Babbling on with Bablicon
Photo by Mike Galinsky
by Steve Hanson (March 2002)I like to picture the U.S. trio Bablicon as superheroes, flying over American cities, blasting conservative corporations with bohemian noise-emitting rayguns. Blue Hawaii, Marta Tennae and The Diminisher delight in disintegrating any riff or structure they happen upon, in the same way a baby delights in throwing its rattle out of its pram, again and again, no matter how many times mummy picks it up scoldingly.
As part of my duties as reviews editor for Ptolemaic Terrascope, I helped out at the annual Terrastock festival at the ULU (the University of London), in London. A security guard stood nearby seemed to realise I was connected with the event. With a furrowed brow he walked over and said, "You call this music? My bleedin' three year old lad could play this!" He walked off with a face that looked as if it had been drained of all its god-given moral fibre. It's the same old layman's argument that is difficult to disprove on face value: a trio of three year olds on Bablicon's kit might have made a similar noise to the more "out there" passages under the theory of infinite monkeys on infinite keyboards, but the point is that his three year old DIDN'T make this music. It's an accusation that's been levelled at Picasso many times, let us not forget.
Certainly Melody Maker carped that In a Different City was "the worst record ever made." These shallow and spineless finks in the mainstream music press will soon wish they had been brave enough to have more faith in the first place. Bablicon can play like a dream when they wish to, just as Picasso could draw and paint like an angel when he wanted to, and they now have "Blu Hawaii" from the latest album The Cat That Was a Dog/A Flat Inside a Fog (which they play in a way that three year olds never could) to prove it. Story related, The Diminisher points out that Charles Mingus has actually tried the three year old stunt in the quartet he had with Eric Dolphy in the early '60's...
I spoke to The Diminisher and Jeremy Barnes (Clark Kent to Marta Tennae's Superman) about Bablicon. It is impossible to tell you exactly what Jeremy does in Bablicon as they are all multi-instrumentalists and swap roles on stage. At any one time it could be drums, theremin, oboe... or a combination of both. Jeremy is also the drummer for Neutral Milk Hotel, one of the most prominent and well-loved bands of the psychedelic Elephant 6 collective. I asked him how he worked Bablicon into his Neutral Milk commitments (or Neutral Milk into his Bablicon commitments) and about the latest album, which has a more structured feel compared to their debut record of tonal funk anarchy. Like Bill Clinton, Jeremy claims to have compartmentalized his life so that he has time to do both jobs. When Bablicon began recording, Neutral Milk Hotel was touring incessantly and took precedent. They had only three weeks to record In a Different City compared to a year in which to record The Cat That Was a Dog - one reason why that album is, on the whole, compositionally more elaborate. And anyway, as the Diminisher says, "composition is just improvisation in slow motion."
Since they finished touring responsibilities, (including a blinding elongated set at Manchester's Night and Day in wicker basket headgear and geek spectacles) both Bablicon and Neutral Milk Hotel have been at a standstill. Jeremy is quick to point out that the lulls do not mean either of the bands have broken up, though his energies have moved over to focus on his own recordings. A new Bablibranch has also been opened in the form of the even-weirder Need New Body, essentially a Bablicon-produced record, though they all play on it (the eponymous Need New Body debut is out on Pickled Egg Records). It's this kind of moonlighting that has characterised the E6 movement generally, and something that makes Bablicon such a universal, omnipotent force. When you listen to most records they are a smaller part of your own reality (in terms of hierarchy). Literally, they are something going on in the corner. Even if you are concentrating hard (eyes closed, headphones on) the experience never goes much beyond the importance of the self, the ego, the ID. With Bablicon the recordings are much more sprawling, a simultaneous micro and macrocosm you can sometimes (however rarely) lose yourself in. They are bigger, to the point where total immersion is achieved and your own reality is replaced with their world in some horrible avant garde storming of the winter palace. This immersion can only be achieved in pools as deep as the ones Bablicon create, obviously your average pop record just won't do the trick, but nor will most experimental or psychedelic records. The whole of my reality sometimes seems as if it is the merest part of The Cat That Was a Dog. Yes, Bablicon are a house of many mansions.
I asked Jeremy about musical influences. I was keen to test a theory about the late great Roland Kirk (another man not content with playing one instrument at a time) as I see Bablicon as a kind of 21st Century hybrid of his Rahsaaness and The Soft Machine (I liken The Cat That Was a Dog to The Softs' Third). Of course, Jeremy is a huge fan of Kirk and Natural Black Inventions is one of his favourite records ever. He goes on to namecheck Archie Shepp, Matthew Shipp, Gunter Sommer, Ed Blackwell and Fats Waller. It turns out they all love The Soft Machine too. On a camping excursion in the UK between tours a few years ago, Jeremy and his girlfriend actually went to Louth to try to find Robert Wyatt, The Soft Machine's drummer who had to give up traditional kit playing after an accident in the 70's. His wild breakbeat percussion is sorely missed and Bablicon seem to have stepped in to fill his shoes to a certain extent. Jeremy and his girlfriend ended up meeting his stepmother, Irene, who had them over for tea and cake. They spoke to Robert on the phone there about the relationship between anthropology and archaeology. They later sent him a tape of the first Bablicon album and received a letter back.
Jeremy also talks enthusiastically about gypsy music from Rajasthan to Romania to Spain. "I am very interested in the Lautari musicians of Hungary and Romania, a family of musicians brought over from India by Wallachian princes many centuries ago; they are still present and playing some of the most beautiful music in the world." Taraf de Haidouks and Fanfare Ciorcilia are good examples. It is another influence very audible on the unique, octopoid records of Bablicon (they initially put out the slightly awkward attempt at a pop single "Chunks of Syrup Amidst Plain Yoghurt," which, though wonderful, seemed like Shiva trying to put on a coat with only the usual two sleeves).
Though influences are audible, it is evident from first contact with Bablicon that they live entirely in their own universe. Their letters and e-mails are peppered with phonetic morse code ("pi pi pi pi yip yip") and non-sequiturs which seem disturbingly uncontrived and yet at one with Bablicon's sound and weltanschauung.
But what of the future for them? Well, last year was difficult. The Diminisher moved to China, and Jeremy moved to France. They all fully intended to continue, but when you don't live in the same country it tends to be hard to practice! The Diminisher is now closer, working on a quintet in Chicago and getting ready to record. Blue Hawaii plays in myriad bands and is recording projects by other people. Jeremy has just mixed a solo album that he recorded in France, and he is playing drums in The Gerbils on their winter east coast tour before going back to France (with a break in New Mexico between). He is also working on a new record by Filip Ring Anderson from Norway who sings on his solo record. All of this makes his "compartmentalisation" begin to look like a giant mail sorting office - pigeonholes everywhere and plenty of unclassifiable stuff piling up on the floor.
Bablicon in its own right have plans to tour in the new year, but they have been delayed slightly so they can prepare for it. When they do hit the road again, you should catch them whilst you still can, because like everything they do, they're almost impossible to nail down.
'Chunks of Syrup Amidst Plain Yoghurt'/'Silicon Diodes' (7")
In a Different City (LP/CD)
Orange Tapered Moon (CD mini album)
The Cat that was a Dog/A Flat Inside a Fog (LP/CD)
Need New Body
Need New Body (LP/CD)
(All available from Pickled Egg Records)
Steve Hanson is a reviewer for Careless Talk Costs Lives and Reviews Editor for Ptolemaic Terrascope magazine. He can be contacted at email@example.com
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