Quiet Riot

Spies like us: Mata Hari

URBAN NOISE IS such a beautiful thing. The ice-cream man's shrill anthem "The Entertainer" spreading good humor through my window at 8:00 a.m. The melody of the garbage collectors complaining about the overabundance of beer bottles they must lug out of my bin. The clacking of dominos on a kitchen table heard through a distant window--and the sound of expletives at the unhappy end of the game.

The members of local slowcore trio Mata Hari welcome this kind of cacophonous city symphony as influential material. From his tour stop in New Jersey, that bastion of car-park concertos, guitarist/vocalist Tim Cronin recently admitted in an e-mail conversation, "The people that live below me have this van that, when in reverse, beeps and says attention please, this car is backing up. I am often woken from deep slumber by this. It is my inspiration."

Over the years, Mata Hari--which was formed in early 2001 by members from decembers architects and Building Better Bombs--have learned to accept a wide variety of noise. When I saw them a month ago at the 7th Street Entry, Cronin vocalized a sweetly hypnotic sound equivalent to NyQuil-saturated sleep breathing, Nathan Kinsella and Kai Benson created a spider web of wobbly guitars and synths, and just above the goosebumped skin of the music, two guys behind me announced, "Dude! That girl last night was so hot! Man, I gotta get her number or sumthin'." So much for appreciating subtlety.

But amazingly, the band members don't seem to mind when listeners chat through their shows. "We tend to really enjoy the aural participation of an audience," they write collaboratively in an e-mail. "John Cage always said that the sounds from the environment around you play as important a role in the listening experience as the intended musical source. Bar noise is the fourth member of our band."

It's difficult to think that disruptive sounds of any kind could function as an essential element in Mata Hari. You know those mid-Nineties Charmin commercials where the exhausted piano-practicing children soothe their ivory-tickling fingers by wrapping them in squeezably soft toilet paper? Well, the band's latest self-titled EP has such a delicate hum of minor chords that it sounds as if they recruited the Charmin kids, gave them some Valium, and asked them to pluck slowly at the guitar strings with their padded digits. Cronin's voice quivers with the uncertain beauty of a teenage choir boy's, and listening to him warbling over the muffled guitars and melancholic keyboards, one feels as if she were eavesdropping through the wall upon a quiet but complete emotional breakdown occurring in the apartment next door.

When they cite their first musical influences, most of these subdued musicians admit that they started out as fans of bands with big guitar riffs and even bigger heads of aerosol-sprayed hair. Kinsella--the younger cousin of emo rockers Mike and Tim Kinsella (who've played together and separately in Joan of Arc, Owls, and Cap'n Jazz)--notes that the first album he ever bought was Metallica's The Black Album. Cronin spent his early years listening to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles soundtrack. And Benson remembers of his cyclical music education, "My older sister introduced me to hair metal. Before that it was all Michael Jackson. I spent a couple of years listening to stuff I thought I liked, then one day bought Helmet's Strap It On on a recommendation, and I shat myself. It was a slippery slope from there. Now I'm back to Michael Jackson."

With the influence of the King of Pop, the court jesters of the Napster trials, and skateboarding reptiles with black belts all floating around in Mata Hari's unconscious, how would they classify the ideal listener for their music? "People with long attention spans--our mothers." they answer collectively.

Let's hope our readers have long attention spans, too. (Are you still reading? Or has your mind wandered off to the pros and cons of wearing jodhpurs?) For those of you who don't, I have taken care to wrap up with an outline of a few key points. 1) Mata Hari will release their eagerly anticipated (by me, anyway) self-produced full-length album I Will Sound My Own Reveille at the Dinkytowner this week. 2) It will be filled with more of their trademark sluggishly tempoed, emotionally moving tunes. 3) Their CD-release party is meant to be held in appreciation for their brand of quiet music. Got it? Which leads to one last thing: If you have to discuss your burning desire for the table-dancing tart you met at Tropix last night--well, we really do want to hear all about it, but best to save the details until after the show.

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