A brighter shade of blues
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.
Songs Aliens Left Behind is a hypnotic assembly of sounds that creates an otherworldly mood. Moving from funeral-dirge tempos in such songs as "Westward Grrls" and "Never No" to sludgy mid-tempos in "Timeless N. Texas" and "Truck Driving Man," the album deals with feelings and emotions that, according to the artist, are hard to express in simple verse-chorus-verse pop compositions. Rather, Sutton's songwriting style is based on random outbursts of emotion, born out of improvisational sessions held around campfires and bashed out during drum jams.
And a similar collective effort takes place in the studio, where the ideas and half-formed songs get the group treatment: "Matt and I figure out what mood a song portrays and we start manipulating the sound, fuck with it," Sutton says. The process is akin to destroying a sculpture and rebuilding it with the pieces, forming an entirely different entity; and with the scraps left over, Sutton and Castille will create new songs. As a result, they now have three albums' worth of material, and two other Vas Deferens Organization projects also have been completed; in June, Sutton will likely release two more discs.
Aliens is being released on CD only (in a limited amount of 1,000 copies) and marks the debut release on Sutton's own label, Womb Tunes Records. Crystal Clear will distribute it locally, and Cargo Records will do the same nationwide. Eventually, he plans to launch Womb Tunes as a full-fledged indie label that will attract other experimental bands.
"The people who make similar type of music can come and try out," Sutton says. "I can help them record and package their music while they have full artistic control. With Womb Tunes, the artist can take the profits and use it to record another album instead of a major label raking the profits...
"New bands need outlets to record and play live," he continues. "There's this huge melting pot of bands in Dallas, but the places they can play are very few. It's like a a funnel thing where so much pours into it and so little comes out. Whoever gets through has a chance to make it."
But if the blues is the music of overcoming obstacles, then perhaps J. Bone Cro's brand--his blues painted a dozen different colors and shades--will eke through the end of that funnel with success. After all, as he insists with nary a tone of apology in his voice, "We're musicians experimenting and we're still young. We've all improved as musicians since we got together. It's a group effort.
"Right now it's the blues and Eno-style experimental. But a key to a band succeeding is to be like a chameleon; change all the time. Bands like the Beatles, the Stones, and U2 did that. You can't keep doing the same thing. You need to put a new face on every year or so."
J. Bone Cro will host a CD release party April 5 at the Art Bar, where he will pass out videos taken from Songs Aliens Left Behind.
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