by Bob Hanshaw
“I want to play with everybody, all the time, as much as I can.” This is John Melillo’s musical credo. And in the three short years he’s been here, he’s done just that. You’ll hardly find a group in Tucson that hasn’t been touched somehow by one of Melillo’s endeavors, whether by sharing a stage or by collaborating on some weird ephemeral project. “We’re really lucky in Tucson in terms of our scene,” he says. “The way I would describe it is you have one awesome neighborhood in New York, extract that, put it in the middle of the desert, and then you have a million other people surrounding it.” Coming from Brooklyn, with all its associated mythology, has not jaded Melillo to the relatively small-town charms of this city. “You know everybody. And that’s what’s cool about Tucson… we may not all be best buds, but you know everybody.”
John Melillo is a natural hub. On arriving in Tucson in the summer of 2011, he immediately began making friends with much of the scene’s creative center – Connor Gallaher, Logan Greene, Ryne Warner, Matt Baquet – and played at all of the iconic venues. Red Room, Skrappy’s, Topaz Tundra (when it hosted frequent shows), Dry River Collective, even at Bröötal Sun Fest: Mellillo played them all, and they all shut down. Or morphed into something very different.
“[Is Tucson] in a state of perpetual change and transience?” he asks, a little rhetorically. He did come to town during some of its most turbulent musical years. But maybe he’s just a little more aware of the inevitability and immanence of change than the rest of us. It certainly comes across in his music.
“LIKE EATING AN ICE CREAM CONE OUTSIDE OF A PUNK ROCK SHOW”
“It’s a studied experiment in erasure, in a way.” Melillo often waxes poetic when describing Algae & Tentacles, his main musical outlet. “It’s like deep-sea ocean rock and roll.” Algae & Tentacles consisted for a long time of Melillo and percussionist Hannah Ensor. Their music runs the gamut from minimalist noise, tape manipulation, and looping, all the way to earnest garage guitar-and-drums pounding in the style of Jay Reatard or Ty Segall.
“There is lots of tentacularity and lots of algaeness. That is to say that there’s an attempt to get a kind of squishy squashy noisy sort of sound, but to have that have some kind of rock and roll hard backbeat to go along with it.” The “algae,” to put a pretty bow on it, is the cloud of noise; the “tentacles” are the things inside it that reach out and grab you.
Every show is different, sometimes radically so, because of the real-time manipulations that Melillo subjects his voice and guitar to – sometimes deliberately overloading the PA so the sound dissolves into a kind of textured distortion. He and Ensor do things like play cymbals with cello bows, or record loops of a toy music box being played forward and backward over and over, or allow FM radio noise to remain when it is accidentally captured by the tangle of cables. Anchoring it all is Melillo’s at times stentorian shout, hurling surprisingly catchy melodies over the mess. It’s something to witness.
And it’s no gimmick. “You can show up and it’ll be like a weird rock and roll show,” Ensor explains, “but you can also know, sort of like you know going to a reading of a contemporary poet, that there’s a lot of workings-of-the-mind that are happening to go into the thing.”
Melillo is a professor at the University of Arizona. He teaches, among other things, a class on “sound and noise and aurality” in the context of contemporary poetry. He knows of what he speaks. “You simultaneously need language and you need words and writing, but you also don’t necessarily need them to be on the surface,” he says. “Then the song is ultimately about a kind of… careful erasure of the language and the thinking that’s gone into it.”
A NOISE HAVEN: TO STRETCH YOUR EARS
“Some musicians have a problem saying ‘noise music,’ because it’s kind of an oxymoron to say it in the first place.” But Melillo has no such compunctions. He is a deliberate organizer and booster of noise music here – and of sonic weirdness of any kind. “I’m really interested in having more of an experimental scene in Tucson.”
He hosts a monthly concert series called “To Stretch Your Ears,” which he explains as being “almost purely about thought, or its opposite.” Which, in this context, makes perfect sense: making sure there’s thought and structure behind the music, and making equally sure to obscure them from the surface.
I asked Melillo to name some of the most interesting figures making “noise” in Tucson. “I’m always worried about these lists, because I’m always like, ‘Who am I forgetting?’” he frets. But the below might still be a decent snapshot.
“Prabjit Virdee has been a stalwart, practically [a] co-organizer of the To Stretch Your Ears stuff. He sort of wildly fits the bill, because every time, [he does] something completely different… one time, he was basically playing with the [equipment] as it was breaking down around him.” At other times, Virdee might use multiple speakers, each playing something slightly different, and control them with minute precision.
Eric Schlappi is another standout: “He, at the most recent To Stretch Your Ears … brought in a coven of witches to do this weird ritualistic circle around him while he played, out of a giant bass amp, some analog synth sounds. Really nuts.” And an artist called Igloo Martian: “He’s done lots of really cool tape experiment stuff… [using] a toy keyboard and other rewired toy instruments.” Glenn Weyant is another sound/noise artist that Melillo praised.
Many of the musicians who participate in To Stretch Your Ears do it as a diversion from other, more mainstream projects. But Melillo speaks of one person who doesn’t separate them so much, rather integrating noise music with the “classic Tucson sound.” That would be Ryne Warner of Ohioan, “who’s really fascinated by drone music and long durations.” Inspired by New York minimalists of the late ’70s and early ’80s like Rhys Chatham, Warner is interested in “finding the inside of sounds. The overtones, the harmonics, but also the rhythmic things that happen when you are just playing the same thing over and over again.” Ohioan’s dreamy, psychedelic Americana incorporates lengthy passages where just this sort of exploration of texture can take place.
Warner also organized Seam Ripper, a drone ensemble: “a pickup group of guitarists, whoever will join up [at] whatever moment. We choose a chord, then we play that chord for half an hour.” It’s an exercise in sonic meditation, in mindfulness – in awareness of the subtle, and maybe nonexistent in any real sense, artifacts that emerge from the stream of repeated sounds. And it’s just as much a celebration of the weird.
POETRY AND MUSIC: THE WORK OF LISTENING IS THE SAME
Hannah Ensor is alive in both the literary and musical worlds, just as much as Melillo is. “The two things are happening so in tandem,” she says enthusiastically, “and the people in the poetry scene are doing stuff with noise and sound, and the people in the music scene are doing stuff with … everything that John just said.” Obscuring the music’s own structure, that is, and playing with meaning in the same way poetry might.
Ensor co-edits an online literary journal called textsound, which is focused on experimental sound poetry – an obvious fit for the longtime other pole of Algae & Tentacles. She has put together the most recent issue, which is Tucson-themed which will go live on August 15th. It too deals in part with structure and the erasure of structure, and how Tucson nurtures that aesthetic. “That’s part of what I was thinking when I started putting it together,” she says. “I can’t actually imagine a place that would be better for both [music and poetry] at once.”
There are other writers doing interesting work in sound. Teré Fowler-Chapman, according to Melillo, is “an amazing spoken word poet in town who also organizes a series called Words on the Avenue and has an album coming out this fall.”
Ensor names Sam Ace, who recently performed with an inter-media, inter-art series called Trickhouse Live. He brought in Algae & Tentacles for the performance, “and basically said, ‘Do some weird stuff while I recite certain poems.’” Rachel Levitsky recited simultaneously: “It was like this whole kind of choral poem effect.” TC Tolbert helped organize that series, along with painter Noah Saterstrom; it is an offshoot of their literary magazine Trickhouse.
Ensor has further praise for Tolbert. “He’s a writer, and has decided that it’s in his purview as a writer to do things with sound recordings behind him and overlapping his own voice. So the reading is much more performance [art]… while also maintaining roots as… ‘this is what writers do.’” But the person who first made her see the connection was Sam Christopher. They met by chance in a coffeeshop during Ensor’s office hours for a poetry course, but “the next thing I knew, we were both drumming at the same place every single day.” Christopher’s band, Aroma, rarely plays these days, but “it’s so good, it’s so exciting to watch… [his] mind generating the same type of content in two different genres.”
Melillo sums it up: “I write a lot on the relationship between poetry and sound, and the work of listening in relationship both to language and to music. And the way that what listening is, is this combination of both projecting our previous understandings and models onto the world, and also receiving new information and data all the time… and filtering that out to make something meaningful… Certainly in music the same kind of work is happening, where the act of listening is the act of filtering out all this noise.”
John Melillo and Ryne Warner were mentioned in the first Tucson Portrait as being involved early on in a record label called Lightning. Melillo explains, “It was started by Seth Olinsky and his partner, Ali Belectic, who actually lived in Tucson [three years ago].” The couple are now based in LA.
Olinsky, who plays guitar in Akron/Family, “was a real lightning rod when he was in town… talk about somebody who knows how to meet everybody. He’s one of the most ambitious people-meeters I’ve ever known!” Melillo originally met Olinsky in the Rhys Chatham 200-Guitar Orchestra in New York. Fast forward to summer 2011 in BICAS, and Melillo spots Olinsky again, recognizing him as the head of his section.
Olinsky and Belectic, when they lived in Tucson, were excited about “the openness of Tucson, the openness of the desert, the opportunity to do all these fun things that one imagines doing in the desert. Dirt-biking and hiking and tracking animals… they’re a really interesting couple.” Melillo continues, “It’s not fair, I can’t speak for Seth or Ali, but I still feel like Lightning was created in Tucson.” It’s a product, he feels, of their love for this desert. “Their tagline was ‘We believe in the transcendent power of rock and roll,’ and I agree with that!”
Lightning is an odd record label, comprised of “coffeemakers, artists, musicians, surfers,” and so on, “under the rubric of rock and roll.” They put out quarterlies of five albums (on tape) at a time, accompanied by an artistic and literary magazine. Ohioan was on the first batch with American Spirit Blues; Algae & Tentacles (featuring Ensor on percussion) will be featured on the second. According to Melillo, the driving question behind the label’s formation was “Why not make a formalized system for creating happenings?”
Melillo himself created a significant such happening this summer, under Lightning’s aegis. Called “Lightning Strike: Keeylocko,” it was a concert that brought together Algae & Tentacles, Katterwaul, Burning Palms, Ohioan, and Vox Urbana – bands “mixed all over the map” in genre. “The idea of Lightning is to make these things happen… even on your own. Like an anarchic, rhizomatic structure.” The Keeylocko show certainly showcased Tucson’s eclecticism, but it also hints at something deeper here.
THE TUCSON SCENE: VITALITY AND TRANSFORMATION
“Some places become very stuck, I think. The thing about big city scenes is that they become stratified… because you’re always listening to a mirror image of yourself in the other bands.” This city is emphatically not such a place.
“I know it’s an oxymoron, but I think you could say Tucson is defined by a communal isolationist mentality. We’re in this valley, and we’re together, but we’re all also a bit on our own, sort of lost in the desert and a bit dehydrated and spaced-out, which makes coming together that much more important and exciting.” For Melillo, cross-genre communication and collaboration is at the heart of the city’s music scene. It feeds a sense of unbridled possibility. “Who knows,” Ensor says, “at some point you might find yourself in a tunnel.” (Indeed, Algae & Tentacles has performed in a drainage tunnel underneath 4th Avenue. Full disclosure: this author was a co-organizer of that event.)
“That’s one of the best things about Tucson, that sense of ‘Oh, we COULD have a show in a tunnel! Or out in the desert, or in somebody’s house, or in a storage space,’” Melillo says.
“I have to also mention two of the most exciting musical things that I’ve done in Tucson,” he adds near the end of our interview. “One of the most exciting collaborations ever was with Hannah, when we did the opening for the Exploded View gallery, which is a new micro-cinema, video art gallery… we played for 5 hours on Hannah’s birthday, and then we went right afterwards and played a ripping set for Prom Body’s first LP release show [at Topaz].”
Ensor laughs. “I think one of my arms actually fell of my body at one point.” Melillo backs her up on this fact: “I had to jump off the stage and reattach it in the middle of a song.”
WORDS ON SOUND, SOUND ON WORDS
The title of the book Listening Out Loud struck Melillo “as a way of defining what composing is. I think that’s a good quick example of what people are doing when they’re making music. In a way, you’re filtering all the million sounds that you hear and transforming that into another sound. It’s like a weird pseudo-recording of all the sounds going on around you.” He would define rock and roll as, in some ways, “constantly, over and over and over, reimagining the hum of the electrical systems around us.” Melillo’s academic love is that kind of interaction.
Ensor hastens to emphasize that it’s not all academic: “And you do interesting, good work… not all ‘thinky-thinky,’ but you have, to use the buzzword, you have the whole ‘praxis’ thing going on. Theory and practice together.”
Melillo agrees, but takes it back to something more fundamental. “To me, I’m just fascinated by bringing people together.”
And there, perhaps, is John Melillo’s greatest gift to the musicians of Tucson. He is relentlessly forging new connections among us.