MY FIRST EXPOSURE to Sleepytime Gorilla Museum came after I stepped into the Crystal Ballroom for a seemingly innocuous rock show. Most of the night's attendees were caught off guard as a menagerie of imposing modern Dadaists sporting mohawks and tattered tunics proceeded to tear through a set that ran the gamut from gothic chamber lullabies to gnarled prog-rock dream visions that would make King Crimson scratch their heads. Needless to say, I was hooked.
While the band's wild, post-apocalyptic howlings could earn them a gig as house band at the Thunderdome, their roots are decidedly deep and archaic. The original "museum" which inspired their strange moniker was a touchstone of the early 20th century Futurist movement, serving up evenings of anarchist poetry and "salamander exhibits" until it was burned to the ground by its own founders in 1916. It's that same spirit of outsider artistry and planned obscurity that prompted former members of Idiot Flesh and Charming Hostess to resurrect the museum's name nearly a century later.
Even amid all the vibrant plumage Sleepytime drapes themselves in, what catches the eye most is their arsenal of exotic, one-of-a-kind instruments with cryptic titles like "The Pedal Action Wiggler," "The Cock Roach," and "The Electrick Pancreas."
"I like to build things," says the band's bassist/inventor Dan Rathbun. "I got a cello in a secondhand store and put a pickup on it, then I decided it should be solid body and five string so I built one. It took forever and I made a lot of mistakes but if I figured my time to be worth one dollar per hour I still would have saved money buying an instrument that someone else had made. Now I only make instruments that nobody else is making for sale. If you want new sounds you need new instruments."
It's that strong sense of imagination and uncanny defiance that makes Sleepytime a sight to behold. Let's just hope they don't burn down the club tonight when they're through with it!