Electric Company

The Melodica Festival returns with music to quicken the pulse and blow your mind

In some small circles, the legends are legion. There was the time Light Bright Highway took off for one uninterrupted two-hour song as Good/Bad Art Collective's Martin Iles bathed the band in a computer-generated wash of colors that stretched until nearly 3 a.m. There was the time Jetscreamer's Will Kapinos unleashed a solid wall of guitar abuse. There was the triumphant return of Simeon, joined by two youngsters who provided the rhythmic backup to his home-tweaked electro-gear that rekindled '60s futurists the Silver Apples. There was the time the Charalambides' Tom and Cristina Carter shyly crafted some of the most understated and haunting twin-guitar action this side of a butterfly's kiss. There was the time King Coffey's Drain turned the Argo into a full-on dance party, or when Mission Giant conducted robot wars. Perhaps most infamous of all, there was the time Thorazine Dreams finished its set with a rain of destroyed keyboards as the drummer struck a Karate Kid pose, decked out in nothing but a pair of fairy wings.

The setting for all the aforementioned magical moments was the kind of-sort of-not really annual Melodica Festival that North Texas music mainstay Mwanza Dover finds himself corralling when he can.

Line starts to the left: Dutch vets the Ex bring their rabble-rousing punk to the Melodica Festival this weekend.
Line starts to the left: Dutch vets the Ex bring their rabble-rousing punk to the Melodica Festival this weekend.

"In all honesty, that was the best show that weekend--better than Tortoise, better than E.A.R.--and they were the Friday-night opener," Dover says, recalling that ribald final show of Thorazine Dreams, which happened at the first Melodica in 1996. "This was a band that some people loved, but a lot of people really, really hated. But on that night they blew everybody away. They started smashing keyboards, and their drummer Brian had on the wings with his dick tucked between his legs hocking keyboards at the audience."

That might not sound like everybody's idea of family entertainment, but for local yokels into having their brains bent by some serious 'tude and tunes, Melodica delivers. The festival, which takes place this weekend at the Ridglea Theater in Fort Worth, started as a precocious idea hatched by Dover and friends back in 1996 to promote the vibrant Denton scene. "At the time, there was also a whole lot of bad-ass shit that was bubbling up in Denton," Dover says. "And a lot of people were doing a lot more experimental music than ever before, and, if anything, it was a great way to reach out to the outside world and say, 'Hey, look, there's cool shit going on in Denton.'"

It remained only an idea until the Argo, where Dover worked as the booking agent at the time, landed the Tortoise, Sea and Cake, and 5ive Style touring show for a May weekend; they decided to build a festival around it. Since the fest's seeds were planted with no dates in mind, Dover was already pursuing former Spaceman 3 drone man and E.A.R. honcho Sonic Boom. One day he called--Dover picked up the phone and on the other end was Boom's droll British monotone--and after some extemporaneous persuasion, Boom was onboard. Dover had a weekend festival to sculpt.

Though it would be romantic to say that Melodica always unfolds without a few glitches, it was successful enough to prompt Dover to cull a repeat performance the following year at the Argo, where the blistering Light Bright Highway, Drain and Silver Apples shows unfolded. In the ensuing year, the Argo--Melodica's home--closed, and in 1998 Dover decided to move the festival to Austin.

"There really was no place to move it to in Denton, and attendance was always kind of fluctuating to say the least," Dover says. "We figured, being naïve about it, that in Austin we'd get more support. But it's always been the out-of-town bands that draw people, and they don't go to see the talent that's from here. A lot of people in Austin showed up for Austin bands and ignored Denton bands. Of course, a lot of those same Denton bands they ignored back then pack the house in Austin these days, like Sub Oslo--who have played every Melodica thus far--and Lift to Experience, both Melodica vets."

It was a combination of that apathy and simply the hassle of planning an event remotely that prompted Dover to move Melodica back to North Texas in 1999, the last year it was held. Also moving it from early summer to fall, Melodica 1999 invaded Fort Worth's Ridglea Theater, a space that nicely complements Melodica's two-stage, multiple-nights-and-acts organization. But given its desire to promote the local music scene's out contingent, you wonder why Melodica has never happened in Dallas. Cash has something to do with it: It costs a lot to secure one club for two straight weekend nights.

"The money thing is a big factor, and lack of interest from Dallas clubs is another," Dover says. "In all honesty, a lot of the bands that play Melodica have a hard time getting booked in Dallas in the first place. This subculture--and it's not just Denton bands, there's bands in Dallas' own back yard that get overlooked--that a lot of Dallas booking agents ignore, not necessarily of their own fault. Dallas is simply not a bastion for underground music.

"If you go to an Earl Harvin Trio show in Denton, the place is packed and everybody's dead-fucking quiet, and then they applaud. Here, you go see the Trio, and everyone's talking and kind of paying attention but not really, except for the few people at the front who are trying to listen. And I just don't really want that vibe at Melodica. Skip the social crap. Just come for a lot of good music. I'd like to do it in Dallas--and if we decide to do it again, it'd be nice to do it in Dallas--but whether that's really going to happen, I seriously doubt it."

It's off-the-cuff comments like the above that have branded Dover, who recently returned to Denton after a year of living in Dallas, as Denton's--and avant music's--most vocal mouthpiece, rightfully or not. "I'm a music cheerleader in general; it's not just specific to Denton," Dover says. "In all honesty, I go see Dallas bands a lot. I go see bands. People in Denton will sometimes say, 'I'm not driving to Dallas to go see a show.' I will. And vice versa. I like seeing live music. I like going to shows. I'm not half as dogmatic as people make me out to be. I'm just really into the music that I make. It's what makes me excited. But I like music in general, and I like live music even more."

That joie de musical vivre runs throughout Melodica, and the locals get their game on with Melodica's Saturday-night bill. Upstairs that evening features the too-cute Erica Barton and Baldomero Valdez outfit Faceless Werewolves, Mission Giant, Jetscreamer and electro-jazzbos Ghostcar. Downstairs kicks off with Denton's newest--and some say soon-to-be-greatest--space-rock behemoth, Dokodemo Doa; Pete Gannon's and Daphne Gere's down-tempo mood orbit Mercova; Dallas favorite son Peter Schmidt's Legendary Crystal Chandelier; Mandarin; and the return of Denton's Lift to Experience, walking with Jesus straight off the pages of the NME and into your heart.

An even better display of Melodica's anything goes approach is found on the Friday-night upstairs bill, which is devoted to the Stereo on Strike Electronic Music Collective. Formed earlier this summer by a coterie of Denton electro acolytes who were sick of rock, the Stereo on Strike crew started invading Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios open-mike, "Big Ass Beer" night every Tuesday. They'd arrive early, keyboards, samplers, tape loops and laptops in tow, fill up the sign-up sheet and take over. They'd play their own tracks. They'd remix each other. They'd cut up current pop and hip-hop tracks. And they started to build a crowd. They eventually earned the right to have their own night every other Thursday at Rubber Gloves.

For Melodica, the Stereo on Strike Crew is represented by six-year electronic music vets RF Programme (David Gross and Rawly Pickens); the Aleph (ex-Coals to Newcastle cut chemists Matt Piersall and Matt Cheney's new outfit, making its live debut); Skellytown (Cheney's solo outing of glitch-core assault); the Wild Bull (Dover's anti-social and frequently porn-drenched solo computer project); and MFH (the beat-happy duo of Randy Murphy and Roshanda Red Quartet vet Patchen Preston).

The treat in the lineup, however, isn't a bona fide member of the Stereo on Strike crew, but that hardly means he won't have the skills to play the bills. Though he's only been at the post for a year, Dr. Joseph Butch Rovan, the director of the Center for Experimental Music and Intermedia in the Department of Music at the University of North Texas, has already left his imprint on the university. He opened the electro-acoustic composition course to nonmusic majors last year, which enabled young music-minded students to explore electronic music.

But that's a meager achievement in his line of credits. He founded the computer music studios at Florida State University. While he was "compositeur en recherche" at the Institut de Recherche et de Coordination Acoustique/Musique in Paris, he developed a musical glove that's worn on the right hand and produces sound via a computer when the fingertips of the glove are touched or when the arm or wrist moves. (Think action-cum-gesture painting translated into sound, and you'll be on the right track.) His awards and accolades (including the George Ladd "Prix de Paris") are too numerous to list. And he's spent the past summer playing in festivals and taking part in seminars all over Europe. Dover has no idea what Dr. Rovan has planned for Melodica, but if his performances during the past year at UNT are any indication--ranging from computer-mediated solo saxophone sets to interactive soundscapes sparked by the movements of a German modern dance troupe as viewed through a digital camera--typical it won't be.

While the art damage will be taking place upstairs, downstairs Friday night is the most solid stem-to-stern package this neck of the woods has seen in some time. The lush, orchestral pop of Polyphonic Spree and the incendiary odysseys of the Earl Harvin Trio need no introduction, but the same can't be said for Austin's the Young Heart Attack. Anchored by the guitar flamboyance of ex-Sixteen Deluxe axman Chris "Frenchy" Smith, this seven-piece--Smith, bassist Steven Hall and drummer Bryan Bowden (all formerly of Sixteen Deluxe), keyboardist Tony Scalzo (Fastball), guitarist Chris Hall (ex-100 Watt Clock) and two sashaying female backup singers qua tambourine players--has rock written all over it. If a combination of Big Star, Mountain and Blue Cheer stretches your lips from ear to ear, you're in luck.

Friday night also witnesses the return of the Falcon Project. Dover and fellow Falcon brainchild Sean Kirkpatrick have been besotted with releasing two solid albums that are always better reflections of what the band was, not where it's at. Consistent lineup changes always seem to happen right after albums are recorded. Last year's Lights! Karma! Action! was a commendably bluesy noise affair, but nowhere near as volatile as the band had become. Dover and Kirkpatrick were joined by drummer G.P. Cole--whose previous stint in Transona Five never revealed the thunderous tumult the man can pound--and bassist Ian Hamilton, who became the tight rhythm section that Dover and Kirkpatrick have always required. And now--after a four-month hiatus that was necessary, Dover says, because the band was falling to pieces--the Falcon is arisen, joined by Pinkston's guitar maestro Ean Parsons, whose considerable chops will finally have a setting in which to go wild. Today's Falcon Project is brash, cocky and, when in the mood, totally wired.

But the killer draw this year are Dutch veterans the Ex. Formed in 1979, this five-piece has taken punk's anarchist aesthetic into a world-carousing music carnival. This year's Touch and Go release, Dizzy Spells, continues its ongoing intertwining of a global leftist spirit with grinding guitars and constantly time-changing rhythmic textures. It's also one of the best live bands on the planet. If Fugazi, Shellac or the Mekons have done it for you in the past, don't miss the Ex. The Ex intertwine punk, noise and free jazz into a political call-to-arms that's not only rabble-rousing, but one of the most eye-popping displays of ensemble dynamics you'll ever witness.

And that's the entire point. The vibe at Melodica festivals aims for the chill feeling that pervades better-known psych fests like Terrastock. And while Melodica 2001 may not be as insanely impressive as the mind fuck Sonic Youth has lined up for the first American installment of All Tomorrow's Parties in Los Angeles this October, nothing like it will hit North Texas until Dover gets gently coerced into drumming up another night of sheer ear bliss.

"The main thing is everybody has a good time every year," Dover says. "I remember when I was living in Wichita Falls and I came down here for the Independent Music Festival and saw Daniel Johnson and Brutal Juice and Steel Pole Bathtub and the Pain Teens and Drive Like Jehu and Loudspeaker and the Iowa Beef Experience. And it totally blew my socks off, and it was totally worth it. Melodica does that for some young people. Without fail somebody comes up to me after a show and says, 'That was one of the best weekends I've ever had in my life.' I've gotten that consistently, and that's what's most important."

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