Saturday, October 11, 2008

Capillary Action’s sadistic avant-pop: Between economic innovation and commercial suicide

Jonathan Pfeffer, the man behind Capillary Action, a “sadistic avant-pop” group freshly relocated to Seattle, likes thinking that his music “treads [a] fine line between economic innovation and commercial suicide.” To mark the release of his third opus, So Embarrassing, he does us the honor of telling us why.

Jonathan Pfeffer is only 22 years old, but he already composes some of the most stimulating music in contemporary experimental rock. His new album So Embarassing crosses cerebral and neurotic mathrock stereotypes with those of the suavest smooth jazz, the furor of an electric guitar with the melodic expressivity of a Fender Rhodes. His sound evinces a broad-ranging musical heritage (Jonathan cites Varèse, as well Don Cherry and his friends from Talibam! among his influences) as well as a schizophrenic desire to juxtapose seemingly incompatible textures and atmospheres.

The result is hard not to compare with the anarchic and jubilatory experimentations of a John Zorn or a Mike Patton. Asked about this likeness, Jonathan Pfeffer bristles. “As much as I respect John Zorn and Mike Patton and as much as I can understand the resemblance, neither is an influence of mine. And neither is Zappa for that matter. I think what people may be hearing are some shared influences (60’s free jazz, 20th century classical music) or some superficial stylistic similarities (the use of different genres, people who can actually play their instruments, etc.).” And, upon further rumination: “The comparisons wouldn’t bug me so much if I felt like Zappa, Zorn, and Patton’s aesthetics were rooted in the same emotions I’m trying to convey. The Zappa/Zorn/Patton records I’ve heard, though undeniably well thought-out and executed, always struck me as sort of humorous. While there is definitely humor in the music I write, I feel like the subject matter I’m writing about is much more personal and intense than anything I’ve heard from Zappa, Zorn, or Patton.”

While Capillary Action’s preceding records, Fragments (2004) and Cannibal Impulses (2006), were entirely instrumental, So Embarassing is constructed around the voice, and, especially, texts. “I feel like the human voice connects with people—myself included-- in a way other instruments don’t and putting it upfront and center in an avant-rock context gives the music much more warmth than the music of instrumental bands treading similar territory. Capillary Action’s music does take precedence over the lyrics but I think the vocals/lyrics provide a certain gravity to everything else going on that keeps the crazier elements from getting too out of control.”

Jonathan Pfeffer’s lyrics, as fragmented and unpredictable as his music, revolve around complex and intimate subjects: familial and romantic relationships, the hunger for recognition, paranoia. A complexity that discovers its musical echo in the record’s rich orchestration (strings and brass, in addition to guitar and drums), an attention to density and timbre carried over from Cannibal Impulses, and an intricate mosaic of riffs, melodies and chord progressions that tangle and untangle themselves at will. A working process requiring a great deal of trial and error, says Jonathan, who confesses to spending “hours, days, weeks, or sometimes months trying to jam square pegs into round holes—adjusting, deleting, replacing, and modifying each last detail.”

Jonathan is adamant about surprising his listeners. “I like setting up traps for the listener so when they think a part is coming back again, they’re pushed in a completely different direction. I also like keeping songs short and efficient so that people can be encouraged to listen over and over again to pick up little things here and there. People who are patient enough to deal with all the traps and brevity will discover that there’s actually a method to the madness.” This desire to keep his listeners on their toes translates into a sound at once exuberant and challenging, one that takes up residence at the antipodes of a consensual and comfortable pop. “I like to call it economic, sadistic avant-pop music. I take immense pleasure in seeing people writhe with discomfort when we play a part they love only twice in a song and then never return to it.”

The mastermind behind Capillary action--or “musical director,” as he likes to describe himself-- Jonathan Pfeffer frequently enlists the aid of other artists, whom he deems instrumental in forging the project’s signature sound. “Everyone involved in Capillary Action is also involved with other projects so the revolving line-up works both ways, giving me the freedom to do as I please without regard to anyone else’s schedule, as well as permitting individual members to participate when they want.” Live appearances often feature Jonathan on guitar and vocals, with Sam Krulewitch on keys and Bryan Cook on drums. “We’ve been performing as a trio (keyboard/guitar/drums) for the last year or so, mostly for economic reasons, but also because it’s a challenge to take these complex arrangements and simplify them for a small ensemble. The trio line-up emphasizes a more blitzkrieg all-guns-blazing rock show, which I think works quite nicely when you’ve only got 30 minutes to make your mark.”

When Jonathan says “blitzkrieg rock”, what he really means is that he and his co-conspirators like to declare war on their listener’s emotions. “A Capillary Action concert tends to be precise, intense, and overwhelming for both the performer and audience. I’ve seen people laugh hysterically, cry, and become so angry they throw bottles at us, sometimes all at the same performance.” This emotional closeness between the musicians and their public is a source of great personal satisfaction for Jonathan Pfeffer. “The reason I chose music as a career path because, unlike displaying your work in a gallery, as a musician you get to watch your art unfold in real time and witness the audience’s reaction right there on the spot.” Ever hungry for confrontation, the trio seizes the opportunity to play in as many different types of venues as possible: rock clubs and alternative art spaces, lofts and basements, elementary schools and universities, and even the occasional Chinese restaurant. Each venue, each audience, opens up a new dimension of the music, claims Jonathan, waxing nostalgic about a particularly intense concert before a floor of “slack-jawed 5-8 year olds.” “I think the stranger the venue, the more rewarding the show; let it be known that we will play anywhere.”

As far as plans for the near future are concerned, Jonathan Pfeffer looks forward to hitting the road again, this time with a new line-up. “The next phase of the band, which I’m working on right now, will feature all acoustic instruments (classical guitar, upright bass, trumpet, percussion, accordion, and vocals) and showcase the more melodic side of Capillary Action.” This acoustic ensemble will be on tour throughout Europe and the United States in 2009. An occasion to for us to experience the effects of this thing called capillary action in person.

Interview with Jonathan Pfeffer, Sophie Pecaud, October 2008

Words: Sophie Pécaud
Translation: Emilie Friedlander

, Cannibal Impulses and So Embarassing are distributed by Natural Selection in the United States and by Distile Records in Europe. Records can also be procured directly from the group.

French version available on, a Nantes-based online culture magazine. Link to original article here.

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