Whatever your view of communal living, it’s hard to dismiss the unique pressure that the psychedelic rock band Zendik Farm cheerfully (and rigorously) imposes on itself: This group, which features members of a 20-year-old artists’ community newly relocated to Western North Carolina, plays totally improvisational music.
Although the band practices together in their home studio five nights a week, no notes are memorized, no songs rehearsed — what you hear on-stage and in their CDs is an experience wrung from the moment.
“[Since] we live together, we really know each other very well, and when we come together to play, the music brings in wherever we’ve been that day — whether we’ve been working all day or out on road trips together — [and also] where we are right then, in our heads and in our emotions,” lead singer [and community co-founder] Arol Wulf explained during a recent group interview.
“It does change from day to day. Someone could have a brick fall on their head that afternoon, and that would change the sound. They might only know one note after that,” quips bassist Bugz.
As might be expected from the tone of their famously in-your-face, self-named magazine, many of the songs on Zendik Farm’s latest CD We the Poet (Zendik Soundz, 1999) gather fire from political issues. In “What Happened to Rock and Roll,” Wulf intones ominously: “You’ve been listening to rock ‘n’ roll/All your life/Hey let me tell you what happened to rock ‘n roll/Oh, those people let it go/ … I went to a concert/Corporate controlled/… Ah, told me got my soul in their hole.”
But although Zendik (the community) considers itself a social movement — the group sustains itself through art, outreach endeavors and the bounty of a 120-acre organic farm — Zendik (the band) isn’t about simply buffeting people with messages, Wulf maintains.
“It’s not just about politics,” she notes. “We’re emotional: We feel love, we feel anger, we feel regret. The music all has to do with being a human being now and how that feels. The message [can be taken] many ways — politically, socially or emotionally. Politically, I have more anger at what is unjust, and that comes out in [my] lyrics. I felt strongly about what I [sang in “What Happened to Rock and Roll”], because I remember when rock ‘n’ roll came on and what a great joy it was, those early sounds — and then [I saw] what happened to it when it became formulaic and corporate-killed.”
Like the community itself, the band has fluctuated in size over the years, as members come and go. Surprisingly, Wulf herself is a recent addition. “I had never thought about being a singer before,” she reveals. “But our [newest band] had no one to lead it, so I stepped in.”
Though the beauty of impulse is foremost in their hearts, the group doesn’t champion careless jamming. “As [rhythm guitarist] Finny once said to me before a show, ‘I’m not any more scared here than when we’re [improvising at home]. I’m scared sh••less then, and I’m scared sh••less now,'” Wulf says with a laugh. In her case, toting the considerable burden of instantly-produced lyrics often illuminates long-neglected stores of inspiration.
“There’s no clue for me before the music starts,” she explains. “And sometimes, I have to start humming or doing a chant [until words hit]. Sometimes, something will come out of the past, some image or feeling, and that’s a real surprise, a real blow. [I’ll] wonder, ‘Where did that come from? I didn’t even think I remembered that.‘”
“Your emotional state will change, and your energy level may be high or low, so playing is always a challenge,” Bugz clarifies.
Since no one knows beforehand what may issue forth on a particular night, every venue is, in essence, receiving its own personal concert. And Zendik Farm infinitely prefers this behemoth of uncertainty to the numbing comfort of a set list.
“You take a band like Metallica — they have to go out on tour and do the same song over and over,” puts in Zoe, who serves as the band’s sound engineer. “Whether they’re having a bad day or a good day, it’s always the same song. That’s gotta be an emotional rip-off.” And Wulf laments: “When you hear a band saying to the audience, ‘This song is for you,’ and then you hear them say the same thing in another city, it’s like, ‘What are you doing’? It’s terrible. It has nothing to do with art, and you’re not really getting anything from it.”
Band members note that an audience’s response to the group often dictates where the music will go on a given evening. A successful show demands this mutual exchange, says Wulf: “I like people to take the trip with us, wherever it takes us.”
In the bigger picture, Wulf views with vivid displeasure the world’s tendency to extinguish the artistic spirit.
“I think everybody has the potential to be a creative artist,” she declares. “I think everyone’s born that way, with a peculiar mind-print, their own particular form of genius, their own thing they have to give that nobody else can do quite like them. Where that gets killed is by a culture that demands that you don’t do that — that you conform, toe the line, do it the way it’s supposed to be done … and if you do want to create, well, you have to do that on your own time somewhere. It kills creativity in the population. I don’t know how many people I have met in my lifetime [who] love to sing or dance or paint or draw, and want to really spend time doing it but can’t, because the facts of life are so harsh in terms of, ‘No, you can’t do that, you have to do this and that and follow the rules.’
“It’s the culture itself that stops people — just having to survive,” she continues. “You have to go to work, or you have to go to school, or you have to have a job after school, and by the time all that’s done, there’s very little time to go after art. Some people obviously do it anyway, but if you had a culture that wasn’t financially driven, competitively driven, well then, Jesus! You’d have a very warm, soft population trying to figure out what it is they’d love to do. And in [a more spiritual] culture, the kids would know right away what it was they loved to do, and you’d help them get there. For us, the joy is [in] the possibility of a future culture that is kind to the human spirit, the human soul — where everyone, just about, would be an artist. I mean, digging a ditch can be an art. I’ve known guys who could dig a ditch that’s so beautiful it makes you cry. It’s just perfect. Most of the time they can’t do that, though, because the job’s gotta get done and they’ve gotta get out of there.”
To be sure, communal creating is not for everyone. But some of its results can prove truly moving. Mazz, the band’s violinist, reports on a certain phenomenon that has occurred lately during practice: “When I first started with the band, we’d be jamming, and it would take us a really long time to even lock into a groove. And then, when we did get into it, I would realize that we had to find a way to end the song.”
These days, that’s rarely a problem: “Now, sometimes, we can look at each other, know it’s over — and end together on one note,” she reveals with a smile.