So opens "Stull Pt. 1," Urge Overkill's oblique ode to a microscopic Kansas town. It's not surprising that a Chicago-based band would name a song after an obscure Midwestern burg; such references are common among no-coast acts looking to celebrate their shared culture. However, it was more than a need to understand fellow rockers' highway-sign-speak that led Kurt Cobain and Electric Hellfire Club vocalist Reverend Thomas Thorn to make pilgrimages to the church and cemetery depicted on the cover of Urge Overkill's 1993 Stull EP (which also contains UO's popular rendition of Neil Diamond's "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon"). And fans of the long-defunct outfit aren't the only ones swarming to the site where the photo was taken. Allegedly, evil things happen there each Halloween -- spectacles involving demons, werewolves and Satan's spawn.
Lawrence multi-instrumentalist David Bagsby hasn't actually gotten close enough to observe such phenomena because police patrol the alleged hell's gate constantly, preventing vandalism and keeping the undead in line. But he got within camera range, and in addition to securing art for his album Jethro Stull, he found enough inspiration to provide a soundtrack for the scene.
Jethro Stull is a potentially unlucky offering. Containing thirteen songs, it's also Bagsby's thirteenth release. A spooky symphony filled with skeleton keyboards, chamber-door-tapping percussion and swarming strings, Stull chills and thrills in subtle ways, with no whistling winds, morose moans or rattling chains to force the mood. Its abstract instrumentation recalls King Crimson more than "Night on Bald Mountain" or other Halloween chestnuts. But there's still a sense of claustrophobic creepiness and increasing unease that might have made Stull a suitable score for intelligent psychological horror films such as The Ring or The Others.
"If someone asks me what kind of music I do, the best way I could put it is cinematic," Bagsby says. "At worst, people will think of Kenny Loggins and '80s movies, but I'm thinking more of Fantastic Voyage and Planet of the Apes, scores that can stand on their own two balls, even away from the films."
Until the right big-screen accompaniment comes along, Stull might work well on the sound system at haunted houses. It could also embolden curious occult adventurers to attempt séances, ceremonies and other activities involving candles and wacky wardrobes.
"This album is sold as a novelty only," Bagsby says. "I accept no responsibility for any mayhem or manifestations that result from playing it." No one has informed Bagsby of any plans to use Stull at his or her own fright nights, so the possibility exists that only Bagsby will pay the consequences for whatever savage spirits his compositions conjure. "So far, no weird goats have paraded across my porch," he reports. "If I vanish into the night, I might've hit on something."
Early in his career, Bagsby released Aviary, an album that uses conventional instruments to reproduce bird songs captured on digitized field recordings. On several occasions, he's revisited this approach, using wordless music to express specific concepts or re-create elements of nature. "How do you describe the smell of a sunflower through music without turning it into some vague, new-age thing?" Bagsby asks. "If you want to reproduce the idea of driving through Westport, without using car honks and dumb stuff like that, where do you begin?"
Pondering such questions, Bagsby sought software that enabled him to stretch his sonic spectrum. "People can basically hear anything from 20 hertz to 20 megahertz," he says. "I basically just jump off from there and make clouds of sound that crash into each other." Ignoring conventional understandings of pitch, rhythm and time, Bagsby stumbles upon some strange translating tools that allow listeners to see what he sees. But even with such knowledge at his disposal, it's nearly impossible to convey Stull's mysterious magnetism without including extensive liner notes.
Just a few of the tall tales surrounding the town:
·A stairway somewhere near the church either leads directly to hell or, at the very least, causes a time warp that converts each second to a two-week interval, an inconvenience that could lead to late fees and dead pets.
·Though the church was a roofless ruin for years, no rain ever fell into the gaping hole. Instead, the drops rolled off the walls without ever hitting the unholy ground.
·If you arrange two bottles into an upside-down cross and then toss one at the church's inner wall, it will never break, no matter how hard it's thrown. (Though this myth has never been officially debunked, it's easy to see how the persistent testing of this theory might have annoyed local residents.)
Perhaps if Stull's leaders were receptive to attention, Bagsby could've been the one to put these rumors to the test, like Geraldo Rivera opening Al Capone's vaults. Jethro Stull could've been released on Halloween night, with a money-hungry chamber of commerce selling mugs and T-shirts, charging for admission and promoting the burned-out church as Kansas' second-scariest spot -- after wherever Fred Phelps is standing. Instead, Stull's police and concerned citizens have sought to dissuade tourism, albeit ineptly. (On October 31, 1999, Lawrence broadcast and print reporters were allowed to stay on the site for hours but were ushered away thirty minutes before midnight, thus perpetuating suspicion instead of permanently alleviating it.) This spring, property owners had the church unceremoniously reduced to rubble.
"The legend will probably die hard, even though the church is gone," Bagsby predicts. "People will always be sneaking in and doing weird things."
Although Bagsby couldn't get Stull's seal of approval, he did get an indirect nod from Jethro Tull frontman Ian Anderson. Before moving to Lawrence in 2000, Bagsby released a number of albums dedicated to his hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma, including one titled Jethro Tulsa. Through "a strange series of coincidences," Anderson tracked down the album, then sent Bagsby an autographed photo on which he wrote, "I enjoyed your original take on contemporary progressive music. Keep up the good work." Given this positive response, Bagsby had few qualms about engaging in further Jethro Tull wordplay. (Genesis members have yet to respond to his disc The Lamb Fries Down on Broadway.)
While in Tulsa, Bagsby released his first "terror music" experiment, which took its title, Scream in the Dark, from an area haunted house. At the time, Halloween night at the Bagsby home was quite a production. Nooses dangled from trees, and axes and other weapons littered the yard, but the biggest attraction was an enormous serpent.
"I used to hook up this compressed air tank to this gigantic fake snake," Bagsby recalls. "You'd push the button, and it would shoot across the porch. This one guy almost dropped his baby trying to jump over the hedge." Bagsby now treats his guest to few tricks, with a distorted microphone providing his only special effects. But though his celebrations have become less elaborate and his yearlong experiment in producing free-form compositions in a red-lit room on pagan holidays produced "five minutes of usable music," Bagsby still refuses to dismiss the supernatural -- particularly where Stull is involved.
"I've talked to a huge cross-section of people, and they're not just telling local-yokel catfish stories," he concludes. "A lot of it's exaggerated, but part of me just wants to believe. I don't think I'm so jaded that I discount the idea that maybe there really is something weird going on and maybe I don't want to know what it is."