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March 6, 1997 * Vol. 7, No. 9

Joyful Noise

Dynamic trio String Joy concoct a combustible mixture of pomo noise

by Mike Gibson

Standing in separate rooms of Matt Lincoln's Underground home studio, String Joy singers Jhona Houser (bass) and Bryan Hopkins (guitar) can't see each other, but they can both hear the coarse layers of post-industrial string noise pulsing through the speakers of their thick black headphones.

Undercut by driving bass and drums, the guitar sounds buzzing in their ears could have been lifted wholesale from Modern English or Tones on Tail or any number of other aloof '80s haircut bands. But when Houser and Hopkins start laying warm vocal brushstrokes across their chilly sonic canvas, the track undergoes a radical shift in both color and context; it's still grounded in steely no-wave textures, but it's bereft of the mechanized affectectations that characterized the post-punk era. Hopkins' edgy wail is offset fetchingly by Houser's sweeter, more practiced croon as the two voices wrap around one another in a commingling that's at once anguished and euphoric, as startling as it is stirring.

The jarringly disparate elements of that song ("Down," from a forthcoming demo) speak volumes about the sound and substance of String Joy—a band with an odd, almost mystifying chemistry, as if its members comprise a whole that doesn't even vaguely resemble the sum of its parts. If some musical partnerships are born out of harmony and common interest, theirs is one of multiplicity and compromise, of managed contentiousness and amicable dissent.

"More than the music, what draws us together is that Bryan and I are both songwriters," says Houser. "There's a chemistry we have on that level that transcends any particular type of music. I'm not always sure how it works, but it does."

String Joy coalesced last year when a mutual friend introduced native Knoxvillian Houser to Hopkins and drummer Steve Capehart, a pair of Memphis expatriates who moved east in part to escape what Hopkins describes as a closed, clique-ish West Tennessee music scene.

"A lot like the one we have here," he adds with a resigned chuckle.

On the surface, String Joy may have seemed an unlikely trio. The daughter of a music teacher, the 28-year-old Houser grew up stealing Beatles records from her big sister's room by day, listening to proto-alternative bands like the Talking Heads and the Soft Boys on local public radio at night.

Her bandmates (both aged 24) fondly remember trekking out to Memphis concert halls to behold the likes of Dokken and Judas Priest before converting, as teenagers, to the gospel of Ian MacKaye. The two friends parted ways, musically speaking, when Hopkins logged a year with a local jazz combo while Cape-hart kept time with Raid, a Memphis vegan hard-core outfit.

"Steve still drums with a hard-core style," says Hopkins. "It's very unique for the kind of music we do, and it's one of our biggest assets."

But the band's real strength (and perhaps the lone point of creative convergence) lies in its members' shared fondness for sonic experimentation, in their yen for pushing the envelope of tone and texture. The songs on String Joy's 1996 self-titled demo shimmer with a broad selection of six-string and vocal effects, often suggesting (if not actually presenting) multiple layers of sound.

"If we had the money, then we'd probably record with a lot of different guitar tracks and weird effects," says Hopkins. "I love effects. People have been hitting the same chords since the '50s, and it's getting old and tired. But if you take the same old chords and add some echo or some other sound on top of it, all of a sudden you've got something else."

As co-songwriters, Hopkins and Houser's vision of String Joy is fiercely personal; they see the trio more as a vehicle of expression than as a rock band in any traditional sense. Houser, a self-described bi-polar, says most of her inner demons eventually manifest themselves in her music. ("I don't usually write when I'm happy.")

And on songs like the deceptively-titled "Pathetic," Hopkins writes about romantic and familial relationships with a naked emotionalism that's affecting, and sometimes stark, without being maudlin or cliche.

"We're not a kick-back, drink a beer, hee-haw party band," says Hopkins. "Our music is for the three of us. It's not for anyone else's good time."

"We do want to connect with other people," clarifies Houser. "But we want to relate on some kind of real emotional turf."

Which, by and large, they do—on songs like "Down," which has as its centerpiece a duet that's as striking as any you're liable to hear from a local band this year. Houser and Hopkins wreak havoc with time and tempo as they goad each other on to dizzying vocal heights, alternately pushing and pulling the beat. And just when the instruments slow down and almost find sync, the two drop the pace one more notch, and time almost stops as their voices cry out taut and tremulous, as if communing on some higher sonic plane.

The effect is disconcerting, almost dissonant, and yet thoroughly captivating. It's called String Joy, and somehow, despite the apparent contradictions, it works.

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