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Sprawl: Words + Music Without Boundaries

by John Schacht

Sprawl: Words + Music Without Boundaries

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Picture by Mike White

March 18, 2015

We tend to think of the junction where words and music meet mostly in terms of the pop song — a three-to-four minute nugget of prose and song that, in far too few instances, captures something we can hang our emotional hat on, sing along to, and maybe shake a little ass with.

As for author readings, we’ve also been handed a blueprint: a hushed auditorium, a tetchy mic, a sedating event by nearly any measure.  

But why limit either experience? That's the conceit that drives Sprawl, a series of author readings paired with music performances. The two are designed to complement one another while also suggesting the deeper aesthetic bonds between the art forms.

Sprawl #4: Words + Music takes place Sunday at 3 p.m. in the relaxed atmosphere of Snug Harbor in Plaza Midwood. The readings come via a trio of Curbside Splendor Publishing touring Chicagoans, including novelists James Tadd Adcox and Brian Costello, as well as poet W. Todd Kaneko. The music features Athens, Georgia ensemble the Kenosha Kid — billed as “Jazz meets 21st century instrumental post-rock” — and local whiz Bo White’s Orquesta.

“It's crazy how divided our creative endeavors can be made to seem,” says local poet, visual artist and educator Amy Bagwell, one of Sprawl’s coordinators. “I like music and books and art and sports. I think a lot of people do. But we still tend to deliver things in single-label packages. This divides us from other interesting people. It robs us of chances to see things we might not have sought out but are challenged by. And it denies us the opportunity for the Reese's Cup effect of arts meeting, even accidentally.”

On the surface, there seems little uniting these disciplines and artists at Sprawl beyond the organizers’ fondness for both; as an instrumental act, the Kenosha Kid doesn’t even employ words. But the shared artistic ground actually runs deep, a Venn diagram of exploratory natures both musical and literary that don’t cow-tow to the limitations of the pop song or best-seller.

In Adcox’s new novel, Does Not Love, a couple reels from a miscarriage in an alternate-reality version of Indianapolis where Big Pharma controls all; Costello’s debut novel, Losing in Gainesville, contemplates a sun-drenched slacker scene where professional entropy can only be ameliorated by the constant intake of drugs, alcohol, Charles Bukowski, Lou Reed and the Replacements; in Kaneko’s self-illustrated book of poetry, Dead Wrestler Elegies, a father and son reconnect through a shared obsession with the wrestling ring and through old VHS tapes.

Sprawl #4’s roster even blurs the more concrete lines that exist between these art forms. Curbside Splendor, for instance, started out as a punk rock band in the early 90s in Urbana, Illinois, before reforming in 2009 as a publishing venture and moving to Chicago. Last year they were named Best Chicago Indie Publisher of 2014 by Chicago Magazine for publishing fiction, creative non-fiction, and poetry that celebrate “art, urban life, and extraordinary voices” — which is what you’d expect any quality punk, rock or jazz band to aspire to.

As for literary inspiration in the Kenosha Kid — well, you don’t have to look further than the name, taken from Thomas Pynchon’s post-modern touchstone, Gravity’s Rainbow. (Nettles has another studio recording, 2009’s Fahrenheit, that’s built loosely around Ray Bradbury’s seminal sci-fi work, Fahrenheit 451.) In Pynchon’s novel, the Kenosha Kid is an ambiguous figure: it might be a cowboy, or a dance, or a drug-induced hallucination: “You never did the Kenosha Kid,” Pynchon wrote, before riffing on the punctuation — and meanings — of that sentence. That variability suited Dan Nettles, the guitarist and leader of the Kenosha Kid who describes his outfit as one playing “roots rock for time travelers,” “adventure jazz,” and “probably” a jam band.

“I thought that was interesting that having the same words punctuated in a variety of different ways could mean so many different things,” says Nettles, a Berklee College of Music grad. “So I thought about that in terms of music — you can just reflect on the idea of phrasing, and how phrasing is everything.”

Nettles’ fondness for those always-changing phrases is showcased in a pay-what-you-want live-show Bandcamp discography running to over 40 releases. Since forming the core trio with bassist Robby Handley and drummer Marlon Patton in the early 2000s, that's where the Kenosha Kid introduces — and embraces — the semi-controlled chaos of improvisation in Nettles' compositions.

Nettles studied jazz at Berklee, but came away from the education learning mostly that he disliked the rule-book accumulating around the improvisational heart of jazz. But in 2004, after several weeks study and improvisation at the Banff Workshop in Jazz & Creative Music in Canada, Nettles reemerged both inspired and with new collaborators, including a trio of top-shelf horn players:  Mexico City trumpeter Jacob Wick, Berlin-based alto saxophonist Peter Van Huffel, and Seattle tenor/baritone saxophonist Greg Sinibaldi.

They all appear on the Kenosha Kid’s latest, the gorgeous Inside Voices. The seven-track, 38-minute LP was put together after Nettles’ mother passed away following an 18-month battle with cancer. She’d been extremely supportive of his music career, and Nettles was determined to make a record his mother would have been proud of. To that end, he assembled his team from the far corners for a six-day studio session down the street from his home. It so happened that down the street the same distance in the other direction was a venue where Nettles booked the band at night. The day and night sessions, Nettles says, played off each other even better than he’d hoped.

“The music we were making in the night-time was feeding directly into what we were doing in the studio,” Nettles says, citing the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsies LPs as the yin and yang sum of studio cool-versus-live fire. “Live, I don’t mind presenting a 10- or 12-minute version of a song, but in the studio I wanted to reign it all in and use the studio time to actually develop beautiful arrangements and present the songs like that. That’s what the record is; it’s a bit of a distillation of all the things that were happening live.”

With that as his intention, Inside Voices succeeds on all counts. The record glides seamlessly between moods and tones as easily as it shifts gears between tempos and key changes. The elegant “Vanishing Point,” with its stately gait and horn-embossed guitar lines, calls to mind (in general terms) the work of The Drift or Tortoise; “Liberty Bell” takes a New Orleans funeral march out West and gives it a plangent, desert-noir airbrush; the up-tempo “Zombie Party” playfully staggers between time signatures; “Mushmouth” cranks the groove up into funk territory.

All of it was meant to reflect back on Nettles’ roots. The LP title, he says, comes with several meanings — for one, it’s a fairly quiet LP, as in ‘use your inside voice.’ From a musical standpoint, “inside voices” are additional melodies built in between the main melody and bassline. But it’s the last one that resonates the most with Nettles. Growing up in the “crazy music cross pollination” of Athens, Nettles writes on his website, made him realize that the “constant crossfire of influences has much to do with the shape of my artistic path.”

“I wanted to really tie this record into my feelings about my roots, my music and our music – this being the pinnacle of what I’ve been able to present so far,” Nettles says in our interview. “It’s time where I’m still reflecting on where I come from and where I fit in in all this. It’s tied in some senses to my family and my family of friends, too.”

At the end of the day, isn’t most art about that same search? And don’t really good albums share the same structural coherence with the good novels or books of poetry that chronicle that same search? Nettles believe it does, and so do the folks at Sprawl.

“I would hope this record would have elements which tie it together like a great work of fiction would also — that crossed my mind, how a great book is great, what makes it great, and how can I apply that sort of concepts to making a record,” Nettles says. “A lot of that stuff just plays through all the arts, of how you make a series of things fit together and make the whole artwork into something that stands on its own even better.”

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Tags: Kenosha Kid, Curbside Splendor, James Tadd Adcox, Brian Costello, W. Todd Kaneko, poetry, novel, Bo White, The Drift, Tortoise, Band of Gypsies, Jimi Hendrix, Beach Boys, Inside Voices, Ray Bradbury, Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow, Pet Sounds

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