Where there’s smoke
Sometimes there is no center. Long looks at music history retrieve natural patterns, in which, to use one example, blues naturally connects to both jazz and rock through alternate chains. These then telescope out into a splintered array of subgenres that become increasingly less descriptive and more resemble arbitrary lines of battle: Italo-disco, extreme metal, post-dubstep. If these seem oblique and not terribly indicative of what music they purport to contain, they are. In conversations with musicians, the atmosphere palpably alters when the discussion turns to genre, and most become chattering advocates of the “no genres, just good music” philosophy.
Genre serves a necessary purpose, though, and that purpose is history. Music less resembles a universe exploded from one hot, dense state and more an elaborate web spun in all directions forever. Genres allow us to isolate specific historical landmarks in the web, determine its country and from what former fractured nation of sounds it derived its identity.
The trouble with Reno electronic duo Zirconian Mind is that there is no history, at least not in this town. An ever-descending ladder of stylistically perverse folk-rock projects and small punk rock and metal circles—these centers of gravity that hold the Reno music scene together seem to allow no space for something like Zirconian Mind to grow and infiltrate.
Regardless, they emerged from a soft, cool nowhere in April to open for Los Angeles’ Pocahaunted and Reno band Swahili. Kyle Ewing and Trevor Damon stood behind two large, black mixers and flooded Rainshadow Community Charter High School with ambient yet subtly throbbing minimal techno—the sort, like Gas or Monolake, that forces weather patterns into the room.
“I’ll just play a chord on a keyboard and put it through the mixer and add reverb on it,” says Ewing. “I’ll go through every single effect and see if I like anything. There’s a lot of unplugging … I feel like a telephone operator from 1922.”
The operations resonate and congeal into something thick—sighs stuffed with matter. A red light pulsing through fog. These images are elaborate and purple, the sort always associated with any music hard to pin down in theory or energy. What surprises, then, is the rudimentary source of Damon and Ewing’s product.
“We both have our own mixers and samplers and drum machines,” says Ewing. “I don’t think either of us are gearheads … We don’t have the money to do it. A lot of it’s the kind of shit you can pick up at Guitar Center.”
Damon readily lays bare his insecurities and incompetence at commanding any traditional instrument. “I’ve never had lessons at anything,” says Damon. “I feel bad. ‘You don’t know what you’re doing. And you’re going to pay for it’.”
It’s somewhat in keeping with punk rock standards and practices that the instrumental parts of this rich landscape are sourced from no nest of skills but the curious impulse to create. Regardless, Zirconian Mind’s place in the Reno scene seems a solitary one. The few swells of atmospheric anything here tend to dissipate easily. Van Pham, of the psychedelic drum-rush that is Swahili and also of the noise project Chinese Gore, booked the first two Zirconian Mind shows. She and the rest of Swahili depart for Portland this summer.
“Van’s leaving, and I don’t know what’s going to happen,” says Ewing. “Who are we going to play with?”
That is the sort of worry natural to a town in which everything is transient, and everyone is either disappearing or making plans to. Sometimes there is no center.
Though acknowledging how genres both invite audiences and limit artistic breadth, Zirconian Mind asked me for a genre. “Something we can repeat,” Ewing said, excitedly. Twenty seconds ago I invented “smokehouse.” Carry that with you. Tie yourself to the larger web.