Musicians tend to toss out that I’m-one-with-the-crowd line like candy at a parade. But local singer Nathanael Markham is keeping the goods to himself.
“The only thing I ever wanted to do was play in front of an audience exactly the way I am at home, and show them no intimacy – because that’s not what it’s about,” declares Markham, one half of ambient duo Body of John the Baptist.
Which isn’t to say that Markham and band mate Jamie Hepler have anything against their fans, per se. They appreciate acknowledgment, and seem genuinely pleased to think that their artful, emotive music might rattle around in a listener’s head after the show ends. The duo just isn’t interested in taking the stage to play crowd pleasers and danceable little ditties.
So how well can this brand of artistic honesty work? Well, any Dylan fan knows that the iconic musician was booed off countless stages when he traded his acoustic guitar for an electric ax. Sometime after the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, Sing Out reported that “‘The people’ so loved by Pete Seeger are ‘the mob’ so hated by Dylan. … They seemed to understand that night for the first time what Dylan has been trying to say for over a year – that he is not theirs or anyone else’s.”
Not that Body of John the Baptist has much in common, sonically, with Dylan. But they’re not anyone else’s, either.
Change is the only constant
Markham and Hepler craft eerily melodic soundscapes that have a way of burrowing into the listener’s psyche: songs imaginable as the soundtrack to a stroll through the back streets of Paris during a thunderstorm. Songs expressed by inexplicable, dreamlike album titles, such as the double-CD effort due later this month: I caution you this is the lonely distance and The Music That You’re Hearing is a Harness on Your Head.
“I went home last night and played six things I’d never want to play, and then buried them under, like, 3000 layers,” Markham reveals to his band mate.
“It’s really scary,” he adds happily.
Surreal lyrics rise from the obscurity of the layered tracks, the occasional word (“Valentine,” “dreams,” “trees”) surfacing clearly through the delicious haze of watery, echoing synthesizer, guitar and reverb. There’s a sweetness to Markham’s voice that transcends preciousness, exactly complementing the material’s sleepy, languid sense of longing.
“I wouldn’t put it in the genre of ambient noise because there’s a lot of pop sensibility to what we do,” Hepler says. “Songs stick in your head.”
True – and that’s a testament to the music’s strength, as these catchy yet hookless tunes tend to weigh in at well under the industry-standard three minutes. In fact, the band’s shows run a mere 30 minutes per set.
“Something ends when it ends – going any further than that to reiterate a point doesn’t do any good for you,” Markham insists.
“The raddest note ever”
Doe-eyed as Conor Oberst, and armed with nattier fashion sense, the Body of John the Baptist’s lyricist has no interest in the rock-star life. “If you’re in a rock band, you know what you’ll get from the audience, and you’re secure,” Markham points out. “But I can’t imagine thinking that was okay.”
“That it was enough,” Hepler adds. Contributing keys, lap steel and effects, Hepler claims to be more comfortable in Body of John the Baptist than in any genre-specific project he’s worked on.
“We’re continually adding tones, changing lyrics and chord progressions. Everything is a work in progress,” he says.
Still, both Hepler and Markham enjoy positive feedback – even if the audience has a hard time conveying it. “Someone [might] say, ‘I really like your music, but you shouldn’t be so shy,’” Hepler laughs. “What do you want me to do – make rock-star faces like it’s the raddest note ever?”
Online resource Wikipedia classifies ambient’s mainstream popularity as low – but it also name-checks some of contemporary music’s most accomplished artists (Brian Eno, John Cage, Philip Glass, Pink Floyd and Tangerine Dream) as innovators in and influences on the form. Markham and Hepler add Suicide to that list, and identify local acts Dean Inman, Dig Shovel Dig and Doom Ribbons among the current lineup of ambient artists.
But the genre’s mostly-underground trajectory remains hard to map.
“I feel positive that it can’t be something that’s happened and is now over, because there are so many places to push open,” suggests Markham, noting that many of ambient’s adherents fly well under the radar, performing in their own homes instead of in clubs.
“I don’t want to stop,” he insists. “I don’t want to ever become bored. I just want to get somebody to give us ice cream every day. And a greenhouse. And a pony. Those are pretty much our demands.”
Body of John the Baptist plays a double-CD release party at Bo Bo Gallery (22 Lexington Ave.) on Saturday, March 4. 9:30 p.m. Free. 254-3426.