Dance Ex Machina
There is a crack in the gravestone above the corpse of 20th-century music, and if you get down on your belly and put your face to the cold black granite slab, cup your hands around your eyes, and squint a little, you can catch a glimpse of the decomposition process. Worms go in and worms go out, dining on bottleneck slides, glam wigs, two-tone wingtips, a banjo peg here, and an anarchy patch there. On their circuitous route, they drag bits of metal and plastic along with them, rewiring the old cadaver's limbs with rusty guitar strings, cables, oscillators, and glow sticks. If you tilt your head a bit, you can see where the heart used to be—it's a place where the omnivorous worms retreat after feasting, a place where they go to sleep and dream. The sound of a heartbeat—not entirely human, not completely mechanical—emanates from within. It's a bouncing, indecipherable, electronic squall, a haunted hybrid of dance and decay. And Skoal Kodiak are using it to turn Twin Cities basements and barrooms into post-apocalyptic dancehalls, where tightly packed bodies sweat and pogo as if their veins carry voltage instead of blood.
Dance-distortion group Skoal Kodiak ply their trade by salvaging musical detritus from the age of the man-machine. Bassist Brady Lentzen and drummer Freddy Votel provide the band's rhythmic foundation. Lentzen churns out monolithic bass lines while Votel plays everything but the driving beat that you end up being pretty sure you hear—and end up dancing to, anyway. During a show, the two tend to stare straight ahead while playing. They push the limits of the man-machine just frequently enough to remind you that the instruments do indeed have pilots.
"Generating energy for people to dance is the goal," says Skoal Kodiak vocalist Markus Lunkenheimer, who formed the band after the untimely demise of his old group, Quad Muth. Lunkenheimer sings into an old plastic Clorox bleach bottle festooned with copper electrical contacts, employing armies of circuits to warp his voice into something not quite human, yet still visceral. With this absurd prosthesis, he attempts to tear the ghost of the machine from its world and bring it to ours. After bass and drums set the bait with flesh-and-bone metrics, Lunkenheimer grabs the electrodes. Using his body as a massive resistor, wrestling voltage, shouting down the machine's neck through its umbilical appendage, he calls it out for a conference. Sometimes the machines bite back. At a show last summer, one of Lunkenheimer's devices for controlling sounds went out in the middle of the set. He told me later that it had been stunned by voltage from the machine he was controlling, and needed some time to "wake up."
"It's easy to make contact microphones," Lunkenheimer explains over the phone. "My vocals go through my homemade instrument, a bleach bottle with a circuit board from an old children's toy in it. It's an old Halloween toy, and it says things like, 'Ghouls Rule,' or 'We've got you now!'" Warped through this process, the lyrics are pretty indecipherable. But that might not matter too much—bassist Lentzen reveals that, "The song 'Pinecones,' for instance, is about the pinecone-shaped part of your brain that can be affected by fluoride in drinking water."
Lunkenheimer also occasionally runs his voice through the synthesizer/sequencer that the band uses in the genesis of their songwriting process. "Our music comes from two different angles," explains Lentzen. "The preprogrammed music starts out as a simple repeating sequence," which the rhythm section expounds upon. "But other times, we play without the sequencer." Whatever the initial formula, the end of the equation is the same: a room full of people cutting loose as if it was the night before their final attempt to destroy the Matrix. Votel, who was the last drummer for local noise-punk band the Cows, says, "The thing I've noticed about this band more than any other is the dancing thing. People really dance—they start going crazy when we play."
The band prefers shows at nontraditional venues. "There's something about playing house parties, at underground clubs...people aren't there as spectators, and they seem more willing to engage with what's going on," Lentzen theorizes. As fans, the men of Skoal Kodiak look for the more edgy and underground bands on the scene: Gay Beast and Vampire Hands are favorites of all three members. Having performed together for about a year, Skoal Kodiak are ready to release an album. "We recorded with Mike Wisti at Albatross Studios in Minneapolis. We just have to tweak it, get it mastered, and then we'll release it ourselves," anticipates Votel. A tour may follow in spring of 2007.
But why do they call themselves Skoal Kodiak? What do smokeless tobacco products have to do with the creation of a cyber-dance utopia? Not a lot, according to Lunkenheimer. "I work with developmentally disabled people. One of the guys is this ex-mountain man who does amazing drawings. I named the band after he did a picture of a demonic face surrounded by the names of his favorite things—it read 'Skoal Pepsi Kiss Kodiak,' so I guess in a way, that's our full name."
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