Primordial Soup cooks up improvisational fusion
FOSSILIZED ROCK: It takes a village to create complex improv operas.
Primordial Soup makes an unholy racket that could be the soundtrack of continents cracking apart to unleash a spray of hot day-glo goo. Crashing symbols punctuate the rhythm section’s dull roar, and squeals of electric guitar evoke the violent cries of pterodactyls soaring overhead. If instrumental music can suggest imaginary settings within the mind’s eye, the mental narrative created by Primordial Soup leans toward the abstract.
Primordial Soup is a small orchestra of instruments and musicians brought together under the pretense of making music with little forethought and definitely no rehearsals. “Rehearsals can drain the essence out of a performance,” says the band’s conceptual guru Eric Hullander. He wants players to interact with each other, to improvise based on their “initial tabula rasa impressions,” with only the time, space and state of mind to lead them down the stream of consciousness.
After recruiting musicians from the jazz and rock community with the irrefutable pickup line, “Who wants to be in a band that doesn’t rehearse?” Hullander set up the band’s first show last January at the Pilot Light. The sound that emanated from the crowded stage struck a balance between freeform jazz and jam rock, sort of swirly and jagged with moments of seeming chaos. As they experimented with experimentation, the players were somewhat timid, Hullander says, but the small crowd, out on a freezing night for a charity show benefiting tsunami victims, seemed to warm to the concept. When the groove got funky, sometimes people danced, which thrilled Hullander, formerly of Garage DeLuxe. “As a bass player, I’ll do whatever I can do to make people move,” he says. Similar to improv comedy, audience members are a vital element in making improvisational music work.
“You can’t discount the audience,” Hullander contends. “You can read the audience, when they start to vibrate, you’re doing the right thing. And when they don’t, you know it’s time to change or stop. If you were to remove any member of the audience the performance would be entirely different.”
That theory seemed less in play last weekend when Primordial Soup packed its multitude of instruments, including two giant drum kits, onto and over the side of the itty-bitty stage at Preservation Pub. They faced the pub’s back wall in order to watch, along with the rest of the crowd, Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal projected above the stage. The fantasy story told by puppets follows last month’s performance along with Baraka , Ron Fricke’s 1992 dialogue-free movie made up of a series of stunning environmental scenes . As the credits began to roll, the band launched into its off-the-cuff soundtrack. In this set-up, the band had something to look at and audience members did too.
“Being an instrumental band and after playing a few shows, I started to realize that we didn’t necessarily have a focal point,” Hullander says. “Lots of bands have a lead singer to focus attention on. I thought it would be a good idea to have a focal point. In keeping with the idea of what we do, which is bounce off each other and bounce off audience, why not bounce off a movie?”
Hullander, a 27-year-old research associate at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, chose the 1982 film, a favorite from his childhood, because of its epic story: two pixie-faced Gelflings attempt to heal ancient mystical damage to the Dark Crystal and reunite their race with the now-evil Skekses. Many people in their mid- to late-20s are familiar with the film and its dynamic visuals. Where more conventional bands would perform traditional songs, Primordial Soup is guided by the film’s editing, the changing scenes from the Gelflings’ lush, natural world to the Skekses’ dark industrial realm.
As bassist, Hullander says his role is to glue the other instruments together, and on Sunday night, he was sticky. While the Gelflings’ scenes were dominated by the light, tinkling sounds of vibraphone, piano and wind chimes, the vibe shifted dramatically when the vulture-like Skekses appeared: Hullander launched into a darkly funky beat that was sweaty and organic. What may have sounded like musical havoc to bar patrons not privy to a view of the screen made complete sense along with the visuals. There was no room for applause; even the quietest moments hardly approached silence. But the music, even its most chaotic bits, was surprisingly melodic to those who listened for something resembling a tune or at least something to tap their foot to.
As its line-up ebbs and flows with each performance, the band’s ultimate goal (or Hullander’s anyway) is to behave somewhat like its name, which refers to the original organic gunk that gave birth to more complex biological entities.
“The band has no preconceived ideas about what the music will sound like,” says Hullander. “The music is strictly dictated by the time and place of the show, and the state of mind of the musicians and the audience.”
Fusion is also a theme in Hullander’s career; he conducts research in nanobiotechnology, which he describes as “the integration or the fusion of tech and biology.”
“If you were to just do engineering, you can lose your soul,” he states with some seriousness. “If you just do music, you can lose your mind.”