Minimalist & western

Don’t try to pigeonhole the musically eclectic Christian Kiefer

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Live! 10 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 13, at Café Milazzo, 4818 Folsom Blvd., opening for David Houston; also 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 19, at Luna’s Café, 16th St., opening for Natural Magic.

There’s more to Colfax than Dingus McGee’s, as anyone familiar with contemporary music of the minimalist persuasion can tell you. For example, composer Terry Riley, of In C and A Rainbow in Curved Air fame, lives there among the ponderosa pines.

Not as well known, but certainly quite interesting in his own right, is Christian Kiefer. Consider: He’s a novelist, with three unpublished manuscripts under his bed to prove it. He’s also a poet and a musician, specializing on the banjo (no jokes, please), and he teaches English composition part time at UC Davis.

Kiefer’s first album, Welcome to Hard Times, is an evocative musical sketchbook that portrays a parched-thirst Old West in distinctly non-John Ford fashion. It was released by an Australian record company, Extreme, that is perhaps best known for issuing a limited-edition 50-CD boxed anthology of works by Japanese noise artist Merzbow. Kiefer wound up on the experimental-noise label because he and label owner Roger Richards struck up a correspondence about the American West. “He’s really interested in the academic, scholarly edge to what I’m doing,” Kiefer explains, adding, “I’m the only person on the label who writes songs; everyone else does experimental trip-hop and pure Japanese noise.”

The music on Welcome to Hard Times is, for want of a better word, cinematic. When Kiefer began the project, he was subtitling it “the soundtrack to a non-existent film"; its mix of angular, banjo-laced, high-noon textures, Dust Bowl-blown singer-songwriter folk and spoken word marinated in Old Overholt fumes and Chesterfield smoke comes off like a John Cassavetes-filmed barroom conversation between Woody Guthrie, Tom Waits and Ennio Morricone.

“It was actually going to be a lot more filmic and a lot more ambient than it turned out to be,” Kiefer says. “I wanted it to convey this anti-John Wayne image of the West, this sort of evil Cormac McCarthy, E.L. Doctorow, uh … thing. The West was a bunch of regular people and families going out to try to start their lives over again. I guess I don’t see my project as being any more or less true to the John Wayne image, because mine is so dark that it’s just the other side of the coin.”

Kiefer went full throttle on a soundtrack bender for his second disc, Exodust, which comes out this June. “It’s about 70 minutes long,” he explains, and it’s a folk or bluegrass version of Terry Riley’s In C—in a sense. It’s basically my minimalist-folk version of the Joads. It enabled me to get all my ambient tendencies out, so my next song-based project is entirely songs.”

He’s referring to Medicine Show, which he recorded with Darol Anger, Mike Marshall and local musician Joe Craven, all alumni of the mutant bluegrass-pioneering David Grisman Quintet. That record doesn’t have a release date yet, but Kiefer figures it’ll be out sometime in the second half of this year.

Obviously, he’s one busy guy. These days, Kiefer’s live act consists of him on acoustic guitar, banjo and steel-resonator guitar, backed by Scott Leftridge on bass and Chip Conrad, from the Pilgrims, on drums.

“What I do is so not what’s going on in this town … for music,” Kiefer says. “So I’m finding it very challenging, developing an audience here.” Later, he reasons: “I guess what it boils down to is just figuring out people I can play with successfully, so it’s a good match. I’m playing with David Houston at [Café] Milazzo on the 13th, and then the 19th I took a Friday-night opening slot at Luna’s with Natural Magic … a folk/Native American duo. It sounded like such a bizarre combination, I figured, what the hell?”

Yeah. What the hell?