MusicMusic Features

Sunwatchers and Elf Power Show How Music Makes the World Smaller

Jean-Michel Basquiat once wrote, “Art is how we decorate space; music is how we decorate time.” But ask any touring musician, and they’ll tell you that music can also serve another important purpose: to make our small world even smaller. 

Within our musical microcosm, there are many uncanny parallels. I was reminded of this recently after relocating from Oakland, CA, to Athens. Two songs into our first Jay Gonzalez rooftop performance, my wife and I looked at each other and simultaneously remarked, “Joel!” Because back in Oakland, an amazing musician named Joel Robinow also plays and sings 1970s AM radio hits and TV theme songs on the piano at a popular local venue. 

I was more deeply reminded of Joel’s original recordings after listening to Sunwatchers’ 2019 album Illegal Moves. The Brooklyn, NY, band boasts a few former Athenians and also shares many musicological attributes with Joel’s Oakland trio, Once and Future Band. Both groups, but especially Sunwatchers, share a penchant for unleashing unfolding epics rooted in labyrinthine, post-prog arrangements. And both bands happen to have released recordings on Castle Face Records, run by Thee Oh Sees’ John Dwyer. 

Sunwatchers describe their sound as “punk jazz drone,” but there are also magical moments that blend bygone shoegaze soundscapes with scuzzy math rock (“New Dad Blues”), as well as feral freakouts that channel the aural acrobatics of free-jazz deity Sun Ra. (Check out Sunwatchers’ spellbinding cover of Alice Coltrane’s “Ptah, the El Daoud.”) It’s rare when an album can strike a balance between background listening and a more intense and engaging experience—keeping you on the edge of your seat, wondering what they’re going to do next, how they’re going to take it there and how they’re going to bring it back home. Illegal Moves succeeds at providing multidimensional options for both lean-back listening and focused, white-knuckled intensity. 

Upon learning that Sunwatchers would be sharing a stage with local psych staple Elf Power, I felt the world shrink even more. Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I was living with members of Call and Response, who had visited Athens to record their eponymous debut album with the late, great Bill Doss. After they finished tracking and mixing their 2001 Kindercore LP, my roommates returned with sunburns, smiles and wide-eyed stories about discovering the music, beauty and inviting community of the Classic City. 

When touring with The Sunshine Fix, Bill and the band would stay in our Oakland home. Bill’s affinity for music discovery was contagious, and we would stay up all night spinning records, drinking wine, playing guitars, cracking jokes and talking about the music we loved. After putting on a scratchy, well-worn copy of Brian Eno’s Here Come the Warm Jets, Bill grabbed a pen and a piece of paper from my desk and scribbled the words “Elf Power” on it before excitedly handing it to me. 

“Go find their 1997 album,” he said. “They do a cover of ‘Needle in the Camel’s Eye’ that will blow your mind! You might even like it better than the original version.” 

Less than a week later, I went to Amoeba Records in Berkeley and followed his advice. He was right. Have you ever loved a song so much that, by proxy, you also fall in love with the song that plays right after it? After almost wearing out Elf Power’s Eno cover, the haunting analog synth percolations of the following instrumental, “…The Silver Lake,” would lull me into a hypnosis that still casts its spell on me today. 

Although I’ve been a fan of Elf Power since then, I’ve yet to see the group live. And with rumors of a new album on the near horizon, my musical heart is craving this Sept. 8 Sunwatchers/Elf Power show at The World Famous.

In the spirit of celebrating musical connections, I asked both bands to reflect on some kindred musicians they’ve met on the road, as well as impactful music gems they’ve unearthed while touring. Andrew Rieger from Elf Power and Sunwatchers’ Jim McHugh were generous in sharing their stories. Find them below, and be reminded that it’s a small world, indeed.

Andrew Rieger, Elf Power

Sibylle Baier: We befriended Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis in the early 2000s when we did some touring together, so a few years later in 2005, he invited us to stay at his house when we were passing through his hometown of Northampton, MA. He played us some stunningly beautiful unreleased recordings by German folk singer Sibylle Baier, which were recorded in the 1970s but never released. J was friends with Sibylle’s son Robby, who lived nearby, and J suggested we release the recordings on Orange Twin, the record label that we started in 2001. It has become a much beloved album to fans and critics alike, being by far our most popular, and also my favorite release on the label. 

Faka: While on tour in Europe last summer, we played at an amazing festival in the Czech Republic called the Creepy Teepee Festival, where we shared the stage with an excellent African electronic duo called Faka, who put on a mesmerizing live performance, their combination of minimalist techno and performance art converting me to a fan instantly. 

Lilys: We played together at a show in Virginia in 1998 and later toured Spain together in 2004. Their great songwriting, arrangements and sense of melody make their albums Better Can’t Make Your Life Better and The 3 Way two of my favorites. 

Jonny: Playing the fantastic Egersund Vise Festival in Egersund, Norway the last two summers, we discovered a lot of great music. Last summer, it was exciting to discover two of my favorite songwriters, Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake and Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci’s Euros Childs, playing with their stripped-down collaborative group Jonny, with which I was previously unfamiliar.

Group Doueh: Another great African group, Group Doueh is a psychedelic ensemble from Western Sahara who blew me away when we played together at the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in the UK in 2012.

Jim McHugh, Sunwatchers

The Po Po: The tail-end of a mammoth, months-long tour-bender for Dark Meat and boy, did it show under the load-in lights of Philly’s esteemed rock hovel Johnny Brendas in late May 2008. Sonically, we were tight as a tick, and our show was crazed and furious; offstage, our eyes were limp and measly slits, and our small joys came chemically, via petty theft or not at all. We lived to play, yes, but everything else could fuck right off—including every random mediocre opener we’d avoided for the past six weeks, or however long it was.

Po Po’s soundcheck alone, perfunctory as it was, had the sheer sonic oomph to reanimate our beleaguered endorphin receptors: Here were three physically enormous, hirsute Pakistani men, hewing this brutal cosmic drone-pop that hit like early Spacemen 3 backing up Nusrat Ali Khan as he exorcised his girl problems and murder fantasies with The Spits singing backup. It was that perfect. 

Backstage, pre-doors, we pried: They were brothers from North Philly who lived with their mother, and the eldest, lead singer/bassist Zeb, had started the band so his siblings would not be tempted by prevailing Street Facts. It was like LSD 4H. On top of that, this was their last show, because “…no one gives a shit, and we don’t know if we do, either.” Over the graying lunch-meat platter, I explained that I’d been on tour for, like, a year straight and that I didn’t like anything to the point that I smiled upside-down like a Swedish person and that they were the best thing I’d seen in AGES. “Cool, thanks…” Zeb demurred as guitarist Shweb hurled celery at parked cars from the fire escape.

Their set was mind-bending, and our raging joy and collective honest schmooze convinced the Malik brothers not only to persevere, but to come to Athens for a while to hang and record in the home studio of Tim Schreiber, our organist. Po Po Go is the fruit of this collab—a perfect album that, along with Long Legged Woman’s LP, stands as my favorite Athens record of the era. 

A weird side note: Po Po’s Athens visit coincided with then-fellow-Philadelphian Diplo’s misguided busman’s holiday here to produce, remix and perform with Dark Meat. Turns out, Diplo was ignorant of the beauty in his own backyard—he’d never heard of Po Po, though they were for sure aware of him, and over a debauched weekend jam-packed in our tour bus were the seeds of a wrongheaded record deal sewn. Meantime, I took Po Po Go out on the road to play for friends and before sets, and at least three labels I knew were dying to release it. Mad Decent eventually signed them and shelved the entirety of Go, save for a short-run two-song single, and not much else was ever heard from the Brothers Malik.

Check out “Kill Tonight,” the bitchin’ leadoff track of Po Po Go aka the A-Side of Mad Decent 7-inch.

Drakkar Sauna: Road dogs know how the Great Plains manifest a sprawling, homogenous vastness whose sheer mileage between dart-tossed destinations make a hovering, hectoring specter of our gas tanks. We gotta get from Austin to L.A. with only gig money, so this time it’s… El Paso? Oklahoma City? Wichita? Odds dictate that any dice-roll makes a possibility of success, and so liftoff, connection, transcendence or at least a decent payout are feasible, if unlikely. Repeat instances of lameness, vile whiffs of ethnocentrism and outbursts of actual violence—lookin’ at you, Lubbock and Fort Worth—has the prairie epitomizing, at its worst, this era’s ugliness at its baldest: the emboldened intolerance, the personal urge for isolation and the related political drive toward racial segregation, the screeching empathy-void feedback-loop resultant of all that and more. 

Thereby, Likeminded Purveyors of Kindness, Warmth and Subversion situated slam-center in all that emptiness are a precious resource, to be sure—insane bonus if they wrote a couple of your all-time fave songs on top.

No one played, sang or wrote like Drakkar Sauna, the Lawrence, KS duo Dark Meat met via Chris Smith, our hype man of Midwestern origin. You had Jeff Stoltz, who played excellent Merle Travis-style guitar, drummed with his feet, played harmonium at times and had golden ears for Louvin/Everly harmonies; he built the music—machinist and fabricator. Wallace Cochran played guitar OK but wrote lyrics you actually wanted to hear—hell, you wanted to read them, for he had the abstract gumption to apply his intuition that poetry operates best in its humongous ancient sense (to preserve human experience—sometimes oddly sexy—in exalted rarified terms for the multitudes to grow with through time) to Jeff’s haunted minimalist honky-tonk. 

We did several tours with them, and their weird profundity rightly gleamed in the apparent incongruity of our pairing: Our backwoods punk-jazz freakouts glowed redder after we’d witnessed Drakkar Sauna simultaneously explicate, eviscerate and transcend their home-zone’s wholly crippled perplex. 

Here, they play my favorite song with Athens’ Campbell sisters, of a million bands and projects, including, at one time, Dark Meat.

Headroom and Feral Ohms: Not “discoveries,” per se, as Sunwatchers are labelmates with both bands. So, we’ve done a good amount of touring with these outfits, in and out of New York. I will, though, use the word “revelation” in regards to soaking nightly in the guitar-playing of their respective centerpieces, Kryssi Battalene and Ethan Miller. Kryssi is jazz-schooled and a cornerstone of the New Haven improv/noise scenes going back decades, and she can play circles around me and almost anyone I know. She don’t roll that way, though—at the very focused and deliberate peaks of her playing, she achieves a pure globular hypnotic synthesis of strobing textures, visceral volume immersion and a highly evolved and appealing melodicism. If you swam in sun-warmed psychedelic syrup and walked the strand to find No Pussyfooting-era Fripp fretting his guitar with a Neolithic hand-axe, it would sound like her. Her playing is beautiful and exhausting.

Ethan sees himself as a bit of a disciple of High Rise berserker Munehiro Narita, and while that comparison is apt, hard-earned and really audible (Kryssi’s Bardo-Deity would be Mizutani from Les Rallizes Denudes), it gives short shrift to his own history and standing as a damaged shredder without peer in the realms of rock improvisation, and belies his influence on a whole generation of face-melters (here!) via his role in Comets on Fire as the “Free Scuzz” pole opposite to Ben Chasny’s “Celibate Mystic” thing. Show to show, opening scree, I’d be glued to his joyful wild playing, untethered and mean as hell, yet somehow perfectly contextual within their brief rock and roll settings. He’s also as supportive, sweet and unjaded as a person with his immense time on the touring road can be. 


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