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Metro Pulse Spontaneous Combustion

The music of OR has thrived in a vacuum. How will it fare on the international post-rock scene?

By Mike McGonigal

DECEMBER 1, 1997: 

"In hindsight, Krautrock was not remotely 'hippy' in its modern post-punk definition. It was soaringly idealistic and hard as nails. This Kosmische Musik was played by painted freaks and longhairs whose attitude had never left the idealism or the communes/collectives of the mid-1960s. Krautrock's heart was still in the MC5's guitars and the White Panthers' civil insurrection of 1969 Detroit, and the sheer moment of Andy Warhol's 1966 Exploding Plastic Inevitable...If I had been a young German in the 1960s, I would have played Krautrock or died. No way could I have lived with the knowledge that my parents' generation had had dealings in a crime beyond Biblical proportions...Krautrock transcended this and more. Because it had to."

—Musician/author Julian Cope, from his fact-crammed KRAUTROCKSAMPLER (Head Heritage,1996).

The post-rock musicians (i.e., Tortoise, Red Red Meat, Rex, Him, Unwound, Gastr del Sol, Labradford, Spectrum, Mouse on Mars, Aerial-M, and Turn-On) are a generation of post-grunge artists who question the validity, the whole pretense, of "exposing their innermost thoughts and ideas" through music. Unlike punk rock and hippy music, post-rock doesn't propose strict judgments, opinions, or values. The music is in between rock and not-rock, structured and unstructured music, exploring the tensions in these in-between places.

The music of these post-rockers is first and foremost influenced by the discovery of "Krautrock," from the perspective of having first been raised on "classic" FM rock in the '70s. In the '80s, these musicians' ears were opened to alternatives by indie-rock groups like the Minutemen, Sonic Youth, Black Flag, Sun City Girls, Uzi, and the Meat Puppets. Krautrock encompasses the psychedelia-inspired sounds created by a handful of forward-thinking German rock bands during the late '60s and early '70s: Can's funky ethno-trance, Faust's dadaistic collage-happy soundscapes, and Kraftwerk's rigid, fast- car-driving, early electro, Teutonic micro-groove. This incredibly exciting sound is characterized by music that is by turns heavy, visceral, and spacily ethereal. The ideal Krautrock effortlessly achieves all at once. A trance-inducing use of repetition helps root rhythms in the body. The use of droning keyboard, jet engine guitar, Teutonic folk violin, experimental flute-playing, transcendental singing, and otherworldly, electronic oscillations help guide the music steadily toward the astral plain.

Kraftwerk's Trans-Europe Express is the bridge from utopian Krautrock to dystopian industrial music, where machines are seen in a less liberating way. Fueled by the fires of punk rock in the '70s and early '80s, the envelope of acceptable sound was pushed much farther towards pure noise. Several chief exponents of this were Lou Reed's feedback composition Metal Machine Music, the advanced British group Throbbing Gristle, and later the supra-cacophonous German ensemble Einsturzende Neubauten. The uncompromising music of these musicians still makes Trent Reznor sound like the Bowie-wannabe he is, playing in a sandbox of half-baked, recycled musical ideas.

Which brings us back to OR...sounding like a crazy super-psychedelic whirling dervish rock outfit one minute, they can come on like delicate sound-scientists the next. What they're doing is fundamentally vital and really clued in to the international "post-rock" (a dumb term if ever there was one, but I didn't come up with it so don't blame me) movement. OR's music is a strong counterpart to this vital, exciting, intentionally messed-up sound. Like other interesting, savvy rock-based groups today, OR builds samples of sounds they create themselves, looping and playing them towards infinity. This group has thrived in the abject disregard of Knoxville's music scene. But Knoxville's finest, who gig for free regularly, will likely no longer be a secret, because, with funding from an anonymous backer, they've put together 10 tracks which they will have pressed up and sold as their first CD.

"What's good about Knoxville is obvious—if you suck, no one's there to see you suck," says guitarist/vocalist Scott Key.

"Well, 30 people are there to see us suck, on average," sampler Martin Beeler says. Thirty? "It's 30, yeah!"

But there was that show at Mercury...

"That was definitely less than 30," drummer John Talbird answers. "We cleared the place out," Beeler explains. "We looked up at the end and it was eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee (makes a flat-line noise)."

"As far as Knoxville, it's just where I live," Talbird says. "I don't feel 'good' or 'bad' about it. I like Knoxville as a small college town, but I don't think it's really beneficial for an experimental band as far as people's acceptance. I think that there's a nice, small group of people that appreciate experimental or nontraditional music forms, but I don't think there's a lot of people interested in coming to see it."

"We could be living in Chicago and we would have the same overall percentage of music-goers at our shows," Key explains. "It would be more people coming, but it would still be the same group of hipster/nerds. I would be just more miserable. I lived in Chicago to go to the Art Institute and didn't like it at all; there was no real socialization there. When it comes to certain kinds of art, it doesn't matter where you're creating it. We could be in Lenoir City once we had the thing down. You could be any kind of band in Knoxville, and people don't show up. It's different only if you've got hype associated with you, which usually involves having gone somewhere, gotten a contract, and returned as the conquering heroes."

"I think our music is really accessible to people from all kinds of music backgrounds and all kinds of tastes," Talbird says.

Talbird has a lot to do with why OR's sound works. He's got this metronomic thing going on; he has a style, an easily-recognizable groove that gives their recorded music a distinct flavor. Talbird describes it: "When the band was just a duo with Key and me in the beginning, I would change things all the time—change the tempo a lot, speed it up, slow it down. It was easier to suddenly change tempo with two people, especially because he might not always be playing rhythmically. But with the three of us, it's limited what I could do in that kind of way. I agree, I do get into a groove. And really, each piece is just one rhythm with variations on it throughout the whole seven or eight or 15 minutes, whatever the piece is."

Key's guitar tactics are unlike most other guitar players; it's distinctively droning, holding one note for a long time. He says it's because "I don't know how to play," but that's humble pie. Key listens to a lot of traditional, ethnic music from Norway, India, and Japan. "In any other band, I wouldn't be able to play this way. It's very rhythmic, the way I play. I saw this thing about Bo Diddley recently, and he said, 'I was always listening to the drummers; I was trying to do the drum parts on the guitar.' Having always played with Talbird, I can really respond to what he's doing; there's a total dialogue going on there." Key will also occasionally use an old, beat-up Casio keyboard to sample the group's live playing, then play it back through an amp.

So what does Beeler do? "Twiddling knobs, buddy!" he says. In a live show, he sometimes samples pre-recorded tapes of the group playing, while they're playing. Beeler mixes the sampling with directly playing cassettes, CDs ("Things I can get a good clear sustained sound out of, like minimalist stuff—Terry Riley, Messaien organ music, film soundtracks—I try to make them unrecognizable, through EQ and delay, and just running it through my crummy equipment changes it a lot"), a mixer, a keyboard, and a little bit of guitar.

To paraphrase venerable jazz bassist/composer Charles Mingus, when music strays too far from song and dance, it can really suck. I personally need my experimental sounds to be tempered by some palatable combination of rhythm and/or melody; OR feels the same way. As Beeler says, "We're not a noise band." So what kind of music are they? "There is the old people's music thing," Key says, readying himself to launch into a manifesto. They're music for old people? "No, we're amateur music, old popular music. I think of the band as being —and this is why it doesn't bother me to be in Knoxville but it would bother me to relocate to like New York City, or to have teeming millions of fans—like in pre-recording culture. When people made their own music for other small groups of people to listen to. That doesn't mean that they were uncritical, but one made music as a creative act, not as an attempt to foist one's image on the world and to make money."

OR's live sets are organic, flowing from one sound to another. But there's no compositional score, no set list taped to the stage. At the shows I've seen, the group started all playing one sound, or along with one basic sound, and 30 to 40 minutes later ended on another note; the entire group rallied around it, and they all knew that meant it was the end. "That's the extent of the structure we set up beforehand, really. It's not a sound so much as a certain texture or level," Beeler explains. "It's just what we know that we do together," he continues, "how that'll sound, as a texture. It's just that we know what it'll be like when I play accordion and Scott plays bowed guitar. The whole thing about limitation is important. A lot of it just happens intuitively. At a show, it's about keeping it coherent."

"These kind of boundaries are important," Talbird adds. "It keeps it from just getting redundant or self-indulgent."

"One time we had a three-hour time limit," Key says.

"And it was self-indulgent!" Beeler quickly adds.

Putting out your first record by yourself is a good way to begin. "You learn that the gods are against you," Key says.

"The trick to doing everything ourselves is to find people we know or that somebody we know knows, so that we can do it cheap or for free, from the recording to the mastering," Beeler explains.

The benefactor behind OR's CD, who doesn't want to be identified, would say only, "My actions speak for themselves—just write that an anonymous patron came through for them."

Typically, Key has "mixed feelings" about the CD, the projected street date for which is February 1, 1998. "I just don't know how much the recording aspect of it has to do with OR. I've always looked at it as a performance-based thing. My main impetus is playing live. I'm unsure about the validity of it, in a world cluttered with records. At the same time, most of my influences come from recorded music."

Personally, I'm glad somebody else has stepped in to help these young lads release their music; I could see it being well-received by writers and music-lovers around the world. But if OR were left to do it themselves, they'd probably just have critical discussions together about the "validity" of it until they were blue in the face.

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