When Arrington de Dionyso was a 13-year-old living in the colorless doldrums of Spokane, Washington, he met a homeless street musician who told him something he would never forget: "You're a lion, not a lamb." He's been striving to transcend the herded life ever since. At 14, he too played street corners, slapping on his guitar and singing loud. At Evergreen State College in 1995, he shared shards of the songs that began on the street, formed a band, and named it Old Time Relijun.
His unexpected and creatively complex songs are a testament to what the homeless man pointed out years ago: He is indeed much more a leader than a follower. "I was a lonely child in junior high so I spent a lot of time listening to music," de Dionyso said recently by phone. "I didn't have any scene or group of friends so I went down to the library and checked out stack after stack of vinyl."
Brought up in a family that has "no music aptitude or interest in music whatsoever," de Dionyso didn't set out to make music. Rather, having spent much of his formative years in, as he calls it, "a theatric brat phase," he is a performer at heart and songwriter by default. "Playing on the streets you have to have cassettes to sell so I made some tapes," he explains, "which led me to getting a four-track which led to experimenting with multi-tracking and finding sound objects."
For de Dionyso, music is about more than arranging notes around a good beat. Instead, music is a channel for discovery and growth. A former language student of Spanish and French (he had intended on teaching), de Dionyso is interested in how art translates across space. "I was never concerned with contemporary fashion; I wanted to make something that moves across time and place," he says.
It's hard to determine just what the four-member band sounds like. A messy amalgam of folk, jazz, and noise maybe? Unbound to genre, scenes, or geography, Old Time Relijun's songs are free to travel, feeling big and worldly all the while. Their newest offering, Catharsis in Crisis, is the final installment in a trilogy that began a few years back. "It's about individualization through the creative journey of the hero, or the shaman, and using mythology as psychology," de Dionyso explains. "It's rooted in these ideas that tell a story out of order, roughly about birth, death, and rebirth and about striving for transcendence and confronting demons."
Is that all? Not exactly: "Dreams, reinterpretations of my studies of Kabala, William Blake, and Walt Whitman—there's quite a bit of source material thrown in."
Recorded with Steve Fisk at Calvin Johnson's Dub Narcotic Studio, Catharsis in Crisis was arranged to shift perspectives through repetition. "In this song there is a little motif and then we would take it into another song and make it the riff," de Dionyso says. "Or we'd have a horn section in one song mirroring a vocal line from another.
"It's like a cubic painting that gives you many different viewpoints all at once," he continues. "I strive for reaching transcendence through sound and music and broadening dimensions—there's a searching at the core of it all."
And, surely, quite a lion's roar as well.