Straight Outta Nairobi: Dr. Pete Larson's Dagoretti Records brings the sounds of Kenya to Ann Arbor

MUSIC PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Dr. Pete Larson

Dr. Pete Larson jamming on his nyatiti. Photo by Doug Coombe.

When Dr. Peter Larson found out he was going to Malawi in Southeast Africa as part of his graduate studies, one question came to his mind:

"Where's Malawi?" Larson said with a smile during an interview at the Ann Arbor District Library. "I didn't know anything about Africa."

Now an epidemiologist at the University of Michigan's Institute of Social Research, Larson later went to Nairobi, Kenya to work on public health issues. He lived there between 2014-2017 and immersed himself in the music scene.

That experience changed the trajectory of Larson's artistic life.

A longtime guitarist who played in numerous rock and noise bands since the 1990s, including 25 Suaves and Couch, Larson is also one of the people behind the experimental Bulb Records, which released the first records by Wolf Eyes and Ann Arbor native Andrew W.K.

But Larson was so enchanted the first time he heard a nyatiti -- an eight-string lyre/lute-type traditional instrument of the Luo people in Western Kenya -- he decided to learn how to play it. 

"In 2015, I received an instrument from a friend and had no idea what to do with it," Larson wrote in the press release for the Nyatiti Attack LP on Dagoretti Records by his teacher, Oduor Nyagweno, who he lovingly calls Old Man. "Sometime in 2016, I saw Daniel Onyango play with his band Africa Jambo Beats in Nairobi and approached him about taking lessons. He then introduced me to the Old Man, I haven’t looked back."

Nothing IFFY about the newly announced Independent Film Festival Ypsilanti

FILM & VIDEO PREVIEW INTERVIEW

IFFY logo

Washtenaw County is renowned for its cinema events, from the predominant Ann Arbor Film Festival (March) and the Sundance/Cannes/etc.-affiliated Cinetopia (May) to the new Nevertheless (July), which focuses on female-identifying filmmakers, and all the traveling fests and U-M-sponsored foreign-film series.

But all of those events happen in Ann Arbor, primarily at the Michigan Theater.

Filmmaker Donald Harrison, who runs 7 Cylinders Studio, and multimedia artist Martin Thoburn want to make another part of Washtenaw Country an important destination for cinephiles, so they've launched the annual Independent Film Festival Ypsilanti (IFFY).

"I've imagined a film festival happening in Ypsilanti for almost a decade," Harrison said via email, "but venue options have been limited. Last year Martin expressed interest in starting it with me -- it was especially appealing that the festival's identity would be IFFY -- so we set things in motion."

Songs to Learn and Sing: Catching up with The Kelseys and KWITNY

MUSIC INTERVIEW

The Kelseys

A lot of us hibernate in the winter -- and to an outsider, it may seem like The Kelseys have been slumbering since last spring. But the Ann Arbor pop-rock band, which has only played a relative handful of concerts over the past year, is comprised of four full-time University of Michigan students, three of whom are in their senior year. 

It's no fun doing late-night load-outs at a nightclub when you know there's a mechanical engineering test in the morning.

But even if The Kelseys haven't been on stage as of late, the group did release a steady stream of songs in 2019, and singer-guitarist Peter Kwitny continued to create and release solo music, too.

The Kelseys, who formed in 2016 and named themselves after U-M's museum of archeology, recently completed their So Little to Say project with the release of "Something Else," the fifth song in the series. (A 2018 Kelseys tune was also remixed last year into slow-burn electronica: "Pollyanna (Jeff Basta Mix)")

"These tracks were recorded at multiple locations," said drummer Josh Cukier of So Little to Say, answering Kelseys questions for Kwitny, guitarist Evan Dennis, and bassist Liam O’Toole (who is a junior at U-M). "All live drums were recorded in Toledo, Ohio, at Steven Warstler's studio. Most of the lead vocals were recorded there as well. Most other components -- guitar, bass, synth, and percussion -- were recorded in The Stu, which was the name affectionately assigned to [my] bedroom at the house we lived in last year. A few remaining components were recorded in the Duderstadt Studios with Ryan Cox acting as the engineer; these include the saxophone, piano, spoken word, and group vocal parts in '1998' and 'Something Else.'"

The Kelseys have self-described as an "indie-dance pop band," though that doesn't give enough credit to the group's radio-friendly sound: It's easy to imagine So Little to Say's upbeat "This Life" or "Everything Is Beautiful" wedged between Fun. and Foster the People on Ann Arbor's 107.1-FM.

North Coast Modular Collective and MEMCO release new music and mixes, team for seminar

MUSIC PREVIEW

North Coast Modular Collective and Michigan Electronic Music Collective

With North Coast Modular Collective (NCMC) and Michigan Electronic Music Collective (MEMCO), crafting art and then guiding others on how to do it are at the core of these orgs' guiding principles. 

On Saturday, Jan. 11, at AADL's downtown location, NCMC and the U-M-associated MEMCO are teaming up to help people learn how to create music, DJ, and produce accompanying visuals. No registration required; just show up. Topics will include:

~ Introduction to Live Coding by David Minnix and TheTimeRipper
~ Getting Started With DJing
~ Ableton Live Production Demystified by Bill Van Loo
~ Introduction to DAW Production With FL Studio by Akshay Chacko
~ DIY Getting Started
~ Getting Started With Live Visuals

MEMCO and NCMC members are always busy creating their own music and mixes, including two recent DJ sets from the former and two new albums by artists with the latter:

Melting Into Darkness: "A World Without Ice" at Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum

VISUAL ART REVIEW

A World Without Ice

All A World Without Ice photos by Christopher Porter.

"It's making me uncomfortable but it's relaxing, too."

My kid's succinct review of A World Without Ice at Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum likely captures the sensation U-M music professors Michael Gould and Stephen Rush, along with Dutch electronic-media artist Marion Tränkle, had in mind when they created their multimedia installation with climate scientist and U-M professor emeritus Henry Pollack (co-recipient of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore). 

Pollack's book A World Without Ice inspired the exhibit, which artfully illustrates through sound, music, and visuals the glaciers melting and asks us to consider our role in their disappearance.

Rush created a dark, ambient composition that drones discretely in the background as Tränkle's film -- featuring Pollack and associate's gorgeous images of the Arctic and Antarctic -- plays on a curved screen. But as you sit in the blackened room and your ears tune-in to Rush's music, the soothing and menacing tones are punctuated by the seven floor-tom drums arced around the front of the exhibit. (Presumably, seven toms for the seven continents, all of which will be affected by climate change.)

Guitar Army: "Ann Arbor Revival Meeting" by Scott Morgan’s Powertrane with Deniz Tek & Ron Asheton

MUSIC

Album cover for Ann Arbor Revival Meeting by Scott Morgan's Powertrane

Ann Arbor Revival Meeting by Scott Morgan’s Powertrane with guitarists Deniz Tek and Ron Asheton isn't a new album; it was released on CD by Real O-Mind Records in 2002. But I just discovered that an expanded two-LP and CD version came out this summer on Grown Up Wrong Records featuring three songs not on the original CD version: "Smith & Wesson Blues," "New Race," and "City Slang."

This live album was recorded at The Blind Pig in 2002 and runs the gamut of Morgan's music as well as songs by The Stooges, Radio Birdman -- the incredible Australian punk group formed by Ann Arbor native Tek, who also has a few solo compositions featured on Revival Meeting -- and Sonic's Rendezvous Band's "City Slang." (It's hard to imagine why it was left off the original CD; this essential Fred "Sonic" Smith jam is the only song officially released by the all-star group during its mid- to late-'70s run in Ann Arbor and Detroit.)

The Powertrane rhythm section here is bassist Chris "Box" Taylor, who runs the annual Fuzz Fest at The Blind Pig, and drummer Andy Frost, who was mentored by Ron's brother and fellow Stooge Scott Asheton. Additional musicians include guitarist Robert Gillespie, who played forever with Mitch Ryder, and Hiawatha, singer for the long-running band Cult Heroes, who have only recorded a handful of songs but have kept the Stooges spirit alive in Ann Arbor since the late '70s.

This album is a powerful document of swaggering, soul-infused rock 'n' roll. Check out Ann Arbor Revival Meeting below, as well as a video of the band playing at the Khyber Pass in Philadephia on April 20, 2002, and an interview with Morgan and Asheton on WCBN in 2002.

Lend Him Your Ears: Isaac Levine's Fishpeoplebirds label celebrates the release of a new tape with a little help from his friends

MUSIC PREVIEW

Isaac Levine, Rebeccah Rosen, Kevin McKay, Jacob Rogers, and Lily Talmers

Clockwise from top left: Kevin McKay, Isaac Levine and Rebeccah Rosen, Lily Talmers, and Jacob Rogers.

Despite being a talented multi-instrumentalist and knowledgeable sound engineer, Isaac Levine's recordings and songs have a ramshackle quality. His off-kilter music is so eccentric, quirky, and whimsical that the label "outsider folk" doesn't fully capture the idiosyncratic spirit behind his songs.

Levine's lyrics are frequently surreal, too -- check out his October single "Modular Synth Trucker," a 36-second ode to a guy who drives his semi-truck from town to town playing his synthesizer. That's it, that's the tune.

One of his several bands, The Platonic Boyfriends, even released an album in 2018 called Pee on These Hands.

But Levine is also capable of pointed political commentary, especially involving issues in Washtenaw County, as he talked about with me for his 2018 solo album A Death So Obsessed With Living.

Levine is also prolific, and in addition to "Modular Synth Trucker," this fall he and Dr. Ruby put out the Dragon's Coldness tape on his Fishpeoplebirds label, which has this tag on its Bandcamp page: "label specializing in people that Isaac knows."

Some of the many talented people Isaac knows and works with are playing Argus Farm Stop on Saturday, Dec. 21, to celebrate a new Fishpeoplebirds tape with Rebeccah Rosen's music on the A-side and Levine and Rosen's Dreambag project on the other. Both of them will perform, and so will Kevin McKay -- whose dream-pop single "Headspace" came out in November and was recorded by Levine -- Jacob Rogers, and Lily Talmers.

Check music from the performers below:

High Five: New music from Dr. James Kibbie, Seattle Stomp, Dre Dav, Idle Ray & Ki5

MUSIC

James Kibbie, Seattle Stomp, Dre Dav, Idle Ray & Ki5

Five new music releases from Washtenaw County artists.
 

By day, Kyler Wilkins works for Ann Arbor software company Menlo Innovations. By night, he's Ki5, creating lovely music influenced by hip-hop, electronica, and a capella. Wilkins builds songs from samples of his voice, and while it's loop-based music, it sounds anything but stuck in a loop. As heard on his new Looking for the Sun EP, Wilkins is an expert arranger of vocal harmonies, and his compositions bloom organically into gorgeous sonic flower grooves. Curious to see how Wilkins puts it all together live? Ki5 is the first artist to perform on the first night of Mittenfest (Dec. 27-29 at Riverside Arts Center in Ypsilanti).

 

As a member of Ann Arbor's Towner, Alex Molica makes fuzzy indie-punk that feels Midwestern to the core. The group's self-titled four-song EP from July is ramshackle and catchy with a heart-on-the-sleeve vocal delivery. But "Great Unknown," the first single from Molica's solo project, Seattle Stomp, is a stripped-down, quirky, acoustic-guitar-based song that is built on a repeating, descending chord progression for all four minutes it lasts. Molica has an album-release show for Seattle Stomp's Maudlin Madness on January 3 at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Ypsilanti, but before that you can see Towner at The Blind Pig on December 20 as part of "Decemberween" with Detroit's The Lucid Furs, Ypsilanti's Bubak, and Ypsi-Arbor's You Look Poor! (I'm not yelling; the exclamation point is part of the band's name.)

 

Bring the Noise: Benjamin Miller's Porcelain Hammer and Mark Morgan explore the far side of music

MUSIC PREVIEW

Screenshot from Ben Miller's live performance at Detroit's Eastown Theatre, 2015

Screenshot from Ben Miller's live performance at Detroit's Eastown Theatre, 2015.

It was nearly 10 am on Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2019, when I turned on WCBN in my car. The University of Michigan student radio station is a staple in my listening routine, but even my catholic ears were surprised to hear noise icon Merzbow power-sawing his way through two tracks followed by fellow Japanese screechers Otomo Yoshihide and Keiji Haino just after breakfast time.

It was free-form radio at its free-formiest, but it was also a reminder that these Japanese artists -- among others on the outer fringes of music -- helped spawn a Southeast Michigan noise-music scene in the 1990s that, despite the difficult listening, spread through the DIY underground and helped hatch micro-scenes in various basements across the U.S.

The Michigan scene birthed in the 1990s grew up in the early 2000s -- think Wolf Eyes, Universal Indians, Princess Dragonmom -- and began to morph as artists left the state, changed the focus of their music, or left playing in bands entirely. Still, the scene continued to plug away and mutate with new groups emerging such as the more rocking Child Bite and Heavier Than Air Flying Machines, the dark and ambient Evenings, tape-based acts Sick Llama and Creode, coarse electronics from Lidless Eye, and electro-acoustic weirdness from The New Me, Glass Path, and more. There was also the recent Trip Metal festivals, founded by Wolf Eyes' John Olson, which brought together noise freaks, free jazzers, and assorted other sonic cosmonauts in Detroit for three days of plundering earholes. 

And I can't forget Ann Arbor's mysterious Satan Face, an unnamed member of which appears to be responsible for playing Merzbow & Co. on the radio during otherwise pleasant mid-mornings. The Satan Face show Nothing but the '90s! is on WCBN every Tuesday from 9-11 am playing the harshest of the harsh, and that show's playlist could easily include Ben Miller's Porcelain Hammer and Mark Morgan, former guitarist for acclaimed art-rock act Sightings. Miller and Morgan lived away from Michigan for many years, but they've both returned to the Detroit area and are teaming up for a hair-parting concert on Saturday, Dec. 14, at Lo-Fi Bar in Ann Arbor.

Paper Tiger: Ann Arbor artist Matthew Shlian offers a new work via Ghostly and a retrospective book

VISUAL ART

Matthew Shlian's Omoplata series and Unfolding book

Top and bottom: Matthew Shlian's Omoplata series and Unfolding book.

I'm not a clumsy person -- in fact, I'm kinda athletic.

But I have the spatial awareness of a toddler.

I often have a hard time visualizing how something is created if I'm trying to replicate that thing from written instructions, a diagram, or a video. My brain doesn't translate the info in a way that my fumbling hands can follow.

Matthew Shlian's superpower is spatial awareness.

The Ann Arbor-based artist has the remarkable ability to build stunning 3D paper sculptures that undulate, pop, jab, and ripple. He creates his art by gluing together small pieces of paper and then affixing them in patterns that create the illusion of movement. Shlian's deep understanding of spatial relationships and shading allows him to create complex patterns that still seem minimalist. 

Since 2011, Shlian has distributed many of his limited edition works through Ghostly International, which is best known for releasing electronic music but it's also had many partnerships with artists and companies to create branded pieces that run from shoes to a custom video-game console, as well as unbranded fine art from Andy GilmoreBrandon Locher, and Langdon Graves.

Omoplata is Shlian's latest series promoted by Ghostly, and despite the artworks' delicate look, the design was inspired by a tricky submission move in Brazilian jiu-jitsu: