Sound Bites
For over 10 years, Mandible Chatter has explored the outskirts of experimental music

By P. Grant Miller
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Neville Harson.
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Sometimes the difference between noise and music is all in your head.

The 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 standards.

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 kindly."

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.

"We 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."

The 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.

The 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."

In 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."

The 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."

The 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 tones."

The 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 and Romania."

By 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.

"We got reviews ranging from "This album is terrible' to "This is pretty good once you get past the first track,'" Miller says.

For 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 hasn't passed."

"We 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 something." | originally published: January 16, 2002

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