The song--or whatever it is--doesn't really begin or end so much as it's there and then it isn't, a melody rescued from an aimless groove with little more than raised eyebrows and subtle nods, almost imperceptible cues. A skittish drum beat, marking time and abandoning it, is joined by a pulsating bass line, then one guitar and another, nibbling at the edges without taking the bait. A lazy trumpet, there but not really, suddenly becomes agitated, making its presence felt by spraying high notes over the top like shrill machine-gun fire, chasing the drums and bass into the distance. The five musicians in the room, collectively known as Sivad, looked each other in the eye, and there it was, a song they had neither heard nor played before. And then it was gone again, perhaps forever.
Well, not exactly. The song, "Wake Up the Fish," and five others like it can be found on Sivad's just-released debut, Solar Verbs, but you'll never hear the band play it at one of its infrequent concerts--at least not all of it. Though bits and pieces may emerge from time to time, none of the songs from Solar Verbs will ever appear on a Sivad set list, mainly because there isn't one. The band--Karl Poetschke on trumpet, guitarists Tony Chapman and Daniel Huffman, bassist Chris Perdue, and drummer Dana Sudborough--doesn't have any real songs, only a few ideas that serve as a backup plan, something to return to when nothing else is working. Everything else is written on the spot, in the moment, each note a surprise and every song an adventure.
"We'll just get up there and go for it," Poetschke says, on the phone from his home in Boulder, Colorado, where he moved at the beginning of the year when his wife found a new job. "It's a lot less goal-oriented than I think a lot of people are used to. It's more about the process of making music, rather than working up songs to a particular goal, and then having that goal put out there every single time. I love to hike and stuff like that, and it's always the journey that's pretty exciting for me."
Even when Sivad went into Dave Willingham's 70 Hurtz Studio in Argyle in November 1997 and February 1998 to record its first album, the band didn't bother to work anything out beforehand. The group simply got together as it always did and let the songs happen when they wanted to. Often, Willingham sat in the control booth wondering when he was supposed to be recording, as simple warm-up sessions turning into incendiary jams that lasted the better part of an hour. The members of the band took the pressure off Willingham by recording everything, starting the tape when they entered the studio and stopping when there wasn't any tape left. Poetschke and Sudborough sorted through it later in Sudborough's home studio, Seductive Groove Productions, picking the best moments out of many good ones and leaving enough on the cutting-room floor for at least another album.
"It wasn't too hard to pick from the stuff we had," Sudborough recalls. "We liked most of the stuff we had, but we didn't want our first album to be two 30-minute songs. The hard part was picking and choosing what parts we wanted to include on our first album. I think we still plan on releasing a lot of the stuff that didn't get released, possibly editing that as well, like we did with this album."
The album Poetschke and Sudborough found amid the stacks of tape, Solar Verbs, is a collision of jazz and rock and everything in between; there's a reason Sivad thanks Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix in the liner notes. The album is exactly what you'd expect when a band that includes Comet's former guitarist (Huffman), a trumpet player who made ends meet playing at Sambuca and Soul Caribe on weekends (Poetschke), and a drummer schooled in Cuban and South Indian rhythms (Sudborough) plays the tops off their heads. On "19 Census," a duel between Poetschke's trumpet and guest Dave Monsch's saxophone is broken up by a squealing guitar solo that disappears as quickly as it came in. The nearly 17-minute "Dream Canyon" is what you'd imagine the long-lost jazz album Bedhead recorded to sound like, a song that shouts in a whisper. It's perhaps the best example of Sivad's purpose--for a group of musicians to hit upon the same idea all at once.
"There's a lot of musical conversation going on, like we're all playing, listening to each other, kind of expanding upon what each other person is doing," Huffman says, sinking into a chair in his Fort Worth garage apartment. "We've talked about it as being almost psychic in a way." He pauses, reconsidering. "I don't want to say it's like magic or anything, because anybody can improvise music. I think we've played enough together to where we understand each other. We each have tensions. One person might be really happy, and another person might be stressed out from whatever they're dealing with, and all of those elements come together. Sometimes, more interesting things happen that way."
Huffman had hoped for interesting things to happen when he became a member of Sivad a year and a half ago. Not that he hadn't seen his share of interesting--and unexpected--events in the months before he joined: Comet had suddenly broken up in April 1997, on the road between here and nowhere, a minor van accident convincing half of the band, brothers Neil and Jim Stone, to return home to Mesquite without warning Huffman or drummer Josh Garza (now in Captain Audio). Huffman wasn't that surprised: The band's death was abrupt, but it had been dying for some time. Comet was divided into two camps--Garza and Huffman on one side, the Stones on the other--and neither side communicated with the other, which can make things hard when four people are wedged into a van hurtling through a Midwest midnight.
Huffman exited Comet with at least one friendship still intact: He and Garza reunited on April 27 at the Dallas Observer Music Awards at the Arcadia Theater as The Secret Machines of Captain Audio, which also saw Brandon and Ben Curtis take the stage together for the first time since UFOFU split up. Huffman says that, eventually, he and Garza may put together another real band, but there was too much baggage involved to start working together immediately after Comet's demise. So Huffman went looking for new people to make music with, playing for a while with Chapman in a band called Suntouched, a band along the same lines as Sivad except that it took its cues from blues instead of jazz. It was a side project for most of its members, one that eventually dissolved under the weight of other bands.
But Huffman had enjoyed playing with Chapman, so he accepted when Chapman asked him to sit in with Sivad when the band went into Willingham's studio to cut an album, and he's been in the group ever since. In Sivad, Huffman found a way to be in a band again without having the pressures and constraints that come along with it. He could play whatever he wanted, and bounce his ideas off of four like-minded musicians who wouldn't tell him what to do.
"I felt stifled, in a way, for a while," Huffman says. "And Sivad is a good source of freedom, because nobody in Sivad tells anybody else what to play. There's no military-style, 'You have to play this type of theme, we have to create this type of mood' vibe. Everybody in the band respects one another's abilities. That's the sort of beauty of it. It just goes with the group of people we invite to play with us."
It's a group that can include everyone from Monsch to Quincy Holloway, the band's original drummer and currently a member of Sub Oslo and the Gospel Swingers. Holloway, Poetschke, and Chapman (then playing bass) formed the band in 1992 when they were students at Weatherford College. Poetschke wanted an outlet to explore jazz in a different kind of way, not unlike the sounds he heard on Miles Davis' legendary 1971 album
Live-Evil, the first song of which, the intimate epic "Sivad," became the nascent band's name. Sudborough joined a year later as a percussionist, eventually taking over the drummer stool when Holloway left to concentrate on his other bands.
Though the band had taken its name from one of Davis' songs, that was almost the only connection to Davis' music until Sudborough joined the band. Sudborough--an avid Miles Davis collector who owns everything Davis recorded between 1969 and 1975, including a handful of bootlegs--immediately set about changing that. Now, you can hear Davis' influence on songs such as "Wake Up the Fish," seven minutes that could be Sivad at 70 Hurtz Studio in Argyle on February 1998 or Davis' band at The Cellar Door in Washington, D.C., in 1970.
"I was the only one who really even knew a lot about that era of Miles' music career, and I kind of pushed the band in that direction pretty heavily when I joined," Sudborough says. "They were already there in a sense, but I kind of helped them expand on that more. We never try and actually play any of Miles Davis' songs or any of that kind of stuff. We just take the essence of it, which is not practicing in a sense. Miles paid his musicians to rehearse on the stage, so I guess we've taken that to the next level, in the sense that we try and just compose on the stage. We just let it all come as may be."
For now, Sivad is concentrating on raising funds for another go-around in the studio. Poetschke and Sudborough released Solar Verbs themselves, and the band still owes money on its previous recordings. They are trying to find a label willing to release the next Sivad album, maybe Erv Karwelis' Idol Records. Meanwhile, the members of the band are gathering together enough studio equipment so they can record whenever they want to. As Poetschke says, when it comes to improvised music, you have to be ready for anything at any time. They never know when a song will come floating through one of the band's endless jams that needs to be heard again, not lost forever after it comes out of an amplifier.
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"We used to bring four-tracks all the time to our practices--or what we call practices--because so many great things happen there," Poetschke says. "Of course, we've also been to shows, had all the recording equipment there, we thought we had gotten it down, and then something was wrong with the tape or something. You never know when that spark is going to hit the band and we all jell and it sounds great." He pauses, then laughs. "Because we have our train wrecks, that's for damn sure."
Not even a small skirmish involving members of Tripping Daisy and some Arcadia Theater security staffers after last week's Dallas Observer Music Awards could diminish all the love in the room that night. Hey, nobody got hurt, and nobody got arrested--that's our idea of a fight, even if it has since taken on the aura of "a riot," as one giddy e-mailer put it. It's going to take a lot more than that to ruin a night that saw Jim "Reverend Horton Heat" Heath accept his Rockabilly/Roots award from The Beautiful Harvey Martin, X's John Doe perform with Rhett Miller and Murry Hammond, Jerry "Mr. Peppermint" Haynes tell the crowd that Gibby sends his regards, and Willie "The Mack" Hutch fill a little time by singing a few lines from his immortal "Brothers Gonna Work it Out."
It's nights like that--when Mental Chaos, Bobby Patterson, Meredith Miller, the tomorrowpeople, Go Metric USA, one-half of the Old 97's (and, can we say it once more, John Freakin' Doe) and the Daisy share the same stage--we're reminded of how astonishingly vibrant a music town Dallas really is. (The secret renaissance isn't a secret any longer.) It was the feel-good event of our year, at least; we even recall giving a drunken congratulations to the fellas in Hellafied Funk Crew, who seemed a bit confused by our clumsy backstage attempts at a whad-up-fellas embrace. But, hey, we were in a damned good mood. Thanks to the voters who cast their ballots in this year's open-voting; thanks to all the presenters (including last-minute add-on Ty Macklin of Music Award-winning Shabazz 3) and performers; and thanks to all the kids who stuck around for the Daisy's rousing finale, brawl not included. Lotsa love. Did we mention John Doe was there?
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