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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.

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Amy Kiser

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