It's like going from vacuum tubes to microprocessing when the Midnight Bomber What Bombs at Midnight takes the stage. There's no overriding ethos, no logic either. Back in June, at a dingy nightclub in Cookeville, saxophonist Manjit Bhatti laid prostrate on the cement floor, screamed into the butt-end of his sax while pounding the keys at haphazard. The end product is a sound that might seem alien even to Ornette Coleman.
Enough electricity to power a small village fueled the aural theater. Everything blended together with the crowd's fanatic yawps. It was beautiful; it was horrid. Virgin ears were violated. Nothing seemed predictable. The screams were hellfire.
Guitarist William Mahaffey, tucked away in the corner, further elongated the strung-out sheets of sound—like a digital alchemist—stretching and pounding noise into submission, all while drummer Chris Rusk (of Ross the Boss, Royal Bangs and Dixie Dirt) thrashed his way through each arrangement. And bassist Ben Oyler (of the Tenderhooks) screamed, free-form rage, calculated art-school anger. Everyone in unison, kowtow.
"That was a fun show," Bhatti says, his pleasant voice belying his onstage lunacy. Here, talking over a chimichanga dinner at Señor Taco, Bhatti seems totally at peace, his demeanor cool and easygoing. "We may be a noise band, but the noise label applies depending on what you mean by it. It means a lot of different stuff to different people."
"It's not that fitting of a label for most bands," Mahaffey chimes in. "We can be noisy at times, but I don't think that's our main thing."
Manjit adds: "It's mutually exclusive with concepts of music, at least in the traditional sense."
Today, as the band grows tighter, it would be safe to say that the Midnight Bomber plays a brand of skronk that's one part Vandemark 5 and one part John Zorn, with subtle hints of doom and sludge metal thrown in for good measure. Elements of noise-rock and free jazz string the songs together into a sweeping chaotic soundwave, dotted with periodic moments of riff-based sanity. And the runaway-train rhythm section goes on, like an unstoppable force, complete with an almost cinematic sense of composition.
It may not always be easy to get into the music, but it's worthwhile to take the ride, down the thrashing rabbit hole, into a noisy fantasyland. The Midnight Bomber maps the formless territory of avant-rock ever since they lifted their name from a very minor character in the animated series The Tick.
"In ways it's really derivative, but in really specific ways," Bhatti explains. "With a lot of rock bands, they're really derivative, but they're derivative of a genre, like a '70s rock band. We're more derivative in a specific sense. We sound like Naked City…. I'd be so down with us making music that we want. When we play well it's the most fun I could possibly have. I don't think we have a unified goal."
"In my mind," Mahaffey says, "I'm not thinking, ‘Let's do something different from all the other bands in Knoxville.' I'm just doing the music that I like."
"Yeah, yeah—" Manjit goes on—"I'd agree more with that."
Their songs come together in a piecemeal fashion. Riffs are jigsawed together, slowly. "I'll bring in riff, or he'll bring in riffs. Ben will bring in riffs," Mahaffey says. "Everybody picks apart different things."
"That's why it takes so long," Bhatti adds. "The most recent two songs we spent—what?—15 practices on."
Now, after nearly a year of assaulting Knoxville's eardrums, Midnight Bomber is going on tour, to North Carolina, New York, Providence and Boston. In Brooklyn, they'll play Goodnight Blue Monday, an art gallery that's become a favorite of the hiparazzi for its comic books and collection of vintage pornography.
"I'm thinking that this tour will be good for us, because we'll be playing with a lot of different audiences…. But I don't know how long Midnight Bomber will last."
Oyler will be on tour this summer with the Tenderhooks, and there's a chance Rusk may be moving to Nashville with Dixie Dirt. And this fall, Bhatti may be studying abroad in Germany.
"I can always quit school for this band, really," Bhatti says.