Sounds from the Genetic Kettle
What ever happened to your old Atari? And all those games you stockpiled, where are they? Asteroids? Space Invaders? Centipede? Frogger? You've probably destroyed, lost, or sold them all by now. Nobody fools with that stuff anymore, right? Well... sorta. Byron Qualls, a 29-year-old chemist from Ashland, Kentucky, is keeping the vibe of those early games alive as he bravely concocts a bizarre hybrid of sounds as a one-man band called brown25. With sonic diversity and strangeness, brown25 takes the energy and feel of those now ancient interactive forms of amusement, mixes them with some jug band, some prog-rock, throws in some breakdance beats, and pumps the eccentric mix through your stereo. Playing nearly every instrument imaginable, Qualls has managed to write, perform, arrange, produce, edit, and mix two albums comprised entirely of original material and release them independently. After releasing these albums nationwide and receiving enthusiastic support for his artistic endeavors, Qualls has decided to take the brown25 show on the road.
Named for a commercial advertising a fictional product called brown25 in the movie The Groove Tube, brown25 is essentially just Qualls, a computer, and a bunch of instruments.
"I'm probably more of a computer geek than a musician," says Qualls. "That's not saying that I know a lot about computers, just that I know more about them than what key I'm in or whatever."
With his knowledge of computers, Qualls began laying down tracks as far back as 1997. Building on four-track material he'd been working on for a couple of years, he began putting down the groundwork for what would become his first release. Collecting as many instruments as possible and teaching himself how to play them all, Qualls began putting together his own musical workshop. This studio, dubbed The Genetic Kettle, was completed by the end of 1997 and Qualls immediately began recording what would become his debut record, brown25.
"When I started," Qualls recalls, "I had no knowledge of recording except on a 4-track. I knew nothing about what I was doing. I just started hitting the record button. Since then, I've learned a lot. I'm still trying really hard to make it sound like it's not something that I made in my spare bedroom. Hopefully by my 23rd album, I'll have it all ironed out."
Released in early 1999 on his own record label, called the Bionic Milk Plant, the self-titled debut of brown25 was an impressive achievement. Influences ranging from the Beatles to Yes to Crystal Method to Bob Dylan to Frank Zappa to Leadbelly to 70s television commercials and theme songs can be heard on any given track. brown25 melds bits of classical, garage rock, country, blues, prog-rock, and more to create an aggressive pop-culture garbage disposal of sound.
brown25 was received quite favorably and Qualls was soon invited to perform at the 1999 CMJ Musicfest in New York City and was selected as the 1998 Runner-Up for CD Now Unheard, a nationwide search for unsigned bands. The song "Full Nelson" off the debut record was even featured on CD Now's nationally distributed Unheard 0.1 Compilation.
Hopping back in the saddle, Qualls immediately went back to recording and completed his second album by December of 1999. Released in April 2000, Lunar Modular Unit continued in the same direction as the previous record, only in a much more polished and confident manner.
And yet again, Qualls managed to put just about anything that generated noise on the record, including analog synth, drum machines, banjo, mandolin, sitar, tabla, recorder, fife, castinets, and anything else he could get his hands on.
"Actually," Qualls clarifies, "I don't play anything really well. Sure, there's a lot of instruments listed and each part with each instrument took days, even weeks of practice. I usually just pick up an instrument and make up something that sounds like I know what I'm doing. I'm not a great musician. I can't really read a bit of music on the page. I'm usually more interested in what guitar effect would go good with a synth effect or something like that."
Qualls continues, "For me, songs come about in every conceivable way. I don't really sit down to write or anything. I'll start looping beats, and throwing stuff together with it... or I'll just have some melody pop in my head, or one of my friends will say something completely off the wall and it makes my head explode with ideas."
A natural extension of the complexity of brown25's sound is through the lyrics, which are as puzzling as the music.
"I guess most of my songs are introspective," claims Qualls. "It's all mostly about different states of mind that somersault in and out of my brain. I just like to have fun with words. I'm a metaphor whore."
With such strange word usage and sounds that transcend categorization, it's only natural that people have drawn some similarities between brown25 and Beck.
"I get the Beck comparison a lot," admits Qualls. "Everything that Beck puts out inspires me to create. I feel bad that the focus has been entirely on my music sounding like Beck thus far, because the sound I'm trying to achieve is equally as inspired by Olivia Tremor Control, Bjork, Mr. Bungle, and Zappa just to name a few. I guess there's worse groups or artists to sound like though."
"On the other hand, I think that there's a sort of genre that has popped out of Beck's Odelay thing, where it inspired others to try to push a new sound in other directions. Some of the most celebrated indie bands of the last two years have had their sound compared to Beck, bands like Cornelius, Beta Band, Grandaddy, Citizen King have all received that Beck stamp. I think it's because there's no real term to describe the genre, just a comparison to its most visible posterboy."
Beck comparison or not, brown25 is making some impact. His monthly email newsletter, "The Brown Low Down," has kept supporters informed of the steady airplay that Lunar Modular Unit has received- played on over 100 college stations in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. Reviews of the record have also made their way into Graffiti Magazine, Slide the Needle, Muses Muse, Splendid e-zine, and indie-music.com.
brown25 is also riding high after having been named as a winner in the Jim Beam Corporation's B.E.A.M. (Benefiting Emerging Artists in Music) program this June. The B.E.A.M. program awards cash grants to starving music artists from various genres to help them further their career. Qualls was selected from hundreds of applicants across the country to receive one of nine grants. With the $2,200 grant, Qualls plans to further promote Lunar Modular Unit and fund part of his tour in the upcoming months.
"I'm looking forward to touring with musicians who can actually play their instruments," jokes Qualls. "I would say that you could expect most songs to sound the same, but there will be some surprises. And we have a few left-field covers that hopefully will throw people off."
"I don't know what to expect in the live show just yet. I do think it would be cool for everyone to bring cardboard to the show and put together a breakdancing pit. We'll have to wait and see."
brown25 plays Friday, July 14th at Yat's. Cover is $3. For more information on brown25, visit www.bionicmilk.com
A rich sonic feast, Lunar Modular Unit is experimental music of the strangest and most fascinating sort. It invites the listener to enter an exotic, sometimes abrasive world of sound that intrigues and baffles. With clanging metallic percussion, middle eastern guitar flourishes, and acoustic adornment, brown25 creates a bizarre soundscape where electronically obscured vocals, scratching, computer noise, and semi-traditional instrumentation happily coexist.
Blending multiple styles and retro grooves, these songs are nearly impossible to categorize. While many songs do have a recognizable form, they can quickly enter uncharted territory. Almost every song has an odd synthesized component that defies typical descriptions.
In this sludgy, sonic netherworld, keyboard drones and bleeps do most of the talking. Songs like "Larvae" and " X-Axis" depend on eccentric loops and samples to stay afloat. "Delirium Tremens" has a basic acoustic structure, but electronic embellishments soon take over. "Whiskey Salad" is kinda country and "Dirt Nap" is sorta bluesy, both benefiting from an acoustic slide effect. There's even an 80s style British vibe to "Intravenous Vinyl" while "Born Rubber" feels like spoken-word jazz improvisation with a twist.
Avoiding chaos and plucking some surprising melodic beauty from his mechanical associates, brown25 tames the electronic beast. Lunar Modular Unit is a unique record, creating the effect of a dizzying otherworldly carnival, complete with sounds both scary and mystifying. -CW