Sleepytime Gorilla Museum Interview (2004)
Originally printed in INK19, July 2004.
[NOTES: 1.) I don’t even remember writing most of these questions. Strange. 2.) This is an example of really bad writing. I’m glad it’s 6 years old. 3.) That photo of him was taken by Heather Leah Kennedy.]
Sleepytime Gorilla Museum is / are a seemingly five-member confederacy of freakishly detail-oriented orchestra geeks and / or rejected metallurgists that drive around in dilapidated bus full of handcrafted musical instruments — and they cook their own beans and rice, too.
Walk up and introduce yourself and you may end up with a handful of it like I did. Their bassist, Dan Rathbun (a top-notch producer / engineer), has three mohawks. They are, by far, the most challenging and exciting weirdo-rock band I have added to my mental jukebox in over a decade.
The content of their show ranges from horrific blasts of chaotic sonic dismemberment to enchanting string and woodwind orchestrations. Their drummer wears a full-headed donkey mask. The rest of the members look equally terrifying in motif. All of them, including their flailing scrap-metal percussionist, rock out in superimposed polyrhythms with a raw intensity and attitude that is not often packaged with such rehearsed, scholarly prose and complex musical arrangements. It must surely take quite a few rehearsals to choreograph something like that.
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Joining “us” in this article / pseudo-interview is Nils Frykdahl, lead singer and guitarist. Would you care to explain how this all works, Nils? How do you find the time to get these five freaks together to bang on things?
Many of us tour with other projects, and our new drummer, Matthias Bossi (of Skeleton Key), lives in New York, so as always we rehearse in intensives: 30 hours a week for two weeks, then tour, then nothing for a month or so.
It certainly sounds very focused and dedicated. Not much room for fucking around, it appears. I wish I had a band as dedicated as yours. What about the writing process? Musicians of such a calibre, such as Carla Kihlstedt — who also sings with you and plays terrifying, evil things on her violin — must have a heck of a lot of ideas to bring forward. How do you go about organizing all of that? How does that work?
Often someone will bring a song with words or only a fragment and we’ll all develop it together, each player adding their impossible to preconcieve/compose specialness. And new instruments will provoke new moods and eventually songs.
With such diverse sounds in your compositions, you must listen to all sorts of music. Who are some of your favorite composers and creators, Nils?
Right now I’d say Moon Lay Hidden Beneath a Cloud, because its playing as I write and working well in this late night (a pattern of short memory favorites is showing here). My life thus far favorites… I have lots of their records… would include Fred Frith (ArtBears, Henry Cow), Swans, Pierre Boulez, Enslaved, old Genesis, Bauhaus, Messiaen, Uz Jsme Doma, Prince, Gristle/early PTV… I could go on… and I’m afraid that Dawn has introduced me to the singular ethereal joys of the Singing Nun.
You are not only involved in Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, but also a group called Faun Fables. Previously, you were in a band called Idiot Flesh. With all of this work you do and have done, I would hypothesize that your music has spread to as many corners of the Earth as have been discovered. Have you toured overseas, and if so or if not, where is your favorite place to play? And why?
Faun Fables toured Europe this last summer and Slovenia and Ireland were highlights, maybe, as they felt the most unlikely, but at this moment my favorite place to play is the Solar Culture Gallery in Tucson, AZ, because it is the last place we (Sleepytime Gorilla Museum) played last week, and it was a freakin’ blast — such a groovy town and an amazing club, serving food wrapped in banana leaves.
Back in The Land of Oaks (as they say), around the “Frisco” Bay Area (ouch!) you guys still seem to stick out like a sore thumb. Typically, the sore thumb gets pounded down. Or is that the nail of the thumb that is sticking up? Are there many interesting musicians there? How does it evolve? How does the Bay Area differ from ten years ago? What the hell is going on here? Does anyone know?
There’s always so many scenes, and I am always aware that I know only a few. So, different groups of spazzy ambitious players are playing many of the same clubs and making singular music largely for other musicians and it’s great and kind of complicated in a way apparently particular to the Bay Area, which I am reminded of when we go on tour. I am still playing in a band with Dan Rathbun, though.
I’d say you should give it up and move to Florida. What do you think?
Florida is a glorious dream of majestic and hoary oak with some fine and friendly folk living amongst them. Metal has ruled there for so long that we, with our non-metal influences, are emissaries from a strange land. Fun!
Interesting. While we’re on the subject of Florida, I can’t help but ask for your opinion on the topic of voting and our increasingly deconstructionalist political system here in the United States. Do you suppose that since less than 50% of all eligible people vote, that means more than 50% of all eligible people would prefer some other method for electing their dictators?
The system is fixed so people stop playing because its boring. Actually, our music has become increasingly political in the last year, what with the imminent downfall of our bloated empire. Dan’s songs have always been political or environmental (he’s from the country), he just tells them as fairy tales. The political situation has pushed me further into my old apocalyptic and anti-humanist tendencies (I was a teenage Satanist) which share an earthly scale with politics, but are not.
Phew! Now that we have that out of the way, let’s talk about something pointless, like music. As I said before (which is obvious to anybody), your ensemble plays a lot of unconventional and home-built devices, in a Ted Kaczynski kind of way — many of them are primitive and acoustic-based. Do you renounce modern technology, to a certain degree?
We have always opted for non-synthesized/sampled sound because of the visceral connection with the action. We are foremost a live band and hitting one disintegrating substance with another is fun to watch and do. We, however, obviously enjoy squeezing those sounds through amps and boxes and have nothing against others usings computers and all. Its just something we Know nothing about. (I enjoy Ryoji Ikeda, Aphex Twin, and Atari Teenage Riot) Also, it would further undermine our already weak Luddite stance.
.Do your instruments ever break — do you ever suffer serious problems on stage or in the studio due to flawed technology?
Burning Man ’98, with Idiot Flesh, where the lights and sound system worked alternately, but not simultaneously, and we were ranting venemously about the “celebration of sexlessness” to counteract the “fertility ritual” (for people that don’t want children) which had preceded us. Of course, no one cared that the tech was falling apart and it was really among the best shows as far as raising the roof goes (to what extent one can under the desert sky).
If Warner Brothers Records wanted to give you $12,000,000,000, buy you all new bicycles and free Starbucks for life, hire an image consultant to get you nice haircuts for once, and put you in heavy rotation on VH1, would you do it?
No. We reject the “mainstream” on anti-corporate grounds.
Well, that about puts the nail in the coffin for all of us as a musical society. We’re officially doomed. This is such a sad world and I am now without hope for the mainstream ever rising to the occasion of reciprocating the beauty your band brings to the fringes of it. Nils, it has been a pleasure conversing with you, and I can only hope that Sleepytime Gorilla Museum will continue to serve as a reminder of the way things ought to be. Have you any further requests, which I may aid you in communicating to God and man — before I kick you out of this small, cramped workspace?
That our shows will become unbearably effective in creating a momentary world for the audience that touches on “this” one, but is not it. To further our forays into other aspects-theater, text, artifacts.
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Let us lower our heads in prayer. You can find out more about this incredible young dentist at The Wikipedia Center For The Study of Nils Frykdahl.