The duo Arms and Sleepers claims that it began in the back of an ambulance.
As the story goes, the ambulance came upon a dying man in an alley holding a tape player and playing a cassette of a gospel choir. A live jazz band played down the street. As the man died, the cassette kept playing.
The way the pre-recorded sound meshed with the live music, street noise and heavy mood planted the seeds for Arms and Sleepers.
The band, of course, remains in possession of the gospel cassette.
While this story makes great copy, that collision of sounds doesn’t really describe Cambridge, Mass.-based Arms and Sleepers. It does, however, convey the duo’s attraction to melancholy, their affinity for disparate influences and their fiercely individualist drive to forge forward with their own brand of ambient music.
The band brings its live show—which is rounded out by visuals from Dado Ramadani—to West Asheville’s Rocket Club Thursday.
The real history is a lot less glamorous: when keyboardist/programmer Max Lewis and bassist/programmer Mirza Ramic met in high school, they didn’t exactly hit it off.
“We didn’t like each other,” Ramic says. “I was a little more serious and he was more of a comedian.”
Ramic and his mother had spent seven years relocating annually throughout Europe and the States, eventually settling in Boston. Ramadani, also from Bosnia, went to the same high school as well. Ramic and Lewis’ collective musical fate was sealed, however, when Lewis handed Ramic a tape of Radiohead’s landmark album OK Computer. At this time, Ramic says, the two still weren’t friends. The first music they began to make, Ramic recalls with a laugh, landed somewhere between Radiohead and Staind.
“We moved away from that very quickly,” he says.
Less glamorous, to be sure, but no less impressive when you consider that Ramic and Lewis have, in just a few short years, evolved from teenagers emulating Staind to studio auteurs whose full-length debut, Black Paris 86, sounds like it could have been crafted by seasoned veterans like the Orb or Meat Beat Manifesto.
Lush, delicate, and expertly textured, Black Paris sees Ramic and Lewis weaving together jazz and downtempo drum and bass elements into eminently ambient—and listenable—sound collages. Many of the sounds that the pair generates electronically approximate naturally-occuring sounds like birds, rain, wind, etc.
“We often work on music,” Ramic says, “by watching a certain scene in a movie or creating visuals ourselves. For us, film in general is as much of an influence as other music. That’s why we have visuals in the live show. We don’t find ourselves very entertaining to watch. We actually used to play behind the screen when we first started. We can’t even imagine our music without visuals. If we could, we would release every CD with a DVD, and even when we do live performances on radio, we always bring our visuals anyway.”
Arms and Sleepers’ disciplined sense of craft wouldn’t have developed—at least into what it is now—without the demise of Ramic and Lewis’ former band, The List Exists, a post-rock outfit with shoegaze tendencies that the pair formed during college. After that, they immersed themselves in recording and sound manipulation. Over time, their bond began to run deep—which Ramic says reflects in their work.
“We both come from really different backgrounds,” he says, “but they’re both somewhat difficult backgrounds, I guess. We went through a lot of tough times together. The music that’s always helped us get through that is this kind of somber, melancholy music. I never had any childhood friends or anything like that. Max, in a way, is the first really good friend I’ve ever had.”
[Saby Reyes-Kulkarni is a freelance writer.]
who: Arms and Sleepers, Somni Suite and The Consumers
what: Ambient electronic music
where: The Rocket Club
when: Thursday, Aug. 14 (10:15 p.m. www.therocketclub.net or 505-2494)