The theme of this year’s New Forms Festival, which takes place at various Vancouver venues from tonight to September 27, is mosaics. And when event organizers asked Fond of Tigers bandleader Stephen Lyons to curate an evening of music, he nearly responded with flippant perversity.
“I thought about it for a while and almost did, like, a tribute to Moses,” he reports, interviewed by telephone from his Vancouver home. “But I figured that wasn’t the best way to go.”
Granted, if any local band could pull off an art-rock opera about the Ten Commandments, it would be Fond of Tigers: the all-instrumental septet’s ability to morph between twittering electronic soundscapes and bent, brassy anthems could be put to good use behind various poetic meditations or ranting discourses on greed, sloth, covetousness, and lust. Lyons might well want to revisit that original impulse.
But his second thought was to take the mosaics theme literally—and so he and Secret Mommy’s Andy Dixon, whose five-piece specializes in reconfigured field recordings and found sounds, decided to smash up their new records and combine them in a new and jagged sculptural form.
“What I wanted to do was something that allowed us to re-approach how we work as composers and musicians and how we interact with material—whether it be our material or someone else’s material,” Lyons explains. “These were the kinds of interaction that I wanted to get at with this project.”
But there’s a twist. Audio cutups are not exactly a new form, having been around since William Burroughs and Brion Gysin got their first tape recorders sometime in the 1950s.
Lyons and Dixon are not just using technology to retool their music, however. They chopped Fond of Tigers’ Release the Saviours and Secret Mommy’s Plays CDs into bite-sized digital chunks, mixed these together, and then separately created new works from the best bits of that pile. But then they asked their bands to learn the new compositions just as they would any other score, and they’ll play them live at Open Studios on Friday (September 19), as part of Cross Pollinations.
“That’s the human component that we bring to it; we’re not robots,” says Lyons. “We’ve got the parts that were cut up digitally, and then we sort of put our compositional and arranging ideas to work.
“I don’t know what Andy’s done,” he continues, noting that each band will perform its own set prior to joining forces at the end of the night. “But we’ve done a lot of massaging of the parts and changing them so they flow. We want it to actually feel like a piece of music that’s worth listening to—and worth playing, for us.”
Although there is a certain amount of willful strangeness to this undertaking, it’s also a natural fit for Fond of Tigers. The band, which mixes rock, free improvisation, and contemporary music, draws on influences as diverse as Captain Beefheart, King Crimson, Albert Ayler, Charles Ives, and Steve Reich.
But for its guitarist and leader, one of its main attractions is that it’s the kind of ensemble that can warp time. Lyons, who admits to a fascination with malfunctioning cassette decks and skipping CD players, counts duration, repetition, and subtle changes of inflection among his most important musical tools.
“Sometimes, with our music, there’s a wonderful feeling of being in many times at once, or many places at once,” he says. “When I hear music that’s just linear, or that turns around quickly, I just feel trapped, like I’m in the worst kind of lineup in a department store that you don’t want to be in. Like, ”˜Why would you do this to yourself, musically?’ But when I’m feeling things the most fully it’s because I’m contributing to this kind of multitimed placelessness and everywhereness of music.”
Which, again, comes back to the human element. Lyons doesn’t just write notes on a page, or arrange them on a computer screen: he’s also put a lot of thought into the composition of his band. Drummer Dan Gaucher, keyboardist Morgan McDonald, and bassist Shanto Bhattacharya are, to some degree, analytical or structure-oriented musicians; drummer Sky Brooks, trumpeter JP Carter, and violinist Jesse Zubot play more expressively. This balance, Lyons explains, adds to the complexity of the Fond of Tigers sound.
“We’re not executing études,” he says. “It’s a weird, heavy situation, and we address it in our own ways, contribute to it in our own ways. But I think it’s a really natural thing, like having multiple personality types that are complementary around a dinner table or something.”