Back to the future?

The popularity of that extraordinarily silly sitcom That ’70s Show, “retro,” to many young people, conjures up bell bottoms and beer anthems.

But for those slightly older kids still jitterbugging on the coattails of the swing resurgence, the word has a different ring entirely.

Here, I introduce two bands — playing two different Asheville venues this Saturday night — that toe a deep line when it comes to retro-music stereotypes. And rest assured that the Brooklyn-based Big Lazy and Countdown Quartet out of Raleigh, are squarely on opposite sides of that line.

It’s hard to avoid thinking of cigarettes, Jim Jarmusch movies and long nighttime drives when listening to the film-noirish music of the New York City instrumental trio Big Lazy. The band — whose atmospheric first record, Amnesia (Tasankee Records, 1996), was licensed by NBC and used on the popular cop drama Homicide: Life on the Streets — was known as Lazy Boy until La-Z-Boy Furniture Company execs threatened legal action. While the band’s music might owe a lot to the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, it also dispenses a strong postmodern vibe. It should be noted here that guitarist Stephen Ulrich seemed to wince over the phone when I tactfully introduced the term ‘retro.’

“One problem I have with the retro thing,” says Ulrich, “is that it’s all very premeditated, and it’s all very safe. … I don’t want to sound snobby and say, ‘We don’t like that.’ … If that’s what people see in [our music], that’s cool, but we certainly don’t push that, and it makes me slightly nervous to be near it. Because I listen to a Charles Mingus record that was made in 1959, it doesn’t mean I want to sound like a Charles Mingus record that was made in 1959.”

The band, composed of Ulrich, drummer Tamir Muskat and bass player Paul Dugan, has successfully fused a variety of influences on its second release, Big Lazy (Tasankee Records, 1999). It’s one of those rare CDs that you could dance to, drive to or meditate to — depending on your mood. Whiffs of jazz are detectable, as well as surf guitar, blues and more contemporary influences.

“I listen to a lot of atmospheric music, from film scores to Charles Mingus,” Ulrich explains. “We listen to the craziest variety, and I think the getting is good when you’re listening to stuff and things are coming out of your head that aren’t necessarily lifted directly from [any one] thing. … Hopefully, it’s something new. The idea of listening [to] and playing only one kind of music seems like some sort of hell, or something.”

Ulrich considers Big Lazy more of a rock band than anything else — though it often plays jazz clubs or punk holes-in-the-wall — and he feels most at home sharing a bill with groups that similarly defy classification. Ultimately, Ulrich doesn’t care what people call Big Lazy, though he continues to shy away from retro. “I’d like to think that we’re taking chances and playing without a net,” he says. His goal is to create music that is in the best tradition of his influences, without simply reproducing it: “I would say it starts by not being too devoted to a genre and recreating it, and trying to stay eclectic.”

With retro, Ulrich points out, “You’re recreating something … and usually for a crowd that doesn’t know the original. They might know it somehow in their subconscious, because they’ve heard it, but they don’t know it intellectually, or in any sort of soulful way. So what happens is they get hit with something and they feel like, ‘Oh, this is our thing,’ or ‘It’s a special thing.’

“If you start a swing band that dresses the part and plays the sort of razzmatazz thing … are you really doing something new?” he wonders, deciding: “I don’t know. It’s hard to tell.”

David “Dave” Wright — lead vocalist, trombonist and organist for Countdown Quartet — might well echo that sentiment and add that he couldn’t care less. Both as a member of Countdown and in his other role (as the latest member of the Squirrel Nut Zippers), he has embraced retro with open arms — and damn the consequences.

“It feels great,” says Wright. “I don’t care if people call it retro, or whatever. It’s great music from a great era, and it’s fun writing songs in that style. There’s plenty of everything; there needs to be a whole lot of musics going on,” he declares, throwing in a hearty chuckle for good measure. “And for me, as a trombone player, to have two jobs — one playing for the Zippers and one playing for Countdown — where I get to play two of my favorite kinds of music (which are both jazz, but are both from slightly different aspects of jazz) is just great.”

It’s easy to tell from the band’s self-titled debut (Yep Roc, 1999) that these guys are having the time of their lives. Moreover, their fondest desire is to have everybody share the fun. Wielding both original and recycled songs, they jam through a hectic mix of swing, Dixieland and blues, barely pausing to snatch a breath. All Countdown Quartet members (amusingly, there are now five) are veterans of other N.C. bands: Wright and Steve Grothmann (upright bass/vocals) from the Tonebenders, Jim Mathus (guitar) of the Squirrel Nut Zippers and Knockdown Society, Ted Zarras (drums) from Jazz Squad and The Chickenwire Gang, and Tim Smith of J’Azure and Jumpstarts. (Mathus — whose wife, SNZ singer Katharine Whalen, is about to give birth — is replaced on CQ’s latest tour by another Zipper, Stu Cole.)

“I want to play music that people can enjoy physically and move to, instead of just sip[ping] on something’ and clapping between each soloist, and that kind of thing,” Wright stresses. “My main influences are people like Ray Charles, Bill Haley, Chuck Berry, then older sounds like Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Kid Ory … like Lucien Barber or Corey Henry, all those trombone players. They’re incredible. … We don’t play anything anyone brings in unless it’s fun. That’s what it is — that’s one of the rules.”

Wright sweats the result, but not the method, of his art: “All my songs usually took only three minutes to write,” he proclaims proudly. “I thought of something funny the other day. I was thinking that, if you spend more than three minutes writing a song, then you’re going to have to try really hard next time to write something better than that. It will take you longer than three minutes.”

That casual approach doubtless helps account for Wright’s offhand response, when asked to explain the band’s name. In fact, he might have been offering his definition of the word ‘retro’: “I really don’t know what the name means. … It’s one thing I should know, shouldn’t I? I just never questioned it!”


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