Avant Guardian

Composer Michael Serviolo rides the loopy bandwidth of his own Elan-gated invention.

Seated in Domo -- a local, rustic Japanese eatery that doesn't believe in forks -- Michael Serviolo studies his menu like a finicky working-class gourmand. He exalts the merits of green-lipped mussels over the lesser species of poultry, considers aloud how the distinct tang of lemongrass might accent the fire from imported red chile, then selects a hearty stew of marine critters, vegetables and soba. When a huge bowl arrives, he seems content to sit and gaze at its steaming contents -- a symphony of colors, textures and smells all blend together in remarkable harmony -- before finally nodding in approval. He grips his chopsticks like a culinary vet from Okinawa and digs in slowly, ecstatically, as if gauging his own capacity for sensory overload.

"This rules," he concludes.

A sonic conceptualist by trade, Serviolo has a knack for mixing fresh ingredients into something exotic. His music is not so easy to sum up, even in headbanger's terms. A longtime staple on Denver's music scene -- Serviolo first appeared with Local Threat, Peace Corp and Acid Ranch as well as the original Jux County, alongside founder Andy Monley -- the 36-year-old guitarist can climb scales with the virtuosity of a Juilliard-trained jazzbo or summon the ragged glory of punk. He's likewise able to cover everything from metal-flavored progabilly to the swinging lounge grooves of the Perry Weissman 3, an adventurous local act that has soldiered on without him since the spring of 2000. (Eric Allen of the Apples in Stereo recently filled his vacancy.) After quitting the Weissmans "to pursue other interests," Serviolo turned his energies toward two longstanding personal endeavors: the angular and hard-rocking IZ and an introspective electronic recording project called Elan.

The wizard of IZ: Guitarist, composer and teacher Michael Serviolo.
John Johnston
The wizard of IZ: Guitarist, composer and teacher Michael Serviolo.

The Deluge of Soundtracks & Other Voices From the World's Silent Majority, Elan's fifth full-length release, finds Serviolo and longtime collaborator Chris Steele (the two met in East High's jazz band before Serviolo dropped out in his junior year) using a surprisingly guitarless approach to creating strange and playfully ambient worlds. By sequencing sounds from outside sources and sending them through distortion pedals and other effects in a process called "squarewaving," they coax multi-layered tones from unlikely origins. "Afterbirth Pt. 2," for example, features an airy choir that sounds like a thousand pennywhistles morphed into the clatter of train tracks.

"They're all internal sounds from a keyboard," Serviolo says before resorting to gear lingo. "We're using a Korg 01W, which is a sampler with built-in sounds. And we're using a PMA5, which is about this big," he continues, holding his fingers nearly half a foot apart. "We combine everything -- strings, piano, noises -- but by the time you mix it together, you don't know what you're hearing, it's so tweaked. Some of it reminds me of world music."

The album's 21 tracks certainly cover a lot of ground, everything from Taiwanese elevator music ("Lizard Special") to the trance-inducing drones of an African thumb piano ("Polymeric Trickster"). And while it celebrates recreational savagery over artiness -- thus avoiding tedious layovers at Brian Eno International Airport -- Deluge rewards a close listen with its pulse, movement, interlocking rhythms and textural detail. It's also something of a loosely structured concept album.

"It's like the silent majority putting together something in the artistic sense," Serviolo says of the album's rather ungainly title, a twisted allusion to a phrase Richard Nixon once used to describe the Republicans of the late '60s. "A lot of music like this never sees the light of day. When you're in the United States, you're so isolated. We absorb a lot of cultures, and there are a lot of different kinds of people living here, but everybody always just becomes an American when they're here. It doesn't matter where they're from. And that's not bad or good; it's just a fact."

Given that Serviolo's own bloodline is a mixture of Sicilian, Jewish, Native American and Uzbekistani strains, among others, it's little wonder that Elan's music borders on the eclectic. What's surprising, though, is how he intends to market it.

"I could easily see this stuff in TV commercials," he says. "Those are the most artistic things that the United States have going. They sell lifestyle, but they have ideas -- whereas you watch TV shows and it's about nothing." Does that mean that Serviolo worries that the fruits of his labor might wind up being used to peddle cheese doodles or a douching product? "I really wouldn't care, because to me that's not a form of selling out. The music is still the same. But it's a rough business. Advertising firms usually call sound libraries. Mechanical licensing and all that stuff -- that's a part of the business that's hard to understand. But I work in it, so I have to think about it."

For the past seven years, Serviolo has moonlighted in the retail division of Indiego Promotions, a locally operated music-marketing business. It's a part-time gig that brings him face to face with the brutal truths of the music industry.

"At the most, there's like ten major labels in the United States, right? And each of those put out, what, ten artists a year or something? That's a hundred bands. And how many bands are there in the U.S.? A hundred thousand? Forget it. Don't quit your day job. If you get into these weird contracts with labels, they can have exclusive rights to your material. They can have exclusive rights to the use of the name. And you're making pennies on royalties. En Vogue sold millions of records, and they end up making like thirty or forty thousand apiece? C'mon! That's a travesty! But that's the reality. The only reason to create music, then, is to make the music that you want to make and do things on a small level."

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