Somewhere in a darkened room, a different kind of band ruminates over its next song. No lyrics will be sung, no chorus repeated. In fact, very little traditional structure other than jazz’s conversational play ties the music together. Local trio Ahleuchatistas speaks loudly through this experimental voice.
And yet the band’s latest coup – its third record, What You Will, was just released on internationally known label Cuneiform – was nothing if not calculated.
In Asheville’s musical landscape, friendliest to new old-time and counter-culture jams, Ahleuchatistas stick out as left of even left-of-center. Their instrumental-only pieces are marked by false stops and starts, surgically precise rhythmic changes and squelching guitar noises, punctuated with a shimmering sheet of beats, blurts and hammering drums. A tone of dissent runs through a sound that infuses punk’s aggression with the note-clustering of free jazz and improv.
But as drummer Sean Dail suggests, the trio has a sort of spiritual side it might just have in common with other local groups.
“It’s what our bodies and minds come together and do naturally,” he offers. “It’s controlled in that we harness that energy and try to put it to good use.”
And, too, the story of Ahleuchatistas begins not unlike many behind-the-music tales. Favorite records were exchanged, friendships tied by a desire to experiment with sounds. In guitarist Shane Perlowin’s eyes, a direct line connects the trio’s first meeting and the respected label now releasing its music, beginning when a former band of his played with Dail’s then-group at a house show. “We [were] with a metal band called Resurrectum that had Sean on drums [he was 19]. I remember being crowded in a kitchen listening to this guy blow my mind,” says the guitarist. Perlowin eventually began playing with bassist Derek Poteat again, adding Dail as drummer. “I asked Sean if he was into [NYC innovative jazz artist] John Zorn’s [band] Naked City, and he introduced me to Cuneiform Records.”
Steve Feigenbaum started Cuneiform in 1984, when running a small label was a grassroots act in itself. “When people ask me what I do, I say I have a little record label,” he reported in a recent phone interview. “They assume I do local talent. I just happen to be here.” The label, based outside Washington, D.C., became known for releasing work by such European artists as Belgians Univers Zero, avant-garde guitarist Fred Frith and British pioneers Soft Machine. To the animated Feigenbaum, Ahleuchatistas’ base in Asheville, though unique, is a non-factor – ” … they just happen to be there,” he says wryly.
The group first encountered the label owner at a gig in Baltimore. Ahleuchatistas were playing after Larval, a group on Cuneiform. “Staying up late is not something I’m used to doing. We’re getting ready to leave after their set, and I decided, ‘I need to stay and watch this,’” remembers Feigenbaum.
“What he doesn’t realize is that we put ourselves there that night to be discovered by him,” Poteat reveals. “The show was eight hours away, not for much money, and a long drive. We decided it was worth it. We made the journey.”
Ahleuchatistas express their voice of protest in their work, in the biting acidity of the music’s flavor, and more directly in song titles, as jazz artists do in their lyric-less pieces. The first track on their new record is called “Remember Rumsfeld at Abu Ghraib,” nodding to one of the band’s heroes, composer Charles Mingus, and his “Remember Rockefeller at Attica.” In Asheville, they bum around just like many bands, hanging at Static Age record store (whose owner released their first album), working day jobs, mourning the demise of beloved club Vincent’s Ear. Perlowin is outspoken on that loss and on the attendant downtown slide, as he sees it.
“We were given free creative rein there and nurtured by people who really cared about art and the scene. In some ways, downtown Asheville has become like one of those fake city streets at Disney World. I guess that’s what happens when the top priority is to impress tourists and cater to millionaire transplants who spend a few weeks a year in their downtown condominiums.”
So what made Feigenbaum stay that night in Baltimore? “They were playing the most complicated stuff I’d heard coming out of punk,” he says. “The drummer was incredible, playing while pretending to poke himself in the eye with his drumstick. He was able to play this difficult music, but still be able to goof on it. It really impressed me, because, well, they are an impressive band.”
[Xpress contributor Chris Toenes is based in Chapel Hill.]
Ahleuchatistas play a CD-release party at Bo Bo Gallery (22 Lexington Ave.) on Saturday, Jan. 28. 10 p.m. For more info, see www.bobogallery.com or call 254-3426.