How Now, Brownian Cow?
The Sound of Music Sometimes
Worse Than It Sounds
At a recent cocktail party, a friend told me about a band that sounded incredible: “They are smart and clever and they wear black horn-rimmed glasses. They play quirky old keyboards and the drummer smashes bottles into a trash can. They are multi-cultural. They are re-inventing the way music is played. They are called the Brownian Motivators.”
I interviewed two of them:
Strapping Danforth: What's your shtick?
Og (Drums, vocals, guitar): Do you have a couple hours?
Trinto Blipston: (Saxophone, keyboards, vocals, autoharp): We can lay out the basic premise pretty quickly. Og, would you please provide some background?
Og: Gladly. We started out a couple years ago trying to play very, very complex music. We wrote songs in 7/15 time and applied the theories of Stockhausen, Schoenberg, and George Russell. We mixed tone clusters with tribalism. Then we tried to improvise on it and it was absolutely awful.
Trinto: We were too ambitious. We were not musical. We were mechanical, predictable, and lifeless. We wanted organic-ness, unpredictability and vitality.
SD (feigning sleep): Zzzzzzzz. I'm sorry. I fell asleep. Please go on.
Trinto: The Grateful Dead is an example of a band that plays organically and vitally but predictably. They rely on dynamics and layering of simple harmonic structures to create these long, meandering songs.
Og (smiling broadly): They also rely on an audience hopped up on drugs.
SD: Relied , you mean. They broke up when the fat man died.
Trinto: Hardly. They toured this summer.
Og (pointing at Strapping): They claim that Jerry never actually died. They put John Goodman onstage with a beard and a guitar. Everyone bought it until he died of a heart attack during Truckin'. Of course Goodman's manager denies that he's dead. All you gotta do is watch Jungle Book 2 . The people at Disney, thin—
Trinto (becoming agitated): I thought we were talking about The Brownian Motivators.
SD: Right. So you were really complicated—
Trinto: We sounded like a blacksmith's shop crossed with a car falling down an elevator shaft. With some Rush thrown in for good measure.
SD: —and you decided to try something clever and new and astonishing.
Og: Right. We invented Prefab Chaos.
SD (looking at watch): Explain. Quickly.
Trinto: We place a video camera on stage and point it at different parts of the audience. The image is displayed on a video monitor that only the band can see. The audience doesn't know what the camera is pointed at. In fact, sometimes we have three or four cameras onstage just to throw you off. If it's pointed at a person we play certain passages depending on how the person is dressed. Gender plus hair color helps determine the mode. A woman with red hair is the Phrygian mode. Shoes determine first chord. How she moves determines the rest of the song. Every time she crosses her legs we change chords.
SD: What if she farts?
Og (ignoring the previous comment): It gets really complicated depending on her fingernail polish and how she reacts. If she likes the song, we do certain things. If not, we don't. We're using random elements to create music that is always interesting. Sometimes we'll even sing words based on the Rules.
Trinto (slobbering with excitement): Everything stacks up like a musical pyramid with essential elements like rhythm, tempo, key on bottom and other stuff like dynamics and spaceship noises on top. Because of the precise, additive nature of the formulae, the result is almost always musical.
Og (brushing dandruff off his shoulders): Last night we played a song that went like this: Manwithbrown hair=Blues Scale / helickedhislips so we played in 6/8 time / he had glasses so Trinto took the first solo on saxophone / hisglasseswerebrown so Trinto played in the style of Rashaan Roland Kirk. About halfway through the song, the man stood up to pee so the band sang an a capella do wop scat until he came back. The song ended when the man yawned.
SD (yawning): Sounds like a lot to remember.
Trinto (yawning): Yeah. It's not that hard. We have hundreds of little things we have to remember and we're always adding more but it happens very slowly. It's not like we have to cram before every show.
Og (yawning): As long as someone in the band knows what's going on, the rest of us catch on. That's why we're always talking onstage.
SD (scooting forward on chair): Next you're going to tell me that your music is beautiful because the crowd creates the song.
Og (adjusting glasses): Precisely. Every performance is unique, as is the human condition.
SD (straightening tie): You must really annoy the hell out of your audience.
Trinto (cleaning ear with finger): Actually, our shows are always good. They all have lame moments and they all have greatness. Crowds are really forgiving of our mistakes because they're completely intrigued by what we're doing. Everyone is self conscious because they think maybe we're playing THEM. It seems chaotic but it's only chaotic within the Rules. Hence, Prefab Chaos.
Og (dipping finger in glass of kool-aid): We're way, way, way better than the Dead. Better than jazz, even, I think, because we use everything. Turntables, drums, bass, guitar, sax, trumpet, keyboard, voices, jazz, classical, blues, r‘n‘b, dance. All styles. We jump genres.
SD (giving the bird to curious pedestrian): You've been together for seven years. Why no CD?
Og (sliding Rook to Queen four): That would be totally counter to the experience. Music exists in the moment. Once you record it, the moment is lost. It's like watching a video tape of your wedding. When the wedding was actually happening, you weren't laughing at how stupid your mother-in-law looked in her mini-skirt. You trying not to pass out from the throbbing hangover you picked up at last night's rehearsal dinner. Similarly, we refuse to record our music so you, as a listener, will be emotionally invested in the experience to the point where you can't detach yourself and laugh at the absurdity. And maybe you'll pass out.
SD (scratches nose): Um.
Og and Trinto (standing up): We better get going.
Later that evening, I saw them play live. They're pretty crappy. Sound like Frank Zappa without the sense of humor or the chops. I always get my hopes up that something cool is going to happen but then it stinks. Why is that?
The Brownian Motivators are playing at the Black and Strong Café, Friday November 13.
--Strapping Danforth, November, 2003