Sleepytime Gorilla Museum’s exhibits make for a long, strange field trip.

Whacks Museum 

Sleepytime Gorilla Museum’s exhibits make for a long, strange field trip.

Sleepytime Gorilla Museum can turn crowded, smoky bars into eerie, disjointed dreams. It plays monster music, as if Maurice Sendak's Wild Things were collaborating with Mr. Hyde versions of the members of King Crimson. The band writhes and jerks as it plays, sometimes gazing distantly into space, sometimes glaring, catlike, at some unseen object just beyond the crowd. There isn't the sense that the band members are just some normal folks who happen to play music; SGM has a distinct presence, and it uses that presence to change the venue into an extension of itself.

The band is Nils Frykdahl on guitar and vocals, Carla Kihlstedt on violin and vocals, Moe!Staiano on percussion, Dan Rathbun on bass and vocals and Frank Grau on drums. Everyone except Moe!Staiano went to school to study music, and it shows -- not in the chaos, heaviness or just plain weirdness of some of Rathbun's instruments, but in the arrangements and the old-fashioned skill with which all the members play. The musical influences driving the band are diverse but are at least partially rooted in progressive rock, which Rathbun grew up with (and Frykdahl grew into after a high-school career as a metalhead). Kihlstedt also plays in the group Tin Hat Trio, and Frykdahl is in Faun Fables, a duo that plays folky elf-lover-type tunes. But the music that emerges from this nerd collective quickly transcends its components. It is melodic, haunting, heavy, scary, melodramatic, violent and humorous by turns (sometimes all at once), incorporating technical proficiency, epic sensibilities and percussive insanity into the kind of free-form uninterpreted musical narrative that turns acid trips into harrowing nightmares or religious experiences.

To understand the whole SGM experience, it helps to know that two of its members are from the now-defunct highly theatrical Berkeley-originated art-rock outfit Idiot Flesh. Idiot Flesh's shows were like musical circuses. "Idiot Flesh did have a surround element," says Rathbun, bassist for Idiot Flesh and Sleepytime. "To be at an Idiot Flesh show was to be surrounded by visual things: people hanging from the ceiling, somebody on the rear balcony doing an interjection. Strange things were always happening. The focus would go back to the band onstage, and then something else would happen -- you'd have some strange costume thing happening -- we'd change costumes two or three times a night, and it was wild."

SGM is more surrealistic Dada fun but still retains bits of the first band. "Musically," Rathbun says, "SGM is no surprise. Anyone who carefully followed the career of Idiot Flesh from start to finish could see that we were heading in this direction." But this time, the music seems to be crafted with more care. "Idiot Flesh was impatient music," Rathbun explains. "[The music was] actually moving to its 'next thing' pretty rapidly. In Sleepytime, whatever sound or movement is afoot gets to say its piece before it gets swept away."

And an SGM show is not a crazed circus. Though the band members dress in costumes, wear face paint and take on distinct stage personas (particularly Nils, whose metal roots show through in his demonic appearance), ultradramatic chaos is kept to a minimum. "As Sleepytime, we decided to approach theatricality slowly and carefully, but we are going to go there," Rathbun promises.

SGM's first album, Grand Opening and Closing, retains some of the intensity of the group's live show, but the pandemonium has been stripped away, the songs reduced in some ways to their essential elements. "A record represents a sort of perfect performance," Rathbun says, "where everything is performed just right, and there's no compromises. You can really hear the compositions in their idealized forms."

Whether the album captures SGM's "magic" is a difficult call. "Some people feel that the live show is really the thing and that the album [should be] a representation of that," Rathbun says. "Other people feel the album is the important thing, and that the live show is a representation of the album. Some people are more visually oriented, and some are more sonically oriented."

This dichotomy doesn't seem to concern the band. "I also understand that a live show has all this human energy that you can't really convey on a record," Rathbun says. "We've tried to make that record be the most interesting thing we possibly could. In the end, though, it is the listener, not the band or producer, that decides whether the album succeeds. You can't construct magic. You can push as hard as you can, but whether it turns out to be magic or not is still a little bit of voodoo."

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