My Dinner With St. Andre
In one episode of Star Trek, Captain Kirk and his cohorts stumble upon a colony of giant, glowing brains encased in glass. The enlarged, crenulated cortexes explain to the crew that they were once part of a species with bodies but add that, over time, evolution favored those gradually dispossessed of pesky and obsolete organs and appendages.
Rock and roll, which began as an almost entirely visceral undertaking, has little chance of encountering a similar fate. In the course of nearly half a century, however, the genre has diversified into a vast kingdom. At one end of the spectrum sit acts that remain true to its initial dance-and-fuck design; they embody Elvis below the waist. But their opposite numbers have widened the medium by taking the risk of approaching it as an intellectual pursuit. San Francisco's St. Andre, which consists of three onetime Denverites and an expatriate from San Diego, is an example of the latter--a quartet whose mission statement reads like Egyptian hieroglyphics before the discovery of the Rosetta stone. At the beginning of this document, guitarist John Davis, bassist/vocalist Daniel St. Andre, vocalist/guitarist Corrina Peipon and drummer Jamie Petersen state that they are "playing not as a means of expression necessarily, but engaging in music as a wholly other activity apart from and beyond representation."
So what does that mean? Thankfully, Davis is willing to translate. "There's nothing narrative to what we do," he says. "We're not trying to express any specific ideas. It's more about deconstructing sounds and song forms."
To that end, the band, which demonstrated much more of a pop sensibility around the time of its previous Westword profile ("Saint Be Praised," February 1, 1995), has taken up the task of hacking to bits the most ubiquitous and comfortable of American song systems. Then, like collage artists, they reconfigure what they have destroyed, winding up with eerie, unearthly drones or raw amalgamations of Sleater-Kinney and kraut rock. But Davis is quick to point out that their striving for new methods has not taken them too far from the familiar. "There's definitely a framework within which we sometimes feel almost trapped, even though we continually try to get away from it. We play with the idea of pop-song structure, particularly the verse-chorus-verse sort of thing, and try to stretch it into different directions--have it maybe go verse and chorus, then into a different part where the song is continually changing."
This is not a hard-and-fast rule. Many St. Andre songs contain a single musical phrase that's played repeatedly under the assumption that an observer's perception will change even if the music does not. Moreover, Davis insists that the group isn't entirely opposed to standard rock arrangements. "I'm not even certain that we really want to get entirely away from it. The music that I listen to that does get away from it is sort of necessarily less accessible. At least for myself, I want people to listen to our music and enjoy it. I don't want it to be just for the limited few who would bother to pay attention to it."
Not that St. Andre has yet achieved mass popularity: The combo has a modest audience on the West Coast, but it still inspires its share of puzzled looks among the unconverted. "Some people, when they see us, don't really understand what we're trying to do," concedes Petersen, the only current member who wasn't part of St. Andre's Denver incarnation. "Maybe they think it's a bunch of noise, and maybe it's alienating to some people." More receptive have been fellow musicians who, she says, "look for things to be inspired by; they look for new ideas and innovative things. And we're trying to be innovative."
As a singer, Peipon approximates the impressionistic howlings found on early Throwing Muses albums even as she refuses to allow her contributions to take precedence over the other sounds that make up the band's stew. "The reasons for keeping the vocals back in the mix are manifold," she says. "It's mainly a matter of taste. I think it's a really incredibly pop trope to have the radio-friendly song with the words incredibly high in the mix and primary to the music itself. That is something we've deliberately tried to shy away from. Conceptually, it has more to do with the voice being the fifth instrument, or the third, or the first, or whatever. It's just another instrument in the band."
Peipon realizes that subduing her singing may not always level the playing field; after all, people predisposed to assuming that words are key are apt to lean in closer to hear them rather than accept that they no longer must occupy the catbird seat. So in an effort to further subvert tradition, she says, "I go one step further, by essentially writing lyrics that don't make much sense.
"They are generally plagiarized," she continues. "I write a lot myself, but I also do an immense amount of reading. I'll write down things that hit me--certain words and phrases--and I'll assemble these words almost arbitrarily. It has more to do with the meter of the song and the sound of the word as it's being formed as it comes out of your mouth. It's really just an attempt to allow the person hearing the music to form their own opinion."
Given this approach, it's no surprise that storylines are verboten in St. Andre's world. "I sometimes have a problem with narrative, because I think it eventually exhausts itself," says Peipon, a recent graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute who's currently involved with a magazine that focuses on art criticism. "If a poem is heard over and over again and you know it by heart, you're going to tend to go back to that poem or piece of music to experience a very particular sensation. If you know what the story is and you want something emotionally or intellectually similar to what your mood is, it's easy to go back to that narrative, and it's the same thing every time. I guess I think there is the possibility to have a different experience with music every time you hear it, and that is something that I'm trying to get at."
Although the group kicks at many of the customs and expectations that define rock, its traditional lineup of two guitars, bass and drums is firmly rooted in convention. This was not always the case: "There was a brief period of time in the band's history when I played the clarinet," says St. Andre, who played in the reed section of his junior high's ensemble before switching to bass. "But that was a direction we didn't pursue for too long, because any exploration into those kinds of instruments ended up sounding jazzy, and that's really not what we're about. We're not a fusion band." At the same time, though, the ragged looseness of St. Andre's scores hint at improvisation. "Most certainly we leave room for that within any given structure," he confirms. "The structures of jazz to me are beautiful and worthy of imitating, but the advent of swing in rock has killed it. Music needs to have a certain urgency to it. When jazz gets too close, it robs it of its power."
Jazz won't be interfering with the band's sturm und drang anytime soon, but electronica might. Drummer Petersen has been experimenting with the style, and the other bandmembers are softening to the idea of its inclusion. "They're pretty open to it, in fact," she says. "John has suggested including some of the electronica on future albums, but it wouldn't happen in the live performances. It would just be incorporated in a recording situation." She doesn't fear that the introduction of a machine might render her signature can-bashing obsolete: "Nothing can really replace the sound of acoustic drums, so for me, electronic music is completely separate. It's like video to film--you can never say one will replace the other. One might be more popular in a given time, but it's never going to bury the other one."
Nor should it, St. Andre believes. "Above all, we're a rock band--and it's more interesting to try to imitate the sound of something robotic when you're using an instrument that isn't."
Currently, the four are recording an EP with former Nation of Ulysses player Tim Green (presently part of the Champs) and dreaming of their next move--to New York, where Davis plans to attend watch-making school while the girls insinuate themselves into the art world. "I feel the music scene in New York is a little more accepting of the kind of thing we do," Davis says. "San Francisco is really eclectic in its music, but there's not that many bands out here doing stuff that we're that interested in." Surprisingly, he does not hesitate to wax nostalgic over the band's early days in Denver, when the musicians shared the stage with local heavies Space Team Electra and the Apples. "The spring of '95 was a magical time for us and the Denver rock community. I think if you ask anyone that was in those bands or a host of others, they'll tell you that there was a camaraderie and support amongst us that we've later come to realize is rare." When asked whether he expects to find such fellowship in New York, he replies, "I would love for that to happen, although that's not exactly something we're seeking. I would love to have a handful of bands that we play with regularly and enjoy their company and feed off each other's influences."
In the meantime, the music the brainy crew makes continues to evolve ever further from its starting point, driven by heady ambitions. "Originally I was more lighthearted about what a song should be or what structure should be within songs," St. Andre admits. "But since then, the music has become more complicated and, to me, a lot more beautiful."
St. Andre, with Puppet Show and Dressy Bessy, 10:30 p.m. Friday, March 12, Lion's Lair, 2022 East Colfax Avenue, $4, 303-320-9200. The Apples, with St. Andre, 9 p.m. Saturday, March 13, 15th Street Tavern, 623 15th Street, $6, 303-572-0822.
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