Turn The Beat Around
Words by Chad Radford
First photo courtesy of Fanatic Promotions (L-R: Dylan Ryan and Dave McDonnell).
All other photos by Chad Radford. Lenny's Bar, Atlanta (4/26/06).
The Chicago-based duo Michael Columbia, faces a dual quandary. First and foremost, the twosome churns out a blend of psychedelic pop minimalism under the wings of indie hip-hop label Alabaster/Galapagos 4, home to artists, such as Meaty Ogre, Denizen Kane and Offwhyte. "I think we are disappointing for some of the label's fans," says Dave McDonnell, who plays keyboard, saxophone and twiddles a myriad of knobs in Michael Columbia. "They expect to hear rappers, but instead they hear a song about a radioactive mouse, with a jazz saxophone part. But that just makes us leaner and meaner when not everyone is saying great things about us. I would hope that for at least one out of five of the label's fans, hearing Michael Columbia is something of a mind-opening experience."
The greater dilemma is the contrast between the minimalism of the group's songwriting and performance, and its onstage persona. "We play music that people think of as arty, but when arty people see us joking around and laughing on stage, it turns them off," McDonnell continues. "And when people go out to have a good time and see a band that jokes around a lot, they hear this weird arty music we do and they're totally turned off, too."
Since 2002, McDonnell and drummer Dylan Ryan have groomed a balance between art-rock loftiness and party band irreverence. McDonnell reluctantly admits that for a time he believed that Michael Columbia was becoming on par Van Halen. The comparison is a mid-thought tangent that hardly illustrates the group’s sound, but offers insight into the its cache of multiple personalities. “I know it sounds weird, but we were pretending to be a cool, California party band,” he explains.
Minimalism plays a big role in the group’s songwriting, but Michael Columbia is more likely to be found performing in downtown rock dives than art galleries. The group builds its songs from improvisation and drawing out rhythms, expanding on a musical palette colored by the likes of Can, Stereolab and Philip Glass. McDonnell's musical background includes a few stints playing trombone for Athens' Elephant 6 progenitors Olivia Tremor Control, as well as playing in San Francisco group Need New Body and Chicago's Bablicon. Ryan, meanwhile, plays with Icy Demons, which includes members of Need New Body and Bablicon. This combined résumé links the two to a vast and experimental indie-rock lineage.
Michael Columbia released its debut album in ‘02, taking its name from a mistake McDonnell made. Ryan had a friend who played guitar and lived in New York City. McDonnell forgot the friend's name and accidentally called him "Michael Columbia." They thought it was so funny that they adopted it for their group’s name.
Much of their music is derived from spontaneous compositions and jams that inevitably produce riffs that later morph into songs. "Whenever we practice, one of us starts doing something and it gets looped," McDonnell explains. "Then we try a bunch of different stuff over it. We have a tape player set up, so we'll just roll the tape and every couple of weeks go back to find things that sound cool and work them into a tune."
This approach first took shape with the spacious ambient pop that appeared on the group's self-titled debut and evolved significantly with the '05 follow up, These Are Colored Bars.
Michael Columbia's latest release, an EP titled Stay Hard, makes use of undulating melodies that churn and tumble in circular motions while staccato drum and saxophone lines overlap, forming a web of rhythm.
In "T.E. Lawrence," simple percussion is static in motion. But by placing an emphasis on different cadences, the rhythms mutate into entirely different structures. This hallucinogenic quality gives Michael Columbia's sound much of its depth. "We went through a phase of running two drum machines at the same time," McDonnell says. "We'd have two time signatures going at the same time, creating this weird combination where you can decide where the beat goes."
The results are a sensory-jamming concoction of rhythms that strike the brain differently with each go around.
During live performances, Dylan’s drumming is the engine that propels the music, rising and falling with frenetic energy. McDonnell regularly switched between wielding his bass and saxophone, while also focusing on an arsenal of keyboards and effects boxes.
Though Michael Columbia's songs are mostly instrumental, vocals occasionally work their way into the mix and are subject to the same psychoactive experimentation as the beats. In "Dog Dog Camel" and "Predator," McDonnell and Ryan craft misshapen, vocal harmonies, layering high and low voices. "Dylan is good at singing low and I can hit really high notes," McDonnell explains. "We realized we couldn't do anything more live, because we're already busy doing two or three things at the same time. We figured that if we could sing, it would add another layer. One thing that's really cool about the human ear is that once you get three voices in harmony, you can't tell how many voices are there. When we play live, we can only do two-part harmonies, but on the recording it sounds like three to six."
Because Michael Columbia is a duo, it limits McDonnell and Ryan in terms of the complexity of the material they perform. "We can have a simple melody or bassline, but if it doesn't sound the same every time it repeats, you end up with different textures even though you're playing the same thing over and over again," says McDonnell.
It's within this talk of oddball arranngements and experimental techniques that tension from Michael Columbia's dual quandry arrises. And although the group's personality crisis lingers, McDonnell and Ryan just do what they do and have fun doing it. "We're not very pretentious about the music," says McDonnell. "We try to come up with stuff that people could do drugs to that is entertaining to us as well."
Originally published by Creative Loafing, 4/19/06. Re-edited by Chad Radford, 5/1/06.