The cover of Baltimore Pearl Crescent White Admiral Sister Meadow Painted God Will Visit You, the latest CD from the Lords of Howling, is cut from old vinyl records, the obsidian sheen sanded and imprinted with intricate designs. Moreover, the rest of the package is literally crafted from trash--but it's debris that radiates an odd allure, like a sepia-tinged photograph found curled in a puddle. "It's funny times we live in," singer/guitarist Chris Culhane muses. "It's so fallen, but everything's available. In fact, it's kind of exquisite, because nobody's really interested in what I find valuable. So there's tons of it just laying around everywhere."
The bounty about which consummate dumpster-diver Culhane speaks is not limited to the world of matter; it also includes the aural Eden of words, ideas, sounds, stories and songs of the sort in which his group specializes. The predominant culture may dismiss these discarded treasures, but the Lords, who record in Questa, New Mexico, but hail from various locations, including Denver and Boulder, revel in their poignant mystery.
Although the other bandmembers (David Costanza, Anne Costanza, Peter Halter, Dave Clark, Brooks Masten, Chris Schoen, Jamie Smith, Billy Brooks and Ben Wright, who collectively play guitar, bass, mandolin, trumpet, banjo, harmonica, fiddle, synthesizer and saw) make important contributions to the act's overall sound, it's Culhane, once the curator of Denver's now-defunct Bwana Gallery, who is most immersed in the venture. He says that he and his fellow members "were called together as a family" and constitute a "hive mind," but only he devotes eight hours a day to the conglomeration's music. Such efforts are necessitated by one of the Lords' more eccentric goals. "Peter had this vision that if we wrote 5,000 songs--copied down 5,000 songs--it would destroy this certain evil," Culhane explains. "It requires a lot of discipline, but that was kind of built in. It's a tedious process; you have to go through vast amounts of data. You've really got to release your hold on yourself. A loss of identity sounds like it wouldn't be too bad, but it's pretty traumatizing to a human."
As these comments imply, Culhane has been willing to sacrifice sanity for art, and he's paid a price for such dedication: "I've gotten kind of sick in the paranoid sense," he discloses. But if he suffers from madness to some degree, it's a dementia that's distinguished by lucidity and rare insight.
The project's genesis can be traced to the late Eighties, when Anne and David Costanza migrated from San Francisco, where they played in a ska band given to punk /improv pandemonium, to New Mexico, where they constructed an adobe barn at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. There, recounts Anne, "we met this guy, Jack Wright, who wrote an open call to musicians in some music magazine just saying, 'I play improv, and I'll play with anyone who will play with me.' So David wrote to him and said we were doing that kind of music. Jack was going to be in New Mexico, so we met him and followed him up to Denver, where he was playing at Chris's gallery."
Open sessions at the Bwana subsequently led to pilgrimages to Questa, where participants indulged their passion for spontaneous music at week-long intensives. "Then," Anne says, "Chris started sending us tapes of stuff he was doing on his own, which were not free improv at all--they were all songs. Right away, it was like, 'God, this is so beautiful. We should do this.'"
Today, David confirms, "the majority of material comes through Chris--a fucking absurd amount. In three years we've compiled twelve ninety-minute tapes and a CD," all of which can be purchased by writing to the band at HC81, Box 629, Questa, New Mexico 87556. "And the other Lords kind of shade it and add texture, and they work hard to live up to that. You just throw whatever technique and whatever set of stories into it and see what comes out the other end." The backgrounds of the players are key parts of this process; because they are schooled in improvisation, they are able to accommodate the sheer quantity of work that spouts from Culhane's creative font and to check any prejudices regarding which pantries are fit to pilfer.
The theremin-spooky end products shimmer like wistful wraiths or trundle along misshapenly, like a New Orleans funeral cortege as viewed through a rain-warped pane. Others constitute goofy rants. But these disparate styles are held together by a common thread of poetic imagery; lines such as "a perpetual memory like the bleached bones of a dead horse based on the drawings of other ships" are the rule, not the exception.
The stories that Culhane pours into the Lords' grinder are more numerous and varied than Scheherazade's. As he tells it, these tales have come to him over the past three years from "a more folkloric place. I'd always been involved with fairy tales, so those wound up inspiring some of my favorite songs. If I've heard different takes of a similar story and it winds up in a new take in a song, it resonates in me and drives me wild from a singing standpoint. It's like a quest; there are these hidden things like, 'Oh, yeah, here's that white-snake story, and it's here and here, and what's it mean to me, and how is it coming here?'"
On tunes like "The Earth Is Beautiful," Culhane's voice waxes hysterical, like a bounding, bleating goat drawn from a youngster's favorite fantasy novel. "Certainly there's a large part of children's music in there," he concedes. "But the Lords really get to explore the gamut of songs. There's the normal kind of boy/girl, love-affair songs, and then we got into children's songs and, boy, it has gone all over the world. I was always obsessed with songs since I started and never thought my wonder and appetite could be so grand.
"I look at the music industry, and I don't understand why there's no interest in other kinds of songs," he goes on. "Growth is discouraged. It's insidious to end people's creative lives at thirty when in reality, you don't even start until you're thirty."
David concurs. "It's a weird metaphor for eternal youth that we get eighteen-year-old girls telling us about life's troubles--a really kind of comic situation." He suggests that many performers need to reach the ages of "forty or fifty or sixty to produce something intelligent. And not intelligent meaning boring, but intelligent meaning vital."
The Lords aspire to conceive music that fits this description, but they do not believe that they need to conjure up something entirely unprecedented to do so. While portions of God Will Visit You may well sound unique and strange to the average listener, David balks at the very idea of trying to break fresh ground. "If you're a lot smarter than the average rock star and you've actually read a bunch of books, you realize that it is excessive to think that you could be totally creative," he claims. "We didn't sit down and try to come up with something new. No one cared. There were still some other reasons to work."
To Culhane, the primary motivation behind the Lords is a desire as ancient as prayer--to use music as a conduit through which man and a higher power might exchange information. "There's a whole god trip going on. You know, a big, spiritual thing," he claims, adding, "A lot of people are offended by the word 'god' because of what they perceive religions doing. But religions are just one thing. Theology is quite another thing." Culhane should know: He spent his formative years in a seminary, training for the priesthood.
Confessing to such heady objectives is a risk, but one that the Lords embrace. "Part of the breakthrough and the clarity and the fun of the music has been in ignoring cynicism, which seems to be sort of a fungus," David offers. "Cynics get this rap as being intelligent, and yet it's kind of lazy thought. We want to go in and be quieter and more clear and more ourselves and not give a fuck. Especially," he notes with a laugh, "since we're too old and most of us aren't there to pick up chicks anymore."
Indeed, Culhane seems far more interested in the ethereal than the corporeal. He talks about writing songs by himself in Baltimore, his current home, yet feeling the presence of the other Lords as he does so. According to him, "When I meet up with them physically, nobody remembers it like I do, which has always been somewhat frustrating to me." But, he claims, "they all know the music, and they all just play the parts."
In other words, Culhane believes that the Lords jam on another plane before they meet in Questa to do so face-to-face. David, who's responsible for engineering and mixing the bulk of the band's oeuvre, does not see this connection quite as literally, but neither does he dismiss the possibility that magic of this sort is actually taking place. "I'm more involved with the actual sound of it, and he's involved with what comes out of his mouth," he maintains. "And that's interlocked in a way that I don't sit around and think about--that, for instance, he would write out a song that I would instantly create the music for. Some of the songs you will hear on the CD are assembled surprisingly quickly. Like, in five minutes or less."
Past gigs have been staged using this method, but with considerably less success. "We did a few tours where it was just a shaman trip, and I'd show up and we'd go, 'Okay, we're going to play forty songs that we haven't heard before, and we're going to see how we react,'" Culhane remembers.
"It was more like just trying to stay afloat," Anne elaborates. "There was so much new material constantly coming in, and the next thing we'd know we'd be on tour and it would be all new material. I never felt like it did justice to the songs."
As a result, the performers are taking a different approach to the act's current series of dates: Instead of relying on their patron saints to hold the music together, they're actually rehearsing. "We really love the songs, and these songs are kind of an honor," Culhane says. "It's like, 'Wow, this is beautiful. We should do these songs truly as they were presented to us.' And rather than take a painter's approach, we decided to do it this other way."
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Concerns about listeners played no role in the move toward a tighter set. "When you talk about audiences, I don't know..." Culhane trails off before announcing, "Everybody I see, I just want to smack. So in some ways, I relish my obscurity and the fact that I don't connect with people other than the people I work with, and I'm just this guy collecting cans--just some riffraff on the margin.
"If you play in bars," he points out, "really drunk people come up--really stupid people who you don't want anything to do with--and they rattle on: 'It was so cool!' And you're like, 'Hmmm. I don't want you likin' it.' There were a bunch of Deadheads in Salt Lake who were sending stuff to the barn all the time--all this flowery stuff about how we were really on to something. And I don't want these people likin' me. Cash their checks, though, David." He admits that he's "never had an audience; I don't know what that would be like. If they were intelligent people, I assume they would find this fascinating, but I don't really know that there are intelligent people in the world. I see a society where there's no sense of rebellion. Everyone's just herded, and I'm so wrapped up in trying to learn it myself. I would like to find out that there were such people, but I would also like to continue and finish this. And I do sort of imagine that I will have something connected to the world at the end of it."
In the meantime, the Lords of Howling continue on their quest; they've left the 3,000-song mark in the dust and are still going strong. "Either you contribute to the soundtrack to appease people's insanity or you create the opposite," David says. "And that's a lot of work."
The Lords of Howling. 9 p.m. Monday, June 16, Lion's Lair, 2022 East Colfax, $3, 320-9200. Hamster Theatre, with the Lords of Howling. 9:30 p.m. Tuesday, June 24, Mercury Cafe, 2199 California Street, $5, 294-9258.