Satanic Puppeteer Orchestra

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Photo by Candice Eley

If you’re trying to start your own weird band, it’s a good move to include a robot member or two. As we’ve repeatedly established on this here blog, robots are weird. Especially ones that have glass heads with brains floating in them.

In the case of Satanic Puppeteer Orchestra, they have only one robot, but he’s a good one. SPO-20 has the aforementioned glass head and suspended brain, and he sings the band’s jaunty electro-pop ditties in a voice that’s two parts Stephen Hawking and one part retired Cylon warrior crooning pop standards in the rec room at the Cylon old folks’ home. The Dave Stewart to SPO-20’s Annie Lennox, Professor B. Miller, accompanies the robot on keyboards with more sweaty enthusiasm than Satanic Puppeteer Orchestra’s light-hearted tunes require, but he’s probably overcompensating for SPO-20’s stiffness air of enigmatic aloofness.

SPO are from San Diego, which is a weirder music town than you might expect; it’s also home to Cattle Decapitation, masked powerviolence perpetrators The Locust, and at least one other, much scarier robot band. They’ve been doing their thing since 1996 and their biggest claim to fame is they released the bestselling 4-disc debut album of all time — featuring “probably over 50 songs!” according to their website. You’re probably wondering, “Yeah, but how many 4-disc debut albums can there possibly be?” And I’m here to tell you that I have no idea, but I’m sure it’s a lot or they wouldn’t be bragging about it.

Here’s one of those 50-odd tracks, “Haunted Rental Car,” which I figured is an appropriate choice since it’s almost Halloween and all:

After a follow-up 2014 album called Experiments With Auto-Croon, SPO return next month with the first in what Prof B tell us will be a series of 20 (twenty!) EPs, each centered around a different theme. The first one is all about supermarkets, which I guess is appropriate because robots are already starting to run our supermarkets, so why not have one sing songs about it? Here’s a just-released video for that Orwellian shopping nightmare known as the “Price Check”:

After Stop by the Supermarket, SPO’s next three EPs will be about Christmas (timely!), the paranormal (less timely, but awesome!) and being lost at sea (never goes out of style). What the next 16 EPs after that will be about is anyone’s guess, but I’m sure they’ll all be trenchant parables for our dystopian times.

Side note: Satanic Puppeteer Orchestra was actually one of the three bands that played at our first (and to date, only) Weird Band Night back in 2014. How we went four years after that event without ever adding them to the Weird List I’m not sure, but it was probably down to some stupid human error and further proof that robots are better at everything. I’m sure one directed this video for another SPO tune, “Frankenstein’s Laundromat,” because it’s great. (As is their live show — if you happen to live in San Diego, they’re having a record release gig on Nov. 24th, which you should definitely check out.)

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Jandek

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Outsider musicians don’t get any more outsidery than the mysterious Texas singer-songwriter who, for years, was known to the world only as Jandek. Over the course of 40 years and 91 albums — all released through his own label, Corwood Industries — he’s done everything from minimalist, atonal folk to minimalist, Velvet Underground-ish psych-rock to minimalist piano nocturnes to — do you sense a theme here? Well, you can forget it, because sometimes he also likes to get funky. About the only thing you can expect from Jandek is that he will defy your expectations — including your expectations of what “outsider music” is supposed to sound like.

Jandek first surfaced in 1978 with Ready for the House, an album of nine ghostly dirges performed on a detuned (or, according to Jandek, alternately tuned) acoustic guitar and sung in an oddly affectless murmur, as though all the vocals were recorded at 3 a.m. while trying not to wake a sleeping infant in the next room. The tone throughout is melancholy and claustrophobic; you get the sense that whoever recorded these songs doesn’t get out much. Relief seems to come on the album’s final track, “European Jewel (Incomplete),” when Jandek breaks out a slightly more tuneful electric guitar — until he sings, “There’s bugs in my brain/I can’t feel any pain,” right before the tape abruptly cuts off (hence, one presumes, the “Incomplete” in the song title) and you realize you might be listening to the ramblings of an actual crazy person.

Even though it’s clearly the work of a lone individual, Ready for the House was originally attributed to a band called The Units — until another band of the same name sent Jandek a cease-and-desist. I’m not sure how they even learned of Ready for the House‘s existence, since Corwood Industries apparently had zero distribution at the time. In his classic book on outsider music, Songs in the Key of Z, Irwin Chusid describes writing to Jandek in 1980, two years after Ready for the House‘s initial release, and receiving a letter back noting that the album had only sold two copies. Further correspondence yielded 25 free copies of the LP; “I need to move them,” their creator explained. (For years, this was part of Jandek’s appeal; you could mail-order his records from him directly, via a P.O. box in Houston, and he’d often send more records than you requested, swamping his tiny fan base with product.)

Even though subsequent Jandek albums, including 1981’s Six and Six and 1982’s Chair Beside a Window, featured cover photos of a pale young man with a bowl cut and a piercing stare, the project remained essentially anonymous. None of the records included any liner notes, and whatever press Jandek did seemed to be almost inadvertent. He agreed to a 1985 interview with John Trubee, a writer for a then brand-new magazine called Spin, but listening to the full audio of the recording (which has been widely disseminated by Jandek fans eager for any insight into their reclusive hero), it’s not clear that he understood he was being recorded and might be quoted in Trubee’s article. “You don’t want any personal information printed?” Trubee asks at one point. “Rather not,” Jandek tersely replies. “You can quote any of the lyrics,” he adds, sounding like he’s trying to be helpful. Then, true to form, he offers to send Trubee more copies of all his records.

It’s since been revealed, through copyright information and other public records, that Jandek is the work of one Sterling R. Smith, who lives in the Houston area and is believed to now be in his late 60s or early 70s. However, out of respect for his extremely private nature, many fans still refer to him only as Jandek — or, to distinguish him from the musical project, which over the years has occasionally incorporated other musicians, as “the representative from Corwood Industries” or simply “the representative.”

For a taste of early, acoustic Jandek, here’s “The Janitor,” from his third album, Later On, Corwood Industries catalog no. 741. Oh, did I mention that he gave Ready for the House catalog no. 739, for no particular reason? Unless he’s got 738 albums’ worth of unreleased songs like this, which seems entirely possible.

Reactions to Jandek’s early music ranged, predictably, from confusion to disgust and even terror; Chusid called Ready for the House “one of the most frightening records I’ve ever heard.” I don’t find it quite that chilling, but there is something undeniably unsettling about it. There has to be something not quite right, you think as you listen to Jandek, with any man who’d churn out these atonal dirges so prolifically.

Jandek wasn’t a total tinfoil-on-the-windows loner, however. His 1982 album, Chair Beside a Window, featured a guest female vocalist named Nancy on a track helpfully titled “Nancy Sings.” And by 1985, he had even assembled a band and gone electric, though the results — still featuring the aforementioned Nancy — were less Dylan at Newport and more The Shaggs at Lou Reed’s garage sale.

Not all of Jandek’s early work was out-of-tune caterwauling. By the late ’80s, his guitar work could occasionally be bluesy and elegiac, and his deadpan murmur had been largely replaced by a breathy delivery that carried just the hint of a melody and suggested he might own a Nick Drake record or two. Either he was learning on the job, or the earlier, more atonal stuff was a deliberate move and not the mere amateurism his many detractors have long accused him of (and though he has fans like Thurston Moore, Ben Gibbard and Conor Oberst, he has many, many more detractors).

“Upon the Grandeur,” a rambling, eight-minute guitar idyll from 1991’s One Foot in the North, is especially beautiful, with inscrutable lyrics that may or may not be about religious salvation. It sounds like he’s singing, “Join hands another way/Be born again today,” but it’s hard to tell — and, as always, there are no lyric sheets or liner notes to help decipher his slurred delivery.

In the ’90s, Jandek returned to acoustic solo recordings. By this time he had acquired a sizable cult following who embraced his quirky, lo-fi approach — but even that following was not prepared for 2000’s Put My Dream on This Planet, on which he ditched the guitar and just sang shakily into what sounded like a cheap, voice-activated tape recorder. Two of the album’s three tracks stretched on for over 20 minutes, testing all but the most dedicated fans’ patience. (Don’t worry, if you don’t make it through all 28 minutes of “I Need Your Life,” we won’t report you to the Jandek police.)

Not content to stop there, Jandek released two more a cappella/spoken word albums — the third and (for now) final of which is called Worthless Recluse, a title he probably lifted from a dismissive review in some underground rock zine that could only hang with Jandek if there was a weirdly tuned guitar involved.

In 2004, Jandek got a little less mysterious when he began performing live. At first, he would only appear unannounced, on the bill at larger festivals. But by 2005 he was headlining the occasional show, first in the U.K. and later in Austin, New York and elsewhere around the U.S. and Europe. He also began releasing live albums based on these still-infrequent appearances, each named after the location and day of the week of the show: Glasgow Sunday, Newcastle Monday, Manhattan Tuesday. At these shows, a man who looked unmistakably like an older version of the pale kid on the cover of early Jandek albums took the stage, usually playing guitar but occasionally piano, bass or keyboard, with a rotating cast of backing musicians. Musicians who have played with him at these gigs report that he invariably refers to himself as “the representative from Corwood Industries.”

Playing live seems to have inspired Jandek to expand his sonic palette, dabbling in everything from noise-rock to avant-garde classical to free jazz, sometimes all in the same show. Here, for example, is “Part Three” of Manhattan Tuesday, recorded on Sept. 6, 2005 with several leading musicians from New York’s experimental rock scene and released in 2007.

This new phase of sonic experimentation has affected Jandek’s studio recordings as well. In 2013, he released The Song of Morgan, a 9-disc set featuring nine numbered “Nocturnes” for piano, each about an hour in length. There are no accompanying vocals or other instrumentation — just Jandek’s spare, simple piano chords, which somehow manage to simultaneously evoke George Winston, Erik Satie and a child noodling away after a year or two of lessons (an association seemingly made explicit by the cover photo, the youngest image he’s ever released of the “Corwood representative”). He followed that up a year later with Ghost Passing, a 6-disc set of more hour-long piano-only compositions.

At least two documentaries have been made about Jandek: 2003’s Jandek on Corwood, in which “the representative” never appears (and for which the filmmakers explicitly avoided interviewing him, preferring to tell his story through commentary from various musicians and journalists) and 2015’s I Know You Well, which follows Jandek’s forays into live performing. Though he appears onscreen in the latter film, he remains no less enigmatic. Explaining at one point why he prefers playing to seated audiences, he says, “It’s easier for them to dream. And to feel like, ‘I hate it, but I can’t leave.'”

The debate over Jandek tends to polarize into two extremes: Is he a genius or a charlatan? Personally, I think he’s neither. Like all good outsider musicians, Jandek forces his listeners to decide where they draw the line between “real” music and aimless noise, between art and doodling, meaning and nonsense. Doing that doesn’t take any particular genius, but it does take a singular, selfish vision and a willingness to completely ignore all considerations of convention and commercialism — or even the expectations of your own fans and the precedent of your own catalog. You could made a strong case that no other musician has done this longer, or more consistently, than Jandek. Like I said, when it comes to outsider musicians, he’s the outsider-iest.

I’ll leave you with more late ’80s Jandek — not because I claim it’s his best period, or his weirdest, but just because it happens to be my favorite. Liking this version of Jandek — when his aimless songwriting alit on something that was part blues shaman, part discount-bin Dylan and part Velvet Underground circa “Pale Blue Eyes” — is probably the equivalent of liking Picasso before he discovered cubism, but I don’t care. I love that something can simultaneously sound so transcendent and so like it’s in danger of falling apart at any moment. I think that’s the promise implicit in all outsider music — that coloring so far outside the lines can lead to moments that can’t be reached through conventional means.

P.S. Thanks to every reader who has patiently suggested for years that we add Jandek to the Weird List. Your patience has finally been rewarded. Hope that, like Jandek’s captive live audiences, you didn’t hate the wait too much.

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Bow Gamelan Ensemble

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A Javanese instrument made up of bells, chimes, gongs and various other percussive elements, the gamelan is one of the most elegant music-making devices ever created. The Bow Gamelan Ensemble, which existed in England from about 1983 to 1991, is considerably less elegant and doesn’t feature much you’d confuse with an actual gamelan. But the basic concept — using lots of different percussion to produce an elaborate tapestry of sound — is the same. Just with a lot more pyrotechnics.

Formed by percussionist Paul Burwell, performance artist Anne Bean (previously of tongue-in-cheek glam-rockers Moody and the Menstruators) and sculptor Richard Wilson (later famous for insane large-scale artworks like this one), Bow Gamelan specialized in creating site-specific, large-scale industrial art installations, often over water, upon which they would then perform semi-improvised musique concrète works featuring scrap metal, motors, air compressors and various other industrial noise-making devices. Their shows typically climaxed in explosions, fireworks and bursts of flame.

Bow Gamelan certainly weren’t the first or last group to use power tools and found objects as instruments, but they were among the most ambitious. Here, for example, is a 16-minute documentary about their 1987 work, Offshore Rig, which occupied a one-acre island on the Thames for several weeks as the Bow members and a team of helpers outfitted the island and several surrounding pontoons with oil drums, steam whistles, vacuum cleaners, a massive set of wind chimes made from 100 sheets of broken glass, and 3,000 pounds of pyrotechnics.

And here they along another section of the Thames, in Kent, performing a 10-hour piece on a set of concrete barges. As they banged on their bells, pipes, springs and barrels, they and their instruments gradually submerged in the rising tide.

One of the cool things that set Bow Gamelan Ensemble apart from other musique concrète ensembles was their fascination with water and its distortive effects on sound. Even performing indoors, they often found ways to incorporate water into the show, as in this piece called In C & Air that also used the stage floor itself as percussion by raising and slamming down planks of it via an elaborate pulley system.

Strictly speaking, Bow Gamelan — who took the “Bow” part of their name from the East London district where they formed — were more of a performance art project than a band. But they did release some of their “music” on cassette and LP, including this 1984 tape from the cassette magazine Audio Arts and a 1988 album called Great Noises That Fill the Air.

Some accounts of Bow Gamelan Ensemble have them breaking up in 1990, but I found several references to a cassette called Dancing With the Ghosts that appears to be a recording of a 1991 performance in Rome. I’m pretty sure this features a later version of the group that included only Burwell and a second percussionist called Z’ev. The original trio, plus Z’ev and several other performers, also reunited in 2004 for a one-off performance in a place called Margate Harbour, which judging from this video was a classic Bow Gamelan show, pyrotechnics and all.

Sadly, Burwell died in 2007 at the age of 57. But Bean and Wilson haven’t abandoned the project completely; in fact, if anything, they’ve been even more active, creating a very Bow Gamelan-like large-scale performance in Birmingham, England in late 2007 in his memory, and forming a new duo called W0B that’s carried on the Bow Gamelan tradition of exploring sound with unusual, sculptural assemblages like this one. Later this month, on Oct. 26th, they’ll premiere a new performance at the Cooper Gallery in Dundee, Scotland as part of a two-month retrospective of Bow Gamelan’s work. If any of you readers are planning to attend, please give us a report.

P.S. Our thanks to reader Thremnir for suggesting we add Bow Gamelan to the Weird List.

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Charamel

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Recently, music biz veteran Eric Alper posted a tweet that read simply, “When you’re overqualified for the job,” and included a video featuring some person in a big red Japanese anime costume playing drums at what seems to be, judging from the music, some sort of children’s concert. (It’s hard to tell because the camera never leaves the drummer, but the music sounds like something you’d hear on the Japanese version of Barney & Friends.) Then, about 45 seconds into it, things take an unexpected turn. See for yourself:

Needless to say, we had to know more. Some commenters on Alper’s Twitter post (which has been retweeted over 70,000 times, as any Japanese anime character playing drums like Dave Lombardo rightly should be) said the character was part of a band called Charamel. Futher digging, with the help of Google translator and KnowYourMeme.com revealed that the character itself is called Nyango Star, and it’s been making the rounds for about three years, releasing drum cover videos like this insane pass at Japanese kawaii metal darlings Babymetal’s “Akatsuki.”

Nyango Star even has his/her/its own website, which includes an origin story that explains the character is a hybrid cat/apple — the reincarnated spirit of a dead cat buried in an apple orchard who was told by the spirit of an apple tree that only by going to Hollywood and becoming famous could it return to its original cat form. So it decided to become a famous drummer. See? It all makes perfect sense.

Somewhere along the way, Nyango Star teamed up with three other costumed characters to form the rock group Charamel. I could find almost no information about Charamel in English beyond their character names — besides Nyango, there’s Funassyi (the lead singer, who I think is supposed to be a canary, or a pear, or maybe a canary/pear hybrid), Akkuma (the guitar-playing bear) and Kapal (the bass-playing turtle). [Update: Our readers inform me that Kapal is definitely not a turtle but a “water goblin,” and Funassyi is a “pear fairy.” They’re also all examples of Japanese “yuru-chara” mascots, which are like American sports mascots except they tend to be cuter and more surreal and can represent anything from cities to corporations to public transit systems.] I think they formed sometime in early 2017 and debuted with this music video, which is probably my favorite thing to come out of Japan since the aforementioned Babymetal. (Give it about 23 seconds; much like Nyango Star’s drumming at the children’s show, it takes an extremely abrupt turn for the awesome.)

I’m sure we’ll learn more about Charamel very soon, as nothing from Japan this amazing stays under the radar for long. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this video of Charamel in concert — the sound quality sucks, but it’s worth watching just to see a glowstick-waving Japanese crowd go apeshit for this stuff. Also, Funassyi’s got some sick moves.

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Autechre

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In electronic music these days, there’s an arms race to see who can produce the most elaborate visual spectacle possible — usually to distract from the fact without said spectacle, all the audience would be looking at is one or two people hunched over laptops. And hey, I love a good gee-whiz show as much as the next aging raver — especially when it marries futuristic glitch to museum-quality stage design, like Amon Tobin’s 3D-projection mapped ISAM tour did in 2012. But you know what I love even more? The fact that British duo Autechre have done a complete 180 and now perform most of their shows in total darkness — or as close to total darkness as pesky things like fire codes will allow for (darn those vibe-killing yet potentially life-saving “Exit” signs).

I was lucky enough to see Sean Booth and Rob Brown perform in this format here in L.A. in 2015, and it was, in its own way, more mind-blowing than any EDM laser light show. Autechre’s music, which the Mancunian duo records and performs on a customized aggregation of software, patches and virtual synths called “the system,” is so dense and alien-sounding that, over the course of 90 minutes, it begins to fill a darkened room with something close to a physical presence. Sounds seem to leap and dart around you in three dimensions; you become aware of how certain bass frequencies register not just as sound but as a physical sensation, rumbling somewhere just behind your collarbone.

Hearing live music in the dark has other, more pragmatic advantages, as well. The shadowy, still-faintly-visible head of that one six-foot-four dude who of course planted himself right in front of you just as the music was starting? After a few minutes, you forget all about stretch and his fat noggin. Also, you spend way less money on beer when it’s too dark to see where the bar is. Thanks, Autechre!

Even with the lights on, Autechre’s music is out-there enough to merit a spot on the Weird List. They’re second only to Aphex Twin among pioneers of the ’90s style of stuttering, off-kilter, glitchy electronic music lumped under the unfortunate but convenient heading of IDM, or intelligent dance music (hey, it was either that or “what the fuck is this shit?”). Over the years, as they’ve added to and perfected “the system,” their sound has evolved beyond its early influences — which included everything from ’80s hip-hop to electro-industrial experimenters Coil and Meat Beat Manifesto to avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen — to become a genre unto itself, a manifestation of its own closed-loop schemata, with the machines acting as a third band member, chasing algorithms to increasingly bent, bloopy, intricately polyrhythmic ends.

Autechre didn’t start out weird. Aside from a jokey spoken-word intro in which a dentist tells his patient to “lean back and relax” before we hear a drill and the patient’s agonized, gargling moans, their first single “Cavity Job” was a pretty standard piece of early ’90s British acid house, with the kind of pulsating synths and looped breakbeats already popularized by acts like Orbital and A Guy Called Gerald. Their second album, Amber, on the influential Warp label (also home to Aphex Twin), was a largely ambient affair — trippy, but not a radical departure from what many other chill-room electronic acts were doing at the time.

Then, in 1994 — less than a year after Amber — they released a three-song EP called Anti that was both bold sonic experiment and political statement. The EP’s final track, “Flutter,” was a jittery, shapeshifting beast composed in response to a British law that outlawed raves. Since the law defined raves as parties that featured music played as a “succession of repetitive beats,” Brown and Booth programmed “Flutter” to contain beats that never exactly repeated themselves — a fact they called out on the album’s packaging, though they slyly cautioned DJs against playing it in public without “a lawyer and musicologist present at all times to confirm the non-repetitive nature of the music in the event of police harassment.” It’s arguably the first example of instrumental electronic music explicitly used as a form of political protest. It’s also probably the earliest Autechre track that fully embraces the glitchy, non-linear style for which they’re now best-known.

As the ’90s wore on and “electronica” had its first big commercial boom, thanks to acts like The Prodigy, Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim, Autechre’s music continued down a much different path, getting weirder, harsher and more abstract with each passing release. Their music videos reflected this — especially the 1996 clip for “Second Bad Vilbel,” which marked the directorial debut of Chris Cunningham, who would go on to make groundbreaking videos for Björk and Aphex Twin among others. (Cunningham wasn’t satisfied with the quality of the original, so he released a re-edit of it in 2002; this is that later version.)

As Autechre’s music got more abstract, so did their album and song titles: Chiastic Slide, Envane, “Goz Quarter,” “Calbruc,” “VI Scose Poise.” Most of the words are random nonsense, but some recurring ones have specific meanings to Brown and Booth that they have a hard time articulating. When a Pitchfork interviewer asked them about the word “casual” in several song titles, for example, Brown explained that they label “catalog shelf stuff” with similar traits. “It’s fucking real difficult to explain exactly what we mean by them,” Booth added. “We know. If Rob says, ‘I’ve got some more casuals here, do you want them,’ I’ll know exactly what he means. But I can’t put into words what it is.” (Side note: The duo has also said that there is no official, correct way to pronounce their name. They say “aw-TEK-er” in a Mancunian accent, but I’ve also heard “AH-tek-ur” and even “aw-TEK-cruh” like they’re French or something. But hey, go nuts and say it however you want.)

By the early 2000s, Autechre were both elder statesmen of IDM and among its most forward-thinking practitioners. On tracks like 2002’s “Gantz Graf” — given an excellently psychedelic yet cyborg-like video by British graphic artist Alex Rutterford — they chop, splice and stutter programmed beats and synthesizers until it sounds like machines howling in agony, or ecstasy, or possible both.

These days, in addition to their lights-out shows, Brown, Booth and their “system” continue to churn out new music at an astonishing rate. Their 2016 album elseq 1-5 contained over four hours of music, and this year they followed that up with another eight hours of music, originally presented over four two-hour segments on NTS Radio back in April and released last month both digitally and as either an 8-CD or 12-LP box set under the title NTS Sessions 1-4. (Although Booth has said of past Autechre releases that the “actual” product is the lossless FLAC files — the implication being that anything else is a derivative version that may not be a 100% accurate representation of the duo’s original work.) I couldn’t find any excerpts of the NTS Sessions on YouTube except a few that were uploaded at half-speed and double-speed (Autechre fans are kooky, y’all) but you can listen to the whole thing on Autechre’s official site or on Spotify. Next time you have eight hours to kill, I highly recommend it. Listening to the whole thing is like meditating inside a broken CD player. That’s falling down a really long flight of stairs. Made of mercury. And acid. There’s definitely something having to do with acid in there somewhere.

Before I play out this post with an amazing unofficial video for a track from my favorite Autechre album, 2008’s Quaristice, I want to leave you with a couple of quotes from Sean Booth. The first comes from the aforementioned Pitchfork interview and is especially relevant to this blog, because in it, Booth makes a case — which I completely agree with — that today’s audiences are more primed than ever for weird music, even though much of what they’re getting is cookie-cutter and derivative:

“One of the things about the internet is that everybody can be very quickly educated on music, but that’s a double-edged sword, because you’ve got a bunch of artists who are desperate to fit in. Everyone’s in a rush to sound the same. At the same time you’ve got this audience who have got access to fucking everything that was ever made, so the audience is actually extremely sophisticated. It’s a weird paradox. You hear a lot of stuff with the same kind of synth lead and the same sucky compression and the same kick drums, the same long chords. It’s incredibly conservative. Then you’ve got this audience who know about Xenakis and Stockhausen and they’re fucking 16-year-olds. I see that as a great opportunity to make things that are genuinely a bit weird.”

The second quote comes from a long Q&A on the electronic fan forum site watmm.com from 2013 (and which I’m cribbing from Pitchfork’s review of NTS Sessions 1-4 — I’m not usually all up in Pitchfork’s business like this but when it comes to Autechre, they know their stuff) in which someone asked Booth what an Autechre dance track might sound like today and he replied, “but we are making dance music.” Damn straight they are. Trust me, if you listen to this shit long enough, you can totally dance to it. To others it might look like more you’re having a stroke, but that’s just part of the fun.

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Stinky Picnic

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Usually when we — or anyone, really — throw around the term “outsider music,” we use it to connote impenetrably idiosyncratic music made by adults so eccentric they have to work alone because they can’t find anyone else who shares their vision. That’s why we were so delighted when our favorite Down Under reader, Interweb Megalink (not his/her real name), led us to the Australian duo Stinky Picnic. The father/daughter team of A.D. Machine (guitars, loops and backing vocals) and Ponky Pie Pea (singer, songwriter, keyboardist and the brains of the whole operation) make music as idiosyncratic as any Daniel Johnston or Mission Man tune — but in doing so, they transform outsider music into “the most normal, unconditionally loving activity available in the home,” in the words of author Neil Nixon, who included them in his book 500 Albums You Won’t Believe Until You Hear Them.

Stinky Picnic started when Ponky Pie Pea was three years old. You won’t be surprised to hear that she named the band. She’s now all of 10 or 11 and her songwriting skills have grown exponentially in that time. If we’re being honest, A.D. Machine had to do much of the heavy lifting on Stinky Picnic’s early work, fleshing out his daughter’s adorable but fairly straightforward sung-chanted lyrics about hamsters and logs and whatever else struck her fancy at the moment he pressed the record button. But after a few years and a shit-ton of releases, the kid is a budding genius of melody, harmony, surrealism and comic timing. Behold the marvel of all the aforementioned elements that is “Hairy Bananas” — and bear in mind that this was part of a rehearsal for a gig at the Make It Up Club, where all songs are improvised, so Ponky Pie Pea is coming up with this shit straight off the dome. Eat your heart out, Imogen Heap! (Disclaimer: Imogen Heap is great. But she’s famous for that vocal looping stuff and you gotta admit, this kid’s got “Hide and Seek“-level skills.)

Like most kids of her generation, Ponky Pie Pea is super into Minecraft. (I don’t get it, either, but I’m old and the only game app on my phone is Sudoku.) So she and A.D. also made a trilogy of albums with songs inspired by Minecraft, and set some of them to Minecraft videos. Here’s the one for “Pigs” — made when Ponky was about eight — which is in absolutely no danger of being confused with the Pink Floyd song.

I’ll leave you with possibly my favorite Stinky Picnic song: “Maybe a Mongoose,” another epic jam recorded when Ponky was eight or so, from their 2016 album A Horrible Hodgepodge. At one point, she scat-sings like a tiny, Australian Ella Fitzgerald. It’s way funkier than it has any business being — and like all of Stinky Picnic’s oeuvre, it’s a nice reminder that before we were all taught to conform, we were all outsiders, running wild with our imaginations and spouting nonsensical ideas more entertaining and probably just as valid as whatever crap the so-called “adult world” is churning out these days, like This Is Us or a new Chainsmokers album or whatever.

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Shamalamamonkey

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Lately we’ve been getting a ton of bands sent to the site whose origin and identities are shrouded in mystery. From Aussie MIDI mashup artist Buttress O’Kneel to portable toilet terrorists Clown Core, more and more weird bands these days seem to prefer to remain anonymous.

Is this a reaction against the private-sector surveillance state of Facebook, Google and Twitter? A rejection of the music press’ increasing obsession with celebrity-style artist “profiles” that tell you their shoe size but not what kind of music they play? A sign of the impending collapse of the music PR machine, as fewer bands can afford fancy publicists to help them craft their “story”? Are they all secretly famous actors and pop musicians who don’t want us to blow up their experimental side project? Is Mandek Penha really Hugh Jackman? Is Vladimir Cauchemar actually one of the guys from Daft Punk? Probably not, but the fact that we’re even having this conversation (feel free to chime in anytime) is evidence that, in our information-overloaded times, being enigmatic is actually a pretty great marketing strategy.

Our latest enigmatic Weird Band of the Week comes to us from … uh, actually, we’re not sure where they’re from. They apparently played a show in Indianapolis last year, but it’s not clear whether that’s their hometown — or even whether or not the show actually took place, since their website describes is thusly: “They played 3 songs dressed as the scheduled headliner band before anyone noticed that they were not the actual band. They managed to get through 3 more songs before being removed from the stage by security.”

We’re also not sure who’s in the band or how many members they have. The guy who contacted us about them, Josh Spurling, sent us a brief bio saying the band has “between 1 and 13 [members] of European, Asian, and/or Arabic descent.” It further noted: “They are said to possess an arsenal of instruments ranging from electric guitars to an old kitchen sink. Their impromptu performances range from 30 seconds to 13 hours and are performed with various disguises and under alternate band names. These shows are rarely announced, often in remote areas, and occasionally even without an audience. No one knows why.” (Spurling described his role with the band as “facilitator,” which is one of those fancy-sounding words like “utilize” that sounds specific but means almost nothing. I utilize various techniques to facilitate feeding my cats, but does that mean I’m usually the one scooping food into their bowls? Nah, I’m just on the couch going, “Honey, have you fed the cats yet?”)

I’m not even sure how to describe Shamalamamonkey’s music, despite the fact that I’ve been listening to it for a good hour or so now. They’ve only released two songs, “Gussle the Golfer” and “Gussle Tied to Trouble.” Who or what is Gussle and why is he/she/it a recurring subject of every Shamalamamonkey song? No one knows. Each song is about 11 minutes long and cycles through a bewildering array of sounds and styles, from cow-punk to jazz to punk-funk to avant-garde noise to bluegrass. I’d say they sound like Primus and The Residents squaring off at a battle of the bands in a semi-abandoned jazz club in an early Jim Jarmusch movie, but that’s only the first two minutes of “Gussle Tied to Trouble.”

Oh I almost forgot to mention: They also, for some reason, set both their songs to clips from old silent movies. I’m not sure the movies actually have anything to do with the music, but they do give the whole thing an appealingly slapsticky feel.

So who are Shamalamamonkey? We may never know for sure. Although I do suspect they have something to do with an earlier group called The One Band, because that’s the only other group with a track posted to Josh Spurling’s YouTube channel. That One Band has an old website, on which Spurling, aka That One Guy (not to be confused with that other That 1 Guy), is described as the group’s founder, leader and main instrumentalist. Is he also the brains behind Shamalamamonkey? Who cares? Whoever’s making these tunes, they’re a demented genius — and if that genius prefers to remain anonymous, well, to steal a phrase back from Bobby Brown (possibly the only person I can say with some certainty is not part of Shamalamamonkey): That’s their prerogative.

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