By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Mazinga Phaser is nothing if not ambitious. Exhausted from a day of intense mixing, producer Matt Castille and four of the six band members are slouching in the bedroom of Castille's home studio. Although fatigued, they're talking enthusiastically, riding that final rush that follows a job well done. Phrases like 'massive cultural enlightenment' and 'new psych-rock explosion for the '90s' enter the conversation casually, so it's no surprise when guitarist Wanz Dover announces the title of the debut album they're working on: Cruising in the Neon Glories of the New American Night.
That's a heavy handle, but Cruising--the most ambitious project that has come out of the Metroplex in many years--lives up to it. As grand in scope as an Ayn Rand novel, the album has reference points enough to fill an underground-rock encyclopedia.
It is the work of six young people who looked at rock's past and came back with a glimpse of the future. Dover, lighting engineer Jason Jenkins, Cole Wheeler [bass and French horn], and singer-keyboardist Jessica Nelson are all in their early-to-mid-20s, as are the two absent members: drummer Travis Williams and guitarist Eric Hermeyer, who also takes care of sampling.
As they talk, they reverently mention both obscure bands and better-known names that have influenced the current state of post-post-rock, from the seminal Kraut triumvirate of Can, Neu, and Faust and late-'60s French experimentalists Silver Apples to popular institutions like Pink Floyd and Brian Eno. It's apparent that all the pioneers mentioned--as well as contemporary influences like Spacemen 3, Stereolab, Flaming Lips, and American avant-rockers like Tortoise--have something to offer that will help lift rock out of its present quagmire and propel it into a new, bright future. An underground movement has been bubbling beneath rock's complacency for quite some time now, and Cruising is proof that Mazinga Phaser is the local coconspirator for this revolution.
For a band that is considered by many the premier proponent of the so-called space-rock movement, the label doesn't sit very well with its members. There are already enough hapless apers out there who try to disguise their lack of inspiration or direction with effect pedals and psychedelic light shows. Mazinga Phaser will be the first to dismiss the tag that started out as a joke by ex-Mercury Rev member Paul Baker, who happened to be in the area a couple of years ago and named the local scene 'Texoma Space Rock.'
"It's hard to grow when you've been tagged," Wheeler complains.
"Our music is a melting pot of everything, from punk to rock to hip hop to jazz to gospel," Dover says. "It's all music coming purely from the heart. It's designed to affect you emotionally, and if it doesn't affect you, it doesn't do its job. I'd call it heart music. It's a melting pot of each one's heart."
"A lot of it goes back to tribal rhythms," Jenkins adds. "It is timeless music."
"It's any kind of music that will invite aliens to come down," Nelson says, joking about the common abuse of the space-rock label.
The aliens will have a blast Cruising in the Neon Glories of the New American Night, taking a road trip through the history of underground rock. The opener, "New Journeys to the Edge of ROM," is like a galactic jam between Neu and the 13th Floor Elevators, with Miles Davis circa Bitches Brew sitting in at the end. "Infinity for Now" is a hypnotic bass groove with an ethereal Nelson infinitely repeating the title over a rich wash of acoustic guitar, French horn, and countless sound effects. Think of Astrud Gilberto entertaining the crew of the starship Enterprise while in turbulence. "Katia, My Enchantress" is a minimalist two-finger piano melody surrounded by eerie voices and noises. "Dub Sonic at the Jelly Kaboda" has a rolling, Jah Wobblely bass line with the usual fading horns and treated instruments, and is the best ambient dub piece this side of the Rio Grande. The Alice Coltrane cover, "Govinda Jai Jai," fits naturally into this exquisitely diverse sonic melange.
"Third Arm" is a further foray into jazz, with a Chet Bakerlike tune trying to come out of static and interference. The superb trumpet solos are played by guest Dentonite Carl Poetchke. All the songs are sequenced together by ambient passages and noise, courtesy of producer Matt Castille.
Strangely affecting, awe-inspiring, and exhilarating, Cruising is as dark and intimidating as the future itself; at the same time it's soothing and empowering, creating the feeling that all fears can be conquered. It is a mood elevator that can go from the basement to the penthouse--and back--without warning.
"What we do gives me shivers. It affects me personally," Wheeler says. "We're not trying to lay anything on anyone. Some people call us dark and loud. But a lot of times we are also very quiet and very subtle. Like classical music that has these great crescendos."
"It's a lot of patchwork," Dover says modestly. "Everyone brings something in and then we pile ideas on top of each other. Then the songs get altered with pedals and effects."
They speak of genre fusing as if it came in a Big Gulp cup, ready to jump into the new millennium head first. Even though they don't want to be called a 'Denton band'--three of them live in Fort Worth and Dallas, after all--they speak highly of the town's scene, which right now is tighter than it ever was.
"People now realize that you can do a lot of things with music. When you see your friends doing a fusion of genres, you start pushing yourself, too," Wheeler says.
"I think people got fed up having no choice," adds Dover, who moved to Denton three years ago with the ambition of being in a punk band. Instead, he got exposed to Kraut rock and experimental music and started Mazinga Phaser as a performance art-improvisational unit that welcomed whoever wanted to express themselves. Hermeyer kept coming back, and slowly the rest of the members joined on a permanent basis until the current lineup solidified a year ago.
"The idea was to be original and creative," Wheeler says. "We decided that no two shows should be alike, and we should try to be as original as possible. We want to surprise people--and ourselves, too."
"Live, we try to create an environment unlike anything we've been to before," Jenkins says. His role as invisible sixth member is as important as that of the five musicians: He provides the light show and the films that play in the background at live performances, as well as pieces of spoken word and artwork.
"We try to create a holistic environment, a multimedia experience that will involve all the senses," Jenkins continues. "We played at a 1,500-person rave one time; that was the first rave that any one of us had been to. People dug it because of the ambience of the music and the lights."
"The thing about a rave is that you have thousands of people waiting to be stimulated, and it's all a matter of the quality of the stimulation that you give them. Dallas has a very strong dance scene, and it would be great if we could turn them on to phase [shifters], feedback, and actual six-string strumming instruments," he adds.
"Hawkwind plays in raves in Europe," Nelson interjects.
Live, Mazinga Phaser lives up to its "no two shows should be alike" motto. It can be as loud as a rock band, with Williams pounding away like Keith Moon while Dover or Hermeyer embark on long, distorted guitar solos, or it can be brooding and ambient, relying on samples and synthetic noise.
The band played another rave a few days later; unfortunately, Hermeyer, Nelson, and Wheeler were unable to be there. Dover, Williams, and Jenkins pulled it off, however, with the help of another guitar player and a few record samples. Winning the battle against a shoddy PA system, the half-band played a fascinating set that put "space rock" on the lips of the mostly unsuspecting audience. It was rock and quite spacey, but it was very different from the just-released CD.
"In this record, the rock aspect of the band wasn't as emphasized," Dover says. "Matt [Castille] contributed a lot in the way of production and overall sound. Our next record is going to be very different." Dover talks about material the band is preparing to send to Sonic Boom, founder and leader of the late British noise band Spacemen 3, known for its droning excess. In a pleasing display of synchronicity, the very first song Mazinga Phaser ever played was a Spacemen 3 cover, and now Boom has launched his own record label, called--surprise--Space Age. Dover sees the band going for at least 10 years, forever exploring musical possibilities.
"We're all pretty much married to it. Each one of us has made personal sacrifices for the band that we wouldn't have made if this wasn't for the long run," Wheeler enthuses.
"We see the value of blending all our minds together," Nelson says. "We can go out and do individual side projects, but they won't be like what we can do together as a band. The thing with us is, as soon as we finish a song, we hate it already and need to move on to the next one. There are so many ideas out there that I can't see how you can ever run out."
A lot of bands have a germ of an idea and then make albums trying to build it up into a popular infection; Mazinga Phaser has enough ideas for an epidemic.
"Bands like Stereolab get a groove and redefine it on each record," Dover says. "We try to find a new groove with each record.