Tussle's willingness to break rules isn't the only thing that makes it a bona fide San Francisco band. Although the quartet's music could be lumped into the post-techno category, the group's members have become susceptible to Frisco's lingering psychedelic vibe. After musing about the ways the "colors and layers" of the group's Mission District base seep into its sound, synth-and-samples man Nathan Burazer cites the city's climate as a curious metaphor for the band's exploratory song structures. Tussle's rhythms run as propulsively as downtown traffic, but Burazer says the songs owe much to "ultrabright, sunny days," "thick puffs of creamlike fog" and "the crisp, golden morning."
That's pretty poetic stuff coming from an instrumental band that seems almost anti-singing. But like most groundbreaking acts, Tussle has found a sonic lyricism that speaks to a growing worldwide audience — especially on the newly released Cream Cuts. With its undulating drums, pulsing bass lines and evocative synth atmospheres, the disc documents a band that has pushed its style far beyond genre.
When Tussle started in 2001, it initially comprised Burazer, junkyard percussionist Jonathan Holland, drummer Alexis Georgopolous and bassist Andy Cabic. The band emerged among a new crop of musicians who were grafting the improvisatory visions of krautrock and early-'80s New York no wave onto the prevailing indie, hip-hop and techno of the '90s.
But both on record and live, Tussle distinguished itself from other dance-rock bands such as Radio 4, !!! and the Rapture by refining a bass- and rhythm-driven, minimalist-funk aesthetic that rejected some of rock's longstanding instrumental tenets. According to Holland, it was an almost unspoken decision. "Having a lead singer is really predictable," he says, "and we just didn't need to have guitars to have a band."
Burazer takes it deeper. "Omitting those elements lets people engage with us a bit better," he says. "They can dance, but also they're not blasted by this high-register wall of guitar. They can get inside our sound a bit more."
Tussle treated that sinewy sound with reverberant, dubby studio techniques over its first four singles and its startling 2004 debut album, Kling Klang — the release of which signaled Cabic's departure to start his vaunted folk band, Vetiver. The group dropped the dub for a more spaciously motorik approach on its 2006 sophomore effort, Telescope Mind. By 2007, Georgopolous had departed to explore ambient realms with his groups Arp and Expanding Head Band.
Cream Cuts is a product of the lineup changes; membership now includes drummer Warren Huegel (of psychsters Citay) and bassist Tomo Yasuda (electronics man for Hey Willpower). But it also represents a fresh approach. Tracks such as "Meh-teh" and "Night of the Hunter" retain Tussle's obsession with thumpy, rhythmic frameworks, but the group has rinsed the album with electronics, most notably the widely oscillating synths of "Abacba" and the throbbing keyboard tones of "Titan."
Tussle also loads its new arrangements with sudden breakdowns or, as Burazer calls them, "moments of unraveling, like a reboot," that, he says, aid the band in fighting the linear nature of its music.
It's those very battles that help make the case for Tussle, San Francisco's (crisp, golden morning) light at the end of dance-rock orthodoxy.
Tussle, with We Are Hex and Dunk Jamz: DJ Fernando & Adamcare Thursday, September 4, at the Record Bar.