Robot by the river
Ex-Chico musicians Experimental Dental School challenge you to describe their sound
A common pastime among those writing about Experimental Dental School is trying to explain what the band sounds like. Nine times out of 10, the writer will use the examples of whacked-out underground stalwarts such as Tom Waits and Mr. Bungle before finally grasping at descriptions of mad organ tuners, extraterrestrial cartoon theme songs and wicked carnivals.
So one can forgive the slight exasperation that lead singer and guitarist Jesse Hall betrays when he says, “None of us have any Tom Waits, Mr. Bungle or Barnum and Bailey albums. Everyone likes to explain our music in a way I never would.” Though he’s quick to add: “That’s no problem. Many times they come up with interesting metaphors that I would have never come up with.”
Hall is a graduate of the Chico music scene, where he—along with organist (and girlfriend) Shoko Horikawa—first flummoxed reviewers with the band MeYow and then with the first incarnation of EDS. It was after one MeYow show that I approached Horikawa and suggested the band might have roots stretching back to Frank Zappa.
“Frank Zappa?” she said. “Is he a hippy?” And then, crinkling her nose: “We don’t like hippies.”
It is safe to say that Chico had never heard anything like the music Horikawa and Hall propounded, nor had it seen anything like the shows they put on. Hall would don a fake mustache and yell into a tiny microphone while whacking his custom-built guitar with all manner of implements (metal vibrator, hammer, electric razor, etc.). In contrast, Horikawa stood very still, almost motionless, as her hands moved up and down her keyboard, sending arcs of quivering organ sound into the air.
The two met when Hall posted a feather-covered flyer in a Chico cafà reading “noise person wanted.” Horikawa approached him and said, “I can do noise.” Says Hall, “I thought she was so funny, and we fell in love.”
Horikawa was new to America and had never played in a band before. As their relationship grew, so did their music. The duo formed a tight and original twosome whose perfectly controlled chaos no doubt came from countless hours holed up together in Jesse’s father’s family room.
They moved to Oakland seeking the artistic life of San Francisco without the high rents. Another call for band mates went out, and after auditioning nearly a dozen potential candidates, they settled on drummer Ryan Chittick.
Since their move, EDS has been very busy. Last year saw the recording and release of Hideous Dance Attack on the European label Company with a Golden Arm, and next year EDS will spend a month touring Europe. The rest of this year and most of January will be spent touring the American West Coast.
And that’s probably best, because no matter how great an album Hideous Dance Attack may be (and it is a great album), it could never compare to the spectacle that is a live EDS show.
“On a good night, we play the audience and the audience plays us.” says Hall, “Hopefully energy is built up until it is just a big party of chaos—or as quiet and sad as a funeral.” Offhandedly, he states that the audience is “our mutant mice experiment victims,” and playing the audience like a mad scientist plays with mutant mice is as good a description of the band’s live show as any. It is certainly an accurate portrayal of a band whose guitarist is just as likely to use a megaphone on his guitar as he is a pick.
But despite all of the fake moustaches, the trick guitars, the spooky organs and waltz tempos, EDS plays music for the masses. The tunes trigger old memories that have been trapped somewhere in a cellar full of Jung’s skeletons. The melodies are catchy and stick in your head like peanut butter sticks to the roof of your mouth. And the beats, while challenging, are eminently danceable. The audience is as apt to have fun at an EDS show as they are at, say, the 9:30 showing of Love Actually. Adds Hall, “People of Chico, come rock out with us! We will cut some rugs and rock together. OK?”
I can still hear you asking, "But what do they sound like?" Go to the show and make up your own horribly inadequate metaphor.