Alexandra Drewchin is based in New York City, but she grew up on a horse farm in rural Pennsylvania. It feels important to mention this up front in describing the music she makes under the name Eartheater, and not just because horses figure prominently in the project’s iconography, including the striking cover of her latest album, IRISIRI. Even though much of what she does is programmed and electronic, there’s something very equine and pastoral about it. The rhythms canter and gallop; the sounds flex and ripple with muscular grace; her vocals, though sometimes harsh and processed, more often float over the mix like they’re echoing from a great distance, panning and Dopplering as if sung by someone in constant motion.
There’s also an alien quality to Drewchin’s Eartheater work — ironically, it sounds more not-of-this-world than her other project, a psych/noise-rock band she does with drummer Greg Fox that’s actually called Guardian Alien. As Eartheater, she shares with artists like Matmos and Amon Tobin a gift for blurring the lines between organic and electronic. Synthesizers breathe and sigh like animals; acoustic instruments and field recordings contort into jagged, mechanical shapes. A track title from her first album, Metalepsis, is telling: “The Internet Is Handmade.” You might think it’s a piss-take on all the bespoke this and artisanal that infesting the hipster communities of Brooklyn and Queens, where she’s based. But actually, it’s her way of pointing out that technology, which we always think of as somehow removed from humanity, is actually just another expression of it. “I’m all about seeing the nature in the motherboard — honoring the metals that make [our] computers run,” she once told an interviewer.
Here’s her latest video, “Peripheral,” in which she takes a blowtorch to an ice sculpture and performs acupuncture on a massage chair.
Her live performances are already the stuff on New York art nerd legend. At one, described by a Vice writer, she wore angel wings and wielded a chainsaw. At another, she danced in a trenchcoat and performed contortionist backbends illuminated only by a pair of flashlights. “I find the ouroboric-like shape of a deep back bend to be uniquely altering,” she said in another interview. “I prescribe this shape to myself and find it’s really helpful to unlock deep emotions while performing.” (For someone who has just shy of 4,300 Facebook likes as I write this, Eartheater has done a lot of interviews — which I think says more about the ouroboric nature of the New York music press than it does about her.)
Speaking of contortions, here’s another Eartheater video that features lots of them, courtesy of Drewchin and fellow dancer Gina Chiappetta. Contortionism is another good visual metaphor for Eartheater’s music; she twists her vocals and instruments as dramatically as she twists her limbs. There’s something both powerful and vulnerable about it — she looks strong and fierce, but also at certain moments like her neck’s about to break.
We started with horses and that’s where we’ll finish, with the video for “Inclined,” another track off IRISIRI, Eartheater’s third album, which was just released in June on PAN Records. The video itself is, by Drewchin’s standards, pretty straightforward: She rides a horse around a bay at low tide, dressed like a steampunk bride in leather and a white veil, and — well, that’s it, really. (Oh, and all the lyrics are subtitled in Russian — a nod to her father, perhaps, who is Russian.) But the track itself is supremely weird in a way that I love. It’s like someone badly described hip-hop to a fan of The Slits and Philip Glass — “it’s aggro vocals that are kinda chanted over loops and shit” — who then attempted their version of a hip-hop track. “I like to customize my style/You can’t buy this — suck my bile,” is my favorite lyric of 2018 so far.
P.S. Thanks again to our anonymous friend at Interweb Megalink, who introduced us to Buttress O’Kneel and also succeeded where the New York press failed in turning us on to Eartheater. Thanks for helping us customize our style, Mr. and/or Ms. Megalink.
Psychofon Records, the current label for this week’s weird band, compares them to The Residents, Nurse With Wound and Can. Which sounds like they’re casting way too wide of a net — until you listen to the surreal, percussive soundscapes of Déficit Des Années Antérieures (DDAA) and realize that yeah, that’s actually pretty spot-on.
Formed in 1977 by three students from the School of Beaux Arts in Caen, France, DDAA’s music encompasses everything from eerie tape loop experiments to tribal percussion to minimalist post-punk anthems that make Suicide sound like Wham! by comparison. Until 1992, they were wildly prolific, releasing somewhere around 15 albums and various EPs and singles, many of which were available only on cassette. They resurfaced with another pair of albums around 2000, took another hiatus, and then have been pretty active since 2011, picking up right where they left off with releases like Ne regarde pas par la fenêtre (Do not look out the window), a four-song EP of dadaist hymns set to industrial throbs and foreboding electronic music.
Amazingly, despite their prodigious output, Jean-Luc André, Sylvie Martineau-Fée and Jean-Philippe Fée — the three musicians who have formed the core of DDAA for the band’s entire existence — appear to remain virtually unknown outside of France. (And maybe Germany, too — shout-out to German reader Sebastian, who turned us onto them.) There is very little information about them available in English so I don’t know their full backstory, or what other projects, if any, they’ve been associated with. It does appear that “Fée” is a stage name, since the Psychofon website translates it and identifies them as Sylvie Martineau-Fairy and Jean-Philippe Fairy. Or maybe they just have a particularly apt surname for their otherworldly music and they didn’t want all us non-Francophone folks to miss out on properly appreciating it.
Did France have MTV in the early ’80s? Maybe that explains the existence of several DDAA music videos from around that era, which are just as delightfully bizarre as their music. Here’s “25 pièces sont vides” from their 1984 album La Familie des Saltimbanques. The sound quality is kinda crappy, so you might want to turn it up.
Amazing, right? Both totally avant-garde and totally ’80s. Most of their tracks, especially from this era, have very assertive, atmospheric bass lines, which appear to be courtesy of Jean-Philippe Fée. Here’s another music video from the same year but a different album (told you they were prolific): Les Ambulants‘ “The Riddle’s Standard.” I especially love the vocals on this one, which somehow manage to sound both strangled and incantatory, like a priest delivering a sermon while chugging sacramental wine out of a paper bag.
Nearly 40 years later, they’re still at it, performing live shows that are basically slow-moving storm fronts of aural unease, and releasing new music that continues to defy categorization. I’ll leave you with a track from their 2015 album Hazy World called “Pirouette” that sounds like a symphony for idling lawnmowers, or maybe the world’s largest moth swarm flapping their wings against the windows of a screened-in porch. France’s answer to The Residents? Sort of — but it’s probably more accurate to say that DDAA don’t sound like anyone else.
Doing this blog, I’m constantly amazed at how many talented musicians and producers out there release their stuff anonymously, with virtually no promotion or online presence beyond a Bandcamp account or Facebook page. Such is the case with Buttress O’Kneel, a mysterious Australian creator of what she calls “plunderphonic intellectronica” and “excruciating postcore compop.” According to the folks at the equally mysterious InterWebMegaLink, who introduced us to Ms. O’Kneel and her sample-heavy sonic experiments, she’s been cranking out this stuff since 1998 or so — but virtually no information on her exists online anywhere. No photos, no bio, no interviews. I’m totally taking InterWebMegaLink’s word for it that she is, in fact, a woman from Australia and not some aging ex-raver dude from, say, Bristol or Pittsburgh or some other hub for this sort of musical cut-and-paste geekery.
O’Kneel — or BOK, for short — has produced everything from “audio documentaries” on the history of fossil fuels and racism in Australia to compilations of damaged CDs skipping. But she seems to especially enjoy chopping, distorting, stretching and otherwise mangling popular music in clever, unexpected ways. Here, for example, is her take on Ariana Grande’s “No Tears Left to Cry,” called “Tentacles for Troy,” an anagram of the original song title. (“i get deep into anagrams as titles because it feels like a microcosmic reference to what i’m doing to the music – complete memetic rearrangement, from ostensibly recognisable shiz,” she explained in a recent Facebook post.) Bonus points to anyone who recognizes the Madonna sample in the intro.
Many of BOK’s sonic experiments will be familiar to anyone who’s explored the worlds of mashups and plunderphonics. She’s dabbled in time-stretching, for example, taking familiar songs like Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” and slowing them down until they’re transformed into ominous, oceanic exercises in abstract minimalism. But what makes BOK stand out, I think, is that she always takes these more familiar techniques one step further. In the case of time-stretching, she decided to see what would happen if she instead compressed a familiar song down to just a few seconds, then stretched it back to its original length. She calls the results “pop smears” and they’re kind of amazing:
More recently, she’s been experimenting with MP3-to-MIDI converters, which she discovered introduce weird atonal harmonics into the vocal melodies and make most of the rest track’s elements sound like an old-timey player piano having a seizure. (“It’s a godawful mess of misplayed piano garbage,” reads the Bandcamp description. “Either that, or it’s brilliant conceptual sound art! You decide!”) The process makes a familiar pop song like Camila Cabello’s “Havana” sound vaguely terrifying, but when applied just to an isolated vocal track from Metallica’s James Hetfield, there’s something kind of hilarious about it. It’s like Bartok on meth.
Speaking of Bartok: Even classical music is not safe from BOK’s undying love of warping the familiar beyond recognition. Here’s part of “The Four Four Seasons,” a relatively simple (by BOK’s convoluted standards) exercise in organized chaos that takes four different versions of Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” and lays them on top of each other:
I’m tempted to just go on inserting Bandcamp links ad infinitum, because nearly everything Buttress O’Kneel does is interesting on some level. There’s “This Sick Beat,” which combines Taylor Swift with recordings of “pathological” heartbeats (a very plunderphonic-y response to Swift’s trademarking of the phrase “This Sick Beat”). There’s her field recording experiments with another mysterious producer named Panthera Leo, a project called The Fruiting Body that was allegedly recorded back around 2001 but was only just released earlier this year. There are albums on her Bandcamp page (so many albums) with intriguingly apt titles like Post-remix Retrostep, Shitcore and Hard Dadapop. It’s all great, and worth diving deep into if you have a day or two to kill and want to imagine a world in which Venetian Snares got on the mashup train back when that was a trendy thing.
But I’ll leave you with just two pieces of music that I think sum up, as much as it’s possible to sum up, the full spectrum of BOK’s brilliance. The first, “Merzbowie,” is exactly what it sounds like: a mashup of David Bowie and influential Japanese noise artist Merzbow, mixed live and then run through AudioMulch, an “interactive modular” software suite that is apparently one of Buttress’ favorite tools. The results are pretty much exactly what you’d expect and sort of mesmerizing, although it’s probably not coincidence that one my cats puked three times while I was playing it.
Contrast that with “Breaking Windows,” an ambient electronic track that uses nothing but default Windows sounds to build something unexpectedly beautiful. The accompanying video is pretty fun, too.
So who is Buttress O’Kneel? I still have no idea, but I hope more people discover her endlessly inventive music.
I hope we didn’t scare you, gentle readers, by going silent for a few weeks there. You might even say we went “Oh So Quiet.” Why? Because we were agonizing over what artist would be worthy enough to be the 300th (300th! Christ, we’re old) addition to our Weird List.
Then, with the force of an erupting Icelandic volcano, it hit us: Somehow, 299 weird acts into this thing, we’d never written about Björk.
Usually with this blog, we’re so busy looking under rocks and in the darkest corners of the internet for the most obscure, esoteric shit that it’s easy for us to overlook an artist of Björk’s stature. She’s sold millions of albums and headlined countless major festivals — including Coachella twice, which was two more times than any female solo artist had ever done it until they finally booked Lady Gaga and Beyoncé these past two years. She’s been the subject of a Museum of Modern Art exhibition and been named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by that 145th most influential magazine in the world, Time. She performed at the opening ceremonies of the 2004 Summer Olympics wearing a 10,000-square-foot dress — and somehow, that’s only the second most famous dress she’s ever appeared in.
But make no mistake — as famous and widely beloved as she is, Björk is goddamn weird. Over the course of her solo career, she’s released nine studio albums — not counting a self-titled release from 1977, made when she was 11 — that have gotten progressively more arty and abstract. Starting with 2001’s Vespertine (which featured contributions from our favorite weird electronic/musique concrète Baltimore duo, Matmos), each Björk album has existed in its own little universe, occasionally recalling previous Björk albums but really sounding unlike anything else — despite the fact that, at this point, there are literally thousands of artists out there who would love nothing more than to be compared favorably to Björk.
Most English-speaking audiences didn’t become aware of Björk Guðmundsdóttir until 1987, when her band The Sugarcubes scored a U.K. hit with “Birthday,” a quirky bit of Cure-like, moody yet danceable post-punk that was mostly distinguished by Björk’s astonishing vocals. The video, in which a tangle of emotions cascade across her elfin features with every shriek and growl, made Björk a star in a way that the rest of her band never quite caught up to — so it wasn’t a shock when they split up in 1992, paving the way for her solo career.
On her first album, Debut, it’s still Björk’s voice that commands the most attention — which isn’t a knock on her early music (or The Sugarcubes’ for that matter); it’s just extremely hard to write or arrange songs in a way that’s half as compelling as a full-throated Björk high note. Someone had the brilliant idea around this time to shoot a music video that’s literally just her dancing around the back of a flatbed truck as it slowly drives through the streets of New York. The camera never moves, but it’s one of the most iconic videos of the MTV era, because her performance is that passionate and kinetic. Music seems to possess Björk in a way us mere mortals never get to experience it.
If she’d continued to make songs like “Big Time Sensuality” — a bouncy piece of early ’90s electronic pop now forever known to more casual fans as the “dancing around on the back of a truck song” — Björk probably could’ve become the next Madonna. Heck, with her voice, she could’ve been bigger than Madonna if she’d been so inclined. But even on Debut, her experimental streak was already firmly in place — especially in other music videos like “Human Behaviour,” her first collaboration with the great Michel Gondry, later of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind fame. Imagine seeing this on MTV in 1993 and thinking, “Wait, is that the Sugarcubes girl? Is that a claymation hedgehog? What the fuck is going on?”
Over her next two albums, Post and Homogenic, Björk developed a reputation for sonic shapeshifting, tackling everything from industrial (“Army of Me”) to trip-hop (“Enjoy”) to chamber-pop (“Joga”) to big-band jazz (“It’s Oh So Quiet,” an old Betty Hutton chestnut taken into bonkers territory by Björk’s shrieks). She also cranked out a remarkable string of groundbreaking videos with some of the top directors of the ’90s, including Gondry (“Hyperballad,” “Bachelorette”) Spike Jonze (“It’s Oh So Quiet”) and Paul White (“Hunter”).
I’m tempted to just post like 10 of Björk’s ’90s videos here because they’re all so great, but if I had to pick just one (well, two, since I already posted “Human Behaviour”) to represent how awesome and weird Björk’s work was in this period, it would have to be “All Is Full of Love,” a spooky ballad co-produced by ambient/trip-hop artist Howie B with a video by Chris Cunningham, one of the all-time music video greats (also responsible for Aphex Twin‘s “Windowlicker” and “Come to Daddy” clips). The robots-in-love video is beautiful and sexy and still kinda disturbing even 20 years later, which considering how acclimated we’ve all gotten to this kind of CGI is a pretty remarkable achievement.
As weird as Björk’s music videos could get in the ’90s, her music remained, for the most part, pretty accessible until 1997’s Homogenic, when she abandoned any overt pop elements in favor of a more dramatic, cinematic sound — lots of strings, slowly unfolding melodies and poetic lyrics that were evocative but oblique to the point of impenetrability (“I’m a fountain of blood in the shape of a girl,” from “Bachelorette,” being the most famous and striking example). She doubled down on that sound with 2001’s Vespertine, on which she took the very cagey extra step of deliberately selecting only instruments that maintain their integrity, relatively speaking, when digitally compressed — celestas, harps, clavichords and “microbeats” made from found sounds, a technique also used by some of her collaborators, including the aforementioned Matmos and another musique concrète master, Matthew Herbert. (If you’re not familiar with Herbert’s amazing work, go watch this mini-documentary about his 2011 album One Pig right now. We’ll wait.)
A word about Björk’s collaborators, because she’s had a lot of interesting ones (Tricky of Massive Attack and Graham Massey of 808 State among them) and they inevitably get brought it up in any discussion of her music, including this one: That’s just what they are, collaborators. She’s fully in control of her own music and has been for most of her career — certainly since Vespertine, on which she’s credited as the sole producer on 10 of the album’s 12 tracks. But since she’s a woman and since of most of her best-known collaborators are men, they tend to get credit for her sound in a way that doesn’t happen with male artists — a double standard Björk herself has called out repeatedly in interviews. “With the last album [Kanye West] did, he got all the best beatmakers on the planet at the time to make beats for him. A lot of the time, he wasn’t even there. Yet no one would question his authorship for a second,” she told Pitchfork in 2015. “I did 80% of the beats on Vespertine and it took me three years to work on that album, because it was all microbeats — it was like doing a huge embroidery piece. Matmos came in the last two weeks and added percussion on top of the songs, but they didn’t do any of the main parts, and they are credited everywhere as having done the whole album.” So let’s be clear: Yes, Björk chooses interesting collaborators to work with and they have some impact on her sound. But at the end of the day, most of that weird shit you’re hearing on her records is all her.
Since Vespertine, Björk’s albums have tended to be highly conceptual in nature. Medulla used lots of layered vocals (including some from Mike Patton, various beatboxers, and Inuit throat singer Tanya Gillis) to express something about the human body: “I wanted the record to be like muscle, blood, flesh,” she told one interviewer. Her next, Volta, was more percussive, featuring contributions from hip-hop producers Danja and Timbaland (yes, that Timbaland — who is now the answer to the trivia question, “What do Björk and Justin Timberlake have in common?”).
Her 2011 album Biophilia was arguably her strangest and most ambitious project to date — not just an album but a whole multimedia art project, with different apps for each track, and themes built around natural phenomena as metaphors for the human condition. She also experimented with various unusual and custom-made instruments — including a Tesla coil on “Thunderbolt” and something called a gravity harp on “Solstice” — as well as odd time signatures. Three of its tracks are in 17/8 time, which sounds like a music-school dare but does actually give tunes like “Crystalline” a pleasantly off-kilter, elliptical feel.
Biophilia also features what may be my all-time favorite Björk video, for the track “Mutual Core,” which is all about how human relationships are like plate tectonics, or something. Directed by a genius visual artist named Andrew Thomas Huang, it uses CGI animation effects to make what appears sand, rock and yarn perform an elaborate mating ritual.
Björk’s two most recent albums, Vulnicura and Utopia, were co-produced by a Venezuelan electronic artist called Arca who’s pretty amazing and weird in his own right; check out this video (warning: seizure-inducing strobes for days) for proof. His involvement seems to have pushed Björk into some of her darkest and most experimental territory yet. Here’s an especially far-out track from Vulnicura, “Family,” which also features production work from U.K. ambient/drone artist The Haxan Cloak. Creeping doom Björk is my favorite kind of Björk — though it takes a delightful, unexpected twist around the 3:08 mark.
Vulnicura was a breakup album, which could account for its dark tone. Utopia, released last year, is warmer and more hopeful (Björk called it, slyly, her “dating record”). But its music, which features a shit-ton of flutes, is just as bonkers. And its videos are, if anything, some of her weirdest yet. If you’re both repulsed and oddly turned on by this clip for “Arisen My Senses” (directed by frequent Arca collaborator Jesse Kanda, who specializes in creating misshapen, organic forms), don’t worry — you’re not alone. No? It’s just me who’s oddly turned on? OK, I can live with that.
I’ve seen Björk live twice — once at Coachella in 2007, where I remember her playing a massive light-up keyboard that I can’t seem to find any video of, and once here in L.A. at a festival called FYF last year. I found both performances to be a little underwhelming — but to be honest, I didn’t really “get” Björk in 2007, and even since coming to her appreciate her music more, I find it hard to connect with at festivals, where many of its subtleties get lost, in my opinion. Not that my opinion matters — at both shows, thousands of fans around were eating up her every move. And anyway, it’s not the job of an avant-garde artist like Björk to be a crowd-pleaser. She’s always defied expectations, both with her music and how she presents it — and if sometimes punters like me don’t “get it,” that’s par for the course.
Maybe I would have felt differently about her FYF performance if it had featured the woodland creature flute army she brought with her to a recent appearance on Later … With Jools Holland. It was her first TV performance in eight years and a great reminder that, no matter how high she ascends into the pantheon of contemporary musical artists, Björk remains weird as fuck.
Weird music lost one of the greats this week. Glenn Branca, who probably did more for the electric guitar than anyone since Les Paul, died on Sunday, May 13 of throat cancer at the age of 69. He leaves behind a beautiful, occasionally terrifying body of work that stretches back to the earliest days of New York’s No Wave scene right through to his recent experiments with traditional orchestras and 100-guitar symphonies. Any number of guitar- and noise-based bands we’ve written about in the past, from Boredoms to Sunn O))), owe him a huge debt.
Branca was born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in 1948 and got his start in the arts doing experimental theater in Boston. Like a lot of creative misfits of his generation, he was ultimately drawn to New York, where he formed a band called Static, later renamed Theoretical Girls, with a conceptual artist named Jeff Lohn. With Branca and Lohn on guitars, Lohn’s girlfriend Margaret DeWys on keyboards, and future Sonic Youth producer Wharton Tiers on drums (they usually dispensed with bass, though sometimes took turns playing one), Theoretical Girls helped define the short-lived No Wave scene that took the primitivism of punk rock and gave it an arty, dissonant twist. Only a dozen or so songs by Theoretical Girls were ever recorded, but they show Branca’s early interest in rock instrumentation as blunt force object, with a furiously percussive quality that builds and builds on every song until it makes your heart race.
Even before Theoretical Girls broke up in 1981, Branca had begun his own solo experiments, starting with a two-track EP in 1980 called Lesson No. 1 on which he combined No Wave with the avant-garde minimalism of composers like John Cage and Philip Glass, jamming around a single chord with a small orchestra of musicians to achieve a sound that was harsh but also somehow weightless.
He followed that up a year later with what many regard as his masterpiece, The Ascension, which used four guitars in various alternate tunings — including one played by future Sonic Youth co-founder Lee Ranaldo — to create all sorts of crazy dissonance and unexpected overtones. It’s a brilliant piece of experimental art, but on another level it works as just a great, balls-out rock record, with moments that could pass for Television or The Stooges and other moments that still, to this day, don’t sound quite like anything else anyone’s recorded with electric guitars as the dominant instrument.
We hardly ever embed full album streams because everyone’s got the attention span of a cat on speed these days. But if you’ve never heard The Ascension, stop whatever you’re doing, crank up your good speakers, and blast this shit. (If you’re on the fence, maybe it’ll help to know it was one of David Bowie’s favorite records, which might explain that weird Tin Machine phase he went through a decade later. Or not.)
In later years, Branca continued to experiment with harmonics by building his own instruments — most famously, a double-bodied beast he called a “harmonics guitar” (seen in the photo above, and in this short video clip) that, according to its creator, could play “up to 32 to 64 different harmonics on each string depending on how it’s tuned.” (Side note: In 2015, Branca put the harmonics guitar up for sale on eBay, where it sold to some lucky bastard for a measly $787.) He also made “mallet guitars” designed to be played with drumsticks, like a zither or dulcimer, as well as developing his own tuning systems and harmonic theories.
But he always returned to his first love, the guitar. In a fascinating video interview with the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in 2014, he talked about getting his first guitar at 15, which was so crappy, with strings an inch off the fretboard, “I had to squeeze the music out of the thing” — an experience that seemed to set him up for the drastic guitar experiments he would conduct later in life.
None of those experiments was more gob-smacking than his symphonies for 100 guitars, the first of which was performed at the base of the World Trade Center in New York in June of 2001, just a few months before 9/11. Subtitled Hallucination City, Branca’s Symphony No. 13 was noise taken to its most sensory-overload extreme, as those 100 guitars flooded seemingly every frequency in the full sonic spectrum, creating a locust-swarm wall of chiming, droning overtones that, one imagines, must have left the audience feeling like they really had just hallucinated the whole thing.
In that Louisiana Museum of Modern Art interview, Branca says, “I don’t believe in this concept of objectivity. I hate it. This idea that we should all think the same way about things as the rest of us. That’s bullshit. We all see things in our own way and that’s a subjective idea.” To that end, he spent his entire career making music that, he hoped, would be ambiguous or even disorienting enough that each listener could respond to it in their own, totally subjective way. There are very few lyrics in Branca’s music, and never any overt messages, “so that the conscious mind — the one that’s been ingrained in us since we were children — would be broken open and allow us to have more access to our subconscious. Because we’re searching for: Exactly what is this that we’re listening to?”
With that, we’ll break your mind open with one last Branca composition: the first movement to his final 100-guitar symphony, No. 16 (Orgasm), captured here in Paris in its 2015 premiere performance. Rest in peace, Mr. Branca, and thanks for all the noise. May a choir of dissonant angels sing you into the void.
Our readers submit a lot of marching bands as possible entrants on the Weird List. Usually, we don’t pay them much attention, because the whole concept of extreme/alternative/punk-rock marching bands is nothing especially new at this point. You got your Extra Action Marching Band, your Mucca Pazza, your Rude Mechanical Orchestra and so on. But something about this week’s band, Itchy-O, stands out from the pack of tattooed punks bashing away at quad toms.
A 30-plus-piece ensemble from Denver, the Itchy-O Marching Band (IOMB) typically begins their performance by entering the venue from the street. Drums dominate, but there are also synths, vocalists, dancers, guitar and bass, and a prominently featured Theremin. Many of the performers wear amps like backpacks, so they can move freely around the venue during the show. There’s usually a giant, dancing Chinese dragon. There are several of those massive, Japanese taiko drums, which are basically the Steinway pianos of the drum world, both in terms of sound and in terms of how much it must suck to haul them around on tour. They wear black balaclavas and often giant sombreros, which makes them look a little like a gang of anarchist mariachis. It all makes for what looks like a pretty insane, sensory overload live show (though we have yet to experience it first-hand ourselves).
With their emphasis on drums, dancers and audience interaction, Itchy-O are clearly indebted to San Diego neo-tribal performance troupe Crash Worship, although their shows are, by all accounts, relatively tame compared CW’s, which famously featured lots of fire and nudity and fluids, bodily and otherwise. To the credit of the group’s founder, Scott Banning, he acknowledges the debt, telling Denver publication Westword that, while living in the Bay Area, he became friends with Crash Worship’s Simon Cheffins, and toured with both CW and Cheffins’ later band, Extra Action Marching Band, though he’s careful to say, “I was never in Crash Worship.”
Banning, a percussionist by trade, initially started Itchy-O as a studio project; his first release under that name, in 2005, he described as “an ambient project made from the layered tracks of animal heartbeats found on vinyl from a veterinarian school.” But as he started organizing Itchy-O live shows, the project grew into a full-fledged band, evolving into its marching-band incarnation by 2010.
Following a 2011 EP, Inferno, the band released its first full-length album, Burn the Navigator, on Jello Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles in 2014. Usually, bands built so strongly around live spectacle don’t really measure up in the studio, but tracks like “Dance of the Annunaki” (which appears on both Inferno and Burn the Navigator) are a really cool mix of heavy, syncopated percussion, squelchy electronics and weird ambient noises and vocals — in this case, random bird and jungle sounds.
At other times, Itchy-O go for a sort of tribal black metal vibe, like on “The Merkabah,” which sounds like a bhangra remix of Mayhem.
Pretty cool, right? Still, it’s clearly in a live setting where Itchy-O’s particular brand of percussive mayhem is its most powerful. So we’ll leave you with a live clip from a show they did in 2014 right here in Los Angeles — which we missed, because we are bad at our jobs. Hopefully they’ll be back soon, although touring with 36 people and a hundred or so drums can’t be easy.
Happy 2016, weirdos! Here’s our resolution: to get back to updating this site on a weekly basis again. Also to drink less, exercise more, and spend more time with family. Yeah, we don’t like our chances of sticking to any of it, either.
Our first weird band of 2016 was suggested to us by a few readers: Djzen John, Jake Kirby and Andrew. It’s no wonder Five Starcle Men comes up frequently when discussing weird music, because even though they’re about as obscure as it gets (their fan-created Facebook page has a mere 56 likes), and haven’t been active since the ’90s, their small catalog of recorded output is about as bizarre as it gets. The most obvious touchstone is The Residents, and there’s also a little Captain Beefheart and maybe early Ween, in their early bedroom-stoner tape experiment days. But really, most of the stuff on Gomba Reject Ward Japan, a compilation of Five Starcle Men material released for free by Lost Frog Productions via Archive.org in 2007, exists in its own universe of psychedelic tape loops, thrift-store drum machines, detuned guitars and unintelligible lyrics.
Not much information on Five Starcle Men is out, but it appears to have been mainly the work of two young men from Lancaster, California named Glen Hobbs and Luke McGowan. Lancaster is an outer suburb of Los Angeles in the high desert, near Edwards Air Force Base, a surreal yet crushingly boring corner of America full of ex-military burnouts and neatly grid-patterned streets that lead to nowhere. It makes sense that two smart, creative kids from such a cultural wasteland would do lots of drugs (particularly DXM, a cough suppressant with dissociative properties, similar to ketamine) and invent a whole mythology of “alien drug torture” and “deadly cartoon culture governments,” as it says on their Archive.org page. Unfortunately, the experiment came to an abrupt end when Glen Hobbs committed suicide in 1998.
Besides Gomba Reject Ward Japan and its cryptic accompanying bio, which also mentions that “using modern cultural, pharmacological, and other technologies, these young suburban punks constructed highly aestheticized, delusional realities for themselves and their viewers,” the other main artifact of Five Starcle Men’s existence is a video from a 1993 performance the band gave at Mondo Video here in Los Angeles. The video (embedded below) was shot and later uploaded by a friend of the band’s who goes by the name Rich Polysorbate 60. Rich was a longtime member of the L.A. Cacophony Society and has a reputation for making up mythical/historical characters and presenting them as real, so at least one person (a guy from fellow Weird List entrants Baboon Torture Division, in fact) has suggested, not unreasonably, that “it could be a fictitious band invented by Rich.”
While this is an intriguing theory, you can see in the video below that there appear to be two young men at the center of the chaos, wearing matching caps and fiddling with gear and cables. Are they Glen Hobbs and Luke McGowan? Perhaps. It’s also possible that this is Glen Hobbs’ gravesite, even though it’s in Colorado for some reason. And Luke McGowan might be the same Luke McGowan who is now a part-time Professor of Psychology at Cal State Fullerton — that doesn’t quite match the official bio’s note that McGowan “now studies science, philosophy, and history at university,” but it’s close.
In the end, though, it doesn’t really matter who was behind Five Starcle Men. Whoever they are, or were, they left behind some amazing, surreal, alien music. Take a few swigs of Robitussin and enjoy.