In the world of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, one plus one equals zero. It's a world filled with unworldly junkyard clank and belligerent ballyhoo, a world of pissed-off Goths on acid, a world teeming with ethereal choirs of chirping angels on ecstasy and plagues of buzzing locusts consuming every last morsel of Eden in their path. It's a world where songs are referred to as "exhibits" and concerts are known as "showings." Sleepytime Gorilla Museum's world spins so fast, the line between beauty and horror blurs into one coherent whole.
"We definitely try to stay out there. But also, we try not to get lost in the weirdness," explains Dan Rathbun, Sleepytime's bassist and instrument-maker. "It's fully possible for people who are interested in experimental music to go off the deep end, to where the average person can't understand anything that they're doing. We're really trying to remember that songs are supposed to have an emotional point of existence. Songs have something to say and have a way to make a person feel."
Rising from the ashes of the Oakland theatrical performance-art troupe, Idiot Flesh, Rathbun and guitarist-vocalist Nils Frykdayh joined with violinist Carla Kihlstedt (Tin Hat Trio), industrial percussionist Moe! Staiano and original drummer David Shamrock. Their quest: truly original music.
Rathbun (also known as The Improver) and Frykdayh (aka Pin) first began performing together in Idiot Flesh, but after almost a decade of Dada-esque delirium, the group needed to call it quits.
"Basically, we got to an end of a road," says Rathbun. "There was a certain self-destructive element that we tried to personify with the slogan "rock against rock.' We started to feel it had run its course, and needed to destroy itself in order to be true to its principles. The next step was not to take a next step."
Thus Sleepytime Gorilla Museum was born. Every creative group must have a mythology, and SGM's imagined history revolves around Scottish philosopher John Kane, the purveyor of black math. Kane's teachings-published by the Sleepytime Gorilla Press-involve the "insatiable drive toward problem-creating, making simple situations insolubly difficult."
One plus one equals zero.
In his quest for new sounds, Rathbun continually creates a stunning array of instruments. From the "slide piano log" (the bottom four strings of a piano strung along a seven-foot board and struck with a drumstick) to the "percussion guitar" (a sturdy, rebuilt guitar also hammered with drumsticks), Rathbun's inventions help spur SGM's songwriting process.
"We got more interested in finding sounds that were unusual and original, that weren't the standard sounds that everyone is making," he explains. "The stuff that I build is really unique, but not necessarily versatile. There are only a few different things you can do with it and there are only a few different sounds it will deliver. Even though those sounds are completely original, it's not like you can just stick them into any old song. The band that I'm in is willing to embrace this weird shit and write around it."
Along with new drummer Mathias Bossi (who recently put out his own recording of dissonant sea chanteys called Book of Knots), Sleepytime Gorilla Museum will bring its edgy show to Soma.
Rathbun says they feed off the manic energy in San Diego: "It has a reputation in my mind as a place where people like to hit each other. The fact is, the shows have been great consistently."Sleepytime Gorilla Museum performs with Dredg at Soma, 7 p.m. on Jan. 7. $10. 619-226-7662. www.sleepytimegorillamuseum.com.