By Noah Hubbell
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Seattle's Hovercraft remains best known not for its fascinating instrumental music, but for the love life of bassist Sadie 7, aka Beth Liebling, who's married to Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder. In fact, Vedder played drums with the instrumental trio during its 1995 tour with Mike Watt and the Foo Fighters. But guitarist Campbell 2000 describes that particular experiment as "a bit of a disaster," adding, "He won't ever play drums for us again, so there's no reason to come for that. If you're coming for that, you're coming for all the wrong reasons."
A far better pretext for checking out Hovercraft, which also features drummer Dash 11, is Experiment Below, its latest CD. On it, the trio creates instrumental music that's as visceral as it is evocative, generating enormous energy that leaves a monumental aural footprint. The result is an unapologetically avant-garde combination that finds interesting effects in the unlikeliest places. "I hear melody in things that would never be considered musical--like the different tones of the refrigerator humming," Campbell notes. "You can hear music in that, and for some reason, I do. There are so many sounds out there that you can listen to that you can find entertaining and pleasant if you just allow your mind to hear them that way."
At the same time, the act's work owes more to the simple pleasures of punk rock than it does to art-music influences. For example, the bandmembers play the standard tools of the rock-and-roll trade and do not use overdubs. Admittedly, some of their more curious racket emerges from samplers triggered by pedals, but these are real-time embellishments. As Campbell puts it, "If you hear some crazy sound coming out like it was made from an analog synthesizer, that's all been inserted live--with my feet."
Because its chaotic waxing and fuzzy waning is offset by rhythmic urgency and semi-composed structures, Hovercraft remains just outside the noise pigeonhole--which is where the group's artistic aims come in. "We aren't just out there trying to offend people," Campbell says. "We're out there trying to make music out of these tiny, minute, abstract sounds--blowing them up so they become music and turn into melodies." In a sense, then, Campbell's artistic expression lies in the scrutiny of sound, which entails appropriating bits of auditory sensation for larger, louder purposes. He feels that "in art, you get to the point where you want to take these little tiny ideas and concepts you have, and you just want to make them big."
Given such unconventional notions, it's not surprising that Hovercraft lands in disparate stylistic territories. Experiment Below and 1997's Akathisia have earned the band comparisons to the krautrock of Can, the prog-rock of Soft Machine, the ambient blips and bleeps of Stereolab, the guitar symphonics of Glenn Branca, the industrial might of Throbbing Gristle, the trance power of Spaceman 3 and the space-tripping of Hawkwind. But to explain the band's origins (as well as its concerts, which are renowned for volume and velocity), Campbell returns to punk. "The thing that first inspired us," he says, "was going to small punk shows where you could stand two or three feet away from the stage and just get blasted--something you can't get anywhere else unless you go down and stand next to a jet engine at the airport."
Other types of sensory overload are also part of the package: Visual projections are a major focus at Hovercraft shows, providing the only illumination on an otherwise dim stage. The band edits these impressionistic streams of imagery to its own standards, primarily borrowing from documentaries and scientific films. "It's integral," Campbell points out. "For us, it's about scoring a film."
In addition to offering audiences a filmic feast, the medium provides Campbell a metaphor for explaining to the uninitiated Hovercraft's approach to composition. He believes that tempos and texture are like scenes that the performers piece together into an all-encompassing whole. Passages, for their part, refer to each other throughout songs, but not according to set notation. "I see it more like a film that evolves," Campbell says. "Sooner or later there's going to be an ending, but every film has a different structure. It's not necessarily verse-chorus-verse.
"I've always tried to incorporate rhythm into the imagery," he continues, "and now there's this tight-knit connection between the visuals and the music, rhythmically, that wasn't always there before." Much of the credit for this innovation goes to Dash 11. After admitting that "it's hard to find drummers who are willing to improvise and that have a rock-punk-type playing style," Campbell maintains that the drummer's recent addition has reinvigorated the group.
Despite the synchronized nature of its visuals, Hovercraft's shows allow plenty of room for musical exploration. Within a minimal blueprint, and without traditional frameworks to guide them, the three make informed, spontaneous contributions. "The thing we can relate to most is jazz and the way it would take a simple melody and base thirty minutes of improvisation around that," Campbell says. "It would come back to it, then leave it, then change it and build on it. That's kind of what we're doing." Hovercraft's music isn't dominated by free improvisation, but to Campbell there is no right or wrong. Even while triggering grand tumult within particular rhythm patterns, the group easily moves together through detours and tangents, thanks in large part to Campbell and Sadie 7's longstanding musical relationship, which dates back to 1992.