12/09/2018

Hed: Adult science fair sports fun for the whole psyche

Dek: Appleton live band attracts eclectic, multi-medial crowd

The Science Fair, organized by eclectic Appleton-based band The Science Project, filled the flexible, multipurpose space of Madison's Art In last Thursday night (11/29/2018) in a way that felt tailor-made to the venue's strengths. This multi-medial billing began with presentations by serial entrepreneur Elijah McCloskey (founder of Bike Right and rep for the local Freewheel Community Bike Shop) and Grateful Guy Tie Dyes, with McCloskey discussing the numerous highlights of his recent community involvement and the latter giving a Woodstock-worthy crash course on making one's own tie-dye imprint to their wardrobe. Speaking of which, The Science Project's bandleader William Baxter wears his heart on his sleeve – through both his eye-opening musicianship and by pairing each of these Science Fair events with noteworthy causes. For more background info on this side of the band and its ongoing ambitions, check out an interview-discussion I had with Baxter [attached].

The venue's loosey-goosey, stoner-bachelor-pad feel, along with its anything-goes setup – replete with random couches, tapestries, tables, a mixing desk, dual bar-areas and extra rooms behind the sound-stage that serve as an open-door Green Room – fit the proceedings perfectly.

“This is the kind of place where our parents did heroin,” commented the poker-faced tweener-set comedian Glenn Widdicombe, with his oddly-inviting, down-to-earth aura, looking awestruck between one-liners as a representative from the natural-fibers crowd tossed glowing LED bulbs into mesmerizing, swirling patterns to a stroke-like effect. And despite mocking his own nervousness to make a skillful series of jokes, he's not wrong about that. The place looks as though it was designed by Steven Wright's hilariously-monotonic “The Guy on the Couch” character from 1998's Half Baked. No one's there to cause trouble, you're never quite sure who's on drugs and who isn't (does it matter?), and yet you'll rarely hear a mic “pop” or static from the stage, as venueowner John Chandler (“Jack”) keeps things flowing and free-form as he attends to mixing-desk amidst the constant flux of drink purchases.

The Schlosser-Kammer Project

Madison mainstay Art Paul-Schlosser opened the night with his Schlosser-(Chris) Kammer Project, a musicalcomedy duo reminiscent of early-'60s Greenwich Village basement coffee-shops where a young and freshly baked, solo-acoustic Bob Dylan might be squeezed in between ambiguously-inebriated poets, sketch comedy or other noncommercial smatterings of topical and political wordplay. Schlosser in particular has a certain delivery that hearkens back to deadpan comedians like Bob Newhart wherein the joke is the tone itself (a la The Onion), or at least the tone is as funny as the joke itself. Their material touched on everything from awkward phone calls to pink pants to peanut-butter sandwiches.

Zombie Mañana

Since much of the post-presentation(s) crowd trickled in late to the early-starting Zombie Mañana – the versatile and glowstick-friendly Chicago foursome that plays a sort of psychedelicized, effects-heavy punk-rock/reggae fusion that charges forward like an out-of-wedlock child borne from The Police and a spacey, experimental Kaki King - was somewhat overshadowed by the one-man solo act of frontman Danny Biggins, ex-member of Madison's highly-respected prog-rock-with-live-electronics flash in the pan (Wook, 2013). Without a backing band or a specific music-gum to chew on, Biggins combined his soulful, airy vocals with electro-acoustic guitar loops that were sometimes songs, sometimes soundscapes, and sometimes both. The results were reminiscent of The Black Crowes' quietly-climactic "Sunday Night Buttermilk Waltz", Chris Robinson Brotherhood's “From the North Garden” or “Seagull” by Bad Company. Biggins made little mention of what songs came from what album, or saying much other than a nod of acknowledgment to former Wook alum and solo-act/producer Dudley Noon, it didn't much matter, because his set proved to be miles above the urination-break set it was perhaps intended to be.

The Bellybutton Club

Spawned from the seeds of the same strain that brought you Madison's premier, progressive jam-rock band Sweet Delta Dawn, the sunny and uninhibited guitarist/songwriter Johnny C Wood now leads what is perhaps the city's newest original band, focusing on quality originals (“May I” will linger in your brain for days like an unexpectedly-laced edible). Thankfully for us, the Bellybutton Club is just as tight as its predecessor and explores much of the same gooey, resin-caked grooves and modal, single-chord improvs found in Phish and The Grateful Dead's hippie-speedball roots music, but with a slightly mellower, Sunday-afternoon shade - and whose musicianship is now finding its stride in a way that gives their cover choices the illusion of being originals. Wood's voice is like liquid honey, sticking delectably to the top of whatever tangential vamps the quartet's loose and jazzy rhythm section decides to ride on from song to song. Phish's "Crosseyed & Painless" was made especially tasteful by the heady wah-clavinet b***h-slapping given by Lucas Trilling (keys). For the immediate future, the band's main ambition - other than widening its local and regional presence, while their bandleader (Wood) sells guitar picks made of stone and amber on the side – is recording its first CD, set to be released later this winter. Their next show is Feb 22nd at the Brink Lounge with Seaside Zoo, a new Dead tribute band that includes members from BBC and Mission, with other shows scheduled for March.

The Science Project

As the evening's featured act, William Baxter's ongoing, ever-changing labor-of-love The Science Project brought its characteristic, loosely-controlled chaos to a welcoming, well-informed audience. Not many bands can start a set with Elton John's “Rocket Man”, segue into Pink Floyd's spectral, synthesizer-driven instrumental (“Any Color You Like”) and then a faithful reading of “Paperback Writer” (The Beatles) that carried the song into a drifting, double-tempo Southern-rock movie end-credit sequence so professionally, and without missing a note. To a layman, from the outside looking in, the group's kaleidoscopic palette is almost intimidating, as the audience is unable to detect what's a first take and what a rehearsed, polished sequence is at any time. Quite simply, Baxter and his bandmates – ever changing as they may be, from night to night – trust their abilities and intuition enough to buy the ticket and take the ride. Agile and emotive guitarist Tyler Shea (of regional act Feed the Dog) served as the featured guest for the set, and his vocal datum on “Rings” by Leo Kottke had an even stronger pulse than the original, and led the band into a spinning, high-energy, “jam-rock-grass” jam on the way out. Astoundingly, the quartet managed to splice in modernized versions of “Folsom Prison Blues”, tease the Allman Brothers' “Jessica” and pay homage to Elvis Presley (“That's Alright, Mama”), while also debuting brand-new songs. “Gates of Babylon” from the freshly-minted T3: The Extraterrestrial Experience particularly stood out, powered by a nasty, funky keyboard groove and Baxter's spilling-out-of-the-speakers vocal delivery, the end-product sounding like a Caucasian version of the legendary Les McCann vibing ecstatic from Live at Montreux.

Sweet Delta Dawn

Founding members Jeff Clarke (bass) and Jay Vollberg (keys) originally formed Sweet Delta Dawn as a Dead cover band but the group has been knee-deep in a transitional period recently, successfully re-establishing themselves as songwriters with the help of recent transplant Jack Peterson, who brings a Keith Godchaux-toBrent Mydland-level change of pace to the vocals and guitar work compared to its prior iteration(s). Normally the easiest-drawing act on the bill, the combo played a solid, Don Kirshner's Rock Concert-evincing hour in front of an unusually-sparse audience. Once the combo took the stage, the audience had trickled out to resemble air being let out of a retirement party balloon, although this had more to do with people dreading their Fridaymorning alarm clocks than being unmoved by the music. Among other highlights, their set included Mac Miller's reduced-gravity hip-hop number “What's the Use?”, Stevie Ray Vaughan's smooth-jazz/blues shredfest “Riviera Paradise”, Steely Dan's “Home at Last” (who doesn't love a good “Purdie shuffle”?), a spirited version of Herbie Hancock's face-melting funk classic “Chameleon” and an overqualified- Seventies-high-school-dance-band reading of the Grateful Dead's “Shakedown Street” that ripened almost unnoticeably into Deodato's hash-infused take on “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (2001) from his star-studded 1973 album Prelude.

If by chance you missed any part of this concert experience, The Science Project is currently planning another Science Fair for the same venue, tentatively scheduled for a weekend evening in April. The Science Project’s Winter Tour Rolls onward in the next two months with stops in Milwaukee, WI December 21st at the Pabst Breweries’ Newly Renovated Tap Room, the following night in hometown Appleton, WI, at Gibson Music Hall and the following month in Iowa City, IA / Urbana, IL / and Colorado where they will embark on a 5-night run of Denver / Breckenridge / Crested Butte / and Iowa City again, featuring many special guests include Colorado natives Chewy&Bach. For more information on the band head over to http://thescienceproject.me.

Hed: Open structures and an open heart

Dek: Fox Valley musician-producer attracts a new kind of listener

Akin to the jam-band circuit's The Everyone Orchestra, Appleton-based multi-instrumentalist and songwriter/producer William Baxter's open-structured, open-facing ensemble (and nonprofit-assistance vehicle) The Science Project is propelled by a borderline-chaotic, anything-goes strand of spontaneous composition, except in this case the feature is its founder, in whatever guise that the Project decides to show up as on any given night. The same goes for the nonprofit or cause being benefited (i.e., that TSP teams up with) for each show, as this can also change like the music, along with the extra-musical mediums presented as part of each show...and this gives it the feeling of a late-60's/early-'70s “happening” as opposed to a concert. Baxter's soloacoustic sets are worthy of attention in their own regard, with him able to chip away at an entire band's catalog (ex: Grateful Dead; Allman Brothers Band) from set to set, taking the form of a walking musical-encyclopedia without ever doubling up songs from set to set. Like a live set from Southern-rock jam band The Black Crowes at the height of their pre-hiatus powers, it almost works as a history lesson unto itself, replete with ASMRtriggering jams spun out of thin air.

GM: I know you have a colorful history with groups like Stargoyle and others throughout the Fox Valley. Was the Science Project something borne out of direct inspiration - musical or non-musical – or was the Science Project something that had been gestating for a while, and [TSP is] simply that approach/sound coming to fruition?

WB: You could pull back on the roots of that pretty far, since at first I was slowly playing as a three-piece many years ago, and I was originally in a garage-band, as well. Those efforts led me to my first real project, Photontox, which got us all booking bigger shows and having some kind of success, there. Then that band broke up. I moved away for a while, and during that time I was jamming with a slew of different musicians.

From my angle, the way that music is ingested now has kind of changed, wherein everybody's got a very busy life, and what people see from a DJ is a guy spinning hundreds and thousands of tracks. There's just so many different things a DJ can do, and we took that idea and wondered, "Can we do something similar to that as a live band?", and we realized that by moving all these different parts in and out, we're able to have a wider scope to the band than maybe just the draw of the individual musicians (i.e., their friends). A big influence on all that was Steely Dan - they're a band that was two guys who hired people in and out of the picture. Another duo that did this was Prince and Morris Day, two guys who brought people together and started the Revolution (band), and they had different members coming and going all the time. Bob Dylan's done similar things with his band, where the members changed to fit the changing styles or [Dylan's] means of expression, the zeitgeist at the time.

So having the focal point of two guys who are guiding the music, and then shifting various musicians around them has done great things for music, created a lot of great artists. It's just not something that's been focused on.

GM: You could almost say that The Science Project is a concept unto itself: there's the performance element, there's the music itself... So just on those terms alone, it's conceptual. Does this concept have roots in music history that are identifiable?

WB: The Grateful Dead tried to use that concept, so despite working with so many different musicians and lyricists (ex: Robert Hunter, John Barlow), they had their core members. The Dead built this whole festivalworld thing that we're all living in now, because they were the first ones to do it. That means they also set the standard for it, but it's all based around the music they wrote. Look around: there's so many bands out there now who are all playing that style of music. But at the same time, that music wasn't written by all of them - it was written by members of the band and the people they surrounded themselves with, that they worked with to share this special music with people. They claimed it was a concept, and we're trying to push [that concept] into the next generation.

GM: I would say that's especially true today, and since the mid-90's, where each member has gone off in their own respective musical directions - all of which employ a changing repertoire of musicians. Phil Lesh highlights the open-structured, instrumental side of things; Mickey Hart is very percussion and world music-oriented, etc. And in some cases, each member has several different bands running simultaneously, with different flavors attached. What elements of your previous bands have continued on into TSP, or is this more of a re-spinning?

WB: Everything I've ever played is now a potential musical victim (suspect?) now, regardless of TSP having three albums of new, original music to draw from as well as the live show. In short: all of my past work is [still] on the table. In some cases, songs were written with other essential voices/people, and so it's hard to work with (or rework) those. For example, "Jungle Song" (drummer on that is doing other stuff now); or "MattsCats", Matt (who wrote the song) is no longer playing with us. The general consensus is, if we wrote the song, we push it forward.

GM: In more ways than one, The Science Project has chosen to subvert the normal write, record, tour industry standard - much like the experimental jazz trio MMW did for their Radiolarians albums and tours - in more ways than one. For instance, they might perform something that wasn't recorded yet (or unreleased) or maybe they'd take something they spontaneously composed on tour, and then spin that into something studio-based when they got home from tour. This progressive mentality and approach has thus inspired Baxter to change the way people listen as well.

How exactly have you pitched/marketed this project to promoters and such successfully, given all the elements that are part of it? I see there's been some out-of-state and smaller-scale music festival appearances already.

WB: To the extent that we can, we just let the music do the talking when it comes to recording it - on that front. We're getting a lot more interested in recording our live shows, and then distributing those. We'll have a better "system" for distributing those in the coming months. So far everything that's gotten us promoted has been Facebook videos, that sort of thing. As sad it sounds, many people nowadays blow up by making bedroom-synth albums in their parents' basement. For us, we just took Facebook videos of live performances and that really helped generate momentum from the beginning. We had certain or specialized performers join us on stage, and so it helped getting videos of those players up and visible alongside us, as well. Otherwise it's just been networking like a madman - that's how we met Tony Scavone, founder of the Disc Jam Music Festival. I had a friend that was working for him; I was making pins for him. Surprisingly, the one thing that helped cement the networking piece the most was making pins for people, using a mailing list of 600-700 people, all over the country, who live for live music.

GM: The causes and the nonprofits involved with your shows (and thus, being benefited) change along with the music, from show to show. Is this an element that audiences will see fleshed out more, in the future?

WB: We want to shine light on those nonprofits as well as in many cases - like we did with the epilepsy fundraiser (Fight for a Cause, 09/15/2018 at Appleton’s Memorial Park Pavilion) - throw a fundraiser for a school. (My son goes to a charter school, and as you know many of those places have to fund themselves, in a way.)

We try to do as many benefit shows and nonprofit-benefits as people, because that's a whole 'nother networking factor. It's about building community, building friendships and about helping people. The music is the nucleus, surely; it's a nice thing, but over time I've realized the music is a way of connecting the dots, of bringing people together.

The music is always a nice thing, and it's the reason I started to do it. But over time I've realized the music is a vehicle to help people, and to build and to grow. I'm willing to live on the minimal amount of money that I make, because that's what [in totality, all those things] makes it worth it.

GM: In the nonprofit realm, are there are causes that you would like to help out with or work for, that you haven't yet? Anything on that horizon in particular?

WB: I feel that getting involved with music-education in schools would be important, because I think a lot of the real quality music-education that people can receive is done privately. So if we approached the education of music the way we approach the education of science, math, and other serious subjects...I think the quality of life for us as Americans would probably improve. Look at European countries - take Britain, for example. How many of the greatest musicians in the world come from Britain, yet Britain is maybe 1% of the world population at most? That's because they take their approach to the arts very seriously. I'm just like everybody who has opportunity; chances are there's someone who's as talented as Beethoven born every day who doesn't know it, because they're either born in a third-world country or ghetto, and so they don't realize they have [this ability].

GM: I've been around the block myself, musically speaking, and I know how the festival circuit tends to runs. Based on other things you've said, and in speaking for neophytes (people who either don't know you or don't normally gravitate to this style of music), if you were pitching this experience to someone, what could non-initiates expect from TSP? In other words, although there's no "typical" TSP show, what kind of musical ground would you say you cover in a "typical" TSP show? What can non-initiates expect from you, and what might get them off [musically]? And on those same lines, where the shows get their "stasis" from, like what elements stay consistent in the presence of such ambiguity, not-knowing-what's-gonnahappen?

WB: They could expect anything from an Elton John piano cover to an original dance tune to an original loungetune all the way to Led Zeppelin, with the screaming vocals and all, and everything in between. And maybe even a little bit of electronica music mixed in there. We try to be a melting pot of everything, and I'm a huge fan of "music of the world": I love Russian folk music, bohemian music, Egyptian music, Indian ragas, etc. With ragas, the music is especially complex - and we're not that complex - but what we try to do is build complexity off of something that's simple: something everybody can relate to, [that's] something that the Beatles really cashed in on, and tried to take with them, and so we try to put an improvisational layer over the top [of that].

GM: Indian ragas (alone) is a totally different way of thinking about music than most people are used to: avoiding certain scales at certain times of day, things of that nature. Ragas are less specific than a scale but less specific than a song.

WB: Indian [Hindustani classical] music is a really old science. Algebraic music, which is what we play now, lacks the spiritual factor that that kind of music has. It's very interesting, ancient sound, and that's something I'm real intrigued by and would like to get into more.

GM: You've been traveling around a fair amount with this project, but do you have any specific, localized ambitions in mind with it?

WB: Well, I'd like to see us shooting more short videos, mini-interviews on site. Oftentimes we're playing at multi-purpose or multi-medial venues, so that'd be really cool to have more of. Something local I'd like to see is moving one of these events to a place like Der Rathskeller, or an all-ages venue that holds a lot more people. I'm trying to shoot for more involvement with schools, and really get the project moving on its own. We speak around the event, and promote the event as a vehicle for artistic expression (and to promote the band itself).

GM: The Science Project gives people many reasons, even beyond the music, to attend shows. It's one thing to have multiple mediums running alongside each other at shows, although the way you infuse the music with ideas bigger than yourself is admirable on its own merits.

WB: It's crazy, because one night I'm playing piano all night even though I'm a guitar player. It's just wild, from that standpoint. However, I don't look at things like, "The band must have two guitarists" or "There can only be one keyboard player" kind of mentality. All those rules that people used to have about bands? I'm just trying to break those apart as best we can. Otherwise we'll find ourselves in a spot where there's a competing act of four guys with button-pushy things happening and they'll "out-perform" us. We can't have that. I produce music, I love producing music...but there's nothing that's going to give people energy like a good live band.

GM: That's something that's been missing lately, that "magic" of the live show. That comment reminds me of seeing Girl Talk live at Summerfest years ago, where it felt like thousands of people lined up to hear a guy hit a few buttons and walk away, essentially - and dance in front of it. I respect what he does in his laboratory, and respect what he does from a sampling standpoint, but as a live experience I was superunderwhelmed. Musically, though, I was wanting something to sink my teeth into that's raw, and I felt like he was basically hitting Play and walking away. It made me feel like he was a record-player...player.

WB: It's good to make music in your laboratory, but it's way different than, say, making music in a studio and then transforming it into a live experience. What you're doing now is taking music from where it was livecreation and turning it into...going to the Dali museum and looking at amazing paintings, and you’re taking the spirituality out of it. Music's a spiritual thing; it's the only art that's spiritual, so when you digitize it, you're taking that [the spirituality] part out of it. I don't want to be that guy that says, "Oh, well hey, I saw ______". For example, seeing Bassnectar is a completely different kind of talent than most of the people who are live musicians. I think Bassnectar is incredible; the amount of work that goes into a Bassnectar event is insane: the art, the people running the lasers, the work that he puts into the studio, the full presentation of it. And then then the drop-off is considerable from that. I'm someone who was part of the hardcore-techno scene back in the day, with people spinning records. I was unable to spin records; I wish I could, I tried. It was a lot of work. [Those DJs, at the time] were working up there. Now [modern DJs] just hit the Sync button at a few opportune times, and that's it. Maybe someday I can be a more competitive multi-tasker and pull off a piano cover of "Tiny Dancer" while I'm running on the treadmill!

GM: You mentioned that you get a lot of your musical-stamina from various forms of self-care, like exercise. You also mentioned entering your thirties now, and that there's a metabolic slowing of sorts that you've had to contend with.

WB: When I stop those things, I definitely feel like I'm running on empty when I have performances in the bullpen. It's sort of a "go out and play all night, wake up and feel like crap, and then exercise all day leading up to the next show" type of rhythm for me. Getting older sucks, and like Tom Waits said, you've gotta get behind the mule. The winter here in Wisconsin makes that especially hard, although I can't afford to live in (or move to) Colorado yet - mostly because my wife isn't privy to that idea. She just doesn't want to move there, so that's where I'm at with that. Even if I made enough money to live in Colorado, though, I can't foresee a situation where I wouldn't be oscillating back and forth between there and Wisco, musically speaking. Maybe that will still be a possibility at some point. Never say never, y'know? So there's a vague sense of grounding I get from that, you could say.

Note: The Science Project originally scheduled a release-party for their brand-new album, 3T: The Extraterrestrial Experience, on December 1st but the record release was snowed in. It has been rescheduled for December 22nd at Gibson Music Hall in Appleton.