Devin Sarno says he never remembers his dreams. Well, maybe some part of him remembers — the part that generates his music. Because the music seems so much like a sleepvision soundtrack.
His instrument is the electric bass, but that isn’t obvious when you hear Crib, Sarno‘s artistic identity for the past 12 years. The drony midrange and low-frequency waves sustain like a synthesizer, while adding the massage you get from vibrating strings. Sounds loop in natural rhythms; audio shadows move like a sundial. Ommmm . . .
Serviced by nearly invisible guest guitarists and violinists (G.E. Stinson, Nels Cline, Jeff Gauthier, Petra Haden), the new Remnant wells up with levels of understated melody somewhat beyond what occurred in any of Crib’s previous recordings. It‘s also Sarno’s first concept record. He creates an atmosphere — ghostly backgrounds of street noises and train horns that he taped on San Fernando Road — and you can complete the story yourself.
The trains are a big element of the concept, hooting intermittently through a warm environment half liquid, half air. He used to hear them all the time when he was growing up in Echo Park; they‘re the remnant the title refers to.
“They would echo through the whole canyon,” says Sarno — voice even and quiet, eyes kind of intense. “And every time I hear them to this day, it does something to me.”
It could do something to you, too. Dreams, reveries, memories and meditations are all related, and Sarno thinks people can use such periods of abstraction as tickets out of their pressured, fragmented, multicut modern lives. (He himself pays his rent by executive-producing music videos for Warner Bros., so he knows.) Focus for even a minute on his sounds, and you’ll be sidetracked into an alternative state that most of us want, but few search for. Maybe we just need the right engine.
Crib on record and live are two different animals. While improvisation is Sarno‘s meat in both settings, a club contains more random wildlife. He used to play really loud in larger facilities, trying to fight attendees’ irritating though understandable tendency to concentrate on activities for which one doesn‘t need to visit music clubs (talking, drinking, ogling). Now he prefers small venues like Labor Fruit, the Smell and the AlterKnit Lounge, where he trims the volume, brings in auxiliary sound prodders like transistor radios and wind-up chimes, and makes the audience his ensemble.
“It’s almost like a duet with whoever‘s walking through the door or talking, cars going by — I’ve come to really appreciate that kind of thing and play off it.”
That approach is one of the few remnants you can hear from the many years Sarno spent listening to records of ‘60s free improvisationinteraction, especially Albert Ayler’s gales of atomized saxophone. He says that though Ayler agitates or irks most people he knows, avant noise calms him. Same effect from the ‘80s punk bands he played in.
Like the thing about not remembering his dreams, the way Sarno reacts to noise is typical of what makes him untypical. The opposite of a pop artist, he’s the guy who, with partner Tom Grimley, ran WIN, a small label that released material by the likes of Lynn Johnston, the Centimeters and the Polar Goldie Cats during its existence from 1989 to 2000. Even though his solo-bass career has coincided with bass-friendly innovations in digital recording as well as a groundswell in popular bass obsession brought on by freshly re-attuned listener ears, Sarno has blazed a reverse path. As beats got heavier, he was abandoning beats altogether. As stoners slackened their strings, he started playing higher up his instrument‘s neck. As car stereos shook the pavement, he got quieter and more introspective. While Christina Aguilera was taking off her clothes, Sarno’s publicity photos weren‘t even showing his face. “I’m not much fun to look at,” he says.
Sarno has remarked on his amazement at how people can‘t see what’s right in front of them. His own case: Without formal training or any clear idea of where he was headed, he just one day decided to look at the instrument in his hands and “investigate what it could do.” Over a decade later, he hasn‘t begun to run out of possibilities.
Not a bad approach to a lot of things.
Crib does an in-studio Webcast performance on KSPC 88.7 FM on Saturday, May 4, at 1 p.m. The Crib Web site is www.fourstring.org.