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Talibam!, the six-year-old noise-jazz duo from Brooklyn, sometimes uses set lists. These set lists sometimes contain actual songs. These actual songs sometimes possess coherent A and B sections; sometimes they're written that afternoon on the bus. Sometimes both. But not always.
"One or two shows, we've experimented with writing out lists of topics to talk about," says keyboardist Matthew Mottel, 27, who, along with drummer Kevin Shea, 35, makes it a habit to disrupt their in-the-pocket free jams with obnoxious dadaism. "Kevin's default topic is to talk about his penis," adds Mottel, who always sounds as if he's shrugging.
On a snowy January Tuesday at the Bowery Poetry Club, the keyboardist, bearded and mildly lisped, tucked an open umbrella into the back of his frock, pink sunglasses perched below his omnipresent Elmer Fudd hat. Shea, meanwhile, drummed beneath a sparkling bedsheet. They hit a few bars of "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction," Shea singing the first verse, before their attention stumbled elsewhere, into something like dub. But mostly like jazz.
For all their fuckwittery (right down to their Jesus-you're-really-calling-yourselves-that? name), Talibam! is pretty serious about their enterprise. They play. A lot. But they're the kind of band you never go see because they're always around (when they're not touring Europe), at some loft party or art space or bar. And you don't keep up with their intimidating discography because you already missed their last 12-inch (split with Wasteland Jazz Unit), seven-inch (with But God Created Woman), 10-inch (with the Jealousy Party), or spray-paint-blasted (and unplayable) CD-R, and nobody's uploaded them, anyway. Though nominally Brooklynites, Mottel and Shea are, more properly, members of the first-generation post–downtown jazz diaspora, gigging endlessly, sharpening their chops. "This is my first time being a working musician in New York, like getting paid for rehearsals and everything," Mottel says of the prep for the band's latest gig: backing up a Karole Armitage dance retrospective during a long Kitchen residency, March 4 to 14.
This is not to suggest that these guys are part of any particular fledgling movement. "If you see somebody with a real personality, suddenly you can't associate that person with a scene," says Shea, whose white-framed glasses make him look hipper than you, which he probably is. He might be funnier, too. "A lot of bands take things really seriously that are actually quite comical. Any band I ever see has humorous elements, but they pretend it's not humorous. Like every rock band to ever play a quarter-note. You know, it's stupid to pretend it's not stupid—it's like thinking your audience is a little stupider than you. At the end of the day, you're not saving the world by playing power chords."
"[Humor] seems like it's a more natural communication than stone-faced 'This is what we do,' " Mottel adds.
"It's something about their sense of time, and their love of pure, unadulterated noise," affirms Rhys Chatham, the expatriate guitar maximalist who recently started playing trumpet with the duo in Europe, where Mottel and Shea have toured seven times in the past three years. (More shows with Chatham are planned.) Collaboration and innovation are major elements here: In the course of casual conversation, the pair describe no fewer than seven forthcoming albums, including a partnership with saxophonist Daniel Carter, a proper studio LP titled Corpse Riot (maybe), plus a performance piece (conceit: Mick Jagger wants to play drums for Peanuts' Schroeder) and a video game.
Mostly pending, of course: Even those Chatham jams might not end up anywhere, disappearing into the ether like their version of "Satisfaction," or buried amid the clutter on the floor of Mottel's kinda smelly 1998 Plymouth Voyager, a few seven-inches warping on the dashboard, a Doors tape lodged unplayably into the tape deck. That's just how it happens sometimes.
Talibam! play March 3-7 and 11-14 at the Kitchen, part of the Armitage Gone! Dance: Think Punk! event; they also perform March 23rd at Zebulon and April 24th at Public Assembly