2i of the Beholder

Not everyone appreciates the experimental septet 2i. And that's the way the band likes it.

On a Friday night last April, seven picketers--wearing black-pompadoured, suburban-dude masks--lobbed complaints at the empty Entry stage. Their words were fighting ones.

"2i is unfair!"

"You're hurting the music!"

But audience members mingling with the sign wavers didn't seem to fear for their safety. They even smiled indulgently. Something was afoot. Sure enough, the protesters doffed their masks, revealing themselves as members of the very band they were protesting: 2i.

During the next two hours--as 2i performed, moving joyfully between funk greasy with electric piano, spiky, beautiful guitar/sax drones, ranting poetics, and husky, Marianne Faithfull-like vocals--the audience did some protesting of its own. Partiers wandered away when grooves dead-ended in squonking horns. Noise lovers left when the horns slid into cheerful soul-kissed rhythms. Those looking for tidy, three-minute ditties were, in common parlance, S.O.L. By the end of the night, 200 attendees had dwindled to 40 loyal fans. With such a tiny fan base, how did 2i ever fit into the rough-and-tumble atmosphere of the Twin Cities underground in the early Eighties?

It wasn't an entirely smooth transition, if the band's accounts are any indication. In the sweltering lobby of the Cedar Cultural Center, where 2i saxophonist Jay McHale works as volunteer coordinator, he and 2i cofounder/guitarist/trumpeter/spieler Dan Kaniess recall digs aimed at them during their heyday: "You suck! Go to New York where they like this [music]!" The band's dance-oriented side rankled more extreme sonic adventurers: An indignant jazz musician once chastised the band after a show for playing "familiar" sounds. ("And it was one of our noisier shows!" exclaims McHale.)

"People either understood [2i], or they didn't," notes Greg Shaefer--a surf/jazz guitarist who recently released 2i's latest, self-titled album on his Break Even imprint. "There wasn't and still isn't much in between."

2i (a condensation of Molière's play title The Imaginary Invalid) debuted as a quartet at a loft party in 1981 after Kaniess and McHale spent 18 months "squawking in private," exploring the common ground between Coltrane and the Contortions. Over the next six years, they added members (eventually settling on seven) and proceeded to perplex audiences with their anything-goes attitude. Although 2i's heavy experimentation set the band apart from more austere peers like Hüsker Dü (HD road manager Dick Madden played alto sax with 2i for years), bookers still found a place for 2i on their bills. The band even headlined at the Entry on Friday and Saturday nights--a practice discontinued when it became apparent that, according to McHale, "you can't really drink to this stuff."

You could, however, dance to it--that is, if you could clog, waltz, and frug in the course of a set. Kaniess recalls a frustrated friend telling him, "Pick a direction and stick with it so that we know what you're doing." But 2i's artistic license made for some exhilarating opportunities. They were just as likely to play a late-night folk-dance party or assemble an impromptu 32-piece "heavy-metal orchestra" as they were to play a VFW hall with Rifle Sport and Man-Sized Action. Still, 2i's improvisational expansiveness, lack of easily parsed hooks, and dearth of interpersonal drama (the duo remember one local weekly that chided them for too much onstage chumminess) meant that clubgoers' fickle attentions often turned toward other suitors. Kaniess points out that the Minutemen received praise for musical tactics that 2i drew fire for: wobbly horns, quirky rhythms, shouted free verse.

Yet it was low-budget touring, not lack of popularity, that turned out to be 2i's undoing. A Canadian jaunt that some members loved (McHale counts it as the greatest two weeks of his life) and others loathed (violent hecklers weren't any more fun in a new setting) served as the catalyst for a brief breakup that stretched to a long furlough. McHale recalls what the group had originally intended to tell their audience--"We'll be back in ten minutes,"--and then remembers, "[We came back] nine years later."

But an offer to reunite--opening for local band Flour for the first night of their three-night Entry show in 1995--felt right: It was a one-time agreement and there was no pressure to continue their career. The show was a success, but the band decided against trying to duplicate the experience. "Retiring" every year was contrary to the band's spirit.

Still, 2i was inspired by Blacki--a completely improvisational 2i spin-off started by Kaniess and his wife Sharon, who sang and played guitar and keyboards in 2i--and eventually reconvened, albeit in a slightly different form. The latest version of 2i has new members and a focus on real-time musical R&D (rather than songs), conducted through frequent rehearsals and the occasional live gig. While 2i's essence is the interaction between Kaniess's guitar and McHale's sax, there's plenty of room for other musicians to jump in and take the lead. If nobody is feeling assertive, sometimes Kaniess will play the instigator by dropping a noisy trumpet blast in the middle of a quiet, rolling section, or spontaneously composing free verse over the mic. Other times, cue cards or hand signals made by band members do the trick. Kaniess likens the process of pushing the improvisations toward interesting, uncharted territory to poking the gigantic ball from the sci-fi TV series The Prisoner with a stick.

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