I've had a pretty hectic day," says Arrington de Dionyso from Olympia, Washington, the state's tiny capital and the headquarters of K Records, the venerable indie label that de Dionyso's band, Old Time Relijun, calls home. "A bag that contains a passport and all of my jaw harps was stolen out of my car at a wedding that I was at this weekend. I've been in the middle of moving, so it actually took me a little time to realize that stuff was missing. I had to spend the whole day up in Seattle at the Federal Building showing them my plane tickets and getting my passport pictures retaken so I could go play in Sweden on Saturday."
Whoever stole his passport may have noticed that the thing was still warm. De Dionyso just got back to the U.S. from Argentina; before that, he was probably trekking across Malaysia or Lapland, swapping songs with the natives and searching for some apocryphal Pangaea whence sprang all the music of the world. You see, Old Time Relijun -- Aaron Hartman on bass, Phil Elvrum on drums and de Dionyso on guitar and vocals -- plays world music. But we're not talking hippie crap or something Paul Simon might wipe his dick on. This is music that expands and contracts like the earth's crust itself, nature and humanity incarnate, a primordial force that reaches across races, centuries and hemispheres.
"The very first drummer of Old Time Relijun, Bryce Panic, moved down to Buenos Aires to be with his new wife, who is from there," says de Dionyso of his recent expedition to Argentina. "My daughter Lucinda and I went down for a month and were hanging out, taking buses all over the city, going to museums and getting her some Spanish lessons. We did a little bit of recording for an upcoming project that probably won't be ready for months and months.
"Oh, and we played a show, too," he remembers suddenly. "It was Bryce on drums and me on bass clarinet. It was in this weird cafe that had all these pictures of the Beatles up all over the place. There were actually a lot of kids at the show, which surprised me. People were pretty enthusiastic about the kind of noisy, free-jazz stuff that we were playing."
Jazz is indeed a guiding light in de Dionyso's musical firmament. His debut solo album, Smooth Jazz Vagina, was unveiled last year under the name Abraxasaxophonic. Released by the Denver label NGWTT -- owned by local noise terrorists Friends Forever -- the disc ingests chunks of blaring, Albert Ayler-style improv and then throws them up all over crappy dentist's-office jazz taped off the radio. As its creator says, "It's kind of a move toward reinventing the way we think about jazz and hear jazz. Jazz has roots very deep in Africa, in ritual, in blues, in the expression of emotion and transformation. I wanted to recontextualize the smooth jazz that is in many ways a mutant form of jazz. I wanted to reintroduce that primitive otherness and kind of make a real bloody mix with that juxtaposition."
As indebted to tradition as the band is, it would probably be easier to list all the styles of music that Old Time Relijun doesn't incorporate into its songs. For instance, there's no rap. But come to think of it, de Dionyso's mystic sing-speak and organic cadences call to mind hip-hop forefathers the Last Poets. Neither is there much punk rock -- and yet the abrasiveness and synapse-tangling kinesis of his riffs could belong to both the Birthday Party and D.N.A.
But even while hinting at certain influences, Old Time Relijun appears to be less a bunch of revivalists and more a contemporary incarnation of some aboriginal, mythic archetype of a rock band. Formed in 1995, the group has released six albums that pound like prehistoric pulses, almost tribal in their repetition and savage beauty. The trio's new disc, Lost Light, is a hazy dream state of lust, fear and compulsion welling up from the unconscious, rife with visions of boiling hearts, bacchanalian revelry and vampire bites. The result is trance-like music rooted in a dark, collective zeitgeist that transcends the modern sicknesses of pop and technology.
"My main musical education was listening to old Smithsonian Folkways records at the Spokane Public Library as I was growing up," remembers de Dionyso, a self-confessed amateur ethno-musicologist. "I'd go downtown to the library every weekend and put as many records as I could carry in my backpack and bring them home. We're talking everything from Native American chants to Ravi Shankar to Indonesian gamelan to blues to jazz. Even a little bit of rock and roll here and there. And then I also used to hang out with street musicians starting when I was about fourteen. I had my first acoustic guitar, and there was this fellow who had me under his tutelage. He was my professor -- this wild, old, hairy man who sang songs on the street."
Accordingly, de Dionyso began his music career in 1993 busking on the sidewalks of Spokane before moving to Olympia to attend Evergreen State College. It was there that the trio came together and began recording rudimentary four-track tapes; one of its earliest "hits" was the song "Earthquake" (now available on 2003's Varieties of Religious Experience anthology), in which the singer intones, "There is an earthquake coming to town/Railroads and highways and bridges will split/Sinking and killing people/Snakes and birds and cats will warn us one week in advance/By acting stupid and speaking our language."
That de Dionyso is drawn to the elemental allure of primitivism is evident in his voice, a chant that seems to echo down from antiquity, as plasmic and compelling as a growling stomach. Comparisons can be drawn to Tom Waits, Don Van Vliet, even Howlin' Wolf, but de Dionyso can also swoop and screech like Yoko Ono one minute, then ululate like a Mongolian throat singer the next. When placed in the context of the group's sanctified racket, his voice often assumes the fierce, fiery timbre of a prophet.
"I don't know if I'm quite there yet, but I want to be able to use my voice to have an immediate, magnetic effect on a roomful of people," says de Dionyso. "I want to be able to sing and heal people or make them think about what their life means. This isn't just my ego talking; I've had experiences where I've heard certain people sing gospel or traditional Korean opera, and the strength of the tones of their voices feels like it changes my body molecularly. I'm trying to learn how to do that myself."
But de Dionyso sees music as having an even holier purpose than making a crowd of indie rockers feel all warm and fuzzy. "There are certain stories and images out there permeating the larger culture," he expounds. "I think artists and musicians have kind of an intuitive awareness of which of those stories and images humanity needs for the next decade, the next century. Carl Jung talked about this a little bit, too, that artists have kind of a psychic premonition of what's to come. I'm trying to give the world some of the soundtrack that it's going to need to effect a necessary change in consciousness. Some of the solutions can only be found through new ways of seeing and hearing ourselves and thinking about our place in the world. There's a vibrational medicine that music contains -- not just in the lyrics, but in the actual sounds. I think that music has a lot of power to do good."
To that end, the band tours outside of America -- especially Europe -- at least as extensively as it does inside, spreading the gospel of Old Time Relijun. "There's a long tradition of minstrels and troubadours and so forth," de Dionyso says, "and I feel like we're carrying a torch that was lit thousands of years ago." One country where that torch burns brightest is, of all places, Italy, where the group regularly sells out 500-capacity venues in Rome and Milan.
"Italy treats us really well," he grants. "There are a lot of theories about this. I think our music contains three very important elements that the Italians in particular respond to: mythology, spirituality and sexuality. In fact, I'd say every Old Time Relijun song has some combination of all three. I think maybe those are things that are important in Italian culture in different ways.
"But now we've started focusing on touring the U.S. again," he continues. "It's time to work the native soil. I meet people at shows who say, 'Man, I've been wanting to see you guys for five years. You've never even played in Minneapolis!' And I'm like, 'Actually we have played Minneapolis before. There were four people there, and you weren't one of them.' And then the next time we go into town, there's forty, fifty, sixty people. So it seems like we're really moving up in the music world."
Sarcasm aside, de Dionyso is getting ready to jet overseas yet again as an ambassador of the avant-garde, an anthropologist obsessed with the praxis of experimentalism that's been a part of every culture since humans started mimicking birds and rain and thunder in the earliest forms of music.
"I'm going to Sweden to play this thing called the Ideal Festival," he says. "I don't even know what that's really about. It looks like it'll be a lot of electronic music and noise stuff. I'm doing a solo show out there, just clarinet and voice. And I was going to do some jaw-harp stuff, too, but they all got stolen in that bag."
Somewhere in the lush, primeval environs of the Pacific Northwest, a befuddled thief is squinting into a bag, scratching his head like a caveman and trying to figure out what the fuck a jaw harp is.
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