Making soundwaves


Not quite punk, not quite jazz, the agressive musical layers of Absynth, as constructed of, from left, Dustin Johnson, Jim Cooke and Adam Northwa, make for one big sound.

Not quite punk, not quite jazz, the agressive musical layers of Absynth, as constructed of, from left, Dustin Johnson, Jim Cooke and Adam Northwa, make for one big sound.

Photo By David Robert

Absynth joins Native Root, Space Case, Jeff Jones Band and others for four days of music at Northstar-at-Tahoe’s New Year’s Meltdown beginning Dec. 29 at 12 pm. Free. They also play Ice Lake Lodge at Alpine Meadows Ski Resort Dec. 31, 10 p.m.

When Absynth, a South Lake Tahoe band, recently opened for Native Root at the Green Room, they lined up at the front of the stage. The music started when Adam Northway, the drummer, unceremoniously started beating the crap out of his drums. Dustin Johnson, the guitar player, triggered some samples off his Oxygen mini-keyboard. Jim Cooke, the bass player, hit off a few notes. By the time Johnson was back to his guitar, a monstrous wall of sound filled the room.

It didn’t sound like a regular verse-chorus-verse song. It was more like a giant wave of sound. It was not crucial to hear individual notes soaring above others because each of the musicians was shredding at their station. The sound was loud and monumental.

Absynth is most easily labeled an electronic jam band. It’s a misnomer, according to the band. It may be the easiest description of their sound, but the music they make doesn’t exactly evoke their favorite influences: the Grateful Dead, Phish, and electronic music like K&D, DJ Shadow and regulars on the Ninja Tunes record label. For now, it’s probably most accurate to say they make Absynth music.

The band had its first show in the fall of 2003—not that they can easily agree about which show was, exactly, their first. They’ve played Berkeley, Sacramento, the Sierras, Humboldt and now Reno. Native Root heard them at the Liquid Lounge in early November and invited them to fill in when they found themselves in need of an opening band.

Over the course of the Green Room show, Johnson and Cooke took turns working their respective laptops, prepping and triggering the samples for each song. (A lot of their samples are their own live recordings.) An ambient sound or loop would fill the room, and the shredding and pounding would begin.

But Absynth’s sound was not the stark and feral noise of a punk band. It was more like the aggressive, insistent playing of an East Village experimental jazz trio.

Northway calls it playing “improv over structure.” Their live songs usually last twice as long as the rehearsed version. The room and audience factor in immensely, and each musician is constantly checking in with the others. Northway couldn’t do his best sitting at the back of the stage just “[looking] at their backs.”

The sounds they make stick together and move as a unit. Absynth exists to showcase all the players, but you won’t hear any solos here. Their sound is rooted in the rock staples of drum, bass and guitar, but it rides the beats and rhythms of dance music. Absynth sounds like one musician with six arms. As Northway notes, “We’re three guys competing with the sound of 8- to 10 people bands.”

Still, towards the end of the show, a few new musicians jumped in. Native Root’s sax player and organist, who hadn’t even heard Absynth play before, started jamming with them. Still no solos, but the wall of noise got bigger and louder. The crowd moved and danced. Matt Burke, Native Root’s singer/MC, started rapping. There was magic in the moment. But for now, Absynth will probably remain a trio. Given how hard it can be to find the right players and personalities, at least one member “can’t imagine bringing someone into our insanity.”