Xenat-Ra chases music and rhyme to the deepest ends of space
Xenat-Ra’s “Science for the Soundman” opens with a little test: “Ape With a Synthesizer.” It thuds the medulla square in the joint where the better, cultured you resides.
If ingested correctly, it traverses the swerve of sound and space, a wicked chug of color twisting jazz and rock and hip-hop and prose and whatever sweet pieces and sonic tech hurricanes blow through the breadth of its universe. Anything can happen here. Dig it? Cool. Do not? Your loss.
“Free the beast!” commands interlocutor Monk Metz, a pentameter-slammin’ syllable killer known in mortal form as Ben Metzger. On mics he races to beat the beats, to smash enough dimensions of language and comprehension to flow straight into the mind. (Taste: “The standard stepper, I pepper drum breaks with letters and watch the dumb fakes whisper goodbye to their naïve takes on forever.”) The beast is loosed as implored, never to be caged again. Floodgates give. Swarms of verbal epiphanies charge across the cosmos.
Mastering engineer Ryan Foster declared this greeting a ballsy move on an already ambitious album. Keyboardist Dave Trenkel calls it a simple mission statement. “We are Xenat-Ra,” it seems to say, “and you are coming with us.”
Hit this trip as flesh and bone at 9 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 6, for the band’s album release party at Corvallis’ Majestic Theatre. (They’ll be joined by Otto Gygax and Joe Freuen for a number that’ll burn your eardrums loose.) MOsley WOtta launches the 21-and-over event, which runs golden all night with Calapooia Brewing Company’s specially formulated Xenat-Rye. Admission is $10 at the door. So pack light — it’s a helluva flight.
Your palates couldn’t be in more capable hands. Within this frame beats a brain trust of names covering 20-plus years of local destruction. Together and apart, these gentlemen have graced such varied and cherished combos as Huzzah, Future Sunz, Walk the Plank, Orquesta Monte Calvo, Thousand Pieces, Ordinance, Balafon Marimba Ensemble, Belly Full of Bob (an all-star Marley tribute that, incidentally, rocks the Majestic irie one night earlier, at 9 p.m., for $10) Eleven Eyes and — hey, tell y’what: peruse Mr. Trenkel’s definitive excursion into this labyrinth at www.xenatra.
com, ’cause there’s an ink shortage here and I must do my part.
The legend of Xenat-Ra proper begins with Trenkel and drummer JD Monroe indulging in a turntable (Monroe’s a voracious crate-digger, forever chasing samples) and electronics collaboration at a 2001 Happy Trails gig. Later that year they added saxophonist Matt Calkins, a Monroe cohort from Huzzah, for a music-looping festival in Portland, then later for a poetry night at Iovino’s Ristorante in their own zip code.
“Then I moved to Colorado,” Monroe says, pushing the narrative ahead a few years, past the trio’s stint in Eleven Eyes, where they and others, in addition to their own voyages, sometimes backed Monk Metz (Future Sunz) on stage or record (2005’s “Scope”). “When I came back, I talked to these guys about playing again.”
Metz joined the three-man nucleus for a 2007 Old World Deli show to benefit popular DJ Ben Beekman, then recovering from severe burns suffered in an apartment fire. The thus-far string-free brigade gigged as Top Dead Center, a handle they’d carry until they grew weary of sharing it with a zillion other bands, from Grateful Dead tributes to car-show perennials forever pimping The Beach Boys’ piston-freak catalog.
“The direct foundation for the ‘Xenat-Ra’ name was that we’re always coming up with stupid band names,” Trenkel explains. “I’ll come up with 20 different tribute bands a day if left to my own devices. I came up with the idea of a band that did big-band swing versions of Police tunes, and called it ‘Sinatra Mondatta.’”*
“Xenat-Ra” is even wilder and cleverer than that, a playful merger of Greek composer Iannis Xenakis and jazz keyboardist/poet/activist/icon Sun Ra, two revolutionaries who probably weren’t in the Chairman’s Rolodex. (Honestly, did Frank ever kick crazier than the “Trilogy: Past Present Future” triple-LP or his momentary hang with Carlos Antonio Jobim?)
The “no-strings” policy was finally lifted (still no bassist, though; Trenkel handles such pulses via keys) at a Squirrel’s Tavern engagement in 2009. Walk the Plank had to bow out of the shared bill, so Xenat-Ra recruited Plank guitarist Mark France, an old friend from the Minus lineup, whose virtuosity added yet another mind-blowing texture.
“We were trying to prove that you could do heavy music without a guitarist,” Trenkel says. “Just between the three of us (instrumentalists), we could create a lot of sound. We were covering Led Zeppelin and Soundgarden. Matt uses a lot of effects and has probably the widest set of timbral possibilities of any sax player I know.”
“Matt would use this distortion on his sax and get crunchy,” Monroe interjects.
“But then the whole time, we were saying, ‘The only guitarist we’d ever add to the band would be Mark,’” Trenkel continues. “We never set out to have specific instrumentation or play a specific style. We didn’t say, ‘We’re going to add a rapper’; we just wanted to collaborate with Ben. It’s all grown organically that way.”
And it wasn’t finished growing. On Halloween night in 2010, at a Cloud 9 hullabaloo with Lost Tortoise, a sixth member took position, dressed, as is his holiday wont, as a nun. This was ace Ordinance percussionist Joel Hirsch, Trenkel’s Orquesta Monte Calvo bandmate and fellow Gentle Giant fan. (“It’s funny, the affinity that happens from liking that music,” Hirsch says.) For Monroe, this augmentation was ideal.
“I always wanted to work with a percussionist,” he says, “but most of the time it’s some hippie dude with a bongo who doesn’t know what he’s doing and has no sense of time. In this sense I found a hippie dude who has a sense of time and doesn’t annoy the crap out of me. We do a lot of stuff with weird meters or free jazz, where we’re just making things up, and he can hang.”
Hirsch arrived at an interesting time. Xenat-Ra was in the midst of recording its first full-length album, bankrolling the project through sales of a 2010 live compilation — which culled local-set highlights from the previous two years, including a gorgeously chill cover of Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun,” a pre-Mark France “Isis Travels” and “Teenie Toe,” which coursed along one of Monroe’s most inspired sample threads (“Melissa (Hartley) and Dave found this (1950s Hawaiian easy-listening) record in a box, and Melissa said, ‘Oh! Why don’t you give this to JD and see if he can sample that,’ snark, snark,” Monroe says with a laugh. “OK, challenge accepted. I took it home and found a chunk of this tune. I looped it out and we based the tonality of the song around the sample. When we played it, Melissa said, ‘Hey, nice job!’”) — and “FUNraiser” shows, where attendees kicked a few bucks into the kitty in exchange for the eventual disc.
The five-day tracking session took place at Otto Gygax’s (another Orquesta Monte Calvo colleague) Studio GXM in Philomath. The instrumentalists performed live in one space and Metz threw flow from the control room, with the intention that he’d replace these scratch vocals for the final master. “That’s virtually how any record is made, whether it’s a rock record or what,” Trenkel explains. “But what he delivered in the room at the time was what ended up on the record. It’s almost unheard-of, especially in hip-hop.”
“It’s a testament to his musicality,” Hirsch adds. “His sense of time and space, also. It’s remarkable.”
“Soundman’s” abundant musicality is enough to fill a new testament. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Xenat-Ra clobbered all comers in The Alchemist’s 2011 readers’ poll, claiming not only Favorite Local Band honors but sweeping individual categories too. Trenkel, Calkins, France and Monroe were each feted for their prowess, the latter grabbing DJ gold as well. Naturally, Monk Metz was named Favorite Poet.
“I lived in L.A. for 20 years, in New York for 10, and I go to Detroit every year,” Hirsch marvels. “They have a really vibrant music scene and I play with really good players. Mark France is as good as anybody I’ve ever played with or heard; he’s doing sh*t that is just beyond. I’ve played with sax players who are as good as Matt, but nobody better — ever. And Dave keeps everything together. To work with such amazing players who want to play with me is a dream come true.”
How surreal it must have been to have accepted that 2010 invitation to spice up “Swalo Meh Hole,” “Science for the Soundman’s” relentless third track. This served as Hirsch’s initiation; although no one knew it at the time, they certainly felt it afterward, adding his contributions to eight other numbers and letting him raze Cloud 9 in a habit. “Hole” clings tight to a barely controlled delirium, a neck-snapping beatdown with Hirsch’s congas and dumbeks, Gygax’s shekere shivers, Monroe’s bruising pummels and Trenkel’s Hammond floods. Trombonist Joe Freuen drops in to sweat for the cause. “Where’s the limit? Where’s the line?” Metz demands to know. “Xenat-Ra on the rise!”
The crew leaves no reason to question this truth. Mark France alternately crunches and crushes, smoldering metal in “Parahelion” (Monroe scratches up a storm) and “Xenat-Ra Theme,” where Calkins burns hot. On “Isis Travels,” the saxophonist wanders to float and flex alone, his compatriots granting him space, knowing he’ll return at precisely the right moment. Trenkel tears circuits on “Kraken vs. the Manticore”; Monroe spins over his seethe. The band jettisons its safety net on “I Burn With My Books,” improvising landscapes in real time over which Metz frees words at will.
“Ben had sort-of permanent guest status in Eleven Eyes, which meant that he even went on the road a couple of times and made a lot of our local gigs,” Trenkel says. “But it was always a case of bringing him in to be on a song or two. With Xenat-Ra, we start from the ground up with the idea that Metzger’s part of this. A lot of times we’re fairly improvisational, so we’re jamming on something and Ben’s sitting on the floor, scribbling in his notebook. Ten minutes later we’re still playing the same idea and he jumps up on the mic with something brilliant.”
“Soundman” wraps with a pair of covers woven with the frontman’s commentary: John Zorn’s “Bezriel” and Sun Ra’s “A Call for All Demons.” When Xenat-Ra sought Zorn’s blessing, the composer’s sole request was that they “play the sh*t out of it.” Of course, they more than oblige.
And now at last the record is here, in CD, vapor and vinyl forms — enough music to require a 2-LP set and change (a download card is included with the latter, offering access to the complete album, plus two nonalbum tracks). According to Trenkel, the sound on the big black circle is transcendent. A two-year odyssey that once seemed insane — two whole records your first time out? The irrefutable wisdom of JD Monroe: “You only have your first ham sandwich once.” — turned out to be the only way to fly.
“We’ve put a lot of work into this and we’re hoping it at least pays for itself,” Monroe says. “I’m not worried about making money on it. I believe in this music. This music needs to be listened to. And the way to do that is to make somebody have to get up every 17 minutes and flip a frickin’ record over. It’s a physical thing. When you buy a record, you commit to listening to it. With the download code, people can buy the record and have this cool artifact, something that’s going to outlive a CD. It’s going to last. And you get to put it on your iTunes as well.”
With its willingness to travel to alien territories, “Science for the Soundman” nevertheless offers something for all tastes, from seekers of killer beats to listeners who respect musicianship and the fearlessness that explodes in the soul of the hardy adventurer.
“As much as some of the music is outside — free jazz and odd times — a lot of it is accessible,” Hirsch says. “It’s infectious and straight-up groovin’. People will hear it, like it and be moved by it.”
“We’ve all been in bands in the past where you’ve always felt like you had to narrow your focus in order to be marketable,” Trenkel elaborates. “We wanted to start a band where we took that voice away. We come together and make whatever music comes to us right here and now.
“The funny thing about that is that we’ve had some of the most enthusiastic responses to what we do coming from that perspective. There’s an openness to accepting something like this. Maybe some of it comes from the fact that we have such histories here as individuals that people trust whatever crazy thing we’re doing, or at least they’ll give it a chance. But they come back. That makes me feel good about this town and the music scene here.”
“The nice thing about doing this gig at the Majestic is that when you play in a bar, people are there to drink and socialize and play pool and try to pick up chicks. That’s the MO, right?” Monroe adds. “And the band in the background: ‘Cool, they’re playing some Rick James. I can dance to that. Maybe I’ll get laid tonight.’
“But at the Majestic, the crowd is there to check out the band, to see what we’re doing and support us. Most importantly, they’re there to hear the music. I want people to hear it. I want people to listen. And this is an opportunity to play on a nice stage with a nice sound system and do the music justice.”
* “Sinatra Mondatta” is a pun on The Police’s “Zenyatta Mondatta” (1980), home to the original “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” (infinitely superior to the ’86 remake), “Driven to Tears,” “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da,” “Shadows in the Rain” and the final vestiges of Sting’s dignity.