NOMO fuses funk, jazz, Afrobeat, and things you bang on with a mallet

NOMO’s founding member, Elliot Bergman, is sitting in a Subway restaurant somewhere between Telluride and Las Vegas when the Straight tracks him down for a chat. A few minutes into the conversation, a voice in the background starts pumping the rest of his eight-piece band for information, asking “What are you called?” and “Where y’all from?”

Naturally, the next question is, “What do you sound like?” Silence ensues.

There’s no easy way to describe what NOMO sounds like, at least not to the average pubescent sandwich artist in Utah. When it started in 2003, the Ann Arbor–based experimental unit was winning instant acclaim for slipping junk-shop electronics into a fusion of free jazz, funk, and the needling West African sounds of Fela Kuti.

With its third full-length, 2008’s Ghost Rock, the influences are balanced so successfully that NOMO is ploughing an idiom all its own. “All the Stars” establishes the band’s ubiquitous, Afrobeat-inspired percussive strategy, topped by insistent, fever-pitch brass in “Round the Way”, a blaring horn riff and squiggling electronics in the Starsky & Hutch–meets-wormhole epic “My Dear”, super-greasy Eddie Hazel guitar in “Ghost Rock”, and disco-talking high-hat and sax improv that turn “Last Beat” into something part B.T. Express, part spiritual jazz, and part Nigeria.

Even with the explicitly experimental bookends “Brainwave” and “Nova”, Ghost Rock is uplifting, joyous, dense but lighter than air, and funky as hell.

It’s winning enough new converts that Bergman can assert, “This is by far our best tour to date. I don’t think we’ll ever be the latest buzz band, but things are going about as well as they can for an instrumental band with a bunch of saxophones. And stuff.”

By stuff, Bergman means, among other things, kalimbas and mbiras fed through distortion boxes, mysterious electronic doo-wangers of no fixed origin, and, in his own words, “weird homemade instruments that you bang on with a mallet”.

The irony here is that, as much as it has the critical establishment and musicologists of all stripes in a thesaurus-scanning froth, NOMO’s music is essentially meant for heavy-duty ass-shaking.

“We do get loaded up with this very verbose analysis,” Bergman sighs. “And I think that what we’re doing gets a little bit muddied up by some of that. We’ve done these workshops in high schools and middle schools, and there was one day when we played sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade band gigs, all back-to-back, and it was like three totally wild, freaky dance parties. It was so fun. These kids can barely make a sound on their clarinet but they’re just jumping around and absolutely having a ball.”

The University of Michigan jazz-studies graduate concedes: “There’s something in there that does appeal to the music critic, and the guy that wants to drop eight obscure names in a review,” and he cheerfully describes his bandmates as “big dorks” with “big record collections”. But Bergman also agrees that it’s not necessary for anybody to deliver a dissertation after a sweaty, jubilant, live encounter with NOMO.

“No,” he states, chuckling. “If people are making out, that’s equally valid.”

NOMO plays the Media Club on Sunday (August 10).

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