Chickadee Mountain Martyrs are messing with your mind. Sort of.
"There's nothing wrong with paying attention," says Luc Parker, pinching a cigarette in his fingertips, indicating with his smirk that the meat of the matter is yet unsaid.
Parker is the lead guitarist and principal lyricist of Chickadee Mountain Martyrs, and on University Avenue after a weekday Turf Club show, he treads this territory as cautiously as a mine diver, as if the slightest stumble in self-definition might blow his band to bits. It is, after all, a challenging time in local music, a renaissance fraught with bands that double-dare the ear, and a time in which increasingly patient listeners are sometimes taken advantage of by performers out more to shock and awe than to edify. So however badly it may tempt you, don't call the Martyrs "challenging," lest you damn them with faint, incomplete praise.
"Challenging a listener is not something we think about in the songwriting process," says drummer Richard Arnold. "Some bands do that, and it can be self-serving. It's only challenging until you understand it. We don't want to frustrate. Let's call it 'surprise.'"
And yet, behold the Martyrs, a sonically flummoxing four-piece of trumpet, sax, synth, and guitar, craftsmen of music so genre-inclusive, so broadly informed, and so romanced by the anomalous phenomena of melody and time that the brain, reflexively, reels on first impact. They are a band to whom musical lines of demarcation are as meaningless and impotent as cafeteria cliques.
"We play with folk bands," says Parker. "We play with metal bands. I think my deepest circle of hell is a large lunchroom in which every table is a genre or a scene," says Parker. "You've got your food and you don't know where to sit. If people are able to come to a place where their minds are open, where they're understanding that people are onstage doing something out of the ordinary, then I think we can say we accomplished our goal."
Conceived as a confederacy of backing musicians for Parker's spoken-word persona Luc the Drifter, the Martyrs were christened in August of 2007 in the kitchen of their south Minneapolis home and practice space. In the ensuing years, the Martyrs have developed the cunning of crypt thieves who craft Frankenstein's beasts from looted graves and imbue them with living, indomitable spirits. On Comeuppance, their forthcoming debut on Anti-Civ Records, miniature compositions of roughneck rock assemble in haggard movements one moment only to collide with enthralling, half-sour horn choruses the next, like errant glaciers eroding into a wrack of noisy flotsam. Through the microscope, their songs are a tangle of musical blindsides. But listen at a safe distance if you can—the Martyrs' songs are car crashes elegantly composed, and their themes are bound as closely to one another as Chinese linking rings.
"It's like a constellation," says saxophonist Kai Stenslund, of the Martyrs' songwriting process. "You draw a few lines, add a figure 8, and there's a song. How do you end a painting? How to you stop writing a book? How you do you recognize the last stroke? I don't know. But when I leave a stage and people talk to me about how we did, I love to hear, 'That was fucked up, but you pulled it off.'"
The Chickadee Mountain Martyrs might be messing with your mind. But they're doing it with a finesse that lurks so deeply behind a loud and garrulous foreground, you might never know it was there until it was too late, with music that is, as great art ought to be, out of your grasp but within your reach. This isn't complexity for its own sake, but the logical expression of a band that has made up its own mind about what does and doesn't sound good, and that announces in every note a patent refusal to kowtow.
"You gotta put your foot down if what's out there doesn't satisfy you," says Parker. "I'm writing the music that I like. I wouldn't be doing it otherwise. If I'm going to a show and seeing a band I've never seen before, I want to be surprised. And if you don't see that, then you gotta make it."
CHICKADEE MOUNTAIN MARTYRS play a CD-release show with Dark Dark Dark and Knife World on SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 20, at the HEXAGON BAR; 612.722.3454