Eclectic and adventurous musical collective melds digeridoos and death metal to create a sound for new age Nintendo freaks
By David Espinoza – Metroactive.com (8 March, 2000)
IN BEING John Malkovich, the famous actor’s soul gets routinely occupied by average schmoes who pay $200 a pop for the thrill of experiencing Malkovich’s daily business. That is, until Craig Schwartz (John Cusak) learns how to manipulate the actor’s body, installing his own consciousness in Malkovich’s body and touching off the larger conspiracy of a group of “elderlies” who want to do the same thing. Given time, the net effect is hundreds of thousands of souls compiled into a single being.
Suppose this were possible in real life–but according to a slightly simpler scenario. Imagine hundreds of years’ worth of composers, rock stars and the occasional avant-garde performance artist all residing inside the heads of a group of musicians. A band of players who all have multiple personality disorder? Not really. It’s just Santa Cruz’s Estradasphere.
More than a litany of influences, Estradasphere represents the end result of Western music. (To be fair, the band members are skilled at Tibetan chanting, too.) Listening to the group’s mostly instrumental “songs,” which run from two minutes to 20, is like taking a ride on a malfunctioning time-and-space machine where all the stops are random and completely bizarre. The band trips through enough genres to fill an entire musical encyclopedia, from B for Balkan to V for video-game themes.
But this is only a limited, telephoto view of Estradasphere’s performing horizon. This is a band that treks across vast musical landscapes with a colorful entourage as mixed up and mad as the musical minstrels who lead them.
ESTRADASPHERE indeed qualifies as a “band” in the traditional sense–though such a label would be an understatement. It could be easily construed as a New Age circus or a cult masquerading as a theater troupe with an orchestra. Better yet (as the players and performers seem to view it), a daytime soap opera with an uncanny cast of characters come to life.
Estradasphere is a symbiotic creature consisting of A) five guys who create musical tapestries and B) roughly 10 assorted Bohemians who perform to them. The fact that part A doesn’t always play with part B is no reason to dismiss the importance of the latter. The full Estradasphere experience is like the 1980s Japanese anime cartoon Voltron, in which smaller man-operated robots combine to form one awesome creature. In other words, the musical side of Estradasphere is superb by itself, but when combined with its second half, it’s divine.
“The story begins with the idea to make money playing weddings,” guitarist/banjo-man Jason Schimmel jokes. Crowded into the recording studio that doubles as bassist Tim Smolens’ room, the five musicians of Estradasphere are decked out in outfits that most folks would recognize as the extreme side of a Gap commercial: tight white T-shirts, bright yellow and orange vests, corduroy overalls, baggy pants–no doubt the result of Backstreet Boys fascism.
Seated next to the band are a few of Estradasphere’s circus performers, including Atrocity the Death Metal Cheerleader and their yoga teacher/spiritual advisor Greg Enyart. Wandering in and out of the room is their “inspiration for life” and housemate Mono Man–a superhero you don’t want to kiss (on stage he wears a cape and a big M on his chest). What kind of wedding would this be, anyway?
The Estradasphere story really begins with a New Age healer who invited the band to play at a Ben Lomond seminar. No joke. Initially wanting to be known as “Estrada,” after the muy guapo actor, the band added the “sphere” after the seminar, where band members played digeridoos aimed at the hearts of seminar-goers seeking spiritual healing.
Payment for the gig was a set of books on spirituality, relationships and creativity–some of which have been read at subsequent gigs. For saxophonist and master of death-metal growling John Whooley, the name Estradasphere defines their unholy concoction of New Age philosophy and pop culture.
“It’s a sphere of energy that is traveling through time … creating an alternate reality for people to enjoy or be confused by,” he muses. “We provide an environment where rational thought doesn’t apply. We’re about the completely serious and the completely joking at the same time.”
All graduates of UC-Santa Cruz’s music program (with the exception of Schimmel, who finishes this spring), Smolens (bass), David Murray (drums and “Jaminator,” a toy music-maker), Timb Harris (violin, trumpet and guitar) and Whooley (sax and penny whistle) play music from conflicting spectra. On one hand, the quintet is the epitome of professionally trained musicians, able to read and compose, versed in jazz, classical and even opera. Band members give private music lessons, and the band often plays suit-and-tie “casual” events like receptions.
On the other hand, Estradasphere can’t help being a bunch of guys raised on Nintendo and Guns N’ Roses. Take Smolens, who has an autographed picture of Motley Crüe on his wall and who as a teenager once jammed with Slash of Guns N’ Roses and C.C. Deville of Poison. Or Schimmel, who proudly displays a black high school sweatshirt that reads “Death Metal Club 1993-94.”
With a hint of irony, the five Estradaspheres cite glam-metal bands of the ’80s like Winger and Def Leppard as common influences. They’re influences that probably have as much to do with the band’s appreciation of melodramatic entertainment (they’re all avid fans of Days of Our Lives) as with any fondness for the music. Says Murray, “Metal drumming and Sega was my life until I was about 18.”
Metal is only one thread in Estradasphere’s patchwork of musical textures. In a single song, it’s not uncommon for the band to bounce from jazz-fusion Gypsy stylings to swing patterns with bone-crushing thrash-guitar riffage, and then back again. They especially enjoy revisiting the staples of ’80s middle-class boyhood by reworking theme songs like “The Legend of Zelda” and “Super Mario Brothers” into epic compositions. All in all, it’s a complex fabric of sounds that defies a single categorization and can often be overwhelming.
“I got really turned on to this … because this was an opportunity to be part of a larger whole,” says yoga teacher/
spiritual advisor Enyart. The second Bohemian to join the band (after the guy in the gorilla suit), the middle-aged Enyart met the band while driving his nephew and Murray to Los Angeles during UCSC’s winter break.
When the band performs, Enyart shares the stage with other noninstrument-oriented folks like George on Book, who reads Russian literature onstage, and balloon artist/juggler extraordinaire David Poznanter. According to Enyart, being a nonpaid member of Estradasphere still has benefits.
“It is an opportunity to be involved in music without being a musician,” he says, “without having to learn notes.”
The first time I saw Estradasphere was over a year ago at a Catalyst local-band showcase. With the rest of the guys dressed up in three-piece suits (not counting Enyart, George on Book and the guy in the gorilla suit), the towering, red-headed Whooley came on stage in a ghostly white cloak and white Egyptian mask. He then brought out a bag of organic groceries and proceeded to make a salad all the while singing in an apocalyptic sputter, “You take the lettuce and you put it in the bowl.”
“I think the reason why we have such a loud circus,” Schimmel says, “is because the music can be so unaccessible that you need to have other things to piece it all together.”
AS IMPRESSIVE AS the compositions are, Estradasphere has crafted a style so far outside the realm of everyday music that it runs dangerously close to being alienating. Then again, the band probably likes it that way.
“Why play in four-four when everybody else does?” asks Atrocity the Death Metal Cheerleader.
“We do it because we care,” Harris adds.
For the past six months now, Estradasphere has prepared to unleash the greatest monstrosity yet, a full-length album, It’s Understood.
Set to culminate with an all-out interactive show at Palookaville on Thursday (March 9), Estradasphere, for the first time since a trek to the Burning Man Festival, takes the show out on the road with Mr. Bungle, guitarist Trey Spruance’s solo band. Without a doubt, the live show is Estradasphere’s finest asset in winning over legions of fans–and maybe even new circus members.
“We just want to expand the circus,” Whooley says. “We like everyone who comes to our show to be a part of it, to come dressed up with some crazy idea.”
Like a daytime soap, the Estradasphere story is only likely to get more complicated, stranger and bigger. Just as life can be the ultimate adventure, the five musicians, the juggler, the yoga teacher/spiritual advisor, the reader, the Death Metal Cheerleaders–and yes, even Mono Man–are taking music, dance and art to a whole other level.
In many ways, the band symbolizes how, at the close of the 20th century, practically every form of art seems exhausted–and how there are always more ways to reinvent movements.
Estradasphere plays Palookaville, 1133 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz, Thursday (Mar. 9) with Ideal Social Situation. 9pm. $5 adv/$6 dr. (454.0600)