The ubiquitous brainiacs behind Brooklyn’s maniacally creative and hilarious duo Talibam!–beardo keyboards squelcher Matt Mottel and bizarro drums wizard Kevin Shea–are airing out their gripes, sort of, as they chill in their Wall Street studio at the Swing Space, an underground bank vault turned artistic bunker. First packaged as ‘avant-jazz’ when Talibam! formed in 2003, the term has stuck, and alas, Mottel and Shea are ready for something different. Enter their preferred calling-card: ‘Stylish Production Team.’ “We’re creative musicians,” says Mottel. That term, ‘creative music,’ is a William Parker term. He’d say ‘I am not playing free jazz. I play creative music.’ I like to think we play creative music.”
Calling Talibam!’s 2009 apotheosis, Boogie in the Breeze Blocks “creative music” is quite the understatement. That LP firmed their current trajectory towards dead serious experimentalism fused with shits-n-giggles trippiness. On their ESP-Disk debut, the twosome melded their aesthetic to perfection: the free jazz moxie, the classic rock and metal flash and the Zappa meets Peanuts fuckfoolery. “Our band started in 2003 primarily as a free improv unit,” Mottel says. “But as a band should do–develop and grow–we basically became, as a duo, an extreme punk rock organ-drums psych unit with free elements and been playing a tight set list the last two years. Once you get tagged with ‘avant-jazz,’ especially by critics, that really stays and that’s the only thing they associate with the band.”
Talibam!’s live show usually amounts to an insane spectacle. Mottel and Shea replace pretentious avant-noodling by donning wigs, flashy clothes, tuxedos, and even breaking out into white-boy rap (more on that later). Not exactly all free improv. The duo playfully chide Time Out NY for running the same Talibam! blurb for the last seven years (“…octopoidal drums and synth splatter”) and (gasp!) The Village Voice isn’t spared amongst their litany of targets. “There were these two articles recently and I was like ‘Man, Talibam! should be known in both of these circles.’ There was the alt-comedy and Reggie Watts pieces. They are doing comedy at P.S. 1 and calling it art. We’re really in this strange border between being a serious band but we are funny. We don’t want to be a joke band but what we call post-goof.”
Now post-goof purveyors and Stylish Production Team, Talibam! have bridged its weirdo musical improv genius gap with theatrical frolics on their latest ambitious sprawl they call Talibam! Goes To Bed with Sam Kulik and Discovers Atlantis and will stage their “low-budget multimedia disco free-jazz opera” at Swing Space over three evenings. Atlantis’ crux amounts to a distant and sexually demented fucked-up relative of the beloved and pure Disney tale The Little Mermaid as Talibam! and Kulik splice current events, political drama, avant-garde music and acting against a backdrop of radio-play histrionics as horny teenage sex deviant Franklin (played by Shea) travels to Atlantis to save its seascape and fish people from evil politicians and an oil spill–with only his special pillow.
How will they manage to pull this off? Mottel explains. “There’s going to be costumes and no extras, just us. We’re all playing multiple parts. There’s going to be some puppets involved, props and a spear. We’ve even got scripts. It’s going to be a fun evening in a weird, creative space that not many people get to see that is underground and subcultural. Wall Street is cool. Manhattan is always going to be where cultural events happen.”
I spoke to the trio about the Atlantis extravaganza, its record release (they are actively seeking a label to put it out) and their upcoming hip hop and dub records. Only the dudes in Talibam! could pull all this shit off.
How did the Atlantis concept materialize?
Kulik: We started recording this in January, 2010 and because Matt and Kevin were simultaneously working on three other records, Atlantis has rolled along. Every few months, it got a little more updated. In a way, that’s a bonus in the shitty climate of trying to release a record is that we’ve had all this time to sit with it and make it better. But on the other hand, we gotta get this out.
Mottel: What we did with Atlantis is we took current events and popular culture and melded it into being fun and provocative. Not many bands right now are making an eighty-minute “audio comic book,” is what I view it as, with a narrative story, plot and cool songs–accessible for everybody.
Shea: There might be a reason why not many bands make eighty-minute audio comic books [laughing].
What inspired Atlantis?
Shea: It was in Finland when we came up with this idea.
Kulik: The three of us were on tour together there in 2008. When you’re on tour, there’s time to do nothing but make inside jokes and brainstorm about things that you want to do. There was a song called “Franklin and his Pillow” in the set at that time so we had the idea of doing a children’s story about a boy named Franklin who had a pillow. We didn’t know what it was going to be, then the Atlantis idea came along and the two ideas got combined.
Why Atlantis and what about the connection with The Little Mermaid?
Shea: Didn’t it have something to with all of us drinking milk? In Finland, there was this woman breastfeeding at the time. We met her and she was about to feed us. She was talking about how her breast milk wasn’t good because it was too sweet. We thought that sounded really good. I thought the mermaid thing came from that. Or maybe it was just in my mind or my fantasies.
Kulik: Our version is a little nasty for The Little Mermaid. It’s like the porn version.
Shea: We got these porn titles…
On the Atlantis LP, there are some risqué song titles: “Sluts on the Planet,” “Squeeze My Nuts” and “Naughty Tonite.” Is the character Franklin horny?
Kulik: He’s a pubescent adolescent, discovering his own sexual desires in Atlantis. One part of the story perhaps not explained adequately [in the work itself] is there’s a sex ritual happening in Atlantis. One of the things in this story is that it’s a more sexually free culture than we have here. Franklin is not allowed to participate in the sex ritual because he’s a human being from Terra. He sorta then throws down and says he wants to be naughty tonight and engage in the ritual. And that’s his way of proving to all the fish people in Atlantis that he’s on their side and there to use his magic pillow to preserve their way of life, which happens to include having lots of sex.
Mottel: …and hanging out in jazz bars.
What will the stage set-up be for the production?
Kulik: There’s a proscenium we are constructing that has various nautical things attached to it and there’s going to be a little oil spill area. We gotta do it really bare bones because this whole process has been stupidly only the three of us: no recording engineers, no director, no anything. But we have this really cool space in this bank vault and use it effectively. We’re not anticipating just a sit-down audience watching this happen. There’s going to be a lot of craziness happening around the audience. We’ll be moving around, playing our instruments on some of the songs and on others we’ll bring in a backing track from the recording and do more theatrics, act, do dialogues and monologues away from our instruments.
Do all of you have acting experience?
Mottel: Kevin and I have been performing theatrically with Karole Armitage and in the last few years we’ve been in a piece where we’re musicians and playing our instruments, but it’s really about looking cool in tuxedos on stage. It’s about having a vibe. I acted in second and third grade. I auditioned for Les Miserables in second grade [laughing].
Was there any dispute who was playing which character in Atlantis?
Shea: We came up with these characters joking around and we started voicing them, thinking maybe that is this person and that. I play Franklin, Matt plays Stinge, the revolutionary musician-fish who’s his guide and Sam is jazz ghost-junkie, Barley Farker, who helps him in his quest to save Atlantis.
Are their plans to have established actors in an Atlantis staging?
Mottel: I’ve had visions of James Gandolfini as Stinge and Macaulay Culkin playing Franklin. I even read Gandolfini is looking for a good comedy but no one has asked him. Last year, we played with Deerhoof at (Le) Poisson Rouge. It was after the show, about two a.m. I was wearing white sunglasses when I saw this other guy wearing white sunglasses. We looked at each other [motioning a thumbs-up] and he turned out be Culkin! He wasn’t there for the gig, but the post-show hang. He told me to call him “The Culk!” I told the The Culk about Atlantis and he thought it was funny. Michael Jackson didn’t come up in the conversation but he definitely had a Michael style thing going on with his white jacket, which had an unusual amount of chains hanging. But The Culk was cool.
Boogie in the Breeze Blocks came out on ESP-Disk but you are no longer with them. Who will release Atlantis?
Mottel: We are looking for someone to put it out. To me, it’s a pretty simple record to sell and I think some people in the record business have lack of vision right now. We’ve gotten feedback from labels like, “We think this is hilarious and it’s great but we have no idea how to market this.” That’s very much a conservative comment. We got an awesome cover with mermaids. There are things that make this record pretty positive. If anyone is interested in the Beatles, Beach Boys, Pink Floyd, Flaming Lips, Zappa, Beefheart and Sun Ra, the audience is quite here for this record. We have enough of a track record of making and selling records where it should be easy enough to find a new label for this. At this point, we’re going to try to do a digital download iTunes release right off the bat. That’s the funny thing now with records, bands decide to release the record immediately. Eventually what I’d like to is start a Talibam! record label that has distribution through another source then we can release everything ourselves.
What are the other records are you working on?
Mottel: Puff Up The Volume is our hip-hop album. We have a bunch of records including a dub album. Everything is in production and we’ve finally giving ourselves deadlines. Puff came about because we had a four-day session in Paris at the end of tour, but a gong fell on Kevin’s toe and crushed it. He did the rest of the tour playing the bass drum with his left foot but we wanted to keep the session. Kevin couldn’t play the more intricate stuff so it was all beats. So gong accident leads to hip-hop.
What about the dub album? Any other projects?
Mottel: We did the dub record with Jeremy Wilms, from the Fela band on Broadway and is in Def Jux alum Chin Chin. There’s also a techno record, two live albums, a blues record, we have the The Hard Vibe Trio with Jon Iragabon and then there’s Double Trouble or Triple Trouble, which will be Talibam! recording then playing our current 35-song set live with two or three drummers and key players where we simultaneously play our tunes precisely. We also have to work on music for Karole Armitage for the dance company. We’re performing with her in April at the Joyce Theater where we are playing Rhys Chatham’s music with Steve Gunn and Sara Lipstate. The techno record happened when we were sitting in Italy watching MTV Italy. So we made a techno record of our live set. It’s pumpin.’ We just want to play in every situation imaginable. Put us on when the Nets open their stadium in Brooklyn.
Do you think you get boxed as avant-jazz because you are in Mostly Other People Do The Killing and other jazz projects?
Shea: It’s confusing if a band changes genres and people get confused and don’t know how to interpret it. We’re a small band, we don’t have any management or anything. The reviews that have been most seen have been the records they call free jazz but we’ve done tons of stuff since then with rock beats. People just don’t listen to it. As soon as you step outside the basic agenda everyone has, then people will push you aside and won’t accept you. But I also play in a country band called Great Lakes and a Norwegian pop band. I have a website with all these things on it. People don’t care to do their research and aren’t interested in looking at the details–
Mottel: Or they don’t package it into what it is. Instead, they think it’s some ironic, tongue-in-cheek thing. People want bands to stay with archetypes. I just saw Godspeed You! Black Emperor and they sounded exactly the same as ten years ago. If you want to hear what Talibam! sounded like in 2005 now, I supposed we can play that set. I’m really happy playing new music right now and with Atlantis and by playing with Sam, who’s a great collaborator for us and he enriches the songwriting ability Kevin and I have and he brings an extra edge.
The comedy aside, Atlantis sends a heavy political message.
Mottel: The album continues to be affirmed–the corporate political state is destroying the world. Corporate political disasters are the end of the world, however long that arc is. The oil spill happened, and then we were in Budapest when the toxic aluminum plant exploded with toxic sludge eighty miles away and no one seemed to care. It was a bad scene.
Shea: Everything was red.
Mottel: In Stuttgart, Germany, they wanted to rebuild the train station there because it would save the trains four minutes of time to go through the stations in and out. But to do that, they’d have to cut down trees in a park that had three hundred of the oldest trees in Stuttgart. We showed up for a gig there on the day of a protest where 10,000 people came and the police reacted with riot gear and water tents [laughs]!
The name Talibam!, taken from a classic New York Post headline at the height of going into Afghanistan, still is apropos.
Mottel: Our band name is still as relevant as it’s been since it started. We expected Talibam! would eventually be thought of only as two guys playing weird music. It continues to be a world global problem and there’s hasn’t been yet solutions offered in a political sense. So, we are trying at least to make a cultural commentary that goes beyond The Daily Show kind of humor.
Do you think Talibam! and its aesthetic can exist only here in New York?
Shea: I think in Europe there are more options, at least in terms of getting grants for doing weird things. There’s definitely support for that.
Shea: Being an independent band in Europe is a lot easier than being one and touring in America. We feel like men in Europe rather than being like homeless people here.
Any plans for Talibam! music to be featured in a television commercial?
Mottel: Rhys Chatham had music in a Super Bowl commercial! It was for Chrysler or some car company. It’s shocking to me that eight years of our band and no one has wanted to make money off of us. We have so much output, it’s easy, and fast, and we’re easy to work with. We’re not drug addicts and cancelling shows. We show up and we tour. It’s weird people sign bands that don’t tour. I book almost everything in Europe except we have regional guys in Germany and Italy. We just finished our 16th or 15th European tour since 2006. Talibam! as a duo has been a steady, constant thing and we would play 10 or 15 shows a month and each show is wild and different. We’re really in this strange border between being a serious band but we are funny. Maybe it will take doing more things like Atlantis and getting these releases further out there to get us into that world. My dad calls it “rock-a-tainment.”
Talibam! and Sam Kulik premiere On Going To Bed And Discovering Atlantis April 1-3, 2011 at Swing Space (14 Wall Street (directly across from The New York Stock Exchange). Showtimes are Friday, April 1st at 8pm. Saturday, April 2nd: 9pm. Sunday April 3rd at 7pm. Admission is free.