“Faux-noir instrumental thriller” is one of those hyperbolic sales banners that has about as much impact these days as blurbs that read “Two Thumbs Way Up!!!” In fact, Xu Xu Fang hate the terms “noir,” “instrumental” and “spoken-word,” but let’s see you come up with accurate descriptors for a nine-piece multimedia-collective-cum-Raymond-Chandler-spoof.
“I wanted something surreal, something that you don’t listen to track by track,” producer/composer Bobby Tamkin says from his studio, where he’s editing the last bit of footage for the video portion that will accompany Xu Xu Fang’s first-ever public performance. “I wanted background music, but with this element that would force you to pay attention. And people will either love it or hate it.”
Even without the visuals, Xu Xu Fang’s album Los Angeles During the Winter of 1999 (Cowboy Small’s Sound Ranch) is a richly cinematic listening experience, abuzz with homemade samples of heels against pavement, traffic, boozy nightclubs and the snappy dialogue of old-time gangsters weaving in and out of a drowsy schmeer of horns, guitars, bass and drums that owes a nod to Tamkin’s steady diet of Bernard Herrmann, Ennio Morricone, Stravinsky, Gil Evans, John Williams and Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. The narrative component of Los Angeles concerns an incompetent hit man, Ritchie, who makes the fatal mistake of crossing his boss, Boone. It’s pulp by numbers, to be sure, but the stilted textbook plot — peopled by characters so stereotypically noir that they’re ciphers — is what makes the record so compelling.
Tamkin’s perfectly aware these character sketches sound perilously close to the skits sprinkled throughout modern hip-hop, yet these real-time vignettes are as central to the tale of Los Angeles as the plot points in a paperback from an airport gift shop. What possessed Tamkin to make a 1940s serial-radioesque concept album in an era where creative producers are only as good as the latest software?
“The way people’s attention is these days, they demand constant change, constant media,” he says. “I imagine a lot of people putting this CD on and turning it off in the first minute because they hear the drizzle of rain, footsteps, doors opening and closing, and going, ‘Where are the songs? Where are the beats? Where are the riffs?’ People want instant gratification, and that’s the downfall of a project like this.” But Tamkin is undaunted. With no huge major-label advance to pay back or expectations to live up to, he was free to experiment — just one of the perks of devising your own medium.
Most musicians know how their parts fit into the scheme of their band, but Los Angeles was too vast to be glimpsed all at once by the worker ants who made it happen. For example, a random Korean grocer Tamkin cast as a taxi driver in one of the narrative sequences had no idea of where he fit into the story. And when Tamkin played back for trombone player Peter Relic the part they recorded together, Relic freaked out hearing his instrument in the context of a filmlike soundtrack.
It’s all part of Tamkin’s devious trompe l’oeil: “There’s that killing scene at the end, the music’s kinda grooving, a little happy, a little demonic at the same time. But then right after Ritchie gets murdered, it goes back to the same groove. It throws you in the opposite direction — it’s like, ‘What am I supposed to feel?’”
If Xu Xu Fang is casting down the gauntlet to the soundbite generation, the process of getting sucked into this trip is too insidious to feel like a challenge. “I’ve been in a lot of bands that were easy to define: a pop-punk band, a ’60s psychedelic rock band; another was more hardcore, one was a space-rock band — you knew what you were getting into the second you heard it,” Tamkin explains. “So I kind of sat there and thought, ‘Do I want to join some band and just play a style of music, or create something as unique to the listener as it is to me trying to make it?’ While the musical passages might not necessarily be totally unique, the presentation — the experience of putting this particular CD in the CD player — will hopefully be different than any one you’ve had before.”
In the interest of retaining a surprise element, Tamkin’s cagey about what the upcoming performance will entail; all he’ll say is that the video installment isn’t cued up with the prerecorded voices, like a projector and the sound slightly out of sync. That may sound a little arty, but Tamkin’s not about spoon-feeding listeners. “One guy in the band said during the bar scene he wanted to wear sunglasses, and I was like, ‘No, no, no!’ We’re not trying to draw attention to ourselves. If we could, we’d be hidden in a backroom.”
Xu Xu Fang performs at Greenway Court Theater, 544 N. Fairfax Ave., on Monday, September 11, at 9 p.m.