “Intelligent Dance Music” or IDM (a term James himself has disavowed). His many forays into other new sounds and styles also influenced everything from glitch to breakbeat to drill ‘n’ bass. Just in terms of the sheer number of genres he helped shape or invent, he’s arguably the most influential electronic music artist since Kraftwerk.
Towards the end of the ’90s, James’s Aphex Twin releases began to take on a more satirical bent, especially when accompanied by a pair of groundbreaking videos he made with director Chris Cunningham. 1997’s “Come to Daddy” began, by James’s own account, as a death metal piss-take, before evolving into one of the first and most influential glitchcore tracks. Most of you have probably seen it before, but for those of you who haven’t, fair warning: It’s genuinely disturbing.
The creepy Richard James masks are a recurring motif in many Aphex Twin videos, as well as much of his album art (the cover of 1996’s Richard D. James being the most famous). For his second video with Chris Cunningham, 1999’s “Windowlicker,” they took an even more unsettling turn. (Most of you have seen this video, too, but another warning for those who haven’t: the first four minutes feature more N-bombs than Samuel L. Jackson’s entire filmography).
Prior to the announcement of Syro, the last proper Aphex Twin album was 2001’s Drukqs, a double album that alternated between pretty ambient works performed mostly on a computer-controlled piano and glitchier tracks featuring lots of intricate drum programming and melodic synths. He followed that up in 2003 with a remix compilation with the brilliantly cynical title 26 Mixes for Cash, and a 2005 collection of 42 acid house tracks released under the name Analord (he loves aliases; AFX, Polygon Window, GAK and Bradley Strider are among his others). Then, for the most part, he fell silent.
In the decade since, James has surfaced occasionally, at one point even claiming that he had six completed albums’ worth of Aphex Twin material. He’s rumored to be behind an anonymous glitch group called The Tuss, which released some music on James’s Rephlex label in 2007, but he’s never copped to it. He’s definitely behind an odd release earlier this year under the name Caustic Window—odd because the album, a relatively restrained foray into ambient techno and tech-house, was never really meant to be released. Recorded in 1994 but scrapped after just a test pressing, only a few vinyl copies of Caustic Window ever found their way into circulation, occasionally trading hands for thousands of dollars. Finally, some enterprising fans raised the necessary money to buy a copy and release it digitally (with James’s blessing) via a Kickstarter campaign this past June.
But all this activity aside, Syro is still the first official release of new Aphex Twin material in over a decade, which makes it a Very Big Deal in electronic music circles.
One other interesting thing to note about Richard James is that he’s really into hiding images inside his music—literally. At the end of track two of the Windowlicker EP, “Equation” (or as it’s officially titled, “ΔMi−1 = −αΣn=1NDi[n][Σj∈C[i]Fji[n − 1] +Fexti[n−1]]”), he conceals his trademark creepy grinning visage inside the last few seconds of the track’s spectrogram (which you can see here). And on the 2001 EP 2 Remixes by AFX, what sounds like a bunch of piercing, test-signal high frequencies is actually an SSTV transmission, which can be decoded with the appropriate software into what we’re told is an image of James sitting on a couch, along with some text listing all the software used to make the EP (although we couldn’t find this image online anywhere).
While we’re all anxiously awaiting the arrival of Syro, we’ll leave you with another of Aphex Twin’s greatest weird videos, from a 1995 EP called Donkey Rhubarb. Chris Cunningham did not direct this one, so it’s not quite as artful as “Windowlicker” and “Come to Daddy,” but the Teletubbie-like creatures cavorting around with James’s illustrated face (from the cover of his 1995 album I Care Because You Do) are pretty entertaining. Apparently he brought them out on tour for awhile and used them to mess with the audience before shows. He’s a prankster, that Richard D. James.
In fact, come to think of it, we probably shouldn’t believe he’s releasing a new Aphex Twin album until the day it actually arrives. There’s a good chance he could just be punking us. Or it’ll arrive, but it’ll be in binary code, or embedded in a microchip that can only be played via Apple IIc. Or maybe he’ll drop the only copies out of a blimp. Who knows?
Or, knowing Mr. James and his perverse sense of humor, maybe he’ll pull the ultimate prank on his audiophile fans and only release it via iTunes.