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Monkey Shines

When the going gets weird, the weird turn to Sleepytime Gorilla Museum.

By Randy Harward
Posted // June 11,2007 - template_imagenn

Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. The name sounds cute and fuzzy, but the band is not. Which is perfect, because Sleepytime Gorilla Museum is about shattering perceptions. The band’s latest album, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum of Natural History, is a flat-out dangerous collection of sonic horror shows rooted in Tod Browning’s Freaks, Poe-meets-Lynch horror and a musical malice that makes Marilyn Manson look harmless as a titmouse.

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From the hail-Satan ditty “A Hymn to the Morning Star” (on which singer-guitarist Nils Frykdahl intones, like Anton LaVey on X, “all hail the crown and conquering child…say His naaaaaame”) through “Cockroach” (where he rather ironically sings his revulsion: “… with you I draw the line”), Sleepytime’s five members thrill in cultivating a creepy vibe: they want you to be uncomfortable'if only as a means to shock open your eyes.

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“There’s a lot of horror in the world,” Frykdahl says. “It’s attractive and effective because it encapsulates the awe of the world, the fear and the potential terror and the overpowering qualities, all of which is far more fascinating than the mundane aspects'the pleasant or unpleasant trivialities of life'that a lot of pop music focuses on.”

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The band formed in 2001 around Frykdahl, bassist/producer/mechanic/instrument-maker Dan Rathbun and singer-violinist Carla Kihlstedt. Frykdahl says the idea for the band came together around composition and texture. He and Rathbun had been working together in the industrial metal band Idiot Flesh and were gravitating toward homemade instruments and odd sounds. Kihlstedt was a friend from a former band called Charming Hostess and had similar interests as well as a background in 20th-century classical music. “[We saw] this sort of somewhat untapped potential,” says Frykdahl, “of that music in combination with rock and industrial music.”

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The three looked to early industrial bands that emphasized building up “an arsenal of sounds that are almost unrecognizable” and to progressive rock, which had already incorporated elements of classical music to build a foundation. From there, they looked to extremes for color and added elements of odd folk music, noise rock and free jazz to form “a more academic avant garde.” In order to realize the sound, Rathbun created homemade instruments like the Slide Piano Log, the Percussion Guitar, the Electric Pancreas, the Vatican and the Wiggler, most of which must be seen to be believed.

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Then came the matter of presentation. Naturally, the SGM live show (which they tout as “a costumed festival of hyperventilating self-derangement, which has yet to include much of a puppet show, but has included human performers of varying stiffness”) had to be as multifaceted as the music. To that end, SGM came up with an aesthetic that lands somewhere between a heavy-metal show, a Crash Worship fireside freakout and the circus (Bindlestiff Family, not Ringling Bros.). Frykdahl and his bandmates play and sing with carnival barker/tent preacher/vaudeville gusto and indulge in between-song theatrical digressions ranging from improvised oratory to ancient forms of dance like Butoh (a Japanese form they first dabbled with in Idiot Flesh).

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The variety is enough to overstimulate anyone, but they all serve to capture the audience’s attention and impart some useful idea, concept or philosophy. That is what Sleepytime Gorilla Museum views as its most important work. They see themselves as “hindmost interpreters of anti-humanist literature” (or, more simply, populists) out to empower people, by subverting their ideas about music and art, to accept and form new ideas. It’s not for everybody'Frykdahl says SGM’s show has “sent people running for the door,” but it’s catching on.

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“I think through that we’ve been successful, through the live shows, in getting a lot of people to listen to the music who wouldn’t have otherwise if they’d just heard it on record.”

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As for the tough crowds, “We try to be very welcoming in the show and encourage some kind of dialogue from the stage to the audience,” he says, “so they’re automatically a part of it by walking in the door.” But when things get tough, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum can usually win anyone over. Take, for example, a show last year in Huntsville, Ala. that featured a puppet show.

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“It just involved the drummer talking to one puppet and he would improvise it every night. We had never played Huntsville before and, although the audience was largely on our side, we don’t want to alienate people through sheer weirdness. But here’s our drummer, with none of us playing any instruments, just counting “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8'puppet show'9, 10, 11, 12, 13'puppet show”'and he just kept going. The audience is starting to get kind of restless, but then he goes “25, 26'Alabama!” And the audience just cheered. After that, they were just completely on our side.”

 
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