By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
By Gina Tron
By Jon Solomon
By Drew Ailes
By Courtney Harrell
By Kyra Scrimgeour
The cover of Baltimore Pearl Crescent White Admiral Sister Meadow Painted God Will Visit You, the latest CD from the Lords of Howling, is cut from old vinyl records, the obsidian sheen sanded and imprinted with intricate designs. Moreover, the rest of the package is literally crafted from trash--but it's debris that radiates an odd allure, like a sepia-tinged photograph found curled in a puddle. "It's funny times we live in," singer/guitarist Chris Culhane muses. "It's so fallen, but everything's available. In fact, it's kind of exquisite, because nobody's really interested in what I find valuable. So there's tons of it just laying around everywhere."
The bounty about which consummate dumpster-diver Culhane speaks is not limited to the world of matter; it also includes the aural Eden of words, ideas, sounds, stories and songs of the sort in which his group specializes. The predominant culture may dismiss these discarded treasures, but the Lords, who record in Questa, New Mexico, but hail from various locations, including Denver and Boulder, revel in their poignant mystery.
Although the other bandmembers (David Costanza, Anne Costanza, Peter Halter, Dave Clark, Brooks Masten, Chris Schoen, Jamie Smith, Billy Brooks and Ben Wright, who collectively play guitar, bass, mandolin, trumpet, banjo, harmonica, fiddle, synthesizer and saw) make important contributions to the act's overall sound, it's Culhane, once the curator of Denver's now-defunct Bwana Gallery, who is most immersed in the venture. He says that he and his fellow members "were called together as a family" and constitute a "hive mind," but only he devotes eight hours a day to the conglomeration's music. Such efforts are necessitated by one of the Lords' more eccentric goals. "Peter had this vision that if we wrote 5,000 songs--copied down 5,000 songs--it would destroy this certain evil," Culhane explains. "It requires a lot of discipline, but that was kind of built in. It's a tedious process; you have to go through vast amounts of data. You've really got to release your hold on yourself. A loss of identity sounds like it wouldn't be too bad, but it's pretty traumatizing to a human."
As these comments imply, Culhane has been willing to sacrifice sanity for art, and he's paid a price for such dedication: "I've gotten kind of sick in the paranoid sense," he discloses. But if he suffers from madness to some degree, it's a dementia that's distinguished by lucidity and rare insight.
The project's genesis can be traced to the late Eighties, when Anne and David Costanza migrated from San Francisco, where they played in a ska band given to punk /improv pandemonium, to New Mexico, where they constructed an adobe barn at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. There, recounts Anne, "we met this guy, Jack Wright, who wrote an open call to musicians in some music magazine just saying, 'I play improv, and I'll play with anyone who will play with me.' So David wrote to him and said we were doing that kind of music. Jack was going to be in New Mexico, so we met him and followed him up to Denver, where he was playing at Chris's gallery."
Open sessions at the Bwana subsequently led to pilgrimages to Questa, where participants indulged their passion for spontaneous music at week-long intensives. "Then," Anne says, "Chris started sending us tapes of stuff he was doing on his own, which were not free improv at all--they were all songs. Right away, it was like, 'God, this is so beautiful. We should do this.'"
Today, David confirms, "the majority of material comes through Chris--a fucking absurd amount. In three years we've compiled twelve ninety-minute tapes and a CD," all of which can be purchased by writing to the band at HC81, Box 629, Questa, New Mexico 87556. "And the other Lords kind of shade it and add texture, and they work hard to live up to that. You just throw whatever technique and whatever set of stories into it and see what comes out the other end." The backgrounds of the players are key parts of this process; because they are schooled in improvisation, they are able to accommodate the sheer quantity of work that spouts from Culhane's creative font and to check any prejudices regarding which pantries are fit to pilfer.
The theremin-spooky end products shimmer like wistful wraiths or trundle along misshapenly, like a New Orleans funeral cortege as viewed through a rain-warped pane. Others constitute goofy rants. But these disparate styles are held together by a common thread of poetic imagery; lines such as "a perpetual memory like the bleached bones of a dead horse based on the drawings of other ships" are the rule, not the exception.
The stories that Culhane pours into the Lords' grinder are more numerous and varied than Scheherazade's. As he tells it, these tales have come to him over the past three years from "a more folkloric place. I'd always been involved with fairy tales, so those wound up inspiring some of my favorite songs. If I've heard different takes of a similar story and it winds up in a new take in a song, it resonates in me and drives me wild from a singing standpoint. It's like a quest; there are these hidden things like, 'Oh, yeah, here's that white-snake story, and it's here and here, and what's it mean to me, and how is it coming here?'"