"I should not be making a living off of music," declares Skerik, the mysteriously self-christened tenor saxophonist of Critters Buggin. "Because I can only play music that I like. For me, it's not a job."
The old joke about free jazz (that it's called "free jazz" because it's worth every penny) helps to explain why, since 1993, the 36-year-old Seattle-based reed expert has taken the less-commercial path with bassist Brad Houser, vibe-and-tabla player Mike Dillon and drummer Matt Chamberlain. "We don't really make money off of this band," Skerik says. "We put it all back into the show. There's crazy instruments you've never seen. Costumes. Theater segments with thespians gone wrong. Characters called Orbitron, the Baron, Señor Balls, someone imitating Paul Allen or Bill Gates. We're serious about the music, but we try to hide it."
Categorizing the Critters' music under one neat umbrella is about as easy as catching wind in a net or weaving rope out of sand. Instrumental free jazz comes to mind so long as you emphasize the jarring, densely textured dance grooves. The troupe's penchant for spontaneous theatrics (let alone their frisky name) might conjure up visions of a hippie jamboree. It shouldn't. "We never really meant to be a band," Skerik concedes. "It's the biggest accidental thing ever. We just got together to play. We all play in other projects as side people. We're just fans of music, really. We're a combination of maybe 5 to 10 percent of every band we've ever liked. People like Sun Ra, Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman, Wayne Horvitz, Rahsaan Roland Kirk -- any group of musicians that are committed to improvisation."
Under such loose but adventurous guidelines, the Critters -- multi-instrumentalists all -- find themselves covering the board style-wise: from raucous neo-bop to skronk-jazz, sci-fi punk to cyber dub, prog rock to tribal-flavored acid funk. As proponents of the free-jazz/avant-garde idiom (two compatible, overlapping genres that came of age in the '60s and were scorned by mainstream artists who continually deny its influence), the bandmembers adhere to the spirit of stretching boundaries, whether it seems logical or random. Such ideas honor the traditions set forth by innovator John Coltrane, who hurled himself into solos at blinding speed during his "sheets of sound" period, baffling listeners with the sheer quantity of his notes, or Cecil Taylor, the man whose percussive approach to jazz involved playing a piano as if it were a set of drums.
"It's always been a hard thing for us, naming the music," Skerik says. "Punk-jazz? People don't respond to that. Fusion has always been a bad word, even though logistically it makes sense. There's nothing wrong with the word itself, but the connotation it has in the modern vernacular is horrible. It's death! We eventually just started calling it bumpa music. It bumps you. There's a lot of low end."
Besides being anchored in its infectious bass, bumpa relies just as heavily on the imaginative drumming of fellow rhythm-section member, Chamberlain. Much in demand as a session player -- with high-profile clients including Tori Amos, Peter Gabriel, Macy Gray, Weapon of Choice, Chris Isaak and David Bowie -- Chamberlain has also spent plenty of time breaking down the ancient mysteries of some of the most intense and complex music around -- that made by Northern Africa's Master Musicians of Jajouka. The all-male Master Musicians, described by Beat writer and Tangier transplant William Burroughs as "a four-thousand-year-old rock-and-roll band," hail from the foothills of the rugged Rif Mountains of Morocco. They are internationally renowned for their purported ability to heal mental illness through music. Taught from an early age by elder members of the Master Musician family, the ever-evolving tribe of Moroccan mystics has received royal patronage for centuries by inciting something called "the ecstatic dance"; members are completely exempt from all work save perfecting their musical craft. Possessing Baraka, or the blessing of Allah, the Master Musicians re-create complicated festival music from their country's most important Islamic feast days. As keepers of the sacred music, they shoulder the burden of carrying tradition through the ages.
"How many bands are there in this country that have actually studied [Jajouka's] music and have actually incorporated parts of it into their own songs?" Skerik asks. "Matt has transcribed sections of their music where it takes five or six drummers to play a part. He's transcribed it so that each limb is playing one person's part on the drum set, so he can play four of the parts on a Jajouka song just to create odd times.
"The history of Jajouka in the last fifty years has been a spirit of collaboration," Skerik points out, citing pilgrimages to the village by both Coltrane and Coleman; the latter recorded "Midnight Sunrise" there on location for his 1973 album, Dancing in Your Head. "They're not monks," Skerik insists. "Their sole purpose is not just to play spiritual, trance-healing music. Their stuff is very multi-faceted. [Bandleader Bachir Attar] explained that the music he plays with us is music for everyone. You have to remember that Jajouka is uninfluenced by any other music. They've never collaborated with anyone structurally."
Though the number of visitors allowed into the Attar's village is limited, the Master Musicians have endured the occasional barrage of curious Westerners, with mixed results. "There are some really fucking cheesy-ass bands from Europe that have gone down to the village. Just shown up with a bunch of film cameras and said 'Hey, we're gonna shoot our video here,'" Skerik says. "[The Attar family] is pretty easygoing though. You gotta really fuck it up to push them over the edge." It's worth noting that Brian Jones drowned one month after adding psychedelic sound treatments to field recordings taken during a visit to North Africa's sacred hills in 1969. Released two years later with a decidedly Roman ring to its title, Brian Jones presents the Pipes of Pan at Jajouka conjured images of wine-swilling goat people celebrating bacchanalian fertility rites. In alcohol-free Moroccan traditions, however, a young boy is actually sewn into the bloody warm skin of a goat to portray Bou Jeloud, the Goat God, Master of Skins, Father of Flocks; by dancing wildly across hot coals and switching onlookers with a stick, he ensures the health of the village for the coming year.
"We by no means are trying to associate ourselves with Jajouka or use them for any other reason," Skerik says. "This is not some cold call, some MTV Real World bullshit. This is purely a musical and aesthetic connection. Bachir came over several months ago, and we did a few shows, and he had a blast. We know enough about his music so that it doesn't come off as idiotic." (Bachir and Mustapha Attar will join Critters Buggin during their Boulder Theater show. See "Mystic Muses" on page 45 for more.)
Treading lightly as outsiders in the entertainment industry, the Critters are a rare breed of artists who seem to care more about the quality of their music than the quantity of people buying it. "We're not an aggressive band in terms of trying to market ourselves, let alone anyone else," Skerik says. "Critters Buggin is actually sort of famous for turning down stuff: Thousands of dollars in commercials and endorsements; Skoal tobacco; movies -- lots of cheesy-ass movies. Tens of thousands of dollars." (Three years ago, however, Skerik found himself in a series of fake-documentary-style public-service spots where Seattle rock bands -- Mudhoney, Gas Huffer and the Supersuckers among them -- talked extemporaneously about the Seattle Symphony as though it was a fellow band.)
"We turned down lots of deals so we could have control," Skerik says. "Epic offered us a seven-record deal. What are they gonna do with us? We're everything they're against -- no singer, no guitar player."
Through Stone Gossard's now-defunct Loose Groove imprint, the Critters issued half a dozen full-length albums, all of which resulted from the band's trademark process of sifting through countless hours of spontaneously recorded material: Guest in 1994, Host and Monkeypot Merganser: Good Shit Volumes 1 & 2 in 1997, Bumpa in 1998 and Amoeba in 1999. "It was great while it lasted," Skerik says. "I'd rather make 80 percent of something than 8 percent. That's what happens with any record label, even the most generous ones."
Currently releasing material through its own Web site (crittersbuggin.com), the band continues to separate the musical wheat from the atonal chaff in Chamberlain's home studio in Ballard. Away from their many side projects (Houser plays with Hairyapes and Kultur Shock; Dillon rounds out the Malachy Papers, B.M.X. and Karl Denson's Tiny Universe; Skerik is an ongoing member of Ponga, Garage a Trois, Les Claypool's Frog Brigade and Mike Clark's Prescription Renewal), the quartet keeps the bumpa-flavored basement tapes rolling whenever possible. "Miles Davis is the easiest parallel you could draw -- the way he made his records the last fifteen years," Skerik says. "He recorded segments in the studio and then spliced together the best parts later. For an instrumental group, that's the most pure way of making a record and having the process and the result be on the same level. Eighty percent of it might be crap. But the other 20 is gonna be really super inspired, something you could never re-create."
As wide-eyed proponents of trial and error, the Critters also take pointers from folks like DJ Logic. "We sample a lot," Skerik says. "We're very influenced by hip-hop, but we're very, very anti-digital in terms of sound creation. We've always been inspired by the history of the really great multi-American punk bands, too," he adds, citing pioneers like the Minutemen and Fugazi. "They were walking the talk, and not very many musicians do that."
As an instrumental band, though, Critters Buggin must resort to unremittingly intense and brassy fanfare -- blaring horns through distortion pedals and embracing incomprehensible time signatures -- rather than spelling out the evils of the world lyrically. Sampled narrators occasionally do chime in: the crocodile keeper from Kansas City who rants about water pollution ("Fluoride") or the loop-assisted slam-radio operator who pops off about "communist-gangster-computer-god-master-race masquerading as one entity" ("Bill Gates"). Even Skerik's decision to call himself Skerik (that is, when he's not Bubba Rabozo or Nalgas Sin Carne) comes from the same punk-influenced, superstar-jeering attitude that launched alter egos like Poison Ivy and John Doe. "I tried to create a different name on every record," Skerik says. "Just so people would pay attention to the music and not the personality. At the time I was sick of the little boutique of everybody with their little glossy eight by tens. Especially jazz musicians trying to sell themselves as individuals. You know, 'Buy me, I'm Wynton Marsalis!'"
Jazz, Ken Burns's controversial documentary series, publicly dismissed post-1965 avant-garde players for being outside of the jazz genre entirely. "People like Wynton Marsalis are doing what I call necro-jazz," Skerik snaps. "Digging up these graves and fucking these dead bodies. And you're never gonna do it as good as the originators did it. When the originators were doing it, it was something new and the majority of the people at the time didn't like it. It was a risk. And what [Marsalis] is doing is contrary to the spirit of the music."
Accusations of corpse-burgling aside, Skerik and company let the thrill of improv speak for itself, especially live. "We're all committed to the show," Skerik says. "We all have a strong connection to traditions like James Brown and P-Funk. You've got to throw down. You've got to play the room. That's another way that this band can be a lot more satisfying live, because we don't have a set show with a set list. We know our stuff so well because we've been playing together for eight years. Doing something special for each show every night -- that's the goal."
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.