Hooked on Noise Candy

Oakland's 21 Grand hosts avant-garde Scanner Darkly soundtracker Graham Reynolds, along with Bay Area weirdness.

We all have our drugs of choice: caffeine, nicotine, endorphins, speedballs. But if your favorite way to explore consciousness happens to be weird music, 21 Grand is pushing an accidental overdose this Sunday.

Oakland’s ruling home for experimental and avant-garde sounds mistakenly double-booked the night of November 12 with A Scanner Darkly soundtrack composer Graham Reynolds alongside the SF-based Fire Museum Sonic Circus. Reynolds uses an acoustic quartet to re-create tracks from the trippy, hallucinogenic 2006 Richard Linklater film, as well as to sample his other projects from the Golden Arm Trio. Similarly, the Sonic Circus offers twelve Oakland and SF bands doing anything from drum ‘n’ bass punk-prog to one-man violin-electronica acts to queercore hip-hop. It concludes a final hurrah week for local underground label Fire Museum, which moves to Philly this month for economic reasons.

Let’s start the party where it’ll end Sunday night at midnight, with Reynolds — a vegan who doesn’t need to do drugs because he is drugs. The 35-year-old composer, drummer, and pianist from Austin writes music compulsively. He’s tracked silent films, dances, theater scores, released a twenty-CD box set of his Golden Arm Trio work, and recently made an opera about Genghis Khan that the Mongolian Embassy wants him to perform in Mongolia for the 800th anniversary of the nation’s unification. Fellow Texan Linklater approached him to soundtrack A Scanner Darkly (out on DVD December 19), and Reynolds’ public exposure soared after its release earlier this year.

Set in Orange County circa 2013, Darkly follows narcotics cop and dope fiend Keanu Reeves into a downward spiral of addiction, hallucination, and paranoia alongside Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, and Winona Ryder. The film adaptation of the novel by former Berkeley resident and meth-munching sci-fi icon Philip K. Dick succeeds with the help of rotoscoping — the art of animating atop frames of live-motion film. The technique, also used in Linklater’s Waking Life, can take five hundred man-hours per minute of film, but pays big visual dividends. Darkly opens inside a drug bum’s psychotic break with animated aphids crawling all over his body, despite repeated sprays of green pesticide.

Reynolds says a form of audio rotoscoping shaped the soundtrack, which he originally recorded as an acoustic jazz-noir album in his bedroom over eighteen months. “My first instinct with the movie was actually not to address the drugs with the music so much,” he says. “People talk a lot about not Mickey Mousing with the music or dictating the emotion with music. They say they resent that, and as far as I was concerned, they’re doing drugs the entire movie, so my first instinct was not to really worry about that at first, but then midway through the process I stared to realize there was a disconnect with the music and the characters and mood of the movie.

“What I did with the music was record acoustic instruments with no virtual instrumentation, and then put a layer on top of those through processing and effects,” Reynolds goes on. “You had the concrete and organic sounds of the actual instruments and then the additional layer, the hallucinogenic layer. As soon as I started doing that, I started getting positive feedback.”

Adapted live at 21 Grand this week for cello, guitar, bass, piano, and drums, the Scanner Darkly soundtrack haunts the listener with wailing cello sections, while evoking a computerized surveillance culture in minimalist, glitchy noise layering. Reynolds grew up on a two-hour-per-week TV allowance while ingesting pounds of Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick, and Dune, so he relished the opportunity to mine the rich veins of abnormal sci-fi music.

“There’s a little more creative freedom involved when you’re talking about something that happens in the future,” he explains. “You can start your aesthetic anywhere. The first and most obvious thing to research were the other Philip K. Dick movies.

“I’m not that sure that Total Recall had a big impact on what we did,” he adds, laughing, “but it’s just inevitable that people will start associating those things with a body of work, and people start comparing.”

Indeed, the classically trained Reynolds works well next to the album’s costars Radiohead, Meat Beat Manifesto, and DJ Spooky, but he’s also a lot sadder. Reynolds exquisitely distills the melancholy at the heart of the film.

Speaking of cult classics: The three-year-old Fire Museum label, aka Steven Tobin, made its name with a benefit record featuring Deerhoof and Godspeed, then deliberately avoided any niche by putting out limited-edition runs of weird stuff that makes cryptophiles go into rehab: Burmese zithers from nearly-extinct cultures; free-jazz improv; South Indian classical saxophonists; sitars, theremins, vocoders; and who knows what. “I wanted to release something without the concern of, “Oh, we’re going to be experimental or folk or jazz,'” Tobin says. “If it’s something we like, then we’ll do it, which has its advantages and disadvantages. Some people really like to have their experience pigeonholed, but the idea was to do something really expansive, like the schizophrenic nature of the show at 21 Grand.”

The label honcho’s “let the chips fall where they may” lineup includes headliners Compomicro-Dexall, the Josephson-Walter-Smith Trio, and Axolotl. These acts actually manage to make the Golden Arm Trio look mainstream, “which is kind of a strange thing to think about, because they’re definitely doing weird stuff,” Tobin says.

So there you have it. When the going gets weird, the weird turn to 21 Grand.

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