The Final Frontier
Myshel Prasad wants to be understood, but not too easily. After a lengthy interview about The Vortex Flower, a new CD by her band, Space Team Electra, she writes a carefully composed five-page letter clarifying her remarks, then follows it up a few days later with a page-and-a-half-long sequel clarifying the clarification. And while she asks that her reasons for wearing glitter around her eyes not be printed (even inveterate truth-tellers deserve to keep a secret or two), she leaves few other questions unanswered and even fewer re-answered. "I am what I say I am," she sings on "Shadow," one of the highlights of Flower, but what she says she is changes from one minute to the next.
Space Team Electra has the same quicksilver personality as its frontwoman. Bassist Greg Fowkes, drummer Kit Peltzel and guitarists Bill Kunkel and Prasad make music that can swing from tenderness to terror in the span of a nanosecond. The songs howl, scream and cry, and so, too, does Prasad, whose vocals are so attuned to her moods that they may make some listeners uncomfortable. Unlike postmodernists, who prefer cool over heat, Prasad never censors her passions or hides behind that most fashionable of defense mechanisms, ennui. She's theatrical, yes, but in a way that reveals rather than disguises her feelings. She may look fully clothed on stage, but figuratively, she's as naked as the day she was born.
In conversation, Fowkes, Peltzel and Kunkel tend to defer to Prasad, just as they do in concert. About his role in the band, Fowkes says, "I'm just the bass player," and although Peltzel and Kunkel are somewhat more forthcoming, neither is exactly prone to overstatement. Prasad, on the other hand, can't resist letting her opinions fly, and when she does, she frames them in language that's overtly poetic and unashamedly dramatic. "One thing that's really disquieting to me is how much music anymore is about being in the music business instead of being about using music itself to connect to an actual experience," she declares. "I feel the world is becoming a technological jungle, where the simulated is better than the real, and it's for sale. It's all-encompassing, but I'm putting my life against it."
Prasad hails from Detroit and grew up in a household filled with musical esoterica: Mom played a lot of Chopin on the family piano, while Dad dabbled in tabla. Early on, Prasad burned to express herself creatively. "It sounds like such a cliche, but I've understood myself as an artist since I can remember thinking about myself as a person," she notes. Upon finishing high school, she enrolled at the North Carolina School of the Arts, and shortly thereafter became involved with a group of artists readying a play for a possible Broadway run. Among them was German actress Uta Hagen, who, Prasad says, "always had a vodka in one hand and a poodle in the other. [The dog] was always completely silent and shaking all the time."
Hanging around such people opened Prasad's eyes--and she didn't always like what she saw. "I worked pretty closely with a producer," she recalls. "One night we were all at a party with investors, and I was sitting beside a fountain when he came over and sat down beside me. He let out a heavy sigh and said, 'You don't belong here. This is a sea of barracudas.' And two weeks later he ended up shooting and killing his wife in the foyer of their Montauk mansion." She adds, "I was only nineteen years old, so that really changed the way I looked at the arts community I was wanting to join."
After the incident with the producer, Prasad skipped around the country in the pursuit of knowledge and high tuition charges. She took classes at the University of Michigan, Northwestern University, Sarah Lawrence College and the University of California at Berkeley before graduating from New York University. But that wasn't the end of her educational odyssey. She moved to Colorado in 1992 and spent the next two years earning a degree from Boulder's Naropa Institute. Poetry was her focus during this period, and she soon discovered that her words sounded even better when accompanied by an acoustic guitar. "I'd done a lot in theater," she says, "but nothing satisfied me like music."
Meanwhile, Peltzel and Kunkel, who'd met while attending the University of Northern Colorado, had relocated to Denver. After joining forces with Fowkes and guitarist Todd Ayers (who lists stints with Twice Wilted, Sick 'em Fifi and volplane among his credits), they advertised for a kindred spirit in this very publication. Prasad answered, and in early 1994 the five christened themselves Dive and began searching for a sound. According to Peltzel, they quickly found one.
"We all came from very different musical backgrounds," he says. "Greg was into punk rock, Bill likes blues and metal, and I came from jazz. The common ground was bands like Catherine Wheel and My Bloody Valentine and the Cocteau Twins, but what was great was how rapidly we changed after that and developed a sound of our own."
The process was accelerated by subtraction in November of that year: Ayers, whose guitar had dominated the quintet, dove out of Dive. The remaining members considered hiring a replacement, but before casting out a net, they decided to play a gig at Cricket on the Hill with Prasad on guitar. Afterward, they knew they could survive as a quartet.
"What surprised us the most was the energy that came out of what we did," Kunkel says.
"Actually, what surprised them the most is that I would bother to learn how to play guitar," Prasad interjects. "I had done really simple stuff before. But with Todd doing so much, I really fell in love with being able to surrender and disappear into everyone else's sound and everyone else's work. Then he left, and I was put in the position of generating the music, which was horrifying for me. I would be in the basement at 4 a.m. trying to come to terms with what the instrument was and what I could do with it. But in the end, everything worked out. Even Todd agrees. He says the best thing he did for the band was to leave it."
The four retained the Dive moniker for a few more months ("Taking a Dive," March 8, 1995), but mentally they had already moved on. The new lineup was first captured on a demo tape overseen by Judge Roughneck's Kyle Jones, with assistance from the Apples' Robert Schneider. For a pair reputed to be studio pros, their technique was far from meticulous. "When I came in to do my vocals, they were both so stoned," Prasad says, laughing. "They were lying under the console, and I had to say to them, 'Okay--are we ready?'"
The completed recording was shipped off to producer Keith Cleversley, a Chicagoan who had previously worked with Hum, Mercury Rev, Spiritualized and other big names and whom Prasad had met through a friend. Before long, the players were shuttling back and forth between Denver and Cleversley's Chicago base of operations, recording what would become The Vortex Flower. "The schedule was really irregular," Prasad says. "We never knew when we would be able to get in there. And there were a lot of trips. I can document the album by my string of [speeding] tickets. The CD came out within a month of my last court date."
Things didn't always go smoothly in the studio, either. "There were times when Keith would leave the room while Bill and I worked things out," Prasad admits.
In general, Kunkel says, "We'd disagree about how layered a song would be, and the interaction between the vocals and the guitars. We had a lot of strong differences--places where I felt I wanted my guitar to get the attention and not the vocals, and vice versa. And I think we eventually found a balance. It feels to me that there's an evenness to where the guitars and the vocals are at."
"The only victories were when one of us would say, 'You know, you're right about that,'" Prasad admits.
"Or sometimes we'd take out both parts," Kunkel says. "And then it would sound good."
The results pleased both parties--and in Prasad's view, "the arguments ended up making it a more complex record. I think Bill's vision wouldn't have crossed the line into some of the weird areas we got into without them. Besides, my instincts tend to erode consistency. I like it that the record is something of a map, and you can choose to let it take you to many different places."
True enough, The Vortex Flower leads the listener on numerous tangents, each of them intriguing. On the heels of "Transmission," a statement of purpose imparted by Prasad in a robotic, studio-enhanced voice, "Shadow" divvies up artsy Brit guitars, verses that gain momentum with each bar, and provocative couplets ("Run away if I fucking scare you/I don't bow to the gods you bow to/I'd rather die") that Prasad spits out like the love child of Jim Morrison and Patti Smith. That's followed by "Saints Are Bleeding" and "Winter Queen," a pair of nods to the aforementioned Cocteau Twins; "Lucifer's Tongue," a two-minute dollop of wavelike noise; "Oasis," an eerie excursion whose drum track rivals the one at the heart of Peter Gabriel's "Intruder"; and the pure pop of "Dizzy." Even better are "Helios," a soft-and-loud epic driven by Kunkel's mad riffing, and "Luminous Crush," a lovely yet anthemic piece that finds Prasad at her most vulnerable. In the latter, her obsession with making herself clear rises again: "I try to give my mind and heart and soul away," she sings, "but you don't understand a single word I say."
From a musical standpoint, the Team is proud that Flower is open to multiple interpretations. "There are times when it feels better to do something five and a half times in a song instead of eight times," Peltzel concedes. "And if it works, we'll do it." He adds, "If people just listen to the record on the surface, they'll miss some of the really magical stuff."
At the same time, Prasad doesn't want the band's sense of adventure to be mistaken for inaccessibility. "I feel like I'm attempting to be completely straightforward and to make things make sense," she says. "I want to alter whatever vision the song is coming from into a worldly form. In fact, I feel like I'm being conservative a lot of the time."
Hardly. In concert at the Bluebird Theater last month, the performers proved eager to plunge into uncharted territory. As films and images were projected onto a film screen and a weather balloon inflated for the occasion, Fowkes and Peltzel anchored the soundscapes while Kunkel wrestled his guitar to a draw. For her part, Prasad broke up the proceedings with a poem directed at "Prince Charming, my assassin," and later spent several minutes sitting in front of a floor speaker, brewing up a potent feedback draft. From most people, such asides might seem like indulgences; from Prasad they come across as vital clues to her enigmatic personality.
Despite the musicians' willingness to take artistic risks, national record labels have been sniffing around Space Team Electra for a while now. "We've had a few offers," Prasad allows, but she's notably uncomfortable talking about major labels in general. So, too, is Kunkel, who traces the band's dislike of the subject to its 1996 trip to the South by Southwest music conference in Austin. "So many of the bands that we saw were terrible," he says. "Most of them played that same old grunge crap that got signed left and right for a while. It was like, if this is supposed to be the music of tomorrow, it's pathetic. It was the sound of yesterday, or worse."
"Still, going did do something good for us," Peltzel says. "It got us refocused on our music."
"And it completely desensitized us to the industry," Prasad chimes in. "I've done a lot of work in the arts, and I've dealt with a lot of crazy situations. And over time, I've learned that I should be completely true to myself, because the alternatives aren't that appetizing."
That's not to suggest that the bandmates plan to hole up in a monastery and play strictly for their own enjoyment from here on out. They are showcasing at the North by Northeast confab in Toronto on June 13 and are in the midst of cutting demos in San Francisco for a party they decline to name. In other words, the future of Space Team Electra is like the glitter around Prasad's eye--shiny, bright and mysterious. Which, in all likelihood, is just the way she wants it.
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