On the heels of his genre-defying A Love Electric trilogy and subsequent song project, Man With No Country, guitarist-composer-poet-lyricist C Todd Clouser joins forces with drummer Jorge Servin and the potent one-two punch of Abraxas guitarist Eyal Maoz and bassist Shanir Blumenkranz in forming Magnet Animals. Their slamming and startlingly unique debut, Butterfly Killer -- full of skronking noise guitars of blast furnace intensity and stream of conscious raps over righteous riffs and humungous backbeats -- stands as one of the most strangely compelling outings in the extensive and wildly eclectic catalog of London-based RareNoiseRecords.
From the opening salvo of "Headphone Girls" to the jarring punk-funk of "Martha Fever," the eerie Ennio Morricone-styled spaghetti western vibe of "I Give Up And Love Somebody" and the sinister title track, Butterfly Killer sidesteps convention at every turn while boldly stepping to a different kind of muse. Throw in a B-52s-styled '80s dance party number ("Igual, Pero Peor"), a throbbing jam with a haunting, an evangelist preacher styled incantation ("Little John The Liar") and an ode to a late junkie author/hipster ("Bill Burroughs") and you have one of the most daring, fully self-realized creations of the current year.
Credit Clouser with creating the vehicle for such a powerful statement to take place. "The Magnet Animals record is very impulsive," explains the auteur. "With the A Love Electric records, we write, re-write, edit, produce, cut tunes in half and tour together on 120 dates a year. With Magnet Animals, I wanted to get back to just a creative impulse, honoring that, expressing, and moving on. I wrote the tunes in one weekend in a cabin a week before we had the tour planned. We played a week's worth of shows, recorded on the last day in about an 8-hour session. I took the sessions to Minneapolis to mix, and that was it. I wanted it to be fast, a reflection of the personalities of the players and their instincts, and not think myself out of what I needed to say, and what this group was on its first impulse, instinctively."
Regarding his role as principal wordsmith and narrator of the vivid imagery conjured up throughout Butterfly Killer, Clouser says, "I like lyrics that can survive as poetry -- just on the page. I'm not sure if I am a poet or a lyricist but words are important to me. If I am going to use them, I want them to have purpose. Sometimes it's in humor, like on 'Headphone Girls.' I travel a lot and there are all these thousands of headphones they sell all over airports now -- every color and size and sales pitch, and its a trip! So I wrote that 'look at me listening' little line when I was in the Atlanta airport on A Love Electric tour and thought it was fun to sing, or talk. Other times, like on 'Atayde,' there is this tremendous nostalgia and some kind of sadness to the words. Atayde is the name of a family circus in Mexico City and their circus tent was just ripped down, It was giant, big and blue, with a ball that looked like a clown's shoe on top. It's like a whole block long and it's located right where all the hookers hangout on paydays, on Tlalpan. There's so much absurdity there that somehow there is beauty and calm in it, like complete resignation to our human instincts, failures, all of it. So that was an easy and kind of emotional song to write. That's really more of a spoken piece. In the end, I think it's just about observing and trying to find the humanity, the emotion, in whatever I want to write about."
Clouser details his connection to the three other intrepid improvisers and skilled musicians who comprise Magnet Animals. "Eyal and I have talked about playing together for years and when I was on tour with A Love Electric I visited his apartment a couple times and we just set up and improvised. He is so fearless and himself. He kind of plays how Mexico City sounds to me. I played with Shanir Blumenkranz at the John Lurie tribute show at NYC Town Hall with Billy Martin and John Medeski. We played Marvin Pontiac songs from that Lurie record (1999's The Legendary marvin Pontiac: Greatest Hits). Shanir is so scouted when he plays and his feel is so warm. We got along well and talked about doing something together at some point. I have played now with a lot of the 'Downtown scene' heroes, including John Zorn, Cyro Baptista, Medeski Martin & Wood, and always crossed paths with Shanir. It seemed like it was time to play together."
Though Clouser wrote all of the songs on Butterfly Killer, he says the recording is very much a product of everyone's contributions. "With other players, this could be a corny fusion record, the way the tunes are written. It had to be a crew of guys willing to get into the dirt. Much of what we did and what we captured on record is about the energy of the performance, the risk, knowing we are reading tunes but we are free to abandon them in dramatic ways. Shanir had a big hand in arranging the tunes and working out feels. He's so good at that. Eyal has such a strong and unique voice, it's like having an electric piano player, theremin player and jazz guitarist all at once."
And while modernists may point to the influence of guitar shredders like Sonny Sharrock or Nels Cline or Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore in the skronking metallic interplay heard on harsh tunes like "Headphone Girls," "Martha Fever" and "State of My Face," Clouser explains that the influence actually goes back much further. "A lot of it, honestly, is old Delta blues, the voices as much as the guitars. Listening to Skip James sing, going back to a lot of the Alan Lomax recordings of prison song, field song, gospel...that raw feel is all there. That being said, I grew up in the late 90's, so Sonic Youth was an influence as well as a lot of the NYC downtown stuff I started to listen to. I liked the personality and personalities of it. People there had something to say that I related to. I have spent a lot of time with old blues records and psych rock records, some of the Brazilian psych rock stuff and Os Mutantes, and then, of course, hip-hop.But I have a background in jazz, knowledge of these harmonies, and spent time playing Thelonious Monk music, so some of that creeps in as well."
Clouser also explains that the sparse, lonely, vaguely Americana feel that comes across on tunes like "Atayde" and "I Give Up And Love Somebody" comes from his Midwestern upbringing. "I was born in Kansas City and grew up in Minneapolis. Though I live in Mexico City now, I can only run so far from driving up and down highway 35 through the cornfields, Flying J travel centers, and listening to unreasoned preachers and minor league baseball games on the radio. I did so many van tours up and down that highway, you have time to write. I would write for hours if I wasn't driving, just looking around and being romantic about something so many people are so dismissive of. You find romance, resignation there in the simple. The Coen Brothers are great at putting that to story and film. I love that kind of Americana when it sounds in music."
As for the kind of evangelical fervor that he takes on in his spoken word rants on "Little John the Liar" and the title track, Clouser explains that it comes from the deepest recesses of his childhood. "It's just a character, but I do think I am perhaps unhealthily drawn to talking about religion, Jesus and preaching in my music. My parents, who I love so much, sent me to Sunday school when I was kid, which I hated so much. It was horrible. I knew they were lying to me and I was stand-offish. So I think sometimes I still haven't gotten over that, and gotten over this whole disillusioned idea of a savior who makes you right even when you are wrong. So maybe I lash out in music, or in what I write, or how I sing it. Sometimes the lash is to caricature-ize the 'preacher.' I also think having listened to a lot of spiritual music, a lot of gospel, early jazz, Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite, these types of records, I am drawn to this sort of prophetic voice, and emoting that way."
He further explains that "Bill Burroughs" was an homage to someone he greatly admired and felt a kinship with. "I never met him. I didn't share much time on Earth with him but I live about a mile away from where he did when he was in Mexico City. I love his writing. His story is tragic and heroic and offensive and teaching. I almost died from being an addict and I am gay. That's two big ones. From there on, its pretty easy to relate."
Of his current place of residence, Clouser couldn't be happier. "In Mexico City I fell into a great thing. I had no plans to live there but I met two musicians, Hernan Hecht and Aaron Cruz, and that became our group A Love Electric. This was about three years ago. We all had the same impetus, to go out and share our music wherever we could but in the most human, non-pretentious way possible. For example, we just got a grant from he US Embassy some months ago. We had offers to take it and go to a couple big festivals for free or a reduced rate. We decided to go to Honduras, Nicaragua and South Mexico and play in community centers and bars instead. And I would do that again in a second, and these two guys are the same way.
"There are songs everywhere in this city. I have been assaulted by way too many ideas since I moved here that I am still trying to sort through and make records or bands or whatever might be next. There is an energy here that I am attracted to, a chaos, but at the same time something very human. Because at some point you have to help each other out or the whole thing is going to blow up and the city will drown in itself. And now touring a lot in Mexico, going to places like Oaxaca up in the mountains to work with traditional wind musicians, or on the Yucatan to a town where Maya is the only language spoken, these things are fascinating, invigorating, exciting. I am able to learn by living all day long, and when that is happening there is no escape from inspiration."
It takes an inspired person to come up with something as audacious and uncompromising as Butterfly Killer. Clouser and his Magnet Animals crew deliver goods on this provocative new release on RareNoise Records.
I Give Up And Love Somebody
State Of My Face
Little John The Liar
Igual, Pero Peor