Near-Perfect Mwahaha

Perfectionism can either kill a band, or ensure its success.

You might call Ross Peacock a closet perfectionist. On the outside, he looks like a West Oakland garage rocker from central casting: tall, rangy, Camel cigarette jammed between his lips, drawly speaking voice, Band-Aid on his left index finger, which he cut while attempting to pry open a microphone case with a screw driver. He drives a large white van, lives in a run-down house that used to be a church chapel, wears torn tank tops, and walks with the jaunty rhythm of a Hollywood chimney sweep. He doesn’t necessarily look like the kind of person who maps things out in his head, and then tries to nail every last detail.

With respect to his creative work, though, Peacock is meticulous almost to a fault. Completely self-taught, he’s been in the Bay Area band scene for about a decade — some of which was spent in the experimental noise outfit, Clip’d Beaks, but most of which he devoted to Ned, a bizarro electronic band that he retired three years ago, in order to start a new band, Mwahaha. The impetus, Peacock said, was “some cliché rock ‘n’ roll stuff” (ennui, inter-band drama, a sudden desire to evolve) and the new group actually has three of the same core members, albeit with a new moniker, a new drummer, and a new compositional process. To him, it’s a vast improvement.

“You know, some bands can feed off tension,” he said, waxing philosophical as he relit a burnt-out cigarette stub. “Like Fleetwood Mac. Everyone in Fleetwood Mac is fucking each other — literally — and they manage to make some really great, mellow music.” He paused a beat. “That wasn’t the case with Ned.”

Putting all the drama to rest and starting from scratch was liberating, he confessed. And it shows in Mwahaha’s new self-titled album. Two years in the making, it’s 45 minutes of beautifully distorted melodic fuzz, most of it pumped through a guitar or bass amp, or an MS-20 modular synth. Peacock dredged up a picture on his cell phone to show what the MS-20 looks like: a mess of chords and wires over a soundboard about the size of a breadbox. It resembles the type of switchboard that a phone operator might have used in the 1960s. The band members, who cite Pink Floyd, Brian Eno, and Miles Davis as some of their greatest influences, have also tried odd tactics like surgically opening an amp, knifing the speaker cone on both sides, and putting it back together. “I think Ray Davies from The Kinks did that,” Peacock said. Our bass player, Nathan Tilton, read it in a book somewhere, and said, ‘Hey guys, I think we should try this.'”

The three members of Mwahaha — vocalist Peacock, and brothers Nathan and Cyrus Tilton, who play bass and guitar, respectively — are a unique breed of modern musician. They eschew computer software, preferring instead to use vintage synths, drum machines, and other analogue equipment. Peacock, who says he fetishizes old gear to an almost unhealthy degree, rattles off the names of his synthesizers as though they were refreshing soft drinks: “Yamaha CS-15. Korg MS-20. ARP Solina String Ensemble.” (“That’s one of Brian Eno’s favorite things,” he interjected.) They devise weird concepts for songs, like Peacock’s idea that his ballad, “Love,” was meant as a duet between male and female country singers — the song is a study in contrasts, pairing warm, bright, hymnal harmonies with zigzagging guitar and programmed drums.

No one in the band reads music, but they’re well respected in the free-jazz crowd. And, while they appreciate pretty melodies, they also enjoy making sound for sound’s sake. The song “Rivers and Their Teeth” begins with the sound of water splashing. Apparently, Cyrus set up a cluster of microphones around the koi pond in his backyard, and recorded the sound of band members dropping boulders into the water. “That’s when it leaves sound mode, and becomes more of a movie,” Peacock said.

A long history of artistic collaboration might explain the guys’ willingness to take risks together. Peacock met Cyrus roughly a decade ago. The former was slinging lattes at a local cafe, the latter was a working sculptor and frequent patron. The two hit it off, started hanging out, cut a few tracks on Peacock’s eight-track recorder, and eventually became roommates. When Nathan moved to the Bay Area from the Tilton brothers’ hometown of Eagle River, Alaska, the three decided to form a band in earnest. They played warehouse shows around town, opening for similarly weird acts like Subtle and The Locust. They dropped one album and a seven-inch, neither of which got a lot of mileage. Their MySpace profile picture showed two guys in space suits.

Peacock was reticent to speak on why it all dissolved. He thought about it, lit another cigarette, held the nub dangerously close to his mop of curly blond hair. “We’ve evolved, a little,” he said tentatively. “It’s a little more focused of an effort, I would say.” Nathan thought up the band’s new name on a lark, and the others cottoned to it easily, if only because it seemed like every other name was taken. They rented out a studio in Fruitvale in the same building as tUnE-yArDs, whose members eventually became friends. (Singer Merrill Garbus does a harmony part on “Love.”) They focused more purposefully on songwriting and rehearsing. At present, the division of labor is about equal for composing and arranging, though Peacock still writes all the lyrics. He recently got a new gig scoring soundtracks for video games, which allows him to work on music full-time.

So far, Mwahaha has played only three shows in its current iteration. Onstage, the musicians try to replicate their album format as much as possible, down to those little sounds that creep in between lines. That calls for a pretty complicated rig, and a setup that’s not exactly conducive to high-energy performance, Peacock said. Video clips of the band’s recent show at the Uptown show the singer hunched studiously over a large bed of studio equipment, nodding his head, adjusting knobs, and pushing buttons. Cyrus and Nathan hang back, their instruments largely obscured by two more synthesizers. Drummer James Murphy, of the band White Cloud, anchors the rhythm section. He’s on his way to becoming an official band member.

Despite the amount of concentration and the complex choreographed dance that Mwahaha’s live format demands, it’s thrilling to watch. Perhaps that’s because the music, which is gorgeously detailed and refined on record, is equally gorgeous live. Peacock said that was the group’s original goal when it changed names and pared down to trio form. And even if Mwahaha traded the glamour of garage rock for the romance of analogue machines, it has enough creative juice to ultimately become one of the best working rock bands in the Bay Area. (Peacock resists the term “rock” at all costs, preferring adjectives like “psychedelic,” “noise,” and “electronic.”) The same day as our interview, Mwahaha was scheduled to shoot a video for its song “Rainbow Diamond,” complete with black light, green screens with projected paints, and belly dancers. If Peacock had his druthers, they would shoot for hours, fine-tuning every last detail. But the result would be as close to perfect as a garage band could get.


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