Chapter 15: San Francisco (Tarentel)
It’s been days since I last heard from Jefre Cantu. After keeping in regular contact over a span of two months, here I was on perhaps my final morning in San Francisco and I still hadn’t received any word from him regarding a potential interview. I was beginning to prepare myself for the harsh reality of the situation—that I might be missing yet another interview due to communication flaws or unusual circumstances arising—but as I returned from breakfast, there was a note telling me to walk down to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and meet Jefre in the reception area. I had thirty minutes to walk from the Nob Hill, “Tenderloin” area down to Third Street.
I arrived five minutes late and rang the buzzer to the meeting area—steaming about my unpunctuality. I introduced myself to a middle-aged female receptionist who told me to have a seat and Jefre would be down shortly.
He popped out of a door in a kind of psychedelic-looking purple t-shirt and jeans, a smile plastered on his face.
“Evan, right?” he asks.
“Oh, shit—I have some things for you. Hang on I’ll—” The door behind him closes and he has to be let back in by a security guard. He knocks impatiently and when the door finally unlocks he turns back to me and says, “I’ll be right back.”
When he returns his arms are full of records and compact discs.
“I’ll explain it all later,” he says, handing me the bundle.
“Oh, wow, this is awesome! Thank you so much.”
“That’s all new stuff and projects, it’s pretty wild. We handmade everything, too.”
“It looks incredible.”
“Thank you. So, I was thinking we’d walk down to this place a few blocks away where I usually meet Jim [Redd] for lunch. Is that okay?”
“Oh, excellent. I’ve been e-mailing him, but I had no idea what his schedule was like or if he’d be able to join us. This is great.”
We walk out the door and we start talking about my trip and what I’ve done since arriving in San Francisco. I ask what Tarentel has been up to, and he mentions that on Saturdays the band usually practices for a while and then has a big group dinner. He asks if I want to attend tomorrow. I’m supposed to be leaving town, but the invitation is hard to pass up.
“I might be leaving town,” I say, “but I’ll ask the girls I’m staying with if I can impede on their lives for just one more night.”
“Just send an e-mail, either way, we’ll figure something out. You could always crash if you need to.”
“I truly appreciate that. I’ll get back to you after I’ve spoken to them.”
I look up and I’m staring at a large glass building. It looks like a Galleria. We step inside and search for a table among the throngs of businessmen and women. We find a table near a support beam and take a seat. We chat for maybe twenty minutes about the other band’s I’ve spoken to. Jefre had a lot of questions about the passing of Michael Dahlquist. He asks what it was like talking to Jeff Mueller, offers to get me in touch with the folks at Constellation and Alien-8 if I want to write a section on the music of Montreal, spoke highly of Andrew Kenny—who Jefre says will “blow [you] away,” because he’s, “sharp and smart.” Briefly, Jefre mentions how Jim played drums in Jeremy deVine’s band Sonna, but after the two of them met, Jim left Baltimore with his girlfriend and moved to San Francisco to join Tarentel.
Jim arrives—a huge grin spread across his face—and his down-to-earth personality is immediately noticeable. As we introduce ourselves, Jefre leaves to grab a cup of tea. Jim mentions that he works as a web designer for GameSpot, so I take the opportunity to tell him about my perilous history as a programmer and computer science major for one year of college. We talk shop for a few minutes until Jefre returns with a piping hot Styrofoam cup.
“Are you sure you don’t want one? You don’t know what you’re missing, Evan, this tea tastes like butter. It’s so good.” I assure him, and produce a bottle of water from my backpack, before asking the men if it’s okay to record our conversation.
“A common theme that’s been debated in different cities,” I begin, “is the notion that cities can be defined—culturally or musically—by the art that is created there. Do you think here in San Francisco there is a common aesthetic amongst bands in the area and the way that they approach music?”
“I think that the media would like to think there is,” says Jefre, “and that every once and a while, The Guardian or The Weekly will come out with this thing of, like, ‘The New Bay Area Sound,’ and it’s six or seven bands that maybe kind of sound similar, but, generally speaking, no. I think for the most part—at least the shows we play—there are maybe, uh, similar interests? But people don’t sound the same. It’s like I was telling you earlier. Yellow Swans—we played a couple shows with them. They don’t sound anything like Tarentel, but we can play shows together and the audience, generally, will be into it. I suppose it’s kind of a similar aesthetic. I do think there tends to be a lot of rock bands here—a lot of big guitar-chord rock bands, and pop bands, and stuff like that. There’s a huge, long history of pop music history here in San Francisco.”
“Would you say more so than the more experimental acts?” I inquire.
“No,” Jim shakes his head. “I think that there are, like, a crazy amount of experimental acts in the Bay Area that are constantly changing and evolving. This is a really transitory place. That’s the other thing—you don’t get a lot of people who have been here for twenty years in the ‘scene’ or whatever—like you would in New York or maybe even Los Angeles. People come here for, like, five years. Devendra [Banhart] lived here for a long time, and then all of a sudden the media picked up on the Bay Area and it became the center of the ‘free folk’ movement. It’s like, Joanna Newsome doesn’t even live in the Bay Area! What are you talking about? So, I think that’s just the media. People try to look at a place and pick out a zeitgeist and say, ‘Oh, this is happening there!’ It’s a lot more hype than [what] it really comes down to. It doesn’t leave a lot of room for weird tangents. It just kind of puts everybody into this one group or heading when in actuality there are all these other weird tangents that go off, you know?”
“Oh, absolutely,” I agree. “As an artistic community in general, do you think the city’s history—political and cultural—has been more conducive to just that kind of…the forward thinking, progressive attitudes?”
“Yeah,” Jefre nods, “I mean, if you look at any kind of history of San Francisco it’s all about—its sort of outsider history since day one, you know? Whether it’s working with the ‘49ers and all the people that just tried to make their own life out here and leave the East…If you read any kind of crazy history about San Francisco, it sounds fucking insane—the things that would go on here like one-hundred or two-hundred years ago. I think it just stuck. Then once the ‘60s happened, that’s when it became, ‘Oh, shit, the Bay Area. San Francisco.’ So, that spirit and that history still reside here, too.”
“Are those bands that you play with, like you mentioned Yellow Swans, are you close with them outside of a professional capacity? And would you classify the artistic community as a whole as close-knit?” I change the subject slightly.
“I go to work and go home,” Jim says, chuckling. He puts his sandwich down and takes a sip of water before continuing, “That’s about it. But, I kind of like Jefre…” he jokes. “I don’t know, what do you think?” He asks Jefre. “You’ve been here longer than I have.”
“Yeah,” Jefre says, “I think there’s a good amount of people that seem to know each other. It’s pretty small—it’s a small community of people. I wouldn’t say close-knit, exactly. There really is not a lot of activism—there aren’t a lot of people who put together things in the hopes that something will happen, you know? Like festivals, or people who try to organize shows. Yeah, you have it in really small clusters—but there isn’t any big central place.”
“Was there ever?” I ask.
“Well, there used to be. There was this place—the Adobe Bookstore, which is, actually, still pretty popular. It’s in The Mission—which kind of became like an epicenter for…mainly art, but then also music and stuff. It still does art, but again, I don’t think it’s as big or important as it seems from the outside.”
“Do the different facets of art intertwine a lot?” I ask.
“Yeah, I think so,” Jefre says. “I’ve composed music for dance pieces a couple of times. I know people that are musicians and are also involved in the visual arts. I think there’s a lot of that intermingling or dabbling in different areas of art.”
“Plus,” adds Jim, “we also have a guy who does film projections with Tarentel, so we end up playing lots of openings and like, you know, more artsy types of events.”
“Oh, right,” Jefre agrees. “Yeah. Have you ever seen us live before?”
“No! You guys haven’t come out east in ages.”
“Yeah,” Jefre sighs. “We…well, we’ve only used film projectors for the past two years now. He is a friend of mine that works with me at the Museum of Modern Art, and he shows these great filmstrips, you know? So the last time Jim and I—I gave you that CD-R which is the two of us—we played this artist’s gallery that does mainly video and film clips. That was one of our last shows—a couple weeks ago. So there’s definitely—it’s not like, ‘Okay. This is just a film space, or this is a drawing space, or this is just for music.’ We get into all those different places.”
“Yeah,” Jim continues, “and a lot of the hipster galleries always have live music openings. That’s always, like, young bands with some random corollary story…”
Jefre laughs, “Yeah. It’s always like…like, Deerhoof would play at an opening or something, you know? That happened last month at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, which is across the street from the MoMA.”
“Has it ever been difficult getting shows in the area? Or is it just…I mean—the city seems like there’s so many different types of places to play.”
“Some people complain that they can’t get shows and I just think it’s just because they’re bad,” Jefre says, smiling. “I think if you’re decent at all, you can easily get a show. I mean—Jim just put together a show that was basically no one anyone had ever heard of. He played at a bar and it was great. Something like fifty people came out, you know? Obviously it was promoted as, ‘Members of Tarentel,’ and there was probably some help from that. I think it’s definitely possible—you just have to be a go-getter.”
“You just have to con ten or twenty of your friends,” Jim says, “and they have to con twenty of their friends to go somewhere for a night. If you do that, you can pretty much book a show anywhere.”
“Most people I think just can’t take the initial rejection,” Jefre supposes. “Like, when you play live—even when we play live—we still clear out entire fucking halls of people. People just walk out—and it’s like, you can’t just let that get you down. My thing is—you have to be tenacious. Do what you do; just be totally into what you’re doing. Eventually, you know, the wheel is turning…and at some point people are going to pay attention. But even if they don’t, it’s your thing…so…that doesn’t really answer your question…at all.” The table erupts in laughter.
“We started getting shows just through friends,” Jefre picks up where he left off. “In the beginning—when Tarentel was more rock-oriented and we kind of played songs—we would have good shows at clubs and three or four hundred people would show up and watch. It would be different from now, when [it’s] like…”
“Where now it’s totally hit or miss,” Jim finishes.
“Yeah, and we terrify people generally, so…” Jefre laughs. “Our name has been around for a pretty long time—that’s the other thing. ‘Scenes’ really evolve around new stuff constantly happening and changing. People see our name and they think, ‘Eh, whatever.’”
“Yeah,” I concede, “but you’ve been very progressive. You would think that you could eschew that—the fact that people would consider it old hat or something.”
“You would think that,” Jefre agrees. “I think that the general M.O. of humans is that once things start changing it gets really uncomfortable. I mean, I’ve been told a number of times, ‘Oh yeah. My boyfriend loves your band but he doesn’t want to see you anymore because he says that, like, you guys change all the time, and he doesn’t know what to expect, and he doesn’t want to spend his money.’ And I’m like…” He reaches for his tea and trails off.
“That’s the beautiful thing about music, though!” I state.
“But I mean,” he begins, placing down his cup, “generally, the thing of it is, when you go and see a band like the American Analog Set—you know what you’re getting into. If you go and see a Stereolab concert—you know what you’re getting into. You go see us perform and it’s like, well, we could just play all cymbals for the whole night. We just don’t…it depends on what we’re doing at the time, I guess.”
“So, what’s the reaction like outside of San Francisco when you guys move around?”
Jefre begins to laugh loudly when I ask this. He sighs and looks across the table at Jim. The two of them begin laughing.
Jim is first to speak up, saying, “For the last two years, we’ve had really good Los Angeles shows—which is incredible, because, before that I’d never played a good show there no matter what band I was in. Um, so…people like us in L.A. obviously.” He begins laughing again. “Uh…the response in…Switzerland is pretty good.” He then hangs his head in an attempt to shield his laughter.
“Europe tends to be better,” Jefre says. “I love playing in Europe. If we never toured the U.S. again, I would be okay.”
Jim, who has just barely regained composure, begins laughing again. It’s infectious—I start laughing too.
“If we just toured Europe, you know?” Jefre attempts to complete his thought.
“Well, they’re just more open-minded in general, I think.” I say, hoping he’ll agree with the statement.
“Oh, sure, definitely,” he says, nodding. “They will come to your show and say things like, ‘Oh my God. I had no idea you guys are doing this now, but I’m into it.’ You know? Or, they’ll tell you that they’re not, and they’ll, like, want to talk to you about it. They’ll sit you down and say, ‘So, what are you doing? I don’t get it.’ You don’t really get that in America, at all. They’re way more serious. It is art to them. You’re not just in a band—it’s like you’re a fucking artist and this is your life, and they take it so much more seriously than American audiences do. Not totally serious, they can still laugh and joke about it. It has a presence. Japan was…”
“Japan was even more so,” Jim adds, “and also really amazing. It’s funny—people have this weird concept of what Japan is, you know? It’s like, this totally magical, mystical place or whatever…and there’s definitely some of that, I mean, it’s totally foreign.”
“Like samurai sword fighting in the middle of the streets? Godzilla and Mothra running amok?” I joke.
“It was pretty amazing,” Jim says laughing. “I had a blast.”
“Certainly. We all did,” Jefre adds. “It was great.”
“But, Japan is not really a big country,” Jim continues. “So we only played four shows, or whatever. At some of them we drew a couple hundred people—and at a couple, like, fifty people. It’s the same deal as Europe in the sense that everyone is just so interested and curious—or ready to go out and see something they’ve never seen before. There’s just a different attitude about it.”
“When was the last time you guys made it to the East Coast, by the way?” I ask.
“I think it was in 2000. Five years ago?”
“Oh, wow,” I say, taken aback.
“Really?” Jim asks Jefre, shocked by the time lapse.
“Yeah, since then it’s just been Europe and the West Coast,” Jefre asserts.
“Do you think that the West Coast, and locals here hold the unique art that comes out of the Bay Area in high regard?”
“It’s hard to say there’s a lot of ‘pride’ because I think that no one feels at home here. It’s such a transitory place. People don’t—I swear to God—I don’t know anyone from San Francisco.”
“Originally,” I add.
“Yeah,” he says. “Not one. None of my friends are from San Francisco. So, a lot of people are like, ‘Yeah, I’ve been here for five years,’ or whatever. I can’t tell you how many people within the last month have told me they’re moving to New York. I’m not even exaggerating—at least five or six of my friends said they’re going to New York. It’s like—there’s no chance for pride in that, really. This is sort of just a place where, you know…I feel like I’m from San Francisco. I feel like I’m a Californian now—I’ve been here for ten years. But I don’t really have Bay Area pride.” He stops to take a sip from his tea and reflect on that last thought. “Maybe I do,” he says, correcting himself. “Things are changing, lately. The music scene—I think—has become the best since I’ve been here. There’s some really cool shit happening.”
“But the people here at least respect what all the great artists are doing, right? Whether you’re an area rock band, or an experimental band—right?” I ask, slightly perturbed by his suggestion.
“Maybe,” he concedes. “I think people love that they’re Californians, you know?” He starts to laugh. “It’s such a weird state—it’s like we’re almost another country all together, culturally. I think that it’s just too hard to quantify really—some kind of general feeling that people have about us, or the culture in general.”
“Do you see yourselves as remaining here for a while, since, as you say, it’s such a transitory place?” I ask.
“I want to stay here for a while,” Jefre admits. “I could see [myself] living somewhere else, but I don’t have any plans. I’m pretty comfortable right now—which might be a bad thing—but hopefully it will be productive. You could be too comfortable and lull yourself into a routine, or you could become comfortable and just lose track of time. For me, personally, it’s rare that I have a job and I have a steady place to live, so I’ve been trying to fill it up with putting out records and making music as much as possible.”
“How’d you get involved in putting out other people’s records?” I ask.
“Well, I haven’t really put out anybody else’s records so far,” he laughs knowingly. “It’s all been projects that I’ve been involved in.” He’s still laughing.
“But don’t worry,” Jim assures me. “It’s coming…”
“In some circles that’s probably blasphemous,” Jefre says, smirking.
“No…that’s how you start,” Jim tells Jefre.
“That is how you start,” Jefre says.
“That’s how everybody starts,” Jim answers.
“I mean, nobody is going to put out me and Jim’s record seriously,” Jefre says, starting to chuckle. “Like—nobody wants to put it out,” he continues, his laugh turns into a roar that infects Jim, who sits with his head down giggling. “So, you just decide that, ‘I want to do things and I just want to do it my way.’ Not in a selfish way, in just, ‘I have a general idea and I don’t want to have to sit down with more than three or four or five people to decide what to do.’ Democracy is great—but it just takes a lot of time. You start just doing stuff on your own because you can—and because you need to.”
“Because it’s so easy,” Jim states.
“It’s so easy, too,” Jefre agrees. “It’s also, like—for me—about trying to become less serious about music-making and more playful about my art, allowing things to be whatever they are going to be at this point in time. And that’s okay—it doesn’t have to be perfect. For me, that’s a big struggle. Just putting out CD-Rs is easy for releasing tension.”
“Are there a lot of places in the area that do a lot of cheap pressing and manufacturing?” I ask.
“Sure, yeah…definitely.” But we did all that stuff,” Jefre says as he points to the cache of albums he handed me earlier. “It’s hand-done. None of it is machine-done. Some of those CD-Rs were probably made on my laptop and some are made by somebody else, because I don’t want to make a hundred copies.”
“And for proper studio albums, you usually get help from Temporary Residence. You met Jeremy [deVine] first in what, ‘99?”
“No,” Jefre says. “It was much earlier than that. It must have been around…”
“’97 or ’98?” Jim asks.
“No, man,” Jefre says again. “Earlier than that, because the first Tarentel EP came out in 1997. So it’s probably like, ’96.”
“It could be ’96, like the end of ’96.”
“Yeah, maybe…” Jefre says. The table falls silent for a few moments.
“…But it had to be shortly after that,” Jim says inquisitively, “because it was within a year that Windsor for the Derby played that show…”
“Okay. Well, whenever Windsor for the Derby played that show,” Jefre says, putting an end to the debate. “Windsor for the Derby played out here and we gave them a live cassette tape of us playing. They were staying at my girlfriend’s house at the time. It’s actually a really long and convoluted story,” He takes a final sip of tea and places the cup down on the glass table. “My girlfriend’s roommate played in The Swans sometimes—well—at that time. So, Windsor was on tour with The Swans—that was their first tour in the U.S. The band stayed at her house—they had this crazy big house, my girlfriend at the time and her roommate. My girlfriend—at the time—ended up giving Windsor—or I gave Windsor, I don’t even remember—a live tape of Tarentel. They also stayed at Jeremy deVine’s house while they were in Baltimore. They gave him our tape and he just cold-called me one day. And that was that! And the rest was kind of like, ‘Okay, let’s just do this.’
“Then you stole his drummer,” I add.
“Yeah,” Jefre says, chuckling.
“What?” Jim looks up from his lunch confusedly.
“…Stole his drummer,” Jefre restates. Jim’s look of confusion is replaced with a grin.
“Jim and I were meant to be together,” Jefre says, altering his voice to find a kind of loving-creepy tone, and the table breaks down in laughter. “We just had to wait until the universe presented the opportunity for things to emerge.”
“What do you see in the immediate future for Tarentel?” I ask.
“I don’t know—Jim can answer that better than I can,” Jefre admits.
“The immediate future is,” he begins, “four twelve-inches—part of a series that will hopefully come out by the end of year, maybe early next year—hopefully as soon as possible. We have everything recorded—we’re just sorting through editing and sequencing the music.”
“It’s a lot of music,” Jefre says.
“It is a lot of music,” Jim agrees.
“Four twelve-inches, with twenty-minute sides. It’s for Music Fellowship, they’re out of, um…” Jefre pauses.
“…Connecticut,” Jim concludes.
“They’re really nice guys. They do Landing—do you know that band?” Jefre asks.
“Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah—I really like their stuff.” I recall.
“Music Fellowship is those guys. It’s their label.”
“And one’s the split that you have, the three-LP thing?” Jim asks Jefre.
“That he’s [Daron Gardner’s] doing?”
“Was that on Music Fellowship?”
“No, that’s on Time Line.”
“But he’s got some thing that he’s doing…” Jim ponders.
“…Triple Square… with um, Double Leopards and Mouthus.” At this point I’m completely lost.
“Yeah, he’s doing good stuff,” Jim says.
“Really good stuff, Jefre adds.
“We’ve both known him for a while just kind of casually,” Jim says, “because—I I don’t know if you guys did” apparently referring to Jefre, “—but we definitely stayed with him when we played in Connecticut.”
“We didn’t play Connecticut,” Jefre counters, “but he came down to the CMJ Marathon when we played there. We met and kept in touch.”
Jim looks over at me and concludes, “So he’s a good guy. He’s going to be doing that. And then we’re working on three different live CDs that all come out on Jefre’s label—one from shows here in San Francisco, one from shows we did in Japan, and one compiled from shows in Italy and Switzerland…all of our big recent trips, basically.”
“The one from here is just about done,” Jefre says.
“Is that one compiled from different shows?” I wonder.
“Well, actually,” he begins, “it’s compiled from two practices and one show. The reason it happened that way was because we had a group of musicians playing with us that don’t normally play with us. There was, like, six of us—or seven of us, so I recorded all the rehearsals, and then I also recorded the show. There are big chunks from each one, all on a CD.
“So this is going to be the beginning of another series that we’re starting, that’s all re-edited live shows,” Jim elaborates. “It’s taking the methodology of this twelve-inch here, and applying it to our live recordings, because it’s very collage-like—but it’s mainly home-recorded stuff.”
“And that’s probably another series beginning!” Jefre announces.
“My god,” I say.
“Yeah, I know,” Jim empathizes, “plus, the live series—plus these four twelve-inches, which are a combination of proper studio stuff mixed with weird live and home-recorded stuff.”
“Yeah, some stuff is on cassette, like this—” Jefre says, tapping on my tape recorder. “It’s all of us playing—and that’s the recording. Some of it is, like, twenty-four track, two-inch tape.”
“Basically,” Jim summarizes, “All that stuff should be out by early next year, but that’s a lot of artwork and a lot of sequencing to deal with. It’s all started—it’s all in the works…we just have to get our shit together and finish it all up.”
“That will be pretty much it,” Jefre says, as my heart rate returns to normal. “I mean—we talked about working on our next record, but that’s just going to be kind of an ongoing thing. We’ve been pretty religiously recording our rehearsals for a while now. We’re actually surprised at how good it sounds. So our next record might have more of that stuff.”
“Improvisational…?” I start to say.
“Oh, yeah, we totally improvise now,” Jefre states.
“It’s all improv now,” Jim says, laughing.
“We don’t write songs anymore,” Jefre admits. “Just the quality of it, you know? I don’t know if it’s that our opinion of how things should sound has lowered, or…”
“I like to think it’s expanded,” Jim says.
“Yeah, to us it sounds good,” Jefre agrees. “Sometimes in rehearsals things happen that we’re not going to ever be able to recapture.”
“Oh, absolutely,” I say, familiar with the phenomenon.
“I’ve just been logging,” Jefre explains. “We use a nice microphone—a nice diaphragm microphone. We put it up in our space and just use that. There are things that happen when we’re together that we’re excited about.”
“It kind of sounds like my typical Friday night back in suburban New Jersey,” I tell him, thinking—for the moment—to life back at home, and countless lo-fidelity recording sessions.
“Exactly,” Jefre answers. “Only this is Saturday morning in San Francisco.”
“How often do you get everyone together?” I wonder.
“Once a week. We’re all pretty busy with jobs and other bands.”
“What does everyone do, by the way?” I ask, looking at Jim.
“Jim works right down the street at a computer company and melts his brain all day,” Jefre answers for him. Jim laughs and shakes his head miming disappointment.
“Ah, I see,” I nod. “So you’re the nerd in the group?” He shakes his head a little more furiously.
Jefre continues, “Danny works in an art store and Tony—who’s not officially a member per se, but he plays with us all the time; he just doesn’t make any of the final decisions…but pays space rent. I mean—if he doesn’t want to come to practice, he doesn’t have to without getting the ire of us.”
“He doesn’t get reprimanded,” Jim says.
“He’s much older than us, so he’s sort of the father,” Jefre shrugs.
“He’s not much older than us, that’s ridiculous!” Jim counters.
“He’s in his sixties,” I guess wildly.
“He’s thirty,” Jefre corrects, conscious of his earlier exaggeration.
“He’s a couple years older than us,” Jim finally clarifies.
“Well he seems much older than us!” Jefre attempts to explain. “He’s a Human Resources guy for some company. He’s an outdoorsman. He’s got a beard and goes hiking on trails.” Jim loses it again and pounds the table lightly with his fist. “He wants to take us all camping,” Jefre jokes.
“He’s like an English professor,” I respond. Jim is roaring, his laugh reverberating in this huge glass room.
“Yeah, he’s totally into, like, nature stuff. He’s into swimming.”
“He did the Alcatraz swim,” Jim says, forcing himself to regain his composure.
“He’s a real physical kind-of-guy,” Jefre concludes.
I decide to move the conversation along. “Could you expand on what your practices are like? They seem really fascinating.”
“Well,” Jefre begins, “lately, we try to go in and…well, I should back up. The thing about improvisation is—I think you have to be a really good musician to pull it off and do it well. I don’t mean you have to have good skills—not technical skills, at least. You could have never touched a guitar, and when someone gives you one you can make something interesting and worth listening to—like anything, really, it’s about your mindset and your approach. I could play this thing for you…” he points to the tape recorder and begins tapping on it with his index finger, “…and make something out of it. I don’t know if anyone would want to listen to it, but I could create some wild sounds. Anyway, my point is, for a while our practices for were tending to just meander and go off into space.”
“Also,” Jim adds, “because we’re starting to record everything—and we were just starting to do improvisational practices—we’d basically just hit record and do two hours of improv, and, by the end, be psychically destroyed because it was just like—a religious experience or something.”
“Yeah, it was like, we’d all look up at each other and say, ‘Okay, we can’t practice anymore,’” Jefre says.
“Right,” Jim agrees. “‘Practice is done. Fuck!’”
“Did you find at first that you were self-conscious of pressing record and just going, or were you able to find that zone where—”
“Yeah, yeah,” Jim admits. “After a while it just becomes matter-of-fact, you know? Hard drives are so cheap, microphones can be pretty cheap, and you just set something up and practice like you normally would.”
“Well, also,” Jefre adds, “we’ve never had the intention of those things ever being released—that’s only come about more recently. We still don’t put that into context because, ultimately, it’s not like you’re playing on a radio station, where they’re going to broadcast it—we’ll have the say-so in the end. If somebody says, ‘This is the worst thing we’ve ever done,’ it doesn’t matter, because no one’s going to hear it, anyway. Lately, Jim and I have sort of come up with this projection of how we should try to approach things. Instead of trying to write songs—which we decided we’re not going to do anymore—we’re just going to start with simple ideas. For example, Jim is going to play a beat and we’re all going to do singing or something—only, you know, it’s us—it’s way more fucked-up than average singing. Another idea is that we’re going to run Jim’s drums through all of our guitar pedals and our amps, and that’s going to be one piece. So what we plan to do is, do that for ten minutes, stop, do it again to try and really get inside the idea. It’s just like, simple sketches, not like…”
“It makes the whole jamming thing so much more productive,” Jim declares. “Like, we’re able to reign it in a little more. Instead of doing two hours of free-form, we do, like, ten minutes a few times. I like to think that we’re doing reps now. We’re working out. We do ten reps of distorted drums.”
“It’s hopefully going to try and pull together some kind of ideology of what our band is…” Jefre begins to say.
“That’s where I was going next,” I say.
“Oh,” Jefre begins, “well…”
“We don’t know what that is. We’re having an identity crisis!” Jim jokes.
“Yeah,” Jefre agrees, “we definitely are. We really are. It’s like, what are we going for? What’s the thing that we’re trying to make this sound like?”
“It doesn’t really make sense right now, but once all this shit we’ve just recorded comes out, people will understand what we’re talking about,” Jim promises.
“But we don’t really understand it right now…” Jefre acknowledges.
“Well, that in and of itself is an ideology,” I offer.
“Maybe?” Jefre wonders. “Yeah, maybe that’s going to be it: constant questioning.”
“I think that’s the key,” Jim responds, “because we have parallel lines of interest, and we can’t just do one of them—we have to basically do everything at once, which is complicated and takes forever.”
“Yeah, that’s the thing,” Jefre adds. “We’re all interested in way too much shit and way too many…I mean—we love fucking heavy, big, gnarly beats. We also love microtonal, beautiful, ambient, sonorous shit. You would think, initially, that those two couldn’t co-exist in the same space. I think, partially, we’re trying to find that space where we can indulge all of our ideas like that—and not have to make it like we’re in different bands. Somehow, it will all still be Tarentel.”
“I think on the last full length and the two EPs, you do get a sense of that,” I tell them. “There are parts with just…incredibly immense drumming, and then a moment later, it’s off into an ambient soundscape.”
“Right,” Jefre agrees. “So, I guess it’s an amplified version of that. It’s more gross, and it’s more fat. It’s maybe not as focused as the last recording. I listen to it and I think, ‘Fuck. I can’t believe we were in that space,’ because, since then—in the last year-and-a-half, once we started improvising—it was like Pandora’s box; all bets are off. Things changed so quickly. So, I think now we’re just trying to find a way to indulge all these things and also make it interesting—not like we’re just fucking around or whatever. Bands like Faust or This Heat or, um, I don’t know, even Radiohead to some extent—bands that really stretch that gamut of being able to do beautiful shit that you can play for your mom and also be like, ‘This is a recording that’s on key,’ you know? Or, like, us playing metal outside of our practice space. People are totally complex. So, why can’t a band sound like beautiful acoustic guitars and then full-on fucking noise? I think, like we said earlier, humans love consistency—and once things start to change, they’re scared. It’s been, like, really pushing against the tide. Once all this shit of ours gets out and into people’s hands—stuff that’s really extreme and all over the map, people will think, ‘Oh, I don’t—I shouldn’t expect anything at all.’ That’s what I would hope. That people would think, ‘I shouldn’t expect anything from this band.’ That would be the best.”
Jim nods his head before adding, “I think that for most people, a band is like this idea of, ‘we’ll do this kind of thing…’ and it’s this concept, and it’s like a forced little world.”
“Like, ‘We’re Mogwai, and we love to play five guitar parts and then blow up!’ Jefre brings himself almost to a shout.
“Right,” Jim continues. “For them, it’s a concept, whereas for us it’s more like a…” he pauses. “At the risk of sounding, you know—art is life, working, practice, a method kind-of-thing, where it’s just ‘blah, whatever’,” he says, shaking his hands above his head to imitate a chaotic frenzy. “We don’t know what’s going to happen next.”
“Yeah, like, in five years I couldn’t tell you what it’s going to sound like,” Jefre adds.
“It makes it more interesting to play because you’re not locked into any set ideas. There isn’t something that you can’t do that doesn’t fit,” Jim clarifies.
“In my opinion,” I start to theorize, “I find that to be more genuine than most of what I hear and encounter on a daily basis. So many musicians are locked into an ideology where they’re like, ‘It has to sound like this, and this is our sound,’ whereas someone who is constantly evolving is going to be able to achieve much more in their time, and give much more of themselves to listeners.”
“Yeah,” Jefre says. “I think it can go both ways sometimes, too. Take someone like Devendra—who just sings and plays guitar, I think he could make ten records just like that and it would still be okay. If you were in tune with what an artist was doing, then it would probably sound different as the person grew and changed. Someone might hear the first Devendra album, and the last one, and say they sound exactly the same. It’s identical to people who hear free jazz or whatever…I can now tell who’s who when John Coltrane is versus Albert Ayler. I can be listening and pinpoint it. When I started listening, I couldn’t understand it. Music becomes this really small listening thing. I mean, we all love pop music and listen to straight-ahead pop bands,” he says, pointing to Jim and himself. “I don’t think there’s a set ‘right way’ or ‘wrong way’. I just think it’s, like, what’s your intention, and what works for you, and how you are translating the world the way you see it, into something that other people are picking up on?”
“And do your contemporaries share a similar outlook?” I ask.
“Absolutely. I think when we play with Fly Pan Am—we don’t sound anything like that and I think we have different interests—but I definitely…the last time we played with them, the second night, we were both playing with each other during our sets. It’s just that kind of thing, like, ‘Oh, yeah, you guys should play with us and we should play with you.’”
Jim chuckles and adds, “I think they were a little frightened when we played with them on the first night, because we took something that they had pictured as…I don’t know…kind of a motoric kind of thing—like Neu!—and we somehow turned it into more of like… a party jam? It was utter craziness, and, you know, this whole insane vibe. We somehow turned it into like, ‘Fuck yeah!’” He holds up ‘the horns’ and sticks his tongue out. Across the table, Jefre looks at him and laughs. Jim continues, “Fly Pan Am were tons of fun to play with, and it clicked instantly. We didn’t have to practice or anything. We didn’t even really talk about it.”
“So what kind of treatment did they give your music?” I wonder.
“They just made it even more evil. We played a version of Big Black Square…” Jim begins to say.
“It’s on our website. It’s huge.” Jefre declares.
“The recording doesn’t do it justice, really, but it’s gigantic. I mean—it’s twelve people playing monstrous rock,” Jim says.
Jefre continues by adding,“I think the Yellow Swans—like I said earlier—is a band that sounds nothing like us, but we can have the same conversations about what’s important to us in music. Yeah, there are a couple other bands in the area right now. Generally, most people who are contemporary—doing complex, shit you know—where they’re trying to take their instruments to a different place, or play things that aren’t instruments—that always catches my ear, and I always feel like I relate to that. Something like Thuja—they’re part of the Jeweled Antler Collective, which is a big collective here in the Bay Area with tons of bands. You should check it out, definitely. Thuja is a band that has put out five records now, all recorded with one microphone in the same space where they practice. I think it’s pretty amazing. They just totally fuck the system and do their thing and keep putting things out.”
“[The] Skaters,” Jim adds.
“Yeah, [The] Skaters. They’re touring the East Coast right now…”
“Shit, what time is it?” Jim interrupts. “I need to be back at work.”
“It’s 1:15,” I say.
“Yeah…” he sighs.
“I’m super-late,” Jefre admits. “Do you want to come to the museum?” Jefre asks me. “I can get you in for free…”
The three of us rise from our table, and Jim grabs Jefre’s tea along with his own trash and heads for the nearest bin. We shake hands, and as we walk outside, Jim and I chat briefly again about his job at GameSpot, and the culture of online gaming. Jefre listens patiently as we call ourselves nerds, and when Jim hangs a right at the building’s exit, we turn left and head back to the museum. When we arrive, he grabs me an all-day pass and hints at two exhibits I might find interesting.
“Make sure you don’t miss the Jeremy Blake DVD narrative. There’s also this guy who set up cameras in the rotating restaurants at some of the world’s tallest buildings. He would film them rotating for twenty-four hours, and then he built this really claustrophobic amphitheater space with tiny television screens, and they just all spin around you. It’s pretty intense.”
I thank him profusely for everything. I hold up the bag full of gifts and tell him it’s unnecessary, and he reminds me about stopping by tomorrow. I tell him I’ll let him know as soon as possible. He disappears into a back door, and I look up at the floors of art above me, hoping to lose myself for the remainder of my day.
As it turned out, Tarentel did not get together to practice that weekend, which turned out to be a good thing for me, because I couldn’t procure a place to stay for that night, anyway. While I missed out on a home-cooked meal and sitting in on their practice, the next morning I ate an incredible breakfast at Dottie’s Blue Café (522 Jones Street) and then slipped out of San Francisco just as quietly as I had arrived.
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