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Photograph by George Sakkestad

Daisy Chain: The Lowdown patches their sound together with low-tech instruments and a high-concept attitude.

Embracing The Absurd

The Lowdown tests the middle ground between highbrow free jazz and lowbrow noise rock

By David Espinoza

SOMEONE ONCE SAID that writing about music is like dancing about architecture, essentially implying that it's absurd if not pointless to try explaining something through a different medium. The only problem with this argument, as a college roommate once pointed out to me, is, what if you wanna dance about architecture?

Such are my thoughts on how to describe the Lowdown, a group of guys that most people would recognize as a band, though what they do could very well be interpreted as painting about electricity or eating about rock & roll. Sound too abstract?

OK, you got me. The Lowdown is a band in the sense that they do use instruments like guitars, drums and keyboards, though to say that they actually play them is another matter. Indeed, the word "play" is a relative term with these guys--they more or less squeeze sounds out of their toys while a pre-programmed Casio keyboard offers the main drumbeat. And while some bands might keep Radio Shack knick-knacks around just as a last resort because of a lack of funds, the Lowdown make them the heart of their Musak.

"Those used to be very round," Noel Harmonson says, nodding toward three crumbled pieces of scrap metal lying on the floor which apparently were once hihats or cymbals. Sitting on the edge of his bed and smoking a cigarette, the thin-faced Harmonson stares intently at the mess of wires, amps and assorted things relating to music that occupy his room. These odds and ends range from a small drum set and trumpet case to a number of beat-up Casio keyboards--some are missing keys--and a black-and-white drawing of Lionel Richie. Taken as whole, Harmonson's room (a.k.a. the Lowdown practice space) could pass for the Jawas' mobile junkyard in the first Star Wars movie, where C3PO and R2D2 are kept before being sold to the family of a whiny farmboy named Luke Skywalker.

Not surprisingly, the thought of droids with blinking lights and B-movie science fiction flicks seems very befitting of the Lowdown. When performing live, the trio has been known to wear duct-tape hats with telephone cords attaching each other, kind of like a low-budget Devo minus the tight biker shorts. It's just one of their many off-beat charms that make these neo-experimental post-punkers one of the most interesting bands to come out of Santa Cruz in a long time.

Starting off roughly two years ago as a project between then KZSC DJ Hugh Holden and Josh Alper of UCSC campus cult faves Love Story, the concept behind the Lowdown took a major cue from the avant-garde Fluxus artists of the '60s--the idea being that live music should have an engaging side but also a prankster element to it. "There's this certain attitude that I'm more into than the music itself," Alper admits. "The philosophy is not so much why we're here. It's just we're here and it's totally bizarre."

Lowdown Guys with Gadgets: Noise-rock trio the Lowdown, (from left) Hugh Holden, Noel Harmonson and Josh Alper, makes surprising and virtually uncategorizable music with leftover instruments.

Photograph by George Sakkestad

GEARING UP TO PRACTICE, Alper tests out his favorite Casio, a 48-plus key Tonebank (the kind you buy at Target for $80) through a huge speaker, sending clunky vibrations throughout the tiny room. Across from him stands Hugh Holden, without question the shyest member, who's attempting to tune his two-string mutant guitar to Alper's keyboard. With the punch of a tiny rubber button that simple says "start/stop" the Lowdown begins a piece called "Extra Special Existential," a goofy march of guitar tweaking and nasal keyboard pounding that lends new meaning to the words "noise rock." From out of nowhere Holden and Alper wail into their respective mics in distorted falsettos. Reinforcing the already awkward beat is Harmonson, who bangs away at his snare and cymbal as if they were the makeshift pots-and-pans drum set of a 2-year-old.

The next song up, "Poodles 'n' Creeps," stands out as the jewel of the Lowdown's innovation and the epitome of what they're are all about. With a large guitar tuner mounted on his Wurlitzer electric, Alper leads the band in a tune that sounds like a malfunctioning 1980s-era Atari cartridge--a drunken Pacman game that has taken on a life of its own. And even while the manufacturers of guitar tuners most likely never imagined their product being played like a piano, Alper seems to have opened a new world of possibilities.

It is the crux of the Lowdown, for all their blatantly lowest-denominator instrumentation, that the trio has achieved a tone that few can come close to replicating. Driving this tone and overall attitude is the idea of "no brow," a take on music that rejects both highbrow and lowbrow genres. " 'No brow' originated from how it seemed like there was this huge gap between people who listen to noise rock and people who listen to free jazz," Harmonson explains.

According to Harmonson, free jazz is viewed as more academic and intellectual--highbrow--while punk rock and experimental noise are viewed as the opposite, lowbrow. But Harmonson, Holden and Alper all agree this way of thinking is completely ridiculous.

"If you want to challenge the parameters of the music you're playing, then you are united with others of the same mentality," Harmonson says. "We try to create something that's absurd. Absurdity is the most driving message behind our music."

The Lowdown plays the Stevenson Rec Room, UCSC, 8pm Thursday with the Thrones, Spaceboy and Pleaseosaurus.

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From the October 20-27, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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