Shockingly and embarrassingly, I have only recently discovered Estradasphere though they have been going for over 18 years. Not only that, there is a whole family of musical projects which its members are involved in which I had never heard of.
Further, collaborating musicians in said musical projects have other musical projects which I have never heard of… until now. Hanging my head in shame I have been slowly delving into this microcosm of musical goodness with a certain joy that I can’t quite describe.
What makes Estradasphere (and its related projects) stand out is the members’ mastery over their instruments combined with their ability to imagine and then create non-restrictive, innovative compositions and recordings
This absence of essential knowledge for a global music connoisseur like myself could be put down to being UK based but the fact is that I am from the West Coast of Canada (Estradasphere are based somewhere between Santa Cruz and Seattle) and therefore I should have at least heard of some of these bands. Rather than admitting cultural ignorance I have concluded it is due to the following: Estradasphere’s fan base is very underground, particularly in the UK, and are linked in with a genre of music that I have never delved into – that is the Mike Patton and Trey Spruance (formerly of Mr. Bungle) world. Bear with me while I try to explain. Now if you don’t know Mr. Bungle you will know Frank Zappa, to whom I would imagine the former owes a great debt musically speaking. I rejected Zappa and the like in my early teens after a boyfriend made me sit through 2 solid hours of listening to his Zappa vinyl collection. It is a genre of music that appeals far more to boys than girls. Complex, often purely instrumental, without the traditional song structure, multiple key changes, rhythm shifts….much like jazz in fact, ehem, and challenging to listen to for some. It is a bit surprising to me that out of all this comes a band like Estradasphere, whose first album It’s Understood (2000) was released on Spruance’s label Mimicry (Ok. It may be a loose connection but a connection nonetheless – and it is via these musical networks that listeners get to know these other projects). And what an album. The musical adeptness of the then very young players is truly amazing, as illustrated by the 20 minute long track ‘Hunger Strike’ which arguably encapsulates the band’s essence and alluded to what they have been capable of 7 albums later.
Over the years, core members Tim Smolens (standup bass, electric bass, vocals, audio production/engineering), Timb Harris (violin, trumpet, mandolin, guitar, vocals) and Jason Shimmel (guitar, keyboards, vocals, audio production) have nurtured their own primarily instrumental take on klezmer, gypsy, bulgarian surf punk married with Japanese shamisen (courtesy of the first American tsagaru shamisen master, Kevin Kmetz), heavy metal and experimental electronic noise. What makes Estradasphere (and its related projects) stand out is the members’ mastery over their instruments combined with their ability to imagine and then create non-restrictive, innovative compositions and recordings. Harris attempted to encapsulate the band’s sound, though admitting this was a difficult thing to do, as “a rock-ish band that compose and perform music from the perspectives of their various musical backgrounds in jazz, classical and metal and is inspired by their insatiable interests in eastern European gypsy music, the film music of the 1960′s and 70′s, and all manner of music of the ages made by the masters. Or something.”
Estradasphere’s latest release is a live DVD, Palace of Mirrors (2007) which provides not only amazing live footage of the band, but a multimedia backdrop to the music. In fact the premise of the album Palace of Mirrors released prior to the DVD is as “a soundtrack to a non-existent movie” in the tradition of Ennio Morricone. After watching the band live, albeit on a laptop, was keen to learn more and find out if they had plans to tour Europe in the near future. As it turned out Tim Smolens was in the process of moving from California to Montreal to start a family. I had also been told that Kmetz was no longer a formal member. Had I only just found this fantastic group only to learn they were wrapping it up? I asked Timb Harris what was happening and should fans old and new be worried.
“Should Kevin be the second guitar player and sample-trigger-guy that plays a shamisen feature once per performance? Or should he be ruling the known (and unknown!) universe (specifically Japan) with his innovative (California) approach to a traditional instrument (Tsugaru Shamisen)…it makes all the sense in the world that Kevin is spending most of his time and energy developing his highly specialized music and career…Tim S has indeed scooted over to Montreal to incorporate some real life (fatherhood) into his rock and roll fantasy. This is all a benefit to Estradasphere in the long-ish run – a little breathing room never hurt anyone…except the Earth, which is going to take a carbon-beating with the amount of airline travel we are going to be responsible for this coming year!”
So the new geographical outlay of the band was nothing to panic over. This was a relief. But where was the band going in the near future with a key member on the other side of the continent and Harris also playing in a trio with a guitarist Gyan Riley (offspring of Terry Riley, iconic 20th century American composer) and Scott Amendola with planned recordings and tours.
“I’m working on Lobefood, the online store. Jason just wrapped up a solo project called The Orange Tulip Conspiracy. Lee (drummer) has been jamming with Dave Webb from Girth. Jason, Tim, Lee, and I will be appearing as Estradasphere and as Amanda Palmer’s band at the Rothbury music festival this 4th of July. Jason, Lee, and I will be performing as a trio in Phoenix in July as well. I’m working on getting the pastry and tenderloin to both be perfectly done at the same time when preparing beef wellington. Jason and I are going to be in Europe performing with the Secret Chiefs this fall – probably the triumphant arrival of a whole Estradasphere band will have to wait until Tim’s baby is more than 30 days old…let say, maybe, 6 months…”
All joking aside, the Secret Chiefs 3 European tour will give fans something to get excited about. Fans of Estradasphere are most certainly fans of Spruance’s Secret Chiefs 3 whose dark, Gothic, Middle Eastern groove is truly unique and not to be missed.
Another characteristic of Estradasphere and related projects is collaboration. I asked after the release promised with high mistress of American folk underground art cabaret, Amanda Palmer. “We just wrapped up work on several of Amanda’s songs in the studio. The material is turning out great – Tim, Jason, and I spent several months arranging and producing the songs. As she has two other records (both solo and Dresden Dolls) coming out right now, I imagine that it will be a little while before there is good avenue for the material to be released. But there’s no rush – it will just ripen with age, I think.”
Finally I asked Harris to try to untangle the music web of the various projects and iconic figures that they seem to be attached to in some way. Does the Ipecac (Mike Patton’s label which recently released Inuk throat singer, Tanya Tagaq’s album), Tzadik (John Zorn’s label dedicated to avant garde music), and Mimicry movement have a name and if not should it should it? Ipdikry?
“All the ‘associations’ just result from there being not that enormous of a pool of great musicians whose interests merge on the fringes of contemporary jazz, rock, and ‘classical’ music. God, that sounds so lame. But it’s true. Or at least not that an enormous pool that can relate to each other and support each others’ work. Often, however, the ‘associations’ the listener, or music fan or whatever perceives, are imaginary, or at least magnified cartoonishly. Ipecac and Mimicry are the record labels run by of two people that used to play together. Tzadik is run by a guy that produced their first album. They all share many musical friends and colleagues who came along before and after all these record labels. The net is pretty loose in some parts and very tight in others.”
For the moment we will have to wait patiently for an Estradasphere tour but fortunately with recent and pending releases from Jason Shimmel’s Orange Tulip Conspiracy and Kevin Kmetz’s God of Shamisen, a huge back catalogue to catch up on and a Secret Chiefs 3 European tour in September 2008 there is plenty to keep our ears occupied.