Lasher Keen crafts a kingdom for its songs
Nevada City’s Lasher Keen takes the stage with a new musical that takes the band back to the 12th century while moving its sound across the globe
In an eerie fog-filled room, a tribal, trance-inducing beat erupts. A man emerges from beyond the mist. He’s clad in a handmade animal-skin cape and holding an exotic horn. At the other side of the room a woman throws fruit and flower petals at the audience as the man reads from an ancient scroll. Upon closer inspection, the man is revealed to be a withered old tree-man—he even has a mossy, mushroom-filled beard.
This goes on for 10 minutes. It isn’t a religious ceremony, but rather a performance by Nevada City band Lasher Keen. They call it the opening ritual and as elaborate as it is on this particular night, the band members change it up with every batch of shows. Its purpose is to clear the space, draw the audience in and gain their undivided attention. Some fans have said the ritual induces incredible visions. Some swear it’s made them even see their spirit animal.
The scene is also not unlike what audience members will experience as part of the band’s new musical, The Middle Kingdom. The new production, scheduled to debut Thursday, February 19, at the Center for the Arts in Grass Valley, is an epic ode to Lasher Keen’s rich, varied sound.
Singer-and-multi-instrumentalist Dylan Sheets founded the three-piece psychedelic-folk group in 2006. He and wife Bluebird Gaia, who joined in 2007, now remain its only constants. Gaia also sings, plays various instruments and even sews all of their outfits. The band’s current percussionist, James Word, joined in September of 2014, replacing 28-year-old Broughty Cole, who drowned in the Sacramento River last March on his way to a gig.
Cole’s death, Sheets says now, was “one of the greatest shocks I ever had.”
“There was so much concentrated magic centered around his time with us that still permeates though Lasher Keen today,” he says.
Although Cole’s death marked the end of one chapter and the start of another for Lasher Keen, the band’s approach and sound remain as wildly eclectic as ever.
On stage, the transition from opening rituals to music is seamless. Here, modern avant-garde sounds are mixed with elements of archaic Celtic, Middle Eastern, Balkan and Nordic music. They wear medieval costumes and play antiquated instruments unfamiliar to most Western rock audiences (the bouzouki, a gut-string harp, and the doumbek, for instance). Throughout, they sing old tales, some of which date back from before the written word.
“We want to transport the listener. Our music has always been a harkening back to a more ancient time,” Sheets says. “I’ve always been obsessed with pre-Christian, pagan revelry.”
It’s not just about the music, of course. Every aspect of the stage show is purposeful, Sheets says.
“We try and use our costumes, props, lights and smoke to convey to the viewer an ancient world, like you’re entering a space where time has no meaning,” he says.
Such a world is nothing new to the band; in fact they’ve been putting on these elaborate performances at venues and house shows since their inception. The latest endeavor simply moves it beyond the ordinary, taking what they do as a band and flushing it out into a full-scale theatrical production.
Here, instead of spending the night telling several stories, Sheets has written a single tale that spans across the entire set of songs. He’s also directing the production while Gaia serves as art director.
Sara Zahn, the program associate for Center for the Arts, says the show’s scope doesn’t surprise her.
“When Dylan told me that he wrote a play, I was like, ’Of course you did,’” says Zahn, who is also producing Middle Kingdom. “Their performances are very theatrical. The music is theatrical in and of itself [and] Bluebird and Dylan are this endless well of creativity. It feels like a natural progression.”A world reborn
The musical’s story is based on the story of Midhir and Etain from the 12th-century Irish manuscript Lebor na hUidre. Etain is a goddess from another world reborn into human form. Unaware of her previous life, she marries a king. Midhir is her husband from the other world, who appears one day and tries to get her to return with him.
For the production, Lasher Keen has expanded the band’s three-piece lineup into a 12-piece that includes a choir and a cast of actors. The stage will be divided in half with the band on one side and the actors on the other. Sheets and Gaia will perform on the band side, playing songs, but Sheets will also function as the play’s narrator. While he’ll sing some of the songs, the actors will also sing.
Sheets says it’s unlike anything he’s ever done—or seen.
“It has musicians on stage with the actors commanding equal attention from the audience,” he says. “I have tried to combine storytelling, music, acting and dancing into a pleasurable, palatable mixture for all the senses.”
When Sheets began writing it two years ago, his original idea was for something small in scale. Just him and Gaia. They had just seen a one-man musical, storytelling production, and wanted to do something similar, but the more Sheets wrote, the more ambitious his vision became. Since then, the couple has let their imaginations run wild. Gaia has a big say in the look of the production, and has gathered props and sewn dresses.
“What I want to create is something otherworldly, like something people dream about, that they’ve seen in art but have never experienced live,” she says. “I want to make something that will make you cry because it’s so beautiful.”
The play’s music comprises an entirely new score that Lasher Keen will release as a soundtrack on vinyl and CD on the play’s opening night. This will mark the band’s sixth album, one that’s bigger and more dynamic than previous records. The entire album was recorded live, with few overdubs. The sound rises and falls with greater moods and emotions, and the songwriting exhibits an overall cinematic quality, which works well for the group’s already hard-to-define sound.
It’s a sound that has been evolving since Sheets formed the group with a friend, Richard O’Connell. The musical partnership didn’t last long, and Sheets continued solo for a while. Then, in 2007, he found himself playing music at a party, and that’s where he met Gaia.
“I heard him singing and playing guitar. I didn’t really know where it was coming from. I was thinking to myself, ’Who is that?’ His voice is so unique. I was instantly charmed,” Gaia says.
Gaie joined Sheets, playing the bodhran, a traditional Celtic drum, but eventually moved to cello. The two married in 2012. Over the years as the members have come and gone, the band has expanded and shrunk in size. At times it’s been only the two of them.
During their entire run, they’ve always played an assortment of lesser known, globally diverse instruments. Now with use of a 12-piece band for the production, the couple is glad for the chance to incorporate even more such instruments, including the talharpa, which is used widely in Scandinavia; the lyre, which was popular in ancient Greece; and the jing, which is popular in traditional Korean music.
Sheets says it’s about exploring as much as possible musically.
“It’s just been an evolution of not wanting to be tied down to any culture-specific instrumentation and to use instrumentation from all over the board,” he says. “We live in a time where we have access to so much that I like the idea of not being musically dogmatic.”
After this initial run, Lasher Keen hopes to take The Middle Kingdom on the road. More than anything, however, after a year of loss and change, they remain a band and just want to play, although with a bit more of a selective focus than before.
“We used to play way more [shows], then we slowly started to realize that the benefits weren’t enough. We have so many instruments, it’s like they’re props,” Gaia says. “We have this whole thing, we practice for a long time, and then to get shut down after 20 minutes of playing is really not worth it for us. I want to … have more time. That would be cool.”