The name Cinematic Underground sounds more like a movement than a band. And for Nathan Johnson, who leads the international twelve-piece ensemble, it is. Last fall, he and nearly a dozen of his friends and family members decided to devote a year of their lives to living communally -- first in a shared house in South Boston, and now on a bus -- in order to create a live version of Annasthesia, Johnson's sprawling, thirteen-track concept album. It didn't take much to persuade Johnson's inner circle to participate; some were so moved by the recording that they uprooted their lives on another continent and moved to Boston. If anything, Johnson was the one who required convincing, as he never really intended to bring Annasthesia, which was birthed in his bedroom, to the stage.
"When I was writing the album," he explains, "I wanted to just concentrate on making an album and not think about how it would be performed live."
But eventually, at the urging of those closest to him, Johnson set about transforming Annasthesia from a vanity recording into a group endeavor. A Denver native and Faith Christian Academy alum, he describes the expanded project as "a film trapped in a CD." It's epic in scope, from the 24-page graphic novella that accompanies the disc to the stirring narrative that's threaded throughout the album to the transcendental live performances, which seem more suited to a serious theater than a music venue.
"It started out as a solo project," he says. "And as I was doing it, I realized that I didn't want to release it as a solo project. And even at that point, it made sense to me to credit it like a film would be credited. You know, I definitely wrote it and directed all the players. It's kind of like I'm the director and I've gathered a touring troupe together."
Johnson has always gravitated toward performing, whether it was making movies with his cousin Rian (who wrote and directed this year's lauded Sundance entry Brick, which Johnson scored) when he was growing up, or doing theater in high school. "I was like a fly drawn to a spotlight," he says, "to anything that involved creating something in front of people." His passion for performing ultimately focused on music. Although Johnson didn't start playing an instrument until his junior year, he still managed to write songs.
"I would make our guitarist cycle through every chord he knew until I heard the one that I could hear in my head," he remembers. "And that was how we wrote all of our first songs. I would sing a melody and I'm like, 'No. Try a different chord...that one, that one.' But musically, the main thing you can dial it mostly down to is performance. The thing that really got me going was watching Rattle and Hum and seeing Bono playing to a stadium crowd. I would fall asleep at night dreaming of ways to intro a massive stage show, with special effects and lighting. That's what I would lie awake at night thinking about in high school."
After graduating, Johnson worked for a short time at KRMT, a local Christian station, where he did some editing and floor directing. Shortly after that stint, he was off to England to attend University of the Nations. As a kid, Johnson had been fond of all things British, so the school suited him perfectly. And it was during his time there that the concept of Annasthesia was conceived.
"It all kind of began with the story," he recalls. "I did my degree in biblical studies, and I really started getting obsessed with these archaic forms of structure, like in the Old Testament, how literature was structured. There's a specific form of structure called a chiasm, which is basically like a pyramid. In poetry, the first stanza would be thematically mirrored with the last stanza. And then the second stanza would be thematically mirrored with the second-to-last stanza. And it would build up, each stanza would have a thematic mirror opposite it. And then the one in the middle has no mirror. It's like this way of giving precedence to this central theme. And as I was studying that, I was like, 'Man, one day, I'm going to make a whole album that's structured as a chiasm.'"
Annasthesia is driven by a compelling narrative that at times recalls Pedro the Lion's Control, in both tone and sequencing. In essence, it's the story of a male protagonist who's infatuated with a female colleague. The unnamed male character has shrouded himself in isolation, which is where he feels most at ease. He has very little human contact other than day-to-day relations with his co-workers, at a job he doesn't like. Each day after work, he returns to a lonely apartment and falls asleep in the glow of the television. The story trails him as he desperately seeks interaction that will snap him out of the doldrums.
"He's kind of sick of what his life has become," Johnson explains. "And this thing that he's longing for is sort of this chance to break him out of that. But he almost can't face the pain that human involvement brings. It's the story of him pushing against this escapist life that he's created for himself and trying to take the risk of connecting with this girl.
"Essentially," he continues, "one of the main questions we get to ask ourselves in life is, are we going to choose to escape, or are we going to choose to engage with what's around us? We all are afraid of risks. You want to be comfortable and you don't want to do things that put you out on a limb -- especially with love. That's like the biggest risk you can take. This album, if I could sum it up, it feels like a finger that just touches a nerve. There's this Chesterton quote that I really love that's on the inside of the album, about art being this thing that makes us remember what we've forgotten. I feel like what it does is just put a finger on this nerve that hurts. And that's all it does. It just touches it."
Annasthesia definitely touches a nerve. Painting from a rich, sonic palette that references everything from the buzzing, symphonic-like cacophony of OK Computer to the stark, contemplative moments of solitude on Pink Floyd's The Wall, to the hoarse, unnervingly intimate vocal textures of Sparklehorse's It's a Wonderful Life, Annasthesia is nothing short of a masterpiece. (You can listen to the full album at www.cinematicunderground.com/anna.php.) And live, the piece has become the larger-than-life spectacle that Johnson once dreamed of creating. Using all sorts of unorthodox instrumentation -- a wine-o-phone, for example which consists of various wineglasses filled with water at different levels, then placed in a suitcase and miked -- Johnson and crew perform in front of cinema-sized slides of his brother Zach's elaborate watercolor illustrations from the novella.
The Cinematic Underground is Radiohead for people who don't like Radiohead anymore. And Annasthesia is the type of album that fans had hoped Thom Yorke and company would release after OK Computer.
Johnson says his bandmates are so pleased with how the record has translated that they're petitioning him to re-record the disc with the band. But there's no word yet on when, or even whether, that will happen. Instead, after the Denver date -- which finishes off a tour that began in September -- the musicians will go their separate ways, taking time off to devote to other projects. And though they'll reconvene in late summer to do some more dates on the East Coast, Johnson says some things will need to change before the band can embark on another year of touring. The money situation, for example, because this past tour was done without the support of a record label.
"I feel like we've jumped off the deep end this year," says Johnson. "But a funny thing happens when you actually move from living as individuals into living in a small community. One of those things is that it frees up resources. We were all living in a big house in South Boston together, which really cut down rent. And we'd all eat dinners together, and we were eating these gourmet meals on two bucks a night, per person."
They didn't spend much on the road these past eight months, either. "It should be impossible to tour twelve people independently, without label funding," Johnson points out. "But we've got this bus that runs on vegetable oil. So literally, for our fuel, we pull up outside of restaurants and take their used grease -- which cuts out the ridiculous price of gas. I feel like part of the story of this year is this idea of, 'If you don't require their rewards, you don't have to live by their rules.'"
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