By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
On a gorgeous spring day, a man known by the name J. Bone Cro sits on the front porch of a house on Lower Greenville Avenue--the home and studio of a seminal experimental music collective called the Vas Deferens Organization. The 27-year-old musician's spirits are high, fueled by the sunshine and the satisfying feeling of having just completed the mixing on his first album inside this home.
The album, Songs Aliens Left Behind, is, to say the least, an ambitious recording filled with idiosyncrasies and personal visions--a disc on which the blues, country, and psychedelic rock are thrown in a witch's pot, stirred with a bunch of sound effects and studio tweaks and sprinkled with the singer's shrill, distorted voice. It is a strange brew, indeed: the optimum way to listen to the whole pastiche is with the bass level turned to zero.
J. Bone Cro, whose real name is J. Scott Sutton, explains with a straight face that Songs Aliens Left Behind aspires to create the feeling of being abducted by aliens--which either sounds terribly silly or, to the forgiving, at least over-ambitious. But Sutton sticks with his story: "This record is the reality checkpoint of meeting with aliens. Can you imagine what it would feel like to have that gift?" he wonders. On second thought, Pink Floyd never went to the moon and Glenn Danzig never really met Mr. Lucifer, so there's room for interpretation.
Sutton is a Cherokee Indian whose moniker was given to him while a kid in school because of his thin physique. He grew up in the small town of Greenville, just east of Farmersville, raised on Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard.
"I am an inbred, backwards country swagger," he jokes. "My father used to take me to open-air Willie Nelson concerts in muddy fields. My older brother is a professional country musician."
You can find quite a few fragments of country creeping into his mix, but don't expect any Garth or Willie, or even the Cartwrights, in Aliens. Rather, Sutton's use of country looms over the recording almost like a mist--more a subconscious reference than an obvious point of departure. Like the heavy blues element that is obvious throughout this album, the country influences are like pieces in a puzzle that never quite fit, jammed into their place.
J. Bone Cro pushes the songs to extremes, adding noises and effects, using feedback, delay, and various other sound manipulations. The songs are more like skeletons with myriad sounds and textures and warped arcana hanging from the bones: the form always remains the same, but it can disappear at any moment as the ear continually notices something else jumping out from the elaborate collage.
"My songs may sound like novelty, but these are songs that come from emotions deep inside me," Sutton insists. "The hooks and the melodies are there; it's just that I add all these special effects around them." The result is akin to what would happen if Brian Eno decided to remix some scratchy Robert Johnson or Blind Lemon Jefferson records; it's not too unlike the music of Little Axe, twisted post-modern variations on ancient sounds. "I try to take old folk blues and make it sound psychedelic," Sutton explains. "It is trance blues, psychedelic blues."
Sutton is fascinated by the music of the people who coined the term "trance blues," such men as Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside. He speaks about them with equal amounts of awe and admiration: "Man, these guys are the last remnants from Clarksdale, Mississippi, home of John Lee Hooker and the Delta Blues," he gushes. "Every year their families get together and for three days and three nights they drink, eat, and play music. They play nonstop for hours until they get in a trance. That's how trance blues is born. The music is unbelievable."
Sutton, whose day job has included working in record stores for several years, found his ideal collaborator in Matt Castille two years ago, both men sharing an affinity for obscure but influential artists. Castille, also a member of Vas Deferens Organization, produced the album and played drums and keyboards. Jason Cohen, who runs the Forbidden Books store and another member of VDO, added guitar and samples, and Barbara Lambert played bass. But Sutton credits Castille with urging him to take a more adventurous route in shaping and producing his songs.
"I thought, man, we can really fuck up our own music," Sutton says of his partnership. "Everything is done already, but you can always put a new coat of paint on it, or repaint it...I believe that a lot of people are tired of hearing the same type of pop songs. I'm trying to grab people's attention by fascinating them with how different my sound is. People want something else other than straight-line music.
"In many mainstream shows you go to you know exactly what to expect. J. Bone Cro and Vas Deferens Organization try to create a brand new mood in every show. We try to set a mood, and every show turns out to be different. People go to see bands like Crash Worship for the mood and the attitude; they never know what to expect," he adds.