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Photograph by Amy Angelo
Far afield: Sleepytime Gorilla Museum is not your typical bedtime great ape spectacular.

Fright Night

Sleepytime Gorilla Museum gets all gothic and odd at the Brookdale Inn.

By Andrew Gilbert

Give them half a chance and the musical menagerie Sleepytime Gorilla Museum will unsettle your dreams.

The Oakland-based rock band combines a haunted house aesthetic with textured noise and catchy melodic themes that have a strange way of infiltrating your memory. Blending spooky tunes, dazzling musicianship and a finely honed sense of the absurd, Sleepytime puts the art into avant-rock. And in a perfect meeting of band and venue, SGM performs Tuesday at the allegedly haunted Brookdale Inn, a historic site with a long history of spectral activity.

Featuring Nils Frykdahl on guitar and vocals, bassist and instrument builder Dan Rathbun, drummer Matthias Bossi, percussionist Michael Mellender and Carla Kihlstedt on violin and vocals, the five Sleepytime curators turn every performance into a riveting spectacle with homemade instruments, elaborate costumes and cryptic, Dada-inspired lyrics. The band's name is borrowed from an early-20th-century Dada press that published the writings of Scottish occult mathematician John Kane, whose work was marked by an "insatiable drive toward problem-creating, making simple situations insolubly difficult."

SGM has built a devoted cult following since coming together in 1999, though in some ways it actually inherited a coterie of fans from Idiot Flesh, the notorious band from which it evolved. The legendary Oakland art rock group put on fabulously elaborate shows that included theater, puppetry, dance and painstakingly constructed sets that were often destroyed by the end of the evening. Idiot Flesh even spawned a highly regarded butoh-inspired modern dance company, Ink Boat. When the band broke up after a decade of provocations in 1998, Frykdahl and Rathbun decided to continue in the same musical direction while shedding many of the theatrical trappings. "Already at the end of Idiot Flesh there was an increasing preoccupation with texture music," says Frykdahl, who studied composition at the University of California, Berkeley, with noted composer Andrew Imbrie. "Not necessarily moving away from composition in terms of lots of notes, but writing from noise up, building sections and parts up out of that, rather than writing in a vertical harmonic style, and always keeping an eye on the sound picture and on using unconventional instruments."

It was Idiot Flesh's intricately constructed music that attracted the conservatory-trained violinist Carla Kihlstedt. Best known for her work in the avant-garde chamber ensemble Tin Hat and her acclaimed singer/songwriter project 2 Foot Yard, she had a musical epiphany while performing as a sideshow act for an Idiot Flesh production. "I was fresh out of conservatory and had done my best to leave behind the whole classical world," Kihlstedt says. "The thing I missed was the attention to detail that classical music affords you. Working on Bartok's string quartets, there's a level of detail and precision while still making incredibly visceral music that I really thrived on. When I heard Idiot Flesh that night, it just blew my mind. I realized that what I was missing existed in an incredibly powerful, all-encompassing rock experience."

She went on to found Sleepytime with Rathbun and Frykdahl, and over the past decade the band has developed its own gothic mythology, borrowing elements from high modernist prose, obscure and possibly apocryphal religious tracts and 19th-century carnival hokum. Performing in elaborate makeup and costumes made by Kihlstedt, the quintet has expanded its already vast sonic palette with a battery of found objects and handcrafted instruments. While Sleepytime isn't averse to incorporating theatrical elements, the group takes full advantage of the musical flexibility afforded by performing without puppets and butoh dancers.

"Now we're able to focus more on the music," Frykdahl says, "and work on the improvisational aspects that can come from not having a program to follow."

SLEEPYTIME GORILLA MUSEUM plays Tuesday, July 8, at 7pm at the Brookdale Inn, 11570 Hwy. 9, Brookdale. 831.338.1300. Call for price.

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