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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

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Arts + CultureMusicSleepytime Gorilla Museum returns, just in time for the...

Sleepytime Gorilla Museum returns, just in time for the rise of the machines

Oakland avant-prog outfit's 'of the Last Human Being' employs sledgehammer dulcimers, cartoon xylophones, and 'The Wiggler.'

A lot’s changed for Sleepytime Gorilla Museum (playing UC Theatre, Berkeley, Sat/6) in the 17 years since they released their last album, not least the role of technology in their lives. The Oakland band has long questioned the pervasive influence of machines and artificial conveniences in everyday life, often over scorching avant-prog while wearing outlandish costumes.

“But I have to say that this technology of Zoom, the things that were sort of imposed upon us during the pandemic years, made it possible to organize all this stuff,” says co-founder Nils Frykdahl. “That’s why every morning now we start our chant of praise to the new machine. All hail the new machine, all hail the new machine.

of the Last Human Being, SGM’s first album since 2007, represents one of the furthest extremes thus far in the band’s already gnarly sound. All sorts of little orchestrations and flourishes comment on the lyrics, from horns and strings to ominous cartoon xylophones, but they sound less baroque than diseased, like dead vines hanging from the music. 

Each band member plays numerous instruments and are continuing to learn new ones. Bassist Dan Rathbun recently discovered the melodica after failing to master the recorder (“recorder’s hard, man,” says Frykdahl), while violinist Carla Kihlstedt has recently been enamored with the bass harmonica, that deep and pining instrument that gave low-end heft to many of Brian Wilson’s Beach Boys productions.

“It’s really fun part of the challenge to try to find some new sonic combinations that we haven’t done before,” says Frykdahl. “Each person has an array of instruments available. It’s nice to have a group where everybody has various things that they can grab and to make those decisions.”

Several homemade instruments designed by Rathbun can also be heard on the record, including a percussion guitar, a “sledgehammer dulcimer,” and a contraption called the Wiggler that’s something like a Flintstones cousin of the pedal steel guitar. 

“I got into, like, what happens if you put a contact mic on a thing?” says Rathbun. “And I just tried putting contact mics on things.” (“Dan is really into foam,” adds Frykdahl. “If you wanna know what foam sounds like when it’s loud, talk to Dan.”)

of the Last Human Being came from a stage show the band mounted not long before their initial 2010 disbandment, in which the dancer Shinichi Iova-Koga plays the “last human being.” An accompanying video for the album finds Iova-Koga subjected to humiliating experiments in a lab while hounded by scientists who shout “we must know more!” The video evokes the story of Ishi, the Native Californian and last of the Yahi people who spent the end of his life as a study subject, while slyly suggesting that whatever we are now might not be “human.”

A film based on this story, which Frykdahl says is “getting the credits today,” is currently in the works. 

“There’s a lot of music, giant Thriller-style choreographed dance moments, beautiful nature shots, band cameos,” says Frykdahl. “It’s everything that you could expect from this band wrapped into a tidy little package that clocks in at about 30 minutes. It’ll just add to the general confusion sauce of our marinade.”

Playing this music live is not an easy feat, least of all for a band that hasn’t played together since 2010.

“We have been in seven days of rehearsal recreating the four albums’ worth of music,” says Frykdahl. “The very first songs on the very first record were the easiest, I think, and the days of rehearsal got harder and harder as we went chronologically.”

The band’s homecoming show at the UC Theater in Berkeley, capping off a lengthy tour of the United States that began in Arcata in late February, is a career-spanning extravaganza. They’re even bringing along one of their most iconic props: a rubber donkey mask, which drummer Matthias Bossi wears during performances of “The Donkey-Headed Adversary of Humanity.” 

Longtime fans will be pleased to know that the same donkey mask—purchased, along with many of SGM’s props, at Mr. Mopps’ Toy Shop in Berkeley—has been handed down through generations of drummers and lineups. 

“It does not breathe,” says Frykdahl. “It’s hard to wear it for five minutes, much less a two-hour set while playing the drums. So there’s a certain commitment involved there that I have to tip my hat to.”

SLEEPYTIME GORILLA MUSEUM Sat/6, 7pm, UC Theatre, Berkeley. More info here.

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Daniel Bromfield
Daniel Bromfield
Daniel Bromfield is a San Francisco native and arts journalist whose work has appeared in the Bay Guardian, San Francisco Magazine, Resident Advisor, and various music sites. He ran the SF Rebirth blog, documenting all-ages shows in the Bay Area, from 2010 to 2013. His work can be found at danielbromfield.com

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