Yes In My Backyard is a semiweekly column showcasing new and emerging MP3s from local talent.
New York’s various punk-inflected marching bands and steampunk street crews have brought out the inner band geek in tons of local flute-tooters and glock-rockers. But the profoundly manic Asphalt Orchestra asks: “What if everyone was sitting first chair?” The maddeningly talented 12 piece group — barely a year old — brings together odd meters, virtuosic playing, and general tech-dorkery under the vibrant, visceral auspices of totally fun street performance. Created by the tireless tweakers in Bang On A Can, Asphalt Orchestra is wild, choppy, disorienting fun, making unlikely party jams out of prog-rock abandon. Their self-titled debut (out this month via Cantaloupe) attempts covers of Frank Zappa, Björk, frenetic Balkan jazzer Goran Bregovic, tech-metal kings Meshuggah, and NYC’s own Tyondai Braxton of Battles — eight rallying anthems all ready to soundtrack a game of 43 Man Squamish. Their version of Zappa’s “Zomby Woof” nails all his tricky nonsense and jazz-fusion insanity with the added bonus of some slapstick honking and wild trumpet solos.
Q&A with Asphalt Orchestra:
Tell me about your decision to cover “Zomby Woof.”
Ken Thomson: Zappa was one of the first composers on our list when we decided to form Asphalt. I believe his music truly achieves what we’re trying to do here — combining the sounds of many genres and cultures into a personal synthesis that rings honest and vibrant.
Jessica Schmitz: One of our band members, Peter Hess, suggested we cover the song. The goal was to find a Zappa piece that wasn’t so out there that no one would know it, but not one that’s too prevalent in the Zappa canon. He chose perfectly!
What is your favorite part in this song?
Schmitz: Towards the end when the low brass come in with what I think of as the ‘big bad wolf’ section — that comedic reference cracks me up every time.
Thomson: The awesome thing is that the band really rocked the tune from the beginning. It was one of the first things we played together and it made it really clear that this project was going to work. And even though it’s complicated and all-over-the-place, with new time signatures every other bar, Zappa now I think feels like “home” to all of us. It’s just fun.
How do you march in odd time signatures?
Thomson: Well, the quick answer is that we don’t march. I see us more in the flash-mob style of street band.
Schmitz: Our choreography is based on both abstract and thematic artistic concepts. Susan Marshall and Mark DeChiazza choreograph the band, and they’re really fantastic in developing movement that complements the rhythmically complicated music we play.
Where and how do you guys rehearse? Is there a challenge in getting rehearsal space/time for a 12 piece band?
Thomson: We rehearse wherever and whenever we can. We’ve rehearsed everywhere from Prospect Park to temporarily empty penthouses at Lincoln Center.
Schmitz: Our first choice is always at Lincoln Center because of the beautiful facilities, but we rehearse wherever there is room. Our rehearsals are usually divided up into “music” and “choreography” sections. We’ll usually spend mornings focusing on just playing the music then in the afternoon focus on the movement.
Has anyone a suggested a piece that was too out-there to play?
Schmitz: The most exciting thing to me about Asphalt is that there isn’t really a “too out-there” My approach is the weirder the better! We’ve certainly tossed around a lot of musical ideas that haven’t happened as of yet, but that has more to do with the band being just a year old — only so many hours in the day.
Thomson: Jury’s still out on whether my Conlon Nancarrow arrangement was a failure.
What’s the most memorable show you’ve ever played in New York — in any band?
Schmitz: Gotta say it was probably playing flute with Ensemble de Sade — the new music group brought to us by Matt Marks and Melissa Hughes that’s based on themes of sadomasochism. Putting it right out there: Last year we did a concert that required me to dress up like a 19th century prostitute. That was certainly a memorable experience.
What’s your favorite place to eat in New York?
Thomson: I’ve been spending the past few years exploring my neighborhood, Sunset Park. I don’t have a favorite, but between Matamoros and Pacificana and Kai Feng Fu Dumpling House and Ba Xuyen Vietnamese sandwiches… Let’s say I don’t feel the need for a favorite!
Schmitz: My brother and sister-in-law’s kitchen! My sister-in-law is from Parma, Italy, and is an amazing cook. And the best thing is we live across the street from each other!
Asphalt Orchestra are playing the Lincoln Center Out Of Doors Festival from Wednesday through Sunday. They’re at Broadway Plaza on August 4; Hearst Plaza on August 5; Josie Robertson Plaza on August 6; Hearst Plaza on August 7 and Broadway Plaza on August 8. Go to Lincoln Center for more information.