by Dave Andrae
Tiki Obmar were definitely on to something. Though barely out of high school during their prime, the Minnesota trio played a seamless amalgam of "real" instruments (bass, drums, guitar) and laptops, creating what seemed like a logical halfway point between "post-rock" and the bygone heyday of Warp Records. In concert, Tiki Obmar's otherworldly sound was a bit startling coming from such unassuming young lads; after seeing them play live for the first time, I walked away thinking they were easily one of the most memorable underground bands I'd encountered in quite a while.
Together, drummer Brett Bullion, bassist Graham Chapman, and guitarist Chris Smalley made artfully ambitious music, thriving brilliantly onstage, a place where electronic music so often treads water. But after playing over 100 shows in Minneapolis and beyond, and releasing two recordings with esteemed Merck Records, Tiki Obmar decided to call it quits, in the summer of 2004. I recently caught up with Brett Bullion, to shoot the shit about his old band.
Perfect Sound Forever: So how'd you guys hook up and start making music?
Brett Bullion: Basically, we all went to high school together. We went and checked out a bunch of stuff in Minneapolis, and met some guys there who introduced us to electronic music. And then we figured we should try and play it on real instruments, because we would always go and see people play off laptops, and we thought that was pretty boring. So we decided it would be cool if a live band did that.
PSF: Who specifically piqued your interest?
BB: Autechre definitely had a big influence on us, or at least on me, personally, as far as drumming goes. Because I would just play along with those records and try to figure out how to play like that live, even though it's really hard. I dunno, there was so much good stuff that really caught our attention. You know, the typical Autechre/Aphex Twin stuff, that was definitely inspiring, but we tried to take that and apply it to instruments, not just rip it off on drum machines.
PSF: Having listened to your records, and having seen Tiki Obmar live a few times, I think your music worked best in concert. Would you agree with that?
BB: Well, yeah. [pause] But you gotta remember that those recordings are really old, that was like junior year of high school for us. That's like fucking two years ago. Playing live really changed our sound. I would definitely agree that our music improved live. For us, that's how improvisation and instrumental music should be. It should keep evolving live. Unfortunately, we never got to go back into the studio and really represent the live show. But we tried to have continuity between the two, as much as we could, while improvising and playing off each other.
PSF: Do you think electronic music should have to compete with rock music, in terms of live performance? Not in the sense of it being a spectacle, but in terms of spontaneity?
BB: Well, I think some electronic guys don't even really view themselves as musicians. And I don't think that's really a bad thing, or a good thing, it's just a different thing. I've always viewed laptop shows as being like paintings. You don't usually go and watch a Painter actually paint; the painting is already done when you go to the art show. It's not like you're gonna go and actually watch somebody make a sculpture. They spend a lot of time sculpting it, and then it's done. That's sort of how a lot of laptop stuff is. But it can be different for people who are coming from a background of playing traditional instruments, and seeing things improvised live. I mean, that's the amazing thing about people who can really improvise well, you go and see people who can do that and it's an exciting sort of thing to watch, live, rather than something that's already more or less finished. You just have to have a different mindset when you're experiencing both things. I mean, watching a laptop show can be very inspiring, and I've definitely been to a few of those shows that are really, really interesting.
PSF: Did you find that the Minneapolis area was pretty receptive towards the music you were doing?
BB: Yeah, Minneapolis was really awesome about that. There's tons of improvised and "weird" music that gets a lot of attention. There's a bunch of great jazz shit, and art-rock, or whatever you wanna call it, happening there.
PSF: How do you think your tastes have evolved since you first started playing out?
BB: We started playing out in 2001. There's this church that I went to, and still go to, but at the time it was at a different location and it was called Solomon's Porch. It used to be in Linden Hills, in Minneapolis, and we put on concerts there, like every week. It had absolutely nothing to do with the church. It wasn't like a church-sponsored event, it was just a place for us to play. And we played there like every Friday for a year. It was really cool because it became this really tight community of all our friends from school. We were just hanging out and not really worrying about anything, really. We just played. There was no money in it, there was no anything. We just played and we learned so much doing that. That's really what got us playing live and improvising. And then by the time we went and started playing clubs in Minneapolis, people were really taken back by it because we had all this live experience and we were so comfortable playing in front of people and playing with each other.
PSF: Merck Records seems like a good home for you guys. Did you hook up with them soon after?
BB: Yeah. Well, basically, we recorded High School Confidential in my basement, and then our friend Adam Johnson, who we met just from playing around, he was just putting out his record on Merck, and he suggested that we send it there. And so we just sent it to Gabe [Merck's owner], and he thought it was cool, and he took a chance on it.
PSF: Is there anything going on in electronic music these days that you're trying to steer clear of?
BB: I just check out what I like, and I try not to think in terms of what I don't like or any other negative aspects. It's like with any kind of music, there are always people who are "getting it" and making great music and I try to check out music where, regardless of the genre, people are just being honest about it. Recently I haven't been listening to much electronic music at all. I mean I've been listening to the new Fennesz record and the new Bjork a little bit, but other than that I've been checking out stuff like Wilco [laughs]. I dunno, I am sort of sick of the whole "just loops" thing. I do wanna push the song structure and arrangement, and timings, and stuff like that.
PSF: What sort of projects do you have on the horizon now?
BB: Well, I'm looking at my new project right now, as we speak. There's this wonderful, terrific bass player that I met named Chris Morrissey, and he's interested in doing this, and so am I. I think we're gonna have a visual guy come in too, so I think it'll be like a drummer and bass player and then a visual guy, and that'll be the band. But…I don't know, it's too early to tell what's gonna happen.
Tiki Obmar's recordings, the recently-released Seasons, and their 2003 debut, High School Confidential, are available from Merck Records.
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