Pop on the Rocks 

The Dead Science Subvert the Formula

The Dead Science
Fri Oct 14
Holocene
1001 SE Morrison

Fans and critics alike get it twisted when pressed to describe moody Seattle trio the Dead Science. Seattle rag Earshot Jazz Monthly once likened the pipes of singer/guitarist (and occasional Mercury contributor) Sam Mickens to cool-school crooner Chet Baker, with Jherek Bischoff playing the upright bass. On the other hand they rarely rehearse, share close ties to experimental outfits Xiu Xiu and Yellow Swans, and are more likely to play gallery spaces than conventional rock clubs. So what are the Dead Science? A jazz combo? An arty improv ensemble?

None of the above. The Dead Science are a pop band. Not in the same sense as, say, fashion-friendly MTV fops the Killers (although Mickens shows up for our interview wearing a natty oxford shirt dotted with tiny rhinestones), but a pop band nevertheless. The threesome—whose second full-length, The Frost Giant (on Absolutely Kosher) hits stores on October 25—are the first to own up to that fact.

"Jherek and I had been in a lot of experimental free-jazz bands when we met," recalls Mickens. Although they arrived at the decision independently, they shared the same concept when they formed the group in 2000. "Both of us wanted to start a pop band," the singer continues. "We even had some ridiculous idea of what our specific components were, Talking Heads–meets–Tom Waits... some bullshit like that. It didn't turn out like that at all."

"Last Return," the opening track of The Frost Giant, offers a prime example of how the Dead Science subvert traditions to riveting effect. While Nick Tamburro's drums turn lopsided somersaults, Bischoff propels the melody; the steadiest instrument, rhythmically, is the guitar. "Totally the opposite of a regular rock band," says Mickens. For all the push and pull in the dynamics between the three players, and their integration of subtle textures, their compositions typically "start from a really basic songwriting place, then get altered through playing."

What about Mickens' delirious, upper-register vocals, which impart selections like "In the Hospital" with an unsettling, feverish quality? Surely such unearthly singing is completely at odds with mainstream tastes. Wrong again. "In the past couple of years, I've just been listening mostly to Prince and Michael Jackson," he reveals. "Way more than anything else. And that has definitely had a big effect on my singing."

Prince and Jackson provide ideal reference points for the band's overall aesthetic, too. "Some of the most interesting music is completely alien in its content, but still has this immediate pop feeling," the singer continues. "There has always been stuff like that, but it seems like, with acts like Outkast, there's more and more now."

Far from holding the Dead Science back, simple forms like song structure and a three-piece lineup, combined with the players' backgrounds in experimental and improvised music, continues to give them more freedom. "As the band has developed, our music is feeling continuously more exciting," concludes Mickens. There is more room in the new songs to completely alter them in the moment. To not just perform the songs, but to let how you're feeling determine how you play them." If that basic impulse—to communicate something emotional via music—isn't the essence of pop, what is?

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