As Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said, it's impossible to step into the same river twice.
You're never going to see Tut Tut twice, either. The local band's members flow in and out of the group like a river's current.
"I don't think any version has lasted for more than five to six shows," says Alexander Abnos, the 24-year-old frontman of the electronic collective and the band's only full-time member.
Tut Tut combines the dry wit of Magnetic Fields' leader Stephin Merritt with the impassioned honesty of Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Mangum, then filters the mix through a stylized lens of baroque pop. It's a sweet, idiosyncratic sound with the potential to come off as precious — the band's MySpace description reads, in part: "Tut Tut are led by Alexander Abnos and a large cast of friends and some of those friends happen to be ukuleles. Nooo, don't stop reading." But what emerges is exuberant and heady.
Abnos doesn't have much formal music training, but his love for music blossomed early. "I started playing music when I took piano lessons for a few months when I was 6 or 7 and have been playing some kind of musical thing ever since then," he says. The band was born when he began toying with a ukulele and a loop pedal during his senior year of high school.
Slowly, Tut Tut expanded from what Abnos describes as "a couple of power trios" to a fully orchestrated lineup with the release of 2008's The Heart Goes Nine. By then, the band had grown to a full ensemble with drums, horns, cello and harpsichord. At the project's heart, though, remained Abnos' earnest vocals and plucky ukulele strums.
The collective heard on The Heart Goes Nine never physically performed together, and its members have spread out across the country. Abnos himself was still away at school when the album came together. The Kansas City kid was attending George Washington University in Washington, D.C, and nurturing Tut Tut from afar until he graduated in 2009. One other player on Nine still lives in Kansas City, two live in North Dakota, two are in Texas, one has settled in Georgia, and another has moved to upstate New York.
"I was so sporadically in the same town as people," Abnos says. "So even though I loved how we sounded with full orchestration, it couldn't continue because I had to go back to D.C., our cellist Dan had to go back to New York, and our drummer and horn player had to go back to Texas."
This hectic dynamic — with musicians scattered to the four winds — means Tut Tut has again become a solo project. Abnos misses the collaboration. "There's only so many different ways I can sound by myself, and I'm extremely lucky to be friends with so many ridiculously talented musicians," he says. "All they really need to do is breathe on a Tut Tut song, and it becomes about 10 times what it was before.
"The only time I've ever really heavily involved other people in Tut Tut was to help me out performing my stuff live," Abnos continues. Onstage, recent helpers have included Mikee Pruitt (of 20,000 Strong Men and the Wrong Crowd), who brings what Abnos describes as "power and oomph" on a stand-up drum set. Before his recent move to Georgia, Ryan Donegan (of It's Over) played an eclectic array of instruments, including a toy piano and a saw.
But it's difficult to maintain a cohesive vision when band members are strewn about. This may explain why the next Tut Tut release is a five-song remix EP. Heart Beats: The Heart Goes Nine Remixed is a digital-only affair, put together by CEEGO (Charlie Gokey, a member of Abnos' other band, Secret Cities). Abnos sells the EP at shows on download cards.
Of course, should Abnos need to play a show at a moment's notice, he can always grab his laptop and his ukulele and climb onstage to entertain. But that isn't to say he likes that approach.
"I can still do a solo show with the lap-top beats, and, while it won't be quite as full-sounding as it is with everyone else, there's still a lot of detail in the beats to keep most people satisfied," Abnos says. "That said, I always prefer to play with people."
And people don't just fill out Tut Tut's sound; they give Abnos' performances soul, too. "Most of those out-of-town people are not just amazing musicians; they're also amazing friends. Those aren't easy people to replace, or even to find people to fill in for. Maybe I'll just pull a RZA and force everyone to commit to Tut Tut for a while."
Here's hoping we can expect Tut Tut Forever in the near future.