Exclusive: Talking Avant-Garde Electronics with Sleepytime Gorilla Museum

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Like Kurt Vonnegut’s Dresden, the Sleepytime Gorilla Museum is burning itself to the ground, on purpose. From the beginning, the Dadaist cabaret’s spectacle of metal piping, industrial textures, gothic pantomime, and avant-garde electronics has attempted destroy music as we know it. Ashwin Sodhi, of Flavorwire’s sister publication Earplug caught up with with Matthias Bossi — percussionist, curator of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum and member of the (very) extended Vonnegut family — on the cusp of the band’s first national tour in two years, to talk Stockhausen, Neubauten, and “rock against rock.”

Earplug: You guys are all trained in classical music, yet you’ve chosen a very fractured and industrial sound. Why?

Matthias Bossi: Well, I guess it just stems back to our collectively catholic taste. Catholic in the old sense of the word: widely varying. I think if we were strictly a metal band, we would be bored. We love contemporary classical music — Karlheinz Stockhausen and Einsturzende Neubauten, and wierdo prog stuff like Henry Cow and the Art Bears — but somehow that is all filtered down into the Sleepytime sound. Anything is fair game. And it’s also about going beyond musical inspiration, into literature and theater. Dadaist cabaret — that’s what I’m going to call it.

EP: Dadaist, eh? Hence the motto, “Rock Against Rock.”

MB: Yeah. Destroying rock music from within. It’s no secret that rock music these days is starting to look very homogenous. You can’t really tell the difference between one artist and the next. I mean look at Chris Cornell, doing records with Timbaland now…

EP: That new record was so bad I felt embarrassed for him.

MB: It’s really weird what happened. So, yeah. Rock Against Rock. We play rock music. But our aim is to play such disjointed music that we upend the axis of the earth.

EP: Where does the name Sleepytime Gorilla Museum fit in?

MB: Well, in the early 20th century there was a Futurist/painter/black mathematician named John Kayne who, in his appreciation of the Italian Futurists (a group so obsessed with technology and speed and innovation that they ended up wiping themselves out), decided to open a museum. His idea was to have this gala event: The Grand Opening and Closing of the Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. He printed out leaflets and people showed up, and when they did they were given printed money with snails on it to purchase food from vendors outside. But somehow they weren’t able to get in. While they were waiting, Kayne took his associate into the building and burned it to the ground.

A totally obscure piece of performance art. In one day, they erased their entire history. That’s us.

EP: The sound is heavy, the message can be heavy, yet the live show is so disarming and lighthearted. What’s the idea behind that?

MB: I think it’s absolutely necessary. The music itself is very dense and very exhausting without a little comedic break. You know? You gotta have the play within the play, that Shakespearean thing, to offer a little break for the people. A combination of costumes and lighting and these silly asides. We never break the fourth wall so to speak. I think we’re all in character the entire show.

EP: You guys make a lot of custom instruments, and nothing is sacred. How does it all take form, and how does it affect your writing process?

MB: Well Dan [Rathbun] is the builder. He is the engineer the technologist of the band. A lot of making instruments stems from wanting to make one sound that doesn’t exist on a traditional instrument, and having to make that sound. And more often than not, it requires eight feet of wood, custom piano strings, or foam. Dan loves foam and plywood. He can make foam and plywood sound like geniosities. Saw blades and springs, too.

At the same time, his technology is super ancient looking, and super homemade. Inspired by early industrial music, but also trying to make one sound that doesn’t exist. A lot of these instruments are very one dimensional. They don’t have a lot of range. The pedal-action wiggler goes “waaairn-wairrrn-wairrn-wairrnrrw” and the sledgehammer dulcimer, the big log, hits notes that are so low you can’t even hear them. Like you’re beating against a stay on a suspension bridge.

EP: Music for whales.

MB: Haha. Exactly.

EP: What are some sounds you’re working on before you hit the road?

MB: The absence of notes — I’d like to explore that more. The fact is that, especially the newer stuff, things are composed, and zipped up.

EP: You guys are big readers. Plan on doing any reading while you’re away from home?

MB: Well there’s always some plays on the bus. We love Harold Pinter, Eugene Ionesco, Alfred Jarry. There’ll probably be some poetry on the bus, too. And something strange… maybe Kafka. Carla [Kihlstedt] is always reading some strange book on the industrial revolution and the pandemonium it created. And I just finished re-reading Slaughterhouse 5, so we’ll see.

EP: Always nice to revisit some Vonnegut.

MB: He’s great. All his books feed into each other and that’s what I really love. I love the return of Eliot Rosewater and Kilgore Trout. Everyone just keeps showing up. He was a good friend of my father, too, so he has a special place in my heart.

EP: Very cool. Are you guys working on any new material these days?

MB: We shot a film this winter. It’s two-thirds done. It’s an anthropological exploration of this very strange character. Shinichi Momo Koga, this Japanese Butoh dancer we toured with for four years — we wrote all these songs for him, and we’ve sort of fleshed some of them out and put them together in a pseudo-scientific filmstrip, kind of like what you would watch in school as a kid from the ’70s. And we’re writing a new record that is very much rooted in concept. It’s going to be surrounding [Shinichi], his loneliness and his inner dialog with himself.