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Columns > Jesse Jarnow - Brain Tuba

Published: 2010/04/30
by Jesse Jarnow

Midtown WTF (The New Psychedelic, continued)

BRAIN TUBA

The other evening, I found myself in midtown Manhattan, near Columbus Circle at the southwest corner of Central Park, going to see 40 drummers drum beneath a “twenty-foot pyramid interactive psychedelic installation.” There would be face painting and psychic readings. All was as it should be: just another night in Gotham in a basement with some weirdo drum action going down, featuring the usual suspects from various Brooklyn hippie noise outfits like Gang Gang Dance, Soft Circle, Oneida, Silver Summit, and others. And free. So, sweet.

When I got to the Hudson Hotel, I realized I’d been there once before, on a semi-ludicrous interview in a rooftop garden for a job I didn’t really want, and subsequently didn’t get, but enjoyed the free martini. This time, though, hotel security guards ushered me past a winding red velvet rope to a line of gleaming publicists checking RSVP lists in official looking binders, who turned me down the stairs, and into the 82-year old building’s former health club. Now, perhaps predictably, a glitzy bar. Or maybe it only seemed glitzy on account of the firing line of event photographers shooting flashbulbs by the bar’s entrance, and weaving through the crowd, coordinating with clipboards and cell phones. There were apparently also gift bags.

It certainly wasn’t the basement of Monster Island, the do-it-yourself Brooklyn venue where one might ordinarily expect to find drums and psychedelic pyramids. There was, however, an open bar (Absolut and Budweiser) and a quasi-celebrity DJ, the bassist from Grizzly Bear, whose set was lost in the din, but seemed to include some bland downtempo jams alongside some Alice Coltrane. The drums were set up in a sub-basement, probably once a racquetball court, underneath the promised pyramid, which wasn’t psychedelic so much as a corporate party planner’s idea of what a rave might look like: metal beams with screens wrapped around its upper third.

The drummers assembled and a bro took the microphone, informing us that we were here to celebrate 40 years of Earth Day (still a week away) with 40 drummers. (In a dark urban basement, far away from anything resembling actual Earth.) He told us to boogie and to get high or be high or something, presumably on free Bud and vodka. “It’s about community,” the guy said. Yes, and Loomstate, the organic clothing company sponsoring the party, whose logo appeared atop the pyramid, interspersed with looping psychedelic/“psychedelic” footage of dolphins and galloping horses and the like. (Perhaps watching the faux-lo-fi light show qualified for the “interactive” part?)

The drum piece itself was pretty righteous, the latest in a series of similar projects by the Boredoms, Oneida’s Kid Millions, Gang Gang Dance, and others. Using the Boredoms’ formula of shit-tons of drummers anchored by a tonal drone instrument, in this case a pair of keyboards, the jam didn’t seem to have a particular name. The drummers worked as one big set, bashing collectively on cymbals and cycling through rhythms. With that many kits, it’d be hard not to sound cool. Though the piece lacked the dynamics and nuances of Yamantaka Eye’s swirling configurations with his various Boredoms stagings, it’s not to hard to imagine it being somewhat indistinguishable in another 40 years, should the recordings not get lost in the data cloud, just another awesome drum freak-out from the psychedelic underground. But does it qualify as underground if it’s music commissioned by a clothing company?

In Japrocksampler, his essential book about Japanese psychedelic music in the ’60s and ’70s, Julian Cope details the history of Polydor chief Ikuzo Orita’s super-session concept LPs, frequently featuring guitarist Kimio Mizutani. In 1971, rival producer Hideki Sakamoto, at Teichiku Records, contracted Mizutani and other Orita regulars to create a one-off band called People, whose album Ceremony – Buddha Meets Rock is a meditative rock mini-epic. Despite being a knockoff of a knockoff, 40 years later, it makes no difference. Buddha Meets Rock is awesome, regardless of where the money came from. And, in some senses, the same might be true of whatever it was that occurred in the basement of the Hudson Hotel a few days ago, employing many of the same drummers as Eye’s projects, and even a similar concept. Instead of 77 drummers for 7-7-07, it was 40 drummers for 40 years of Earth Day.

Certainly, sponsorship is a pretty well-engrained part of the cultural landscape these days, another element to navigate (or ignore) when considering what art one truly opens himself to emotionally. Even the Boredoms initial drum experience—77BOADRUM, staged in July 7, 2007 in Brooklyn in Empire-Fulton State Park—was chock full of sponsors: Nike, Vice magazine, American Apparel. But, as a friend pointed out, in that case, the sponsors came after the art. In this case, that didn’t seem to be quite the case. This was a promotional event that happened to feature a bunch of great drummers who were psyched to have a random Wednesday night gig. In sponsorship from a kind of hilarious clothing company just the modern equivalent of being on a small, but well-funded indie label?

But it’s also something worth considering in terms of the avant-garde’s perpetual push from zones of commerciality, forever chasing the shock of the new. Has the maw of the new liberal culture swallowed up experimental activities? If something can serve as the soundtrack to a party like this, can it really be remotely provocative? Which, in some ways, is exactly its provocation, something just as spontaneous and organic as any thing else that occurs in the radioactively mutated eco-system of New York music.

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