Famed drone/doom sonic devastators Sunn O))) treat Philadelphia to a performance of religious proportions. Photos by Julia Aguilar.
Thin, wispy ribbons of white smoke snaked through the cracks in the Union Transfer’s front doors on Wednesday night (Sept. 5th), minute harbingers of the sonic devastation that was about to begin. Within the packed concert hall, the smoke was so thick that I could see barely a few feet in front of me, with concert goers slowly emerging and fading into thick plumes of smoke machine-generated vapor. As I made my way to the front, I could taste the chlorine-like mist wafting by, making my fellow concert goers appear as ghostly figures wandering a foggy moor. On stage, a towering wall of amplifiers and a few microphone stands could be made out, like spectral totems waiting to be called to life. The murky hall was thick with anticipation, and the music hadn’t even begun yet. Such are the aesthetics of a Sunn O))) show.
Before the first note was struck or the band even took the stage,Sunn O)))’s presence was felt throughout the Transfer; it almost seemed unfair to T.O.M.B. and fellow Southern Lord label mates Dead in the Dirt to have to open for the sonic duo, as the cacophonous black metal and straightedge grindings quickly faded like the crowd amongst the fog. The crowd cheered briefly as the lights began to dim, but fell completely silent again by the time they were out, the concert hall dense with smoke and anticipatory sweat. At first, it was difficult to even tell if Sunn O))) had taken to the stage. And then the first note struck.
It was more of a tone, really, than an actual note. A low, creeping hum emanated from the golden speaker fronts of the towering wall of Sunn amplifiers (after which Sunn O)))’s name and logo are fashioned). I could feel the drone of the bass resonating in my chest, quivering my bones where I stood, as the lights ever so slightly were raised. Three hooded figures could be made out on stage; founders Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley (guitars, bass and pedals) were at opposite ends of the stage, making wide, sweeping strokes on their strings. Between majestic strums, O’Malley and Anderson pointed their guitars skyward, the pegs on the heads of their guitars catching what little light was in the room, sending silver beams cutting through the smoke. Touring/live member Steve Moore shuffled slowly behind his moog synthesizer, adding to the growing rumblings reverberating from the stage.
As the band continued to weave their sonic symphony, what looked like a phantasmal priest of the occult walked slowly through the shadows towards the mic stand. Live vocalist Attila Csihar, adorned in monk-like regalia, clutched the mic in one hand, whilst his other grasped what looked to be a mouth harp. It was here that Sunn O))) got their most ‘metal,’ bridging the gap between the drone/noise dirge and more doom-laden, drawling rock songs. Csihar, wearing a twisted mold of wax and latex (created by Egyptian mask maker Nader Sadek), uttered throaty murmurs into the mic, pressed against the melting-candle mouth of his mask. Csihar and the band near-grooved for a time, recalling some of Sunn O)))’s more doom rock influences, before O’Malley and co. set aside their instruments to allow Csihar what could only be called a vocal solo. As the guitars and moog drew back to a low hum of feedback, Csihar seemed overcome with with an otherworldly force, demonically chattering into the microphone, pulling away at times to gently tap the mic with his hellish harp. The gratings and rapping of amplified metal-on-metal pierced the eerie silence of the hall, feedback crackling all the while.
After Csihar’s scat session from hell, he and the band settled back into more groove-laden drone rock, which swelled into a clamorous eruption of feedback by the end of the set; O’Malley and Anderson twirled their guitars by the necks to and fro in front of the speakers, letting the static reverberate the strings. The electric burial hymn twirled and spiraled into a sort of free-drone-rock that rose to a sonic pinnacle. And with that, the set was over. O’Malley, Anderson and the rest of the group pulled back their dark hoods to reveal their smiling bearded faces, waving to the crowd and clasping their hands together to thank the audience. The de-cloaked Sunn O))) thanked the crowd again before exiting the stage, a quartet that for roughly 90 minutes had been transformed into sonic priests. As I made my way towards the front doors of the Transfer, the crowd around me began to dissipate like the artificial smoke meeting the night air. I felt lost, near stumbling after scarcely having moved from the moment Sunn O)))’s set began. As the taste of chlorine gradually left my mouth, I could hear the muffled utterance of the crowd around me, as if spoken from the bottom of lake. Even amidst the incoherent exclamations of the throng, I could make out the mesmerized tone of each attendee; some bewildered, some elated, but all transfixed by the witching sounds of the unearthly quartet.
Famed punk rocker Jello Biafra speaks on some of the politics behind his upcoming release with the Guantanamo School of Medicine, White People & The Damage Done. Photos by Elizabeth Sloan.
Two.One.Five Magazine: Talk a little bit about the new album with The Guantanamo School of Medicine, what can fans expect from “White People and the Damage Done?”
JB– [Laughs] I don’t academically analyze my own stuff like that. [Pauses] I mean you get the old family recipe, I haven’t forgotten how to write those kinda songs, I wrote most of the Dead Kennedys music as well as the words. And it is something of a loose concept album about the new depression; how preventable it is and how ridiculous it is, and how people are manipulated to not rise up and stop it, [but] maybe we should.
215 – This [question] might be a little self explanatory in that case, but could you tell me a little more about the title, “White People and the Damage Done,” maybe for all the Republicans out there?
JB– And how many of those people are going to read this for crying out loud? [Laughs] I mean I occasionally get name dropped by right-wingers and stuff but not real often. [Pause] But the title track is about this whole, y’know, cocksure swagger we have that caucasians, especially Americans, are better qualified to run every other country in the world besides our own. How could the Iraqis or the Afghans possibly do anything without us occupying them? There’s one example, but there’s worse ones. I barely touch on the mistreatment of Aboriginal/Native Americans, that’s a whole separate song I suppose, but I do link it up to things like … stoking, funding and starting the Mujahideen guerillas and sending them off on a religious jihad before the Soviets even invaded. Y’know, Jimmy Carter’s old national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski… bragged in an interview during the initial Afghan invasion by Bush, ‘Hey weren’t we cool, we got those people going and tricked the Soviets into invading, and then we wrecked their evil empire.’ What bullshit. Look at what’s blown back in everybody’s faces since, and of course the people that get hurt the worst are the Afghan people. Y’know, once they drove the Soviets out for us, do we come in with aid or rebuilding the country or anything? No, we just ignored them, which they call the Great Betrayal in that part of the world. Of course now we have the Great Betrayal II, same deal, again in Iraq. We go in there, and it’s vastly worse now than even before Saddam Hussein, who was horrible. An even worse example is now [that we’re] right on the precipice of a war with Iran, even if Israel starts it instead of us. They say ‘Y’know, wanna make Iran more democratic, they need to cooperate more with Israel, we wanna take their oil away from them,’ and things like that, and yes, Iran is a horrible theocratic dictatorship and I’d love to see people there have more basic human rights and freedom, but how do we get that in the first place? Well, lets not forget Iran was a democracy in the early 1950’s, and who got rid of the democracy and … staged a coup and put the most hated person in the country, namely the Shah, back into power? It was us, as a favor to British-American oil companies. The elected prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh was trying to nationalize the oil field, we couldn’t have that, now could we? And somehow we thought if we just put the Shah in there and gave him all the weapons and torture devices he wanted to repress his own people on a scale only the (Al-) Asaad family could appreciate. Then look what happened, finally people courageously rose up and overthrew him anyway, in spite of the advantage in weaponry he had. But it got replaced with a horrible religious theocratic dictatorship, who’ve been a huge thorn in our side ever since. I mean what on earth are people thinking that after loosing so badly in Iraq and Afghanistan, we should go in and try and conquer a much more powerful country, with way more people in it than Iraq who hate our f*cking guts way more because we were responsible for cursing them with the Shah, and to some degree cursing them with the religious dictatorship they have now as well, not to mention embracing Saddam Hussein as our new policeman for the Persian Gulf after the Shah fell, and goading him into starting an eight year war with Iran that killed a million people. They haven’t forgotten this, plus the tanks can’t just storm onto the land and roll into Tehran like the do into Baghdad; the land in Iraq was flat, but in Iran it’s mountainous, and … all they have to do to totally get us and the rest of the world in a crosshairs is drop a few mines across the narrow Strait of Hormuz at the end of the Persian Gulf, and then the Saudi, Kuwaiti, Eremite oil and the rest doesn’t flow anymore. All they have to do is threaten to take a few ships, and those ships will loose. How dumb can we be? We set ourselves up for this; White People and the Damage Done. Climate collapse, let’s not call it climate change, let’s call it what it is, and this whole attitude by corporations which I believe if I’m not mistaken include Monsanto, who think they can walk into third world countries, blow up the crops people have been growing for centuries and patten them and come back in and charge a royalty, or worse yet try to force them to grow their own genetically mutilated seeds that don’t reproduce.
215 – This mentality of ‘Oh we need to be the ones to help the Afghans,’ or ‘we need to be the ones to help the Iraqi people-‘
JB – [Interjects] Oh, ‘help’ never entered the equation. Control. How dare someone else besides our own spooks control the Afghan drug trade, another example.
215 – Do you think that mentality of control, presented to the U.S. people as help, do you think that mentality is growing, lessening, staying the same, moving in a different direction?
JB– I would say all at the same time. The things I’ve already talked about, they’re all ongoing. The clear-cutting of the rainforest in Southeast Asia, so that Ikea and Home Despot have enough wood to make their disposable furniture out of and sell it to us, that’s another one. The whole way the drug trade has wrecked country after country in Latin America, and now Mexico, there’s another one.
215 – Any of these events that you’ve just mentioned or anything in the current political climate always has much deeper roots than is revealed to the public. Do you find that at this point in your career, with dozens of releases under your belt, do you find that not just the U.S. but the general political climate of the globe constantly offering you new material to write about?
JB – I will never run out of stuff to write about as long as so many people act so stupid. It’s not always totally their own fault, but again, we could go on for an hour about that. There’s another song on the album called “Hollywood Goof Disease,” about people all caught up in celebrity gossip. That’s a great way of steering society away from being more worried about other things that affect their daily lives. You can always unleash the armies of right-wing pun-ditoids [sic] and talk show nazis … saying ‘hey, it isn’t Wall Street’s problem that you don’t have a job and you’re loosing your home, it must be Mexican, it must be brown people, go get ’em.’
215 – Particularly around the time current president, Barack Obama was elected, people kind of use that as the cure all, ‘oh now all this intense prejudice against all peoples of color throughout the nation, and the nation’s international doings [are behind us].’
JB– [Interjects] Well, they’re only kidding themselves, I’ve heard that one before. If it weren’t for some serious visceral, lingering racism in this country, there wouldn’t be the anti-immigrant backlash, there wouldn’t even be a Tea Party. When I say “White People and the Damage Done,” I include powerful movers and shakers of color that stick to the same agenda of clamping down on human rights and pushing for more corporate feudalism in the interest of being able to further loot the planet for the few, for those who already have so much money they don’t know what to do with it all. That’s another song on the album, “Werewolves of Wall Street.” The album’s probably not coming out until next year, although the Shock-You-Py EP drops in October, but we’ll be playing a lot of these songs in Philly. Especially because we’ve already played in Philly, and we don’t wanna play the same songs twice. We’ll play a few of the same ones, but we’ll play some other ones that people didn’t hear last time.
215 – When you [and the band] stop in at a city, be it any city, but since you mention Philadelphia, do you try to gear songs [and speeches] towards the goings-on in that city. For instance, Philadelphia had a pretty strong Occupy movement… do you find yourself speaking [to cities individually], or is it more of a blur on the road?
JB – Oh, it depends. If I find out something interesting that’s worth talking about on stage, and feel I at least have some grasp of it … I’ll find a way to say something. I don’t take measurements of these things, I couldn’t graph [how often I do that] for you, it just happens. Sometimes I’ll come up with something really good and then wish I could remember I did that and then never remember it. Something of a tangent to the Occupy movement, it may even have another name by next year, but the spirit lives on. It’s the same anti-corporate movement we saw with the Spirit of Seattle, then kinda got derailed for the better part of a decade by Bush’s wars and runaway torture and secret arrest policies. Corruption hit a whole new level; the president didn’t even believe in evolution let alone climate collapse. I’m not sure he believed anything actually [Laughs]. [Bush voice] ‘I don’t need anybody to tell me what I believe, but I need somebody to tell me what Kosovo is.’ Yet another lovely quote from that guy. The latest thing I picked up from Philly really related to occupying the voting booth. [Some people] have said voting is pointless because of the cartoon corporate puppets we get chosen for us for national office, they’re not elected, they’re selected, I agree with that. And I suspect they’re gonna give Obama a second term just to prevent mass insurrection over the collapse of the economy and so many people they’ve left out in the cold. The final shattering of the American dream. But the main reason to vote is local elections; anybody in the greater Philly area knows full well that matters who’s mayor, who’s on the city council, who’s the sheriff, who’s on the school board. You gotta pay attention to the school board or the Santorum Taliban will grab another seat and start censoring what kids are exposed to. That’s a rabid part of the religious right’s agenda… and of course there’s referendums, ballot initiatives, whatever you call them in Pennsylvania, we have the chance unlike Canada and European countries, we get to vote up and down ourselves; rent control, public money for sports stadiums, medical marijuana, we gotta show up and pay attention to this stuff. When people do show up and vote smart, we have a far better chance at getting cool people elected and good laws passed. And when we don’t show up we get things like Proposition 13, which gutted the property tax collection in California and defunded the schools to the point of near collapse. Just north of you [Philadelphia], there’s two ways to stop Chris Christie; poke him with a needle so he explodes like a balloon or vote his agenda down, and get better people into the legislature that won’t let him wreak any more havoc. And let’s not forget that there are other people running for president. Right now I’m leaning towards voting Green Party again. Even though hardly anybody has heard of Jill Stein, and she hasn’t been a mover and shaker and dirt money-inhaler from inside the beltway system, I think she’d be a far better decision than what we’ve got now, and her vice presidential candidate is none other than Cheri Honkala from Philadelphia. I can’t remember the name of her advocacy group [Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign], I know I ran into them [before].
215 – Do you find yourself ever frustrated with the people when they do not show up, or fall short of the cause?
JB– Sometimes it does feel like one set forward, two steps back, but we better keep stepping forward or we’re really f*cked. I mean, I’m very grateful that I have an outlet for my feelings about these things instead of being the cranky drunk at the end of the bar that nobody pays attention to. I’m grateful at my age that anybody is even still interested in me, and show up and hear what I say and let me rock ’em with my tunes. I’m very grateful. It also creates a positive kind of pressure on me, if I’m gonna show up with new stuff or even play some of the old stuff, it better be good. And as far as letting the depressing situation of the big picture and what’s going on with our planet to get me down, it helps to have a really twisted sense of humor… If I wasn’t able to let out a thick laugh at the sheer perversity of some of this outright evil in some cases, I would’ve pulled a Kurt Cobain two decades ago. You kinda have to revel in the trenches and enjoy being where you are.
215 – In one of your songs, “John Dillinger,” on the album you say “Give the public Johnny, Bonnie, Babyface & Clyde/So just like now, Wall Street gets a free ride.” Who [do you believe] are some of the current day Bonnie and Clyde’s that big businesses try to pass off to the public as a diversion?
JB – They don’t have to look very far, Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda have been handy for years. There is the one guy you can pin everything on, Bernie Madoff, without really wanting to open the door to the hundreds if not thousands of other Bernie Madoff’s who’ve done even more damage. Even Bush’s father’s administration saw more people go to jail in the late ’80’s than in the ‘BarackStar’ years. The feds haven’t gone after anybody, they’re happy to make a showcase trial over Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, two sports stars who took a bunch of steroids at a time when it was legal, even the governor of California had gobbled some down obviously…they could be going after hardcore, white collar crime, most of which has gotten a total free pass under the BarackStar administration, I suspect that was the only reason they were allowed to take power. A friend of mine [from] the early punk rock scene in San Francisco who runs a big DC news blog now, called Firedoglake, told me over dinner, after wow-ing them at the 2004 convention, the BarackStar started going door to door up and down K Street … to lobbyists offices [saying] ‘Hi, I’m your guy. That explains why when the economy collapsed as badly as it did, he didn’t bring in a bunch of watch dogs and people who kick ass and clean up, he put some of the same people in from the Clinton years, who were responsible for gutting the Glass-Steagall Act in the first place, allowing our banks to use our own money in a big ol’ casino and loose it all. Instead of going to prison the banks just got bigger, more consolidated, and the people at the top are running off with even more money. I didn’t vote for Obama in 2008, and my conscience is clear, and no way am I voting for him this time. I’d rather vote or work for something I want and not get it than work or vote for something I don’t want and get it.
Jello Biafra & the Guantanamo School of Medicine wrap up their tour by mid October in Europe, get dates here. Listen to the Schock-You-Py! single from the upcoming album here.
Philly’s hardest working instrumentalists treat their hometown to night after night of groovy tracks. Photos by Julia Aguilar
Philly’s psych-prog-weirdness trio Grimace Federation are four going on five nights deep into their Popular Science residency at the Kung-Fu Necktie in North Philadelphia. Held in collaboration with Brooklyn based DJ Sonkin, the shows feature a wide variety of supporting acts for the multi-night venture, hailing everywhere from Florida to Barcelona. Bridging the gap between grimy bass DJ acts, dance anthem dubstep, hip hop and everything in between, Popular Science hasproven to be as much of a party as a show, with concert goers rocking the dance floor each night from beginning to long after the end.
The bi-weekly concert hosts an array of different artists and styles for each night. Night one (July 18th) saw the snare frenzied dance beats of Rhode Island’s The Range soar above bass heavy acts Starkey and Dev79, founders of the local dub/grime label, Seclusiasis. Night two (August 1st) opened with Philly dj Krueger’s bouncy swag music, followed by the cloud riding spitting and dope beats of local mc, Lushlife, (whose latest album, Plateau Vision is out now on Western Vinyl), closing off with Sinjin Hawke bringing a taste of Barcelona house music. Philly resident Jesse Miller, performing as his solo act Beard-O-Bees offered more beat-driven electronica than his day job as a member of ambient post-rockers Lotus on night three (August 15th), accompanied by Philly’s Damn Right! and DJ Thibault from Brooklyn. Night four (August 29th) ended in a haze of funk and bass beats from Philly’s Greg D and Sir Charles, making his first Philadelphia appearance from his hometown of Jacksonville, Florida. Each night’s unique blend of genre-melding electronica acts serve as only a taste however, to the real treat of the residency, the hosts themselves, Grimace Federation.
Despite their modesty, (Grimace Federation perform each night in the middle of the set, with Sonkin closing) Grimace Federation stole the show each night. Blurring the lines between atmospheric jazz-rock and electro psychedelia, Grimace has been putting in work since day one, and have the scars to show for it; on their debut album Tasted by Chemists (2007), the group was a sextet, but after many changes in sound and lineup, the band stands tall as a powerhouse trio, an absolute behemoth of sound. Despite their changes in sound over the years, from the acoustic nu-jazz of their earliest demos to the post jazz-rock epics of their full lengths, Grimace have retained the complexity that has always made them such a thrill to listen to; having housed a horn section, a vibes player, an additional drummer and guitarist, Grimace don’t sound like any less of a band then they’ve been in the past. If anything, they’ve pushed themselves to the limits of creativity to grow and become more of a band.
Grimace Federation’s newest work at first seems like the largest left-turn they’ve taken, switching up their game as psychedelic jazz rockers to pioneering vast, lush landscapes of electro trip hop, but upon further listening, it seems only natural that Grimace have ended up here; new tracks like “Escape at Dawn” unfold with hooks and progressions that completely immerse the listener in a world of sonic hypnotism, whilst tracks like “Ghosts in a Mirror” pay homage to their instrumental roots. Chris Wood still pounds out the drums with such fervor that you’d be hard pressed to try and tell a listener that they no longer have two drummers, least Wood’s whirling arms were flying across his kit right in front of you. Bassist Jim Calvarese grooves alongside the computer generated rhythms, reminding us that the only true bass is played, well, on a bass. Guitarist and board-master Wes Schwartz conducts with a guiding hand, which he turns with ease to the keyboard or guitar at a moment’s notice, jamming hard on the near-Slayer quoting “Prog Too,” or the doom rock of “Gramonts Memory.”
“We’re always doin’ something,” laughs Schwartz, taking a drag off his cigarette after the fourth night’s set. He’s certainly not kidding either; Grimace Federation have taken little time off between Popular Science dates, traveling to Montage Mountain in Scranton for the Allman Brothers Band’s Peach Music Festival in early August, as well as opening for Circa Survive in later that month for their album release show. Though initially announced as a four night event, Popular Science has added two more dates to their string of shows, one later this month (Sept. 14th, this Friday) and one in October (3rd, Wednesday). Indeed, Grimace Federation show no signs of slowing down, continuing to weave sonic wanderings for both the rocking dance floor and gazing at star studded skies. Stop by the next Popular Science show to see what they cook up next.
Folk & blues artist Emmett Drueding finds his muse in producer Grave Goods.
Chances are if you’ve been to a bar with anything resembling a stage in Philadelphia, you’ve heard the haunting picking and crooning of Emmett Drueding. “I’ve played Kung Fu Necktie, I’ve played Silk City, Connie’s Ric Rac, JR’s Bar, Trocadero Balcony, I’ve played the M Room, I’ve played The Fire, the Arts Garage, Cha Cha Razzi, The Bookspace,” lists Drueding, who has had plenty of time to get such an impressive catalogue under his belt. Drueding, though only 21, has been writing, playing and performing music since his early high school years. “A buncha’ house parties,” adds Drueding, chuckling. “I’ve played a lotta’ house parties.”
No stranger to recording, Drueding has been spent time in the studio as both a solo artist and band member; in 2010, Drueding’s punk group The Chill Nazis (whose eventual dissolution he jokes had a lot to do with the too oft-misinterpreted name) released their first official and final self-titled recording. Following the group’s disbandment, Drueding dusted off and has continued to perform and record as a solo artist, his punk roots developing into more of a fingerpicking style, reminiscent of what a city born, 21st century Blind Willie McTell might sound like. “It’s a little stripped down [compared to my other work],” says Drueding. “It’s the sad homeless guy on the street, strummin’ his guitar.”But after some lonely years by the side of the road, Drueding has found a new panhandling companion in his music.
Philadelphia producer Zach Sewall (aka Grave Goods), who has worked with numerous acts including chart-toppers Chiddy Bang, met Drueding a mere two months ago, but the two have been collaborating and working tirelessly since their introduction, and hope to release a 6-song EP before the new year. “I just wanted to do something that was completely different than anything I’d ever done before,” say Drueding, on making music collaboratively again. “It’s going to be hard to recreate live what we’ve done in the studio,” admits Drueding. “I can go out on stage and I can put my whole heart out there, but what I’m trying to do in the studio is … give you everything that’s going on in my head.
“I’ve never been in a more comfortable environment musically in my life,” observes Drueding, “[To] be perfectly frank, I’m a decent musician, and I’m also not a producer.” Since they began collaborating, Grave Goods has made great strides to build upon Drueding’s writing, rather than force it in any predestined direction, creating what Drueding calls “a temple of concepts.”
“[It’s] really honest,” Grave Goods says of Drueding’s writing. “They’re very well crafted, but apart from the craft, there’s a lot of real honest feeling there, and I know that’s something I always want to listen to.” The concepts behind his music are vast and varied, as Drueding’s influences stretch from the 1920’s all the way up to Beach House; from his punk days, Drueding recalls the influences of Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys, Lou Reed of The Velvet Underground, and the Misfits, whilst more contemporary artists like Kurt Vile, Radiohead and even Wu-Tang Clan have also left their mark on him.
“I have rhythm in [my songs] that are undoubtably influenced [by hip hop], one of my songs literally takes the rhythm of Liquid Swords, it’s a straight rip from that,” laughs Drueding. His largest influences however, will always be the blues men of the 1920’s and ’30s.
“Mississippi John Hurt was my first country/blues album, and he’s made me realize the dynamic of what a singer-songwriter can be. What I realized with blues guys like Mississippi John Hurt, Reverend Gary Davis, Skip James, is that these are people who have their guitar and their vocals, and … a lot of pain.” Drueding’s music has always reflected that pain and emotion, drawn from his life in Philadelphia.
“Philly has undeniably influenced me.” Drueding, Mount Airy born and South Philly resident, has been to each corner of the city of brotherly love, and lived in more than a few of them. “You wanna talk about the content of my songs, it’s always gonna be about Philly, no matter what.” Philadelphia’s many facets, not just it’s violence and pain, have left a profound imprint upon Drueding’s style, and he recognizes the many qualities of such a varied cityscape, not resigned to becoming stuck in the sad and somber “XPN,” as he calls it, image of a singer-songwriter.
“Mississippi John Hurt’s actually very lighthearted, a very interesting character,” Drueding muses. “He would smile when people would say ‘Hey boy, pick up the guitar,’ … he’d say ‘Sure.’ He must’ve been so confident in his ability and so involved in his music he didn’t [care] about anyone else. It’s like, f*ck all that shit, who cares, I’m gonna pick up the guitar and I’m gonna blow you’re f*cking mind, whiteboy.
Although Drueding will always worship the likes of John Fahey and Leadbelly, he understands that his music is traveling in a slightly different direction. “My music’s not the same,” he admits. “I’m not just gonna do straight blues. It’s not my time or place to do that, I’m not trying to bring back the music of Mississippi John Hurt, but I will do a cover here and there. But I’m not gonna sing it like John Hurt did, cause I can’t.” Of what this new project with Grave Goods will bring, only time will tell. So the next time you find yourself in a Philly bar, wondering from where the plucks and bluesy moans of a 20th century, inner-city bred Robert Johnson are coming, take a look around. You might just find Emmett Drueding standing there, hat in hand.
The Sun Ra Arkestra treat their hometown to some cosmic swing. Photos by Julia Aguilar.
As the sun began to sink low on the recently wetted 40th Street Field in University City, the notes of another sun began to rise. The Sun Ra Arkestra gave a rare hometown appearance this past Saturday the 28th, as part of the ongoing 40th Street Summer Series. A brief sun shower during setup broke the heat of the evening, giving patrons some of the first real summer breezes of the year. Families and students alike lined up to cop their complimentary Rita’s water ice, necks craned back towards the stage, knowing that soon, the Philly’s favorite Saturanian angels would be descending.
The Sun Ra Arkestra have collectively lived in Germantown on and off since the late Sun Ra himself relocated to Philadelphia in 1968, and have continued to have a great presence in West and greater Philly. The Arkestra was lead under the conduction of saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist Marshall Allen, who has lead the group since the death of former bandleader, John Gilmore in 1995. The often revolving-door-lineup of the Arkestra, not to mention the ascension of Sun Ra himself in 1993, has done little to hinder the group from continuing to carry on in the tradition of making free, innovative music.
Those more familiar with the Arkestra’s legendary cosmic squeals that shook the jazz community throughout the ’60’s and ’70’s were in for a treat, as the Arkestra began to showcase just how wide their musical range was. From the infamous chants of “Space is the Place!” to doo-wop influenced ditties, the Arkestra ran the gamut of their other-earthly sounds. Allen had plenty of time to blow away on his alto and send his fingers a fly across his EVI without having to worry about acting strictly as a bandleader; after all, most of the musicians in the Arkestra have been playing with the group since the days of Ra himself. The majority of the setlist centered around the Arkestra’s cool space swing, a rich period for the band that is so often unfortunately overlooked when considering the group’s massive discography. Vocalist and saxophonist Knoel Scott’s voice, honeyed with just the right amount of gravel, echoed clear across the field, melding with the big brass of the Arkestra’s horn section, coaxing patrons from their lawn chairs to the grassy dance floor. After all, music that swings this hard just can’t be listened to sitting down.
Towards the end of the set, the Arkestra began their ritual of getting off stage and going out amongst the audience to play. As I watched the sea of bodies become peppered with gold and red sequins and Egyptian headdresses, I couldn’t help but swell with a bit of Philly pride; The Sun Ra Arkestra, a group that has spanned across five decades, dozens of LP’s and even more members, is still just as much as they ever were, an ever changing, ever evolving group of musicians. Not one member of the Arkestra rests upon the laurels of having played with Ra, instead constantly searching within themselves to bring out that creative flair, continuing in the spirit of keeping things innovative and fresh, and above all, full of love. As Allen and the group said their farewells, and the last traces of sunlight dipped behind the skyline, storm clouds began to roll back around. Turns out all it took was a little Sun to break the heat after all.
Canadian prog rockers, Yamantaka // Sonic Titan, bring their unique sound to Philadelphia at the Kung Fu Necktie, June 12th, 2012. Photos by Julia Aguilar.
Echoes of noisy, operatic chants and soaring cries tumbling together with the occasional stoner guitar riff poured out of the Kung Fu Neckties’ doors onto the rainy Tuesday night. Canadian self-proclaimed Noh-wavers Yamantaka // Sonic Titan made their stop in Phillly on June 12th, during the tail end of their U.S./Canada tour. Founded by visionaries Alaska B (drums, vocals and electronics) and Ruby Kato Attwood (vocals, keys and percussion), the YT//ST collective wasted no time captivating the small but enthralled audience. From first otherworldly note to last, not a single patron could be found in a seat.
Noh-wave, a phrase coined by the band, couldn’t be a more applicable label for Yamantaka // Sonic Titan to have found for themselves. Even during setup it was clear that the band was bringing all of their influences to the table; the painted faces of the band recalled the traditional Noh Japanese classical theater, and at times even harkened to the Norwegian black metal scene’s corpse paint. Donning studded vests, the band began to erect knee-high cloud cardboard cutouts, a more restrained representation of the street art style installations they have done in their hometown of Montreal. The expectancy from the crowd could be felt as everyone spoke in hushed tones, pointing excitedly at the guitarist’s Misfits tee and Alaska B’s stark red-on-white face paint. And this was before the music even started.
As the lights dimmed and the crowd fell silent, I thought for a moment that the storm outside had picked up with newfound vigor, until I realized that the thunder and rainfall was emitting from the stage. Drums, guitar, keys and effects slowly rose amongst the storm spilling from the speakers, with vocal chants steadily rising above the clamor. Just as I noticed two empty microphone stands on stage, an enormous paper dragon sprang forth from beside the stage and headed into the crowd. Piloted by Attwood and Ange Loft (vocals), the dragon plowed through the audience, bobbing and weaving to the psychedelic tribal rhythms radiating from the stage. After a few rounds through the stunned crowd, the helmswomen took to the stage, Attwood dressed in regal Noh style robes and headdress, Loft in what was barely recognizable as a garbage bag styled to mimic a shadowy spirit. The setlist seemed to more or less follow the track listing of Yamantaka // Sonic Titan’s debut, YT//ST, released on Psychic Handshake Recordings. An amalgamation of psychedelic noise rock, operatic chants, with hints of space-age jazz and East Asian folk, the set was perfectly balanced between the band’s influences; driving, noisy, post-punk anthems topped with catchy vocals reflected flawlessly off of the tribal, drum-driven chantings. Slight inklings of drone and stoner metal filled the cracks of their sound as well, living up to the “Sonic Titan” portion of their name.
Before the last song of the set, Alaska B briefly addressed the crowd, thanking everyone for coming out, proclaiming that this was their favorite city yet and that there would be no encore. Despite the disappointing news, it seemed fitting; after all, operas don’t have encores. Before trekking back out into the rain, I stopped to pick up a copy of YT//ST and thank Alaska and Loft at the merch table, who told me that they would be playing one more show in New York before returning to Canada to finish off their tour with a couple dates. If you’re lucky enough to be reading this from the homeland of our Northern brothers, don’t miss Yamantaka // Sonic Titan. I can guarantee it’ll be the best $10 opera you ever see. Get dates here.