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It creeps up on you like a summer cold, a cat on the carpet. At first, it doesn't stand out from the usual ambient noise created by barflies and 'tenders--the clinking bottles and quiet rumble of ice falling into plastic cups, friendly conversations and fumbled introductions, people entering here and leaving there. It's background noise, but just barely, not even rising to the level of a soundtrack or a mild distraction. At best, it ties all these other sounds together, gives them a sense of purpose. But that's only if you pay attention to it, which you don't.
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At some point, the people milling around onstage--scruffy in their T-shirts and beards and dreadlocks, adjusting amplifiers and connecting cables--became musicians tuning up their instruments. And at some point after that, the musicians tuning up their instruments became a band starting its set. But each individual phase came and went quietly and without warning or reminder, each subtle change virtually indistinguishable from the ones before it and after it, drops of water flowing into a stream flowing into an ocean.
All of a sudden, though, there it is--this sound, this music, this whatever it is. It's right in front of you and behind you and on top of you, running from the back of the room on stocking feet until it's in your face and you don't have a clue as to how it got there and what it wants from you. From that moment on, Sub Oslo has the floor, and the ceiling, and the walls. The random noises circulating around the audience have been replaced by the seemingly random noises emerging from the stage. But now that you're paying attention, watching them watching one another, it's clear that none of this is random. It's just Sub Oslo, doing what it does best.
Which is dub music--at least, that's what it is if you have to put a name on it. In truth, the sound the band makes in concert (and on its first full-length album, Dubs in the Key of Life, released this week on Two Ohm Hop Records) is indescribable. That isn't a cop-out: You try figuring out what to call music that involves everything from guitars, bass, and drums to clavinets and barking dogs and bleeps and blips of found sounds. The most accurate description of Sub Oslo's music appeared on the label of an advance CD-R copy of the new disc, before a title had been settled: Sixty-Six Minutes of Freedom.
"We kind of just go and see what happens," says Sub Oslo bassist Miguel Veliz, just home from his job as a screen printer. (Veliz's handiwork appears on the covers of Dubs in the Key of Life and Sub Oslo's debut 12-inch EP.) "We've never been able to have a set list or anything like that. You know, a lot of those songs that are on the record didn't even have titles until we had to do the art and the text for the CD. And a lot of times, some of those songs ended up working their way into other songs that they blended into really well, 'cause while we're playing, someone will just kind of go into it, and we'll follow them. We just feed off each other."
For its part, the members of Sub Oslo--Veliz, Moses Mayo (percussion), Quincy Holloway (drums), Alan Uribe (clavinet, Moog, piano), John Nuckels (live dub mix, recording engineer), Frank Cervantez (guitar), Brandon Uribe (flute, percussion), Ben Viguerie (piano and synths), Paul Baker (live visuals)--have never thought too much about what it is they do. Which is probably why it works so well: If the members of Sub Oslo tried to plan everything beforehand, rehearse until the set is bulletproof, it would have fallen apart a long time ago.
Of course, there isn't much danger in that happening. Whether they're in a rehearsal room, on a stage, or in a studio, they just plug in and go for it--no set list, no rules. If they hit upon a groove they like, they hope they can remember it later, but never worry about the possibility that they can't, that a new song will vanish before their eyes and ears. They know, after years of going through the routine, that if it is meant to be a part of Sub Oslo's ever-expanding repertoire, it will stick around.
"It's funny, 'cause a lot of times we'll be at practice or rehearsal or whatever, a few days after a show, and someone will be like, 'Hey man, do you remember what you were doing the other night?'" Veliz says. "And half the time--or usually--it's like, 'Nah, I don't remember.'" He laughs. "The inspiration is for the moment, which is cool, you know? It's no big deal if we can't remember. Something else always comes up. It's better that way, I guess, because it defines the moment, the mood."
When Sub Oslo started out in 1996, it wasn't about defining a moment or a mood or anything else. It was simply about two roommates, Veliz and Holloway, who shared two things: a mounting disappointment with the bands they were in at the time and a deep appreciation for dub music and roots reggae. The music they loved, the kind they really wanted to make, was the sound pioneered and perfected by engineers like King Tubby and Bunny Lee in Jamaica in the late '60s and early '70s. More to the point, it was the kind of music that few bands attempted anymore and even fewer managed to get right. Starting a dub band now, 30 years later, is a little like trying to put together a 3,000-piece jigsaw puzzle after losing the box: You know it probably can be done, but it's almost impossible to figure out where to begin.
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