Talking with the1921A is like free-associating with any group of musicians: The chat is as improvisational as the chops. While riffing about Thelonious Monk, bandleader/guitarist Joel Morrison repeats an anecdote about Monk walking onstage, throwing a potted plant into the piano, then exiting without playing a note. The Monk documentary produced by Clint Eastwood is referenced and someone mentions the Bird biopic. Lead singer Kris Hutson facetiously asks if it was a comedy/drama and someone else cracks, “Ya mean a dramedy?” Then the yap reverts back to the main theme of Monk’s godlike status among musicians.
And so forth.
But the1921A are not just any posse of mad-rapping musicians. Their catalog-number name is “a comment on the generic quality of modern music,” states Morrison. At 29, he’s the old man of a group that has created a sound mixing Delta blues cum Memphis jug-band antiquities, metallic fuzz-boxed guitar spikes and a dissonant crackpots-and-pans aesthetic. The entire ensemble plays kitchen utensils on one tune (“Ain’ It Nice”), and fret virtuoso Zac Sokolow, 19, plunks a toy piano with his toes while frailing a five-string banjo. They further insist on separating themselves from the herd: The cover of ’21A, their sole album, is made of burlap.
Most of the band’s members, who include upright bassist Mikki Itzigsohn, 20 (formerly of all-girl punk rockers Fallopian), and drummer Nick Pillot, 16, live in Venice and work at McCabe’s Guitar Shop, where they first became acquainted. They absorbed music not just in the shop, but also through an informal clique of Westside young people who share a communal computer hard drive that contains American musical history. It comprises approximately 30,000 songs, including ragtime, field hollers, “all 11 Blind guys” (Lemon Jefferson, Willie Johnson, etc.), Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Spike Jones, Miles, Coltrane and garage rock, up through Tom Waits, the White Stripes and modern street musicians. (“I deleted Steely Dan,” deadpans Hutson.) The drive gets passed around and people add their own record collections. “It gave us common knowledge as a band,” says Morrison.
Although immersed in this digital college of musical knowledge and clear about their influences, they are adamantly not revivalists. “We started with this soup of American folk music, but I don’t want to remake anything,” insists Morrison. “It’s very important that we tread new ground. We want a modern statement that reflects the things we feel.
“I really like the idea of mimicking the sounds around us and saying, ‘We’re from Venice,’” he continues. “What you end up hearing is this weird, eclectic interpretation, shifting time signatures, shifting this, shifting that. It mirrors our lives and the things you find here in L.A.” Hutson refers to Venice Beach as a “shape shifter. Shit just comes out of nowhere.”
“It’s schizophrenic,” adds Morrison, “and it’s important that you hear that in our music.”
Pillot’s drum kit is the sixth, not-so-silent member of the1921A, an in-progress work of art they call The Drunkyard Percussion. It’s modified with a steering wheel that, when spun and hit, rattles and rings; a dulcimer with a license plate inserted under the strings which they named The Schambukler, that produces sitarlike notes; and high hats made from pie pans, dubbed pie hats. “There’s something about the soul of it that I just don’t hear in modern stuff,” waxes Morrison about their PoMo acoustic gear. “We decided early on that we were gonna tell people what is cool.”
The music is composed collectively, often begun by one and finished by others, sometimes by gazing at old photos (Robert Frank is a hero) and translating the picture into the language of sound. The majority of the lyrics are written by Hutson. “I mimic what the band does experimentally. I like combinations of words that don’t belong together and force them to work with each other.” In “Madison,” he sings: “Down in a dive in New Orleans/a tiptoe slap-back whispers to me/‘Love isn’t cheap and love isn’t free/but I’ll tell you what, kid, you can buy it from me.’” He cites Jeffrey Lee Pierce and Emmett Miller as vocal influences. Others might detect Waits and Beefheart at a higher register.
“We’re a weird bunch of people,” admits Morrison, in terms of where the1921A fit into the grand scheme of 21st-century culture. Adds Hutson, “They’re going to have to make up a new radio station for us.”
the1921a performs at The Viper Room on Sunday, February 8.