Grant Miller |
Sometimes the difference between noise and
music is all in your head.
above quote is not from a John Cage manifesto; rather,
it's from a Tylenol commercial in which a toddler bashes
pot lids together and Dad dances along after popping
some aspirin. For over a decade, the San Francisco duo
Mandible Chatter has adopted a similarly open-minded
appreciation of noise, one that finds inspiration in the
unlikeliest of places. Since its early days, the act has
serenaded Satanists, made music from mountain climbing
equipment, and collaborated with dance troupes, all the
while being lauded by such divergent folks as
experimental-music zine writers and New Age radio DJs.
When the group -- now split between San Francisco and
Boulder -- reconvenes this month to record its sixth
full-length, it will be the first time in over two years
the players have met. But such long gaps are nothing
unusual to Mandible Chatter, a band with a history
that's unconventional even by noise band
Mandible Chatter co-founders Grant Miller and
Neville Harson met in 1991 through a musician want ad in
SF Weekly. "[The ad] said something like,
"Guitarist seeks musicians for recording collaboration:
My influences are Steve Hackett [from Genesis], the
Residents, Brian Eno, [eccentric British composer] Ron
Geesin," remembers Miller from his North Beach flat. "I
got about 40 phone calls, and most of them were real
freaks. I met a bunch of interesting people that I
wouldn't necessarily trust to walk my dog, if I had one.
I was about to give up until Neville contacted me, and
he was probably the biggest freak of all. I say that
Miller knew he'd found the right bandmate when
Harson told him that he'd moved from Pennsylvania to
S.F. in order to "be closer to the Residents." Tired of
playing in routine rock bands with traditional ways, the
pair took to improvising instrumental drones and clangs
with guitars and delay pedals. As for a band name, they
came up with one some months later, when they were
considering releasing a cassette.
actually sent a letter to Robert Hunter, the lyricist
for the Grateful Dead, to see if he would contribute a
name to our band. Needless to say, he never responded to
our letter," Miller laughs. "In retrospect [the name's]
probably better than anything Robert Hunter would have
offered us. In the beginning our music really did sound
like jawbones chattering."
material for that first Mandible Chatter cassette,
Serenade for Anton, came about under unusual
circumstances. "Around that time I lived across the
street from Anton LaVey in the Richmond," Miller says.
"We didn't know what [his house] was, but we'd see all
these buxom blondes going in and out of there. We
thought it was a brothel. When we discovered it was the
Church of Satan, we were inspired to do a serenade. We
opened our windows and played as loud as we could
without involving the police."
While it's unclear if the Dark One was aware of
the concert being performed in his honor, the resulting
cassette drew notice in experimental music circles. In
late 1992, Miller and Harson were introduced to Steven
Roback, leader of legendary '80s psychedelic pop group
the Rain Parade, who asked them to open for his new band
Viva Saturn and the then-unknown Red House Painters.
While the other acts played variations on pop and folk,
Mandible Chatter turned in a continuous 40-minute wash
of reverb glissando, aided by cellist Rich Vaughan.
duo soon grew tired of wallpaper guitar sounds and began
expanding their instrumentation to everything from toy
telephones and sheet metal to odd turntables. "Neville
used to work transcribing books onto flexidisc records
for the blind," says Miller. "The discs would play at 8
rpms. When the company abandoned that technology, we got
a couple of these turntables and started plugging them
into our guitar pedals and playing weird sound-effect
records on them."
1993, when Harson moved to a house in East Palo Alto,
more mysterious influences came into Mandible Chatter's
world. "East Palo Alto is a rural ghetto, at least it
was eight years ago," Miller says bluntly. "There were
greenhouses, chickens, and livestock, but also people
firing their guns in the air. Neville had a garage that
was previously occupied by a German mountain climber.
When this German guy was killed climbing Half Dome [in
Yosemite], he left behind all this strange junk and
gadgetry. Some of the stuff to this day we don't know
what it was. There was this shed in the back with all
this machinery and broken appliances. We built this
thing we called the metal tree, which was this spool of
reinforcement wire and these big long rods, and we'd
hang the different objects from it and play all this
junk with contact microphones."
East Palo Alto sessions consisted of multilayered
symphonies of spray-bottle squeaks, clanging saw blades,
burbling garden hoses, and other noises. "The most
memorable performance was one that we gave in the
garage," Harson recalls via e-mail. "There was a police
crackdown going on, so helicopters were buzzing around
at night, shining spotlights in the back yard." The
result was a hellish industrial noise built around an
unrecognizable loop of Tori Amos singing, "Inside my
head the noise/ Chatter, chatter, chatter."
While the band's music was taking on a decidedly
dark ambient-industrial hue, the duo also molded its raw
soundscapes into recognizable movements and songs. On
1994's Hair Hair Lock & Lore, there's even a
gorgeous acoustic guitar sonata ("Chinese Duck Stroll")
amidst the eerie horror film- style atmospheres.
Vince Harrigan, head of Tennessee experimental
label Manifold Records, discovered the group through
Hair Hair. "Something to me that always set Grant
and Neville apart from many other experimental acts is
how well these guys can play their instruments,"
Harrigan says via e-mail. "This isn't some haphazard
bedroom four-track noise project that doodles around
with guitars. I mean, these guys can really play the
hell out of their instruments."
group's next album, Grace, was released in 1995
on Manifold and remains Mandible Chatter's best work
thus far. "That [record] was the closest we got to what
we were trying to do," says Miller. Grace deftly
melded abstract percussion improvisations with
near-classical guitar picking, effect pedal noises, and
cathedral-size drones. The title of the first track sums
it up: "Nevermind the Credits; Start the Dream."
Grace sparked Mandible Chatter's most
prolific period. The act performed regularly at the
Hotel Utah and other clubs, while serving as musical
support for local butoh dance group Collapsing Silence.
Miller and Harson added longtime collaborators Trent
Kollodge, Jonathan Wright, and Walter Funk on occasion,
with Funk bringing along his "waterphone," which Miller
describes thusly: "It's like a cooking pot that has
metal rods fused to the sides. It's filled with water,
and you bow the rods, and it makes all these ethereal
shows and album led to features in Alternative
Press and Guitar Player and a smattering of
attention in the Bay Area. "Some people started to catch
wind of us here, but usually they would tell us, "Oh, my
friend in Seattle told me about you guys,'" says Miller.
"We always got a good response from Europe and
especially Germany. This is before the Internet really
took off, so it was amazing to get these passionate fan
letters from mysterious -- to us -- places like Latvia
1997, the pair felt that their live shows were becoming
redundant, so they abandoned them to concentrate on
recording. Food for the Moon, released on
Manifold in late 1997, continued Grace's ambient
path, with a couple of major deviations: a
not-very-experimental dance song called "Sad Tree Song"
and a straight cover of Spaceman 3's "So Hot." Suddenly
the mysterious noise band was singing pop songs, and not
everyone was happy about it.
got reviews ranging from "This album is terrible' to
"This is pretty good once you get past the first
track,'" Miller says.
1999's Measuring the Marigolds, Mandible Chatter
tried to transform itself into a happy psychedelic
folk-pop band, with the help of Steven Roback. While
there are some great moments -- the Yeats interpretation
"Silver Apples of the Moon" and the Richard Fariña cover
"Children of Darkness," in particular -- the overall
album is a bit precious and undercooked. Miller attempts
to explain: "We wanted to do something completely
different, and there were some really fine moments on
there, but it was getting off the track for me."
Harson has a slightly different take. "That
album, though flawed, is the one Mandible Chatter record
that I listen to. Part of why it is unsuccessful is that
at that time in my life I was no longer interested in
giving my dark side a voice; I didn't want to make
"scary' music anymore. I was walking around Children's
Fairyland in Oakland every day at lunch. In short, I was
only half a person, and I think the album suffers from
that lack of perspective."
Soon after Marigolds, Harson left the Bay
Area to pursue a graduate degree at the University of
Colorado at Boulder. This month, the duo will reconnect
to see if the old magic still holds. Harson, for one, is
cautious. "I am always afraid my muse will leave me for
a younger man, someone who has more energy than me. That
said, I am optimistic about working with Grant in the
next few weeks. The plan right now is simply to record
some stuff and then sit with it for a few weeks and see
if it holds up for us. It has to pass the "So?' test. If
we listen to it, and our only response is "So?,' then it
always try to make timeless sounds instead of using
whatever equipment, style, or sound is current," says
Harson. "I used to think about art as a disease: Like,
it's something you have, and not something you choose.
It grabs hold of you and makes you feel horrible when
all you're trying to do is live a normal life. And the
only way to cure this disease is to create
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