Great ambience

Out of the initial chaos of seemingly unrelated instrumental noodling that is slowly rising this Friday night at the State Bar, a sound is taking shape and gathering momentum. It's the sound of a 1957 Cadillac being started in Tibet on a cold day, fed through a sequencer and slowed down a thousand times, then hit with a 100 beat-per-minute drum sample. It's the sound of Roshonnda Red Quotet.

At a table just left of the stage, four young, hip, intellectual types temporarily cease their conversation to lean forward and listen with determined looks on their faces. They know there's something cool about a dijeridoo, two drummers, a DJ, two Moog synthesizers, and a slide guitar playing all at once, but they don't know exactly what it is.

That's OK; neither does the band.
Some of the people at State Bar tonight aren't even aware there is a band playing. They assume that what's coming out of the speakers in the back is merely prepackaged DJ sounds--an assumption supported by the ultra-smooth segue into an actual recorded track by the band Loop Guru as the band takes a break. Although most musicians would consider that an insult, it's actually all part of the Roshonnda Red Quotet's master plan.

RRQ evolved from an ensemble known as Sofa Kingdom that admired the percussion collective of punk primitives Crash Worship; at one time, evoking the name Sofa Kingdom was like summoning a rather obscure god, telling those around that you were cool and down with the local indie-rock art scene. Unfortunately, the band--one of the few in Dallas that employed a stunt man to be immolated every show--ceased to exist about a year ago.

Before the disintegration, however, a new project was already under way to extend--and in some ways totally revise--the Sofa Kingdom dream. Like its predecessor, it would incorporate unusual instruments, musical experimentation, and improvisation, but without the theatrics and sarcasm that were Sofa Kingdom's trademarks.

And--oh yes--it would be techno.
Vocalist Brent Johnson and drummer Domingo Leija thus left Sofa Kingdom, creating Fukaoui (as in "Where duh..."), playing a few warehouse raves as well as weekly gigs at Clearview and Flips. Still searching for further evolution, they hooked up with a young DJ, Patchen Preston, and--of all things--a slide guitarist, Randy Murphy.

What emerged was somewhat vanguard techno, meshing the organic with the inorganic, the very old with the very new. It also allowed room for drifting along the spectrums of jungle, trance, and ambient, inspired by the flexibilities of masters like the Orb. But some of the absurdity of Sofa Kingdom still lingered.

"Our first show was a gay party full of drag queens," recalls Johnson, "and we didn't have a name yet. We wanted something to appeal to the drag queens, so Domingo said [in an exaggerated RuPaul accent] 'How about Rowsh-aaa-nduh Red Qu-ooo-tet?'"

The band in its present form has been together now for about six months, playing a regular Friday night gig at State Bar (as well as some raves), but when they look out into the audience, it's not the familiar Sofa Kingdom faces they're seeing anymore.

"We're playing to a whole new crowd these days," says Johnson. "I doubt if Sofa Kingdom fans even realize we're from the same band."

One of the new faces in the crowd who saw--and was impressed by--RRQ was Mark Griffin, aka MC 900 Foot Jesus and a sometime member of the Enablers, a group that explores improvisation in a more loungey (for lack of a better word) environment. Griffin was so taken with the percussion-based ambience that he enlisted the band to record a song for his upcoming album. "I first saw [RRQ] playing a show at Clearview, I think," Griffin says. "I really liked what they were doing--that sort of improvisation. I like to sit around and jam as much as anyone else, but the bad thing about improvising is that it can just be pointless noodling. Those guys, I've seen them several times, and they always keep my interest."

Griffin invited RRQ into the studio and says he'll definitely use what they laid down; in fact, he plans to bring them back soon for more work. "I've always been into that kind of music; I listen to a lot of Indian music, and I've used Indian instruments and rhythms in the past. [RRQ] is a little more into the World Beat thing than I am--my interest is more in jazz and big band--but I think it'll work well with what I'm doing this time around."

In some ways, RRQ is a good indication of where Griffin has been going lately--a fusing of techno, jazz, and hip hop with ancient, particularly Eastern, rhythms and performed live--paralleling in a larger sense the direction that genre of music is going, whether it's something as simple as incorporating live drum tracks (as Prodigy did on "The Remedy") or as complex as completely live techno produced by the likes of Future Sound of London.

Groundbreaking bands such as Future Sound of London have been a big inspiration to RRQ. Future Sound are pioneers of live techno, broadcasting from their studio via ISDN digital phone links to clubs and radio networks in Europe and America. Equally influential are bands like Dead Can Dance which use ancient instruments and vocal styles.

"I see a lot of similarities between ancient music and techno," says Preston, the only member of RRQ who was actually reared in the rave scene. "In a lot of ways, music has come around full-circle. It was rhythmic, people would dance around a fire with masks..."

"And they took psychedelic drugs," interjects Johnson.
The whole rave scene has a long history of being aligned with ancient sounds, and it's quite interesting to see how a fascination with Javanese Gamelan music and Tibetan overtone singing can meld so well with techno loops. But unless they're playing a gig, don't expect to see any of the members of RRQ at your local rave.

"I never even listened to this kind of music until I started playing it," says Johnson. "[RRQ] is all about mystical sound, dance trance, but at the same time it's not as shallow as most dance music."

"We're trying to get past the point of 'I love everybody 'cause I'm on ecstasy' and dancing all night on drugs," adds Preston.

In fact, Leija refers to RRQ's music as "medicine" (in the Native American sense). "If we get locked into this deep vibe, people pick up on that," he says. "It can heal you or take you to some place other than where you are."

If that sounds transcendental, it's deliberate. For RRQ, and especially for Johnson, higher consciousness isn't just a groovy catchword, and tribal music isn't just a trendy thing: It's a steering philosophy for life. Johnson, for example, drinks his own urine daily as part of a natural body-conditioning regimen and works for the vegetarian Hare Krishna restaurant Kalachandji's. He also practices sound and energy healing.

At the age of 12, Johnson's mother, a psychologist, sent him to a progressive local physician who prescribed Kundalini yoga to treat hypertension. When he was 16, Johnson then went to New Guinea, where he experienced the cumulative series of events that would set in motion not only Sofa Kingdom and RRQ, but his whole life. Living in Papua and working on the construction of a bridge for native tribesmen as part of a Christian evangelical mission, Johnson got a real taste of mythology and rare musical instruments. On the plane trip home, he had his first hallucinatory experience as a result of a rare allergic reaction to cold medicine.

"I was sitting in my seat, and I noticed there were some ants crawling on my legs," he recalls. "At first I didn't think it was unusual that ants would be in an airplane, but then I saw hundreds of ants crawling all over me, and I stood up screaming 'aahhh!' It lasted several hours."

By comparison, keyboard and lap steel player Randy Murphy seems a bit out of place. He's a quiet, fairly normal sort of guy who owns a frame shop downtown, yet shares a love of collecting rare instruments. "Every other band I've been in," he says, "I just got bored really quickly. But with these guys I rarely play the same thing twice, and I'm constantly playing new instruments that I don't even really know how to play."

"Since we improvise a lot and use natural instruments, we're on the organic side of techno," says Leija, "but we're on the techno side of organic." Improvisation cuts two ways, though. One of the downfalls of RRQ is their propensity to get lost in a muddle of ambience that's sort of like idle conversation; yet they can keep ravers' attention for long periods of time, as they did at the Dallas Music Complex on Halloween night.

Still, it's hard to forget Sofa Kingdom. And RRQ's cover of Smokey Robinson's "Tracks of My Tears" touches on a bit of the old style by employing the same deep voice of irony that once bellowed--both seriously and sarcastically--the title of Sofa Kingdom's "That's What You Get for Getting Stoned!" in much the same spirit as Beck's mumbling "I'm a loser, baby, so why don't you kill me?"

Johnson is quick to distance himself from his former project, however. At its heart, Sofa Kingdom was a spectacle of anarchy that featured as many as 15 people on stage--many of whom appeared to just wander up and begin playing an instrument.

"Sofa Kingdom was about the contradiction of rock 'n'roll," says Johnson. "It was about the pretentiousness and conceit. It was a joke, but at the same time it was completely serious. We're not being sarcastic at all when we do Roshonnda Red Quotet--and it's more fun than sarcasm."

Roshonnda Red Quotet plays Grinder's Friday December 27.


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