Photo: Chris Swainston
Menlo’s intricately orchestrated indie-pop and Theta Naught’s improvised post-rock will be politely taking the stage July 9 at the Urban Lounge for only $5 with openers The Eden Express.
Hyrum Summerhays - Guitar/Vocals
Gary Larson - Piano
Ray Childs - Drums/Percussion
Brian Scott Young - Guitar/Vocals
Anthony Phan -Trumpet/Keyboards
Peter E. Trappa - Bass
Hyrum Summerhays’ musical trajectory is completely backwards. It has only been in the past five-to-ten years that the tall, amicable band leader, professional sound recorder and owner/operator of Eden’s Watchtower Records could admit to tolerating heavy music on a basic level. Instead of gravitating to the ubiquitously heavy and distorted output of the late eighties/early nineties that sucked every pizza-faced adolescent into learning the power chords to “Lithium,” his first high school band was decidedly “anti-grunge.” Taking cues from The Smiths, The Dream Academy and the 4AD roster, this band contains Gary Larson and Ray Childs, who, along with Summerhays, make up half of Hyrum’s current project Menlo, only this time with 60 percent more rocking out.
“Rocking out” is a phrase used with caution by the sextet. Even when they turn it up to a seven or an eight, it is only to give their typically subdued songs the needed push-pull between loud and soft. When asked what it is about quiet music that appeals to Summerhays, he says, “It just speaks to me more. I definitely can appreciate getting loud and hard at moments, but it just doesn’t have the same meaning without the softer parts. Especially with Brian on his rocking solos, we can rock out to an extent, but then bring everything down.” Brian Scott Young, possessor of said rocking solos, says, “We work hard to have a lot of loud and soft dynamics. I mean, we don’t have anything that is real uptempo, but it is a little bit more so than a lot of stuff that Hyrum has done.”
After a decade of fronting two notably subdued projects, Elsewhere and Mona, Menlo is ostensibly Summerhays’ “loudest” outfit. Forming little more than a year ago and consisting of six members with musical pasts ranging everywhere from experimental hip-hop country to jazz, it is a miracle that Menlo sounds as spacious as they do. “I think it speaks to the musicianship of the band, for a sextet to keep quiet enough and have such a dynamic level, where I am not just more noise on the top. That is really liberating because there is space that is hard to find with a group. We are a big group, but you wouldn’t think it by listening to us,” says trumpet player Anthony Phan.
In terms of these influences barging each other around, Childs says, “Playing with these guys I can definitely hear all of their influences individually. I can hear where Gary’s [influences] come in, I can hear where Hyrum’s and Bryan’s … since I am a big fan of them, it comes in just fine.” Summerhays’ sees these influences as complimentary to the eclectic sound Menlo strives for, “One thing that I have never achieved with any of the other bands is the eclectiveness like Belle and Sebastian … we’ve got six guys, we can pull it off,” he says.
A large reason why Menlo sounds so good (seriously, even their myspace demos sound remarkably deep) is having a recording studio (which doubles as a practice space) as well as a professional sound recordist on call 24/7. “It is an interesting process, seeing as how we have an engineering master and a recording studio at our disposal, and it makes for an interesting process because everyone contributes tracks and ideas individually and we can bring them together effectively and in a more efficient way than a lot of bands,” says Childs. But, even without those obvious conveniences, Menlo has the collective years of experience as veterans within various camps of local music, “I don’t think we are one of those bands that has to rely on production. I daresay that a studio album and a live album would be pretty similar. I think that really helps the band stay cohesive, when you know what to expect,” says Phan.
In a live setting, Menlo offer nothing more than solid musicianship, incredibly catchy melodies, a comforting, mellow output and perhaps a face-scorching guitar solo … or three.
Darren Corey - Drums
Greg Corey - Lap-Slide
Peter Romney (not pictured) – Cello
Ryan Stanfield - Bass
Josh Ogzewalla -Guitar
Briawna Howard - Harp
Math. Math is something I swore I would never touch again when I started pursuing my goal as a writer. My eyes glaze over and my brain shuts down whenever I am asked to make change at work. But there I was, nodding and interjecting “uh-huhs” like I had any idea of what a Fibonacci sequence was, or how the repeating numbers in that sequence make up the golden ratio that is somehow translated into a 4-4 time signature … or something. Numbers, how do they work?
It would seem impossible to talk about Theta Naught without discussing or acknowledging the mathematical language they couch their musical output in. From their name (Theta being a common equation in physics, Naught being a subscript of 0), to their song titles, to their brainy, largely improvised arrangements … hell, they even have a homework page on their website. It is no surprise that career choices in the group range from mechanical engineer to computer and electronic engineer/programmer to a professional musician.
In terms of factoring Theta Naught’s listenability or performance dynamic during their long instrumental tracks, Briawna Howard made it clear that, “The expressiveness or intuitive factor of the music is never sacrificed for some mechanical, mathematical idea.” Ryan Stanfield, bassist, founder and defacto band leader, stated, “If we ever do follow it rigidly, it is Darren and I in the rhythm section … and everyone knows that they are welcome to go off and do whatever they want.”
The balance between the formulaic rigidity of number theories and the inherently volatile and unpredictable nature of improvised music, while seemingly contradictory, is woven into the fabric of Theta Naught itself. Viewing their band as a collective, rather than a crystallized set of members, their songs are incredibly elastic and able to withstand extensive improvisation and reworking. When it comes to writing songs, drummer Darren Corey says, “We have a lot of basic song structures and chord progressions … but that’s it.” Stanfield added, “Or, it might just be a time signature, or a time change or a key or a mode that we are playing in. Beforehand, we will say, ‘we will play in this mode or this key and in this time signature,’ and then just go.”
When asked if this free-form musical expression sometimes leads to stepping on each other’s toes, guitarist Josh Ogzewalla stated, “You have to actively listen, you can’t just wait for your part. You have to listen to what is going on to provide any sort of input that will be maximally effective.” Howard added, “I think it is a lot like a conversation, even like this [one right now], you get a group of people together and they don’t start talking all at once and over each other.”
Understanding the language of music is a crucial factor in the effectiveness of Theta Naught, and after eight years as a collective, the core rhythm section of Stanford and Corey is fluent in its pronunciation. Starting at the University of Utah in 2002, Theta Naught has had a revolving door of players filter in and out, often contributing for a year or two before moving on. On any given night, the membership of Theta Naught can stretch anywhere from two to six members. Stripped down to a three-piece during a show at the Vertical Diner, I observed other members of the band content to watch with their spouses and children, the feeling being much more of a family than an ever-hustling, careerist band.
This relaxed attitude to creating music speaks directly to the intended effect of their performance, to create a wholly unique listening experience. No two Theta Naught songs will ever sound the same. Coming from the rigid world of professional music, Howard finds freedom in playing music directly for the moment, relying on a dynamic and fluid exchange of musical ideas over perfectly choreographed statements. “It is actually really refreshing to go from a world where we spend hours and hours every single day rehearsing to make something just so in order to get a desired effect, and then to play a show with these guys where we haven’t seen each other in a couple of months and we just get out there and there is a certain synergy and it just jives,” Howard says.
Theta Naught, Menlo and openers The Eden Express will play July 9 at 10 pm at the Urban Lounge for only five dollars. Do the math.