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December 7, 1995 * Vol. 5, No. 38

Conjunction Funk-tion

Or breaks the moldy mold of "traditional" improv

by Randall Brown

"OR isn't just a conjunction, at least not in Knoxville, it's a super-psychedelic free-noise nerd-punk make-it-up-as-&c. duo that don't have no 'quirky power pop' songs with a 'melancholy flair' so there. So foreget (sic) the (Super-) Suckers."

This apparent-chip-on-somebody's-shoulder message showed up anonymously on Metro Pulse's fax machine a couple of months back, provoking question marks across the board. Who is this "Or," and just what are they getting at? Are they mad about something? If so, at whom? Most importantly, do we really want to know?

Eventually somebody thought to ask me, since I'm often friendly with the natives. I immediately recognized the fax voice of the inimitable Scott Key, primary Or geek-tarist and Knoxville's (as yet) unsung hero of superpsychedelic free-noise nerd-punk aesthetics. Having conspired, collaborated and canoed with Key many a time over the years, I called him to ask what was up.

"Oh, that?" he said. "It's just a press release."

A press release with such an attitude is a fairly appropriate introduction to Or. They indeed have little patience with quirky power pop melancholia—no paeans to lost love here. Heck, there ain't even lyrics, unless you count Key's occasional scat-like vocal spurts. Key and drummer John Talbird, along with official unofficial third Or Martin Beeler on guitar, clarinet and various electronics, make up one of Knoxville's more progressive musical endeavors. If you're looking for the cutting edge, here's the tip of the blade.

Key sometimes leaves his guitar to its own devices and manipulates a low-tech array of tape loops, Casio keyboard and a nameless piece of equipment that gave sound effects to a children's book in an earlier life. Everything is made up on the spot, but their aggressive and dynamic mix of beat, rhythm, feedback and drone keeps them away from the self-indulgent diddling tangents of more "traditional" improv. In fact, they make a point of improvising in five or six minute pieces, giving an impression of short, pre-set arrangements.

"Well, brevity is the essence of wit," says Key. "To me, the band's about playing the way I used to be afraid to play in front of people—playing the way I played sitting in my bedroom. I'm mostly influenced by groups like Sonic Youth and Chrome."

"And we definitely have the first four Black Sabbath albums internalized," adds Beeler, and he's not really kidding. Key's chunky, booming guitar is a nice mix of modern drone and old-school metal, a far cry from the usual jazz that comes to mind when someone says "improv."

"I find a lot of experimental or improvisational music unappealing," says Talbird. "A lot of it's so rhythmless. We're very groove-oriented, and not just the drums, because Scott's a very rhythmic guitarist. Martin is less rhythmic, more ambient maybe."

"Little sounds and things," is how Beeler describes his input.

Spurning the glamour of the rock club scene, they usually set up their own shows (such as their recent three-hour "come and go as you please" performance) at the Foundry on the Fair Site. They are also at the core of the Nocturnal Eye Company, which promotes other improvisational acts whose sound is more important than their stage image. The "image-over-content" disease is something they see as a hindrance to most bands' actual music, such as groups or artists who equate substance abuse to artistic merit.

"I went to see (electronic noise group) Nocturnal Emissions once," says Key as an example. "I laid down and listened to them, really listened, and the music just zoned me out—in a good way. That's an admirable effect in music and you don't need to be stoned out of your mind to get it."

"I'd just like to put down the half-baked 'skid row' persona altogether," says Beeler.

Key agrees. "It's people who seem to live in this Iron Weed/Bukowski, drunk-poet kind of delusion. It's like 'I know you're drunk, but I've never heard any poetry from you.' So the best I can get out of it is they're alcoholic with poetic aspirations."

Setting aside all pretenses of image, Or's live presentation is focused squarely on the sound they produce. In many ways, it's a reaction to what they see as music-turned-commodity—the "hot band of the week" syndrome. They know their music is pretty far off the beaten commercial path, and they like it that way.

"This may be stretching it, but it becomes sort of an ego destruction in terms of us as performers," says Key. "To me, we don't put on a performance, it's not about that. It's about a sonic experience. I don't want to over-intellectualize it, because it's a very immediate thing."

Beeler sums it all up best with a brief bit of wit. "It's mostly a pretty sexy kind of music."

© Metro Pulse