Sketch comedy is the best way to describe it," says Nathan Wright, discussing the process of composition within the Kevin Costner Suicide Pact.
"It's not verse, chorus, bridge," adds Carson Pelo. "It's more of a flow chart. Things don't necessarily have to go somewhere, but they can lead into something else."
Although the music is serious, meditative and a perfect merging of the intellectual and the evocative, the members of Kevin Costner Suicide Pact have a well-developed sense of humor that is obvious from song titles like "Monkeys, Monkeys, Ted & Alice" on End Weekend and "Savage Fucking Garden" from the forthcoming album Standstill. Even the name of the band is an inside joke.
The Kevin Costner Suicide Pact
"The name itself came from Nathan and I when we were drunk in his dorm room looking at funny, goofy band names," explains Carson's brother, Tyler. "We were both blown away by the Tony Danza Tapdance Extravaganza. So 'Kevin Costner Suicide Pact' came out of my mouth, and we decided to go with that. The first album we always wanted to do was going to be called Gloveless. But we never got around to that one. We'll see."
The quartet met while Peter Goodwin, Wright and Tyler Pelo were students at the University of Colorado at Boulder, living in the same dorm. The Pelo brothers cut their musical teeth with a ska band called Skallywag and the Funky Bunch. Goodwin, who grew up in Carbondale, was in a handful of punk bands with the intentionally offensive names you'd expect; Wright had relocated from Dallas, Texas, to go to school. "I tried to find a place to go that was the exact opposite of where I grew up," adds Wright. "Turns out, it was very similar."
Carson, a year behind the other three members of the Suicide Pact, initially went to CU to be in the film program, but things didn't work out. Instead, the foursome put together a band called Fellow Citizens that started out with a country-Western musical style until the guys discovered post-rock, like Do Make Say Think, and angular proto-indie rock, like Pavement. From there, their collective musical interests transformed the sound of Fellow Citizens into the kind of mutant Americana that should happen more often but rarely does, because of the tendency of many musicians to want to stay true to a sound or an aesthetic.
Two years into the existence of Fellow Citizens, the Pelo brothers were the only members of the band in town, and they used a Digitech loop pedal with a hundred-loop capacity to create soundscapes that anyone in the band could add to, and Kevin Costner Suicide Pact was born. As amusing as it is, not everyone was thrilled with the name of the band.
"My parents, for the longest time, tried to encourage us to change the name," says Tyler, with a glint of mischievous amusement in his eye. "That was just more fun for us to go, 'That's the name. I'm gonna get it tattooed on my skin if you keep complaining about it.'"
If the moniker can be construed as anything but inspired absurdity, the music itself evolved from those loops — with guitar and bass and electronic instruments layered over the top, often during the course of improvisational sessions — to something akin to the compositional style of Morton Feldman, a contemporary of John Cage's.
"He didn't care how fast you could play an arpeggio," Tyler elaborates. "His written compositions weren't standard notations. He was obsessed with Persian rugs, so he would draw maps or graphs or colored charts or flow charts. We're starting to explore more of that in actual compositions. But I think that looking at our music in that mindset instead of a verse-chorus structure, or even a time-signature structure, provides more of a map of when things are coming through."
During recent live performances, the guys haven't played strict songs so much as the touchstones Wright and Carson Pelo noted earlier, with points to hit during a song to give it an informal cohesion. But rather than the way a typical band operates, where one or two members are primary songwriters — or even bands where everyone is a primary songwriter getting credit for particular songs — the Suicide Pact operates outside of those parameters.
"It's very much based on what everyone else is doing," Tyler points out. "I'm not going to be the one to make the first loud, distorted noise. I'm not going to be the one to jump out unless the song calls for it. It's more about taking in what everyone else is doing and seeing how you can complement that."
"I think we kind of like the idea of being in a group where none of us wants to be the standout musician," adds Goodwin. "None of us wants to be the guy who's ruling the whole thing."
"You can't have a lead singer of an ambient band," concludes Wright.
The group's latest setup sometimes takes even playing instruments out of the picture as each member uses a pedal effect or a piece of hardware or a computer on a tone generated somewhere in a synergistic chain of sound. Especially on the songs for Standstill.
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"The other big thing about Standstill, too," muses Tyler, "is that we're starting to incorporate new restrictions, and all of us are playing with the same source tone. The stereo outputs of my tones used to go into everyone's pedals. Now we've changed that. Instead of a big stream, it's a feedback loop that's really dangerous — because if all of us turn up at the same time you'll just get straight feedback. Now we've got it so that Carson's tone goes into Nathan, then goes into me and into Peter. So at any one time, any one of us could be playing an instrument and everyone else can be affecting them."
A similar technique is used by artists like Minamo and Geologist from Animal Collective, but the Suicide Pact's particular take on looping incorporates the ability of each member of the band to manipulate the source tones rather than all tones going to one source, with one person wielding that power on any given song.
"It's like if we were those four-armed characters from Mortal Kombat; in a circle jerk, you can reach out to everyone else," summarizes Carson with a laugh.
Kevin Costner Suicide Pact has confounded some audience members and caused others to enter meditative states — and whatever its music can be called, or however it can be described, it has effectively crossed its own boundaries with every release. And it's already helping to make ambient music exciting again by virtue of the inventiveness of its approach.