Sleepytime Gorilla Museum

Thursday, 06 September 2007

Oakland, California’s Sleepytime Gorilla Museum teeter into the theatrical prog while still resting in everything from near-classical compositions to chug-chugging metal anthems, and then retreat back into softly spoken studies into “black math” (where 1+1 is, in fact, 0) and the Futurists vs. the Unabomber. Drummer/percussionist Matthias Bossi and vocalist/guitarist/etc Nils Frykdahl thought it commodious and eye opening to welcome Ground Control on the SGM bus (a converted mid-80s full length complete with a sleeping area, kitchen, and communal living room).

Ground Control: Could you give a short history on the Sleepytime Gorilla Museum?

Nils: Dan (Rathburn, bass) and I played in Idiotflesh, which began in 1990. That was where the progress of making a band, a real composition based band, and making the instruments, started. We wanted one that was oriented to textures…that sort of combination was the seed. Little bits of it were going into Idiotflesh.

Matthias: I joined in the fall of 2003. My first tour was winter of 2004. In fact, New Year’s Eve, 2003, on the cusp of ’04. I was in New York playing drums in a band called Skeleton Key. Sleepytime and Skeleton Key had done a tour together about a year prior. I was lucky enough to hit it off with these guys and later on their drummer left and they asked me to audition. At that point we were in the process of recording the record that became Of Natural History, which came out the following fall, Halloween of ’04. And at that point Michael, the other percussionist/multi instrumentalist guitar guy, had joined for their record release tour. I appeared on three tracks on Natural History. The old drummer had recorded most of the record before that, so we split the record.

GC: What is your method for writing songs? Do multiple people write them and present them to the band or is there one major songwriter?

M: It’s a communal thing, all five of us are writing now. It’s the first time in this band’s history that all the members are contributing, and I think to a great level. We all have our own individual styles and have been playing with each other a fair amount of time now so we know each other’s strengths and write songs that cater to our weird homemade instruments. On earlier records, Nils was carrying a lot of the writing.

GC: On the subject of the instruments, could you explain them?

M: Well, Dan, the bass player, makes them all and they are inspired by, indirectly, the early industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten, our German compatriots. Also, the desire to make a singular noise that is unavailable to you from standard instruments. A lot of (our instruments) are very one-dimensional, but they do make their one sound very well and serve to round out our cadre of normal instruments. It just turns it a little…it gives the ear something to chew on. They’re all built by Dan – the Percussion Guitar, the Slide Piano Log, aka the Sledgehammer Dulcimer, the Lever Action Lever, which is just a strange thing, the Electric Pancreas, bunch of sheet metal bits…

GC: What exactly is the Electric Pancreas?

M: It’s like a piece…Michael plays it. It’s a piece of sheet metal with a contact mic on it and a bunch of foam that you can use to add or detract from the sound so it can either go sppppledah! or bpleduh.

GC: How would you describe your music to someone that hasn’t heard it?

M: There are a lot of elements – early industrial music, art song, twentieth century contemporary classical music, cabaret, metal all rolled into one, you know, many, many things – and a real appreciation for literature and theater that informs our lyrical content.

GC: What are some of your musical influences? What about writers?

M: Einstürzende Neubauten, early industrial Germany. As I said, they directly, or indirectly, influenced the making of our homemade instruments or wont to bang on anything or put a contact mic on anything to see what it sounds like. Swans, an early industrial American band from the Bay Area, New York, and beyond. And most especially a band called Art Bears, Fred Frith guitarist, mentor, musical hero of all of us. And the earlier Henry Cow – some Brits who, I think, taught us how to really put detail into writing rock songs. Write rock songs with the purpose of the classical composer; that level of rewriting and scrapping bars and being willing to edit and develop themes. Peter Gabriel, Bantock. Berlioz, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett – There’s a lot of things that inform the Sleepytime Museum, for sure.

GC: You spend a lot of time on the road. How is it that you can sustain yourselves with such a nomadic lifestyle?

M: Communal living, socialist hierarchy, splitting up the labor, not staying in hotels, cooking for ourselves, taking the buyout from the club. We have the kitchen on the bus, you know which takes the place of…well, (the bus is) a big expense in itself, but in the end has saved us a lot of money.

GC: What do you tell bands, ones that are just beginning, on how to take their show on the road?

M: Start small. Start in your local community, then book little weekend satellite tours. You can’t expect it to happen right away. I was lucky enough to join an already well-oiled machine that had been going in one way or another since the early 90’s with Idiotflesh, Dan and Nils’ old band. All it takes is persistence and branching out bit by bit. Start in the Bay area, then go to LA. When you’re in LA, the people from Phoenix come. Then your next time out you go to Phoenix, the people from Tucson come. Then those people tell their friends about it and then you go to that town, and then you make it to Texas. Then, before you realize you made it to New Orleans. And the pretty soon you’ve done the circuit. It takes a long ass time, and a lot of tours with creepy routing that can take the piss out of you. Nothing is ever as logical as you’d like it to be, at least for the first hundred tours. Be patient.

Also, do it for yourself. Don’t try and be discovered or signed. You have to make music you like. Don’t design your hits. Like, “This one’s for the kids.” “This one's for the metal heads.” You just have to write music that you like and be able to survive without hopes of a label or other people stepping in to bail you out. That’s been the spirit of this band, and because of that the offers have come in.

GC: To stay on the subject of touring, you’re now hitting up shows and festivals in Europe. How is playing to European crowds different than playing for American crowds?

M: I think there’s an overall appreciation for the artist there. You’re not seen as an outsider. It’s a well-respected profession over there. You get health insurance. You’re seen as a cornerstone of society, a building block. The avant-garde over there, or what people are listening to…it’s just more commonplace to find people stretching their ears. Just the amount of weirdo, freaky art-rock festivals over there compared to here, that was just sort of the bulk of our tour, not necessarily with like-minded bands but with promoters just wanting to push the outsider art.

GC: Do you other jobs when not touring or recording?

M: Yes, Carla is a full time musician. Dan is a recording engineer. Nils and myself are house painters. Michael has some weird job in governmental policy. Yeah, he’s like doing code for the astronaut association…I don’t know what the hell he’s doing…something on the Internet.

GC: On Of Natural History there was a song titled “FC: The Freedom Club” with the Unabomber being a key subject and the “FC” being his pen name. In these terror-stricken, paranoid times, was there much…

M: Backlash? No, I don’t think so. We’re such a small…maybe if we were Pearl Jam there would be a big splash, but no. Very low level. We pitted the Unabomber vs. the Futurists, sort of pro-technology vs. anti-tech back to where we came from. No, it’s become a hit for our fans, but we haven’t gotten a call from the government.

GC: Yet.

M: Yeah, yet.

GC: What is your take on these paranoid times?

M: These are glorious times! We’re lucky to be doing what we’re doing. It’s bittersweet and inevitable that when we travel and go overseas we’re able to see that the American empire is losing its grip on the world. It’s sad…because we’re not typical Americans, and for our kids it’s going to be really fucked up. It makes you more cautious, like “Do I really wanna bring more kids in this world with its current state of affairs?” At the same time, we’re able to go overseas and people say, “Wow, you’re really Americans?!” and, “I can’t believe it!” There are some of us out there that are staying out of the machine and are working to create our own self-sustaining universe; make a great name for ourselves.

There are still a lot of great things about America, a lot of good people. It’s a shame that a few people have really fucked it up for us now. I’m resolved and also pretty nervous about the next twenty years. It’s already in motion. Whatever’s going to happen is gonna happen. It’s happened to all the great empires of the world – you have to fall at some point. Going to Czech republic, Poland, and these really super poor countries…I love to see it, I love the spirit over there. They’re getting it done. They’re not sitting on the top of the heap taking for granted the gifts they have like us here in America.

We’re trying to keep ourselves honest by working really, really hard in our little socialist ant colony here.

GC: Per Frykdahl did the artwork for the new record. How is he related to you?

N: He’s my brother. He’s actually done the artwork for all the albums, and t-shirts…a lot of the imagery. He was also the one that hipped us to the name Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. We were both interested in this artist John Kane, who was part of this group called the Sleepytime Gorilla press. They put on a show, only one show, it actually was. They burned their building. Per had just been wowed by that…he was shouting it out and it was showing up in his artwork. The cover of that new album has that page of Per’s scribble stuff. And that, it says Sleepytime Gorilla Museum…and that was, I think, the first time it showed up in his artwork. I remember thinking, “What the hell…I wonder…hmmm, naw it’s too long,” but, yeah, a few years later, “Yeah, let’s do it! Time is right! Sleepytime Gorilla Museum.” Per’s artwork is pretty inspirational…and his crazy life. He’s led a much crazier life than me. Drugs, street, jail, mental hospital, all hosts of miscreant friends that conspired…the first song on the album, “The Companions”, was written directly about those folks and the idea of inviting them to the show. Saying this fully knowing that they will not leave Oakland to go to San Francisco. Not within their means, not within their view, which did not extend past four blocks. I was musing, “Wouldn’t that be cool, though, if they did come…” Someone would misunderstand something, someone would get mad, someone would get stabbed…and then it would be my fault. Per, little over a year ago, died. Having the album full of his artwork…most of the images, some of them I hadn’t used before, some of them from the mental hospitals…artwork…all that crazy writing. All that stuff I had set aside to give to this woman to make a book of it.

GC: So it’s essentially a tribute to Per.

N: Definitely the package is. Some of the songs…his voice on the phone messages through it; he’s always been a source of inspiration for me in my songwriting for sure…his course through life.

GC: Traveling around, I’m sure you’ve encountered some humorous incidents. Any certain ones come to mind?

M: Hmmm, humorous incidents. Nils, what’s funny?

N: What’s funny? Free things. When they cost money, they’re not funny anymore.

M: Oh, in Denver, Colorado, we were approached by some gacked up twin brothers who just started this website reviewing shows. Very clean cut fellows. They had obviously been drinking and doing coke, or any number of go-fast drugs and they were pretty new at the interviewing thing.

N: They were pretty new at the drugs thing, too.

M: I gave one of them a haircut. He came on the bus in a pink polo shirt, khaki pants, and docksides. He was admiring Dan’s haircut, Dan with the three mohawks, and he said, “Oooh, that’s a nice haircut. I wonder how I…” and I fired up the buzzers and just went BRRRRR! down the center of his head. I did it really with out him asking. He was totally amazed by his hairstyle.

GC: Last words?

N: Hail satin.

GC: Satin? The soft material?

N: Yeah. Somebody wrote that on the back of our bus. I am not sure if it was an intentional misspelling. It happened in Mobile, Alabama, or Florida. So, yeah, I think they definitely tried to spell Satan. But this is better; it’s just more family friendly.

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