Swimming in Bengal are free-form, improvisational oddballs

As the members of the Sacramento-based experimental trio make it up on the spot, they discover that less is way more

Is this band reenacting the printer scene from <i>Office Space</i>?

Is this band reenacting the printer scene from Office Space?

photo by michael miller

Catch Swimming in Bengal at 8 p.m., Wednesday, April 29, at Shine, 1400 E Street. Tickets are $10. For more information, visit www.facebook.com/swimminginbengal.

Tony Passarell, multi-instrumentalist in the local experimental trio Swimming in Bengal, recalls one early show at the late Luigi’s Fun Garden, sandwiched in between two noisy rock bands. He was a little nervous about what kind of response they’d get because unlike the other bands, his plays songs that are free-form, Middle Eastern-inspired and completely improvised with slow, droning builds.

Maybe because it was so different, the band ended up capturing the audience’s attention in full.

“It was so loud in there [when the previous bands played] that people went outside. We started playing and when we opened our eyes after being meditative for a few minutes, the whole place was packed with people sitting, intently listening,” Passarell says. “It was really bizarre.”

In the few years that Swimming in Bengal has been a band, it’s managed to move seamlessly between the alternative rock and jazz scenes, finding a comfortable spot grabbing folk’s attention as the intriguing oddballs.

The group comprises Jed Brewer on gourd guitar; Passarell, who rotates between the saxophone, flute and various percussion; and Alex Jenkins on tablas and, sometimes, the drum set.

With such odd instrument selections, transcendental vibes and a clearly nontraditionally Western choice of chords and rhythms, it’s obvious to even the casual music listener that they’re influenced by Eastern and Middle Eastern sounds, yet they play it without any real concept of whether they’re doing it right.

Brewer says that, initially, he considered taking formal gourd lessons.

“Then I thought, ’No. I don’t want it to be straight. I want it to be a weird hybrid that’s kind of messed up and not strictly traditional,’” Brewer says.

Swimming in Bengal is Brewer’s second band to explore a Middle Eastern sound. The other is San Kazakgascar, but even that plays structured, prewritten songs. All of Swimming in Bengal’s music is composed on the spot, live.

It’s a new thing for Brewer whose previous bands, most notably Harvester, played alternative rock and Americana, albeit with a dark edge.

“Now I’m not playing chords. I’m just playing up and down on the strings, and just taking that whole approach to another extreme,” Brewer says.

Spontaneously writing music on stage is a new experience for Brewer. For Passarell, who has an extensive jazz background, it’s not. These days, he says, he prefers improvisation.

“I don’t even play in any bands that have real tunes anymore,” he explains.

Jenkins also has a jazz background, and has worked full-time as a musician for more than a decade. As such, he is not able to make every gig, in which case Brewer and Passarell enlist someone else to play. When Jenkins is behind the kit, Passarell says, the musician brings a very trance-like element to the music.

Despite not actually writing music, Swimming in Bengal has released a few EPs. The process for making a record is more or less the same as a show and editing is minimal.

“Mostly we’re just picking out the sections that work. It’s amazing because once you get some sort of parameters to everything, it’s not that difficult,” Passarell says.

As they’ve played more together, and developed a better understanding of what they’re doing, the band members say they’ve found themselves actually playing less. Brewer plays more open chords, as opposed to noodling on the guitar, and Passarell often drops out for complete sections, only to come in again when it feels right.

“We’re the first ones to say that we don’t know exactly what we’re doing, but we’re trying to be as genuine as we can about making the music sounding interesting,” Passarell says. “This music has a vibe. If you tap into that vibe then you might get a kick out of it.”