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.
Though they douse our inbox daily with a firehose of awful, mainstream crap, music publicists aren’t all bad. Occasionally they serve up something truly bizarre, like Shmu, a cut-and-paste solo project from Austin-based musician (and occasional Flaming Lips collaborator) Sam Chown that sounds like 10 different bands playing on top of each other at the same time — because that, essentially, is what you’re hearing.
Chown, who’s originally from Toronto and studied music at Berklee, also makes delightfully spazzy electro-noise-rock as the drummer half of the duo Zorch. As Shmu, he makes music that is at once more accessible and more abstract. At their heart, Shmu songs are shoegaze-y dream-pop; Chown cites My Bloody Valentine as an influence, although only inasmuch as he, like Kevin Shields, is fascinated with the happy harmonic accidents that happen when you keep layering sound on top of sound to the point where the human ear can no longer distinguish all the individual parts.
Here’s a good example of Chown in full-blown sensory overload mode. Listening to this on repeat kind of makes you feel like you’re having the world’s happiest seizure.
To achieve his “Tomorrow Never Knows” as remixed by The Field sound, Chown records multiple versions of the same track and then edits and layers them all together. Sometimes, when he doesn’t like where one song is heading, rather than scrap it entirely, he just mashes snippets of it into whatever he decides to do next. “Many [songs] even contain performances of me playing samples live that are samples of scrapped songs or of other entire songs — I’m performing a performance of a performance,” he says in that press release we somehow rescued from our inbox last week.
He applies the same technique to recording other musicians, as well. Shmu’s latest album, SHHH!!!!, is mostly him on the all instruments, but there are some additional guitars and bass and even a string quartet buried in there somewhere. On for one of the album’s coolest tracks, “Flutes,” he had two flautists play the same piece of music into five sets of microphones on five different delay pedals, then mixed the results together.
SHHH!!!! is Chown’s second Shmu album; the first one, 2012’s Discipline/Communication, is way less mental, but still worth checking out. It’s especially interesting to hear how the track “Turpentine” off that debut gets reimagined as a swirling, shoegaze guitar freakout on SHHH!!!!
We’ll leave you with the most ambitious track on SHHH!!!!, a 12-minute jam called “Harmonic” that closes out the album with a hurricane of Brian Chippendale-like drums, glitchy electronics and the epic post-rock sensibilities of fellow Austinites Explosions in the Sky. If this doesn’t convince you that Chown is something special, stop reading this blog and go buy the new goddamn Adele album.
One of the cool things about my day job is that I get to work with the great Henry Rollins, whose taste in weird and esoteric music is even more wide-ranging than mine and Jake’s. (He also knows more about music than the two of us put together. Like, a lot, lot more.) He hosts a radio show every Sunday night on KCRW-FM that I highly encourage you to check out — every week, he breaks out some new mind-bending shit you’ve probably never heard of. In the coming week’s, we’ll probably be mining Henry’s show for all sorts of new weird sounds.
Our first raid of the Rollins vaults comes in the form of a gentleman from France who goes by the nom de weird of Lieutenant Caramel. He describes himself as a “hunter of sounds” and collector of “resonant matters,” but his work transcends typical musique concrete and field recordings with a sense of wit and whimsy that makes even his most bizarre compositions as hilarious in places as a Wile E. Coyote cartoon. Most of them clock in at around ten minutes or more, so they’re not for short attention spans — or then again, since they constantly warp and shape-shift, maybe they are.
Lieutenant Caramel is the alter ego of Philippe Blanchard, who lives in the ridiculously picturesque town of Annecy in the French Alps. In 1999, he founded a festival there called “Le bruit de la neige,” which translates to “The Noise of Snow.” Looks like the most recent one was just last month, so I guess Jake and I will just have to start planning now to hit the 2016 edition.
Not everything Blanchard produces as Lieutenant Caramel sounds like cartoon character stumbling through a tool shed. We’ll leave you with a track that’s more Lynch than Looney Tunes. There’s still some funny, distorted voices in there, but this time, you won’t know whether to laugh or hide under the covers.
To our South American readers: ¡Hola! How’s it hanging? Except for Brazil, we’ve kinda ignored you guys, and for that, we are sorry. You have your fair share of weirdos, too…starting with Argentina’s Reynols.
Reynols was started in 1993 by a drummer with Down syndrome named Miguel Tomasin and his two music teachers, Alan Courtis and Roberto Conlazo. They also had a fourth member named Christian Dergarabedian early on, and at some point Roberto’s brother Patricio got involved, so most photos and videos of the band show four members. According to Courtis and Conlazo, Tomasin introduced himself to them by saying, “Hello, I’m the world’s most famous drummer.” And the rest, as they say, is history.
Inspired by Tomasin’s unique way of looking at the world, Reynols make music that most people probably wouldn’t consider music. Their first album, Hydrogenated Vegetable Fat (Gordura vegetal Hidrogenada), was a “dematerialized CD,” which is another way of saying that it was sold as an empty CD case with nothing in it. Because it doesn’t exist, Courtis and Conlazo explain, it’s everywhere. “Everybody has that record, even people who haven’t been born yet,” Courtis told one interviewer. “Napoleon has that record, Plato has the record, Jim Morrison has the record.”
They’ve also released Chickens Symphony for 10,000, a field recording done inside a chicken coop, and Blank Tapes, an album consisting entirely of tape hiss, from tapes the band claims they collected from all over the world. “The cheap tapes sound better than the expensive ones,” says Conlazo. “TTK tapes from Singapore. Maxwell tapes (not Maxell!) from Taiwan. The idea was to use all the possibilities, a lot of different frequencies.”
They’ve also made “music” based on the sound of banging things against the Eiffel Tower and gravestones of famous people. “They’re all very different. For example the Oscar Wilde statue sounds incredible. We played it with roses. We use different things to play each grave.”
When they make music in a more conventional band configuration, it’s still pretty weird, especially because Tomasin does all the vocals, wailing in a made-up language about a parallel universe called Minecxio. His bandmates accompany him with detuned guitars, effects pedals, feedback and the occasion ram’s horn. It’s trippy and noisy. But mostly noisy.
Weird though they may be, Reynols was a pretty successful cult band for about a decade, releasing a ton of records on labels from all over the world. They toured the U.S and Europe at least once, although Tomasin couldn’t travel with them to Europe for reasons that are unclear, so they brought along a big yellow poster of his face instead.
Oh, and they were also once nearly arrested for a street performance in which they played guitars plugged into pumpkins. Pumpkins don’t actually make very good amps, so the guitars didn’t make much noise, but apparently the authorities felt that the performance was “setting a bad example for the tourists.”
In 2004, Reynols announced they were breaking up. Since then, Alan Courtis has released tons more experimental music on his own, while Miguel Tomasin and Rob Conlazo have continued to work together occasionally, but seem to be much less active. Someone made a documentary about them in 2004 called Buscando a Reynols, but as far as we can tell, that was pretty much the last time anyone’s done anything to document the group or its members.
We’ll leave you with a live recording of Reynols in Chicago from 2001, which someone was kind enough to upload so posterity could hear how completely batshit these guys were. If anyone knows more about the Reynols story post-2004, let us know and we’ll update this post. Oh, and many thanks to reader MrAgalloch, who suggested we take the plunge down the Reynols rabbit hole.
It’s not every day you get to hear music by any band on our Weird List rendered by a 38-piece orchestra. It’s even more remarkable when that band is Sparks, the quirk-pop duo of Ron and Russell Mael, and even more remarkable when the focus of the event isn’t one of their more symphonic efforts like Lil’ Beethoven but their 1974 glam-rock opus Kimono My House, which featured nary a string section but plenty of fuzzy guitar solos and Russell Mael’s swooping falsetto vocals at their most mock-operatic.
The Mael brothers first gave Kimono My House the orchestral treatment last December in London, and decided to follow up those shows with a similar two-night run in their hometown of Los Angeles. The setting for both performances was the suitably stately Theatre at Ace Hotel, formerly the United Artists movie palace, a spectacularly ornate room with Gothic decorations nearly as elaborate as the music from Kimono My House.
As I usually do these days, I wrote the full review of the show for my day job over at L.A. Weekly. So you can read my full account on their site. Suffice it to say that while the orchestral reimagining of Kimono My House, most of the highlights (for me, anyway) came in the show’s second half, when they played an assortment of songs spanning Sparks’ amazing four-decade catalog. And at least one of those highlights involved a monkey. (And no, I’m not referring to Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos. Although he did insert himself into the proceedings. I’m still not sure how I feel about that Sparks/Franz collab.)
Just in time for autumn’s end, lo-fi queen Petunia-Liebling MacPumpkin has released a video for “Autumn Leaves,” the seventh in her series of visual accompaniments to songs from her 2012 album, Fish Drive Edsels. This may be her most visually arresting work yet, thanks to animation and illustrations by British artist Jodie Lowther. It’s a bit like watching a painting come to life. A painting that just took a few hits of acid.
The next track on Fish Drive Edsels likely to get the video treatment is “Bagboy Cowboy,” a song about a trip to the grocery store. To buy fishheads, no doubt.
We’re back! Did you miss us? We promise to resume regularly posting Weird Bands of the Week and occasionally updating our Weird 100 chart, but other site updates will probably be more infrequent because we’ve both got demanding day jobs now. For our ever-popular Weird of the Day picks, follow us on Twitter or Facebook. And now, back to the weirdness…
This week’s “band” is a solo artist from New York named Thomas Truax (pronounced “True-Ax”) who plays guitar and a variety of homemade instruments, mostly of the beat-making variety. He started out as the bassist/vocalist for a ’90s trio called Like Wow that was part of downtown Manhattan’s “antifolk” scene (did anyone actually like the term “antifolk”? didn’t think so), then turned solo around 2000 or so. His signature instrument, seen above, is called the Hornicator. It’s a modified gramophone horn that he can both sing into and use as a twangy percussion instrument by plucking a string wrapped around its neck. It apparently also has a kazoo inside it, because really, any halfway decent homemade instrument may as well include a kazoo.
Musically, Truax tends to play his own spin on mutant, lo-fi blues, evoking shades of everything from Nick Cave to Jon Spencer to another weird artist famous for cleverly constructed analog drum machines, Mr. Quintron. He’s done an entire album of songs from David Lynch films and another of original songs to accompany a production of Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. More recently, he’s teamed up with ex-Dresden Doll drummer Brian Viglione. But it’s his solo live shows, where he unleashes his Hornicator and a variety of steampunky percussion instruments with evocative names like the Sister Spinster and the Mother Superior, that really showcase Truax’s weirdness.
Truax has also made more than his fair share of memorable music videos over the years. Here’s our favorite, suggested by reader Chas (thanks, Chas!), for a typically offbeat Truax original called “Prove It to My Daughter” that doubles as both a song and a hypnosis session:
Our friend Kai from Toxic Chicken sent us this bonkers track by a Canadian producer working under the name Funturistic, on which very formal, almost Baroque-sounding music is performed entirely using sampled animal sounds. It’s called “Rural Kerfuffle” and it’s a 10-minute epic with movements and everything. It is, admittedly, not far removed from those stupid Christmas novelty records where cats meow “Silent Night” or whatever, but taken to a pretty crazy extreme. Enjoy.