Like so many musicians who came before them, singer-guitarist Mike Sopko and drummer Hamir Atwal spend most of their time in a dark, cold, cluttered, garage — in this case in San Leandro. It isn’t exactly conducive to hanging out. For one thing, the building — which lies adjacent to Sopko’s small suburban house with its Christmas lights on the doorstep and its Chagall painting over the fireplace — is not very well insulated, except for some garbage bags bunched into the walls for sound-proofing. And it’s not well lit, save for the fluorescents on the ceiling.
That said, it’s got enough accoutrements to satisfy two experimental musicians for hours, and to allow them to mint nearly a dozen songs a week for their band, Glimpse Trio. One is a small laptop computer with ProTools. Another is a guitar painted in red-and-white zig-zags, to replicate the one used by Eddie Van Halen. The third is the giant pedal board on the floor, which Sopko describes in as much delicious detail as would a poet praising the features of his favorite muse.
“It’s like a pedal board that you put your stomp boxes on,” he said proudly. “And this,” he said, picking up another nondescript, boxy doodad, “is a processor. We use this for recording. But live, these are all individual things.” His voice suddenly dropped to a low, conspiratorial register. “This is what’s so cool about this — check this out,” he said, leaning in close as he gathered up all the wires and circuits and pedals that compose the vast piece of gadgetry. He slipped them all beneath a lid, clamped it shut, and held the thing up as though it were a briefcase. “I can put it on a plane, I could do whatever, it’s got wheels — your cords don’t get fucked up.” He smiled triumphantly.
Sopko gets inordinately excited whenever the talk turns to gear, or music for that matter. He speaks at a fast clip, usually on a crescendo, barely pausing for breath between sentences. Bearded, bespectacled, and prone to laugh nervously — more as a punctuation mark than a show of amusement — he nonetheless has the intensity of a true zealot, someone who will spend upward of eight hours a day sequestered in a garage, because his labor of love is more love than labor. A tour through that garage is tantamount to perusing a kid’s entire baseball card collection: Every part is sacred, no matter how inconsequential it might appear to a visitor. That even goes for the many species of snare drum that litter Sopko’s floor: piccolo snare, deep aim snare, mahogany snare, maple snare.
Ironically, the music that Sopko makes with Atwal has none of the characteristics you’d expect from someone whose normal speech patterns exceed 150 beats per minute, and whose last band bore the name Monster Cock Rally. Combining the abstract harmonies of free jazz with the pulsing backbeat of indie rock, it’s intricate and surprisingly patient. Part of that might owe to Atwal, who is calm and unassuming and has a way of quietly shaping any artistic project he enters. He studied jazz at Berklee College of Music, and says a lot of his rhythmic concepts are steeped in that idiom. But the sound of Glimpse Trio — which also features Jym Murry on bass — probably has a lot to do with their compositional process, as well. Often, Sopko will come up with a part and Atwal will refine it either by contorting the melody or shifting the groove. Their intense partnership has generated some of the best and most complicated music to emerge from a garage band this year, even if it resists all the attributes we associate with “garage.” It might even catch on.
That’s no small feat, considering how unintentionally geeky and high-arty these guys are — and not in an ironic way, either. Classically trained, they both had omnivorous tastes from a young age — Sopko said he skipped from Bon Jovi cassette tapes to Ornette Coleman — and they met two years ago through friends in the improvised jazz scene. At that time, Atwal was playing in a bass-less jazz trio (sax, keyboard, and drums), and Sopko was in a guitar-bass duo, sans percussion. He had roughly two albums’ worth of tunes already socked away on his computer. It seemed like a perfect fit.
In only a year of operating as a group, Glimpse Trio already has two albums in its catalogue, a West Coast tour under its belt, and aborted relationships with two bass players — for logistical reasons rather than personality differences, the band members say. It’s also shifted from the sort of free-jazzy approach that informed its debut, 1985, to something more punky and riff-driven (not for nothing is its second album, due early next year, titled Garage), and more recently to a foray into downtempo electronica. Over the past couple weeks, Sopko and Atwal have holed up in their garage with Anticon producer Dosh. Among the fruits of their labor is an uncharacteristically warm lullaby for a friend about to have a baby.
Sopko cued it up on his laptop last Wednesday, and a viscous major-key melody burbled through the otherwise dank air of the garage. He nodded excitedly. “I’m so psyched about this,” he said, leaning toward the computer screen like a kid peering into the glass wall of an aquarium. “Fuzzy feeling, you know?” he said, glancing back for approval. Atwal smiled, which only excited Sopko further. “It’s totally different, you know?”
And it was, even when the first bit of distortion screeched through, and a buzz-saw sound effect sullied the near-perfect melody. Even while exploring the cleanest, warmest recesses of their personality, Sopko and Atwal couldn’t help but introduce a little dissonance.