Space Invaders

Donnie Darko waits for Scotty to beam him up: Aaron Molina (left) and Christian McShane
courtesy of If Thousands

If Thousands are driven by unseen forces. Call them whatever you like: gods, goddesses, maybe even aliens. (After all, band founders Aaron Molina and Christian McShane are true UFO believers.) There's no doubt that something strange fated the Duluth-based group's first excursions into drone sounds.

On a winter's day in the late '90s, a friend of McShane's went on a hiking trip in Wisconsin's Douglas County Forest. During his long trek through the aspens' lengthening shadows, he found a keyboard, just sitting in the snow. Upon returning home, the friend called McShane to tell him about it, and McShane promptly drove out to the forest, trudged deep into the woods, and rescued the dead leaf- and bug-bedecked instrument--a Micromoog--from its frosty prison. But what's even more amazing than the fact that the keyboard was nestled like some woolly beast in the forest is that McShane actually found it among the area's 268,843 acres of trees.

"I took it home, cleaned it up, and it worked perfectly," he recalls. "I was a guitarist at the time, though, so I just threw it in a closet. If I had known it was worth, like, $2,000, I probably would have sold it right away."

The Moog sat in McShane's closet for more than two years. Then, in August of 2000, more than two years after the Douglas County Forest experience, the classically trained vocalist and guitarist joined up with punk-rock bassist Molina. They decided to chuck their respective musical backgrounds and take up instruments that they, as their website puts it, "had no idea of how to play." Molina opted for the more organic stuff--guitar, vocals, drums. McShane chose electronics: He dragged the keyboard out from its resting place. Finally, the Moog was out of the woods and the closet, so to speak.

If Thousands' sound has expanded considerably since that magical Moog moment, and the change came in part from the recent addition of Logan Erickson. An accomplished keyboardist, the 18-year-old prodigy is also a master circuit bender who creatively rewires Speak & Spells and Casio SK-1 samplers to make noises their creators never could have imagined--clicks, whirrs, hums, crackles, bangs, and some of the strangest approximations of human speech you'll ever hear. Erickson climbed aboard too late to play on either of If Thousands' forthcoming releases, Yellowstone (Chairkickers Music) and Lullabye (Silber Media), but his instruments are integral, but subtle, on both.

Given the near-identical instrumentation and back-to-back recording, If Thousands' two albums are remarkably different. Both McShane and Molina insist that Lullabye is intended to be just what its title suggests: a sleep-inducing device. But such use of the music works only at the suggested super-low playback volume. Turn Lullabye up and you'll hear a seething mass of improvised sound, with guitars and electronics intertwined into hyperactive drones as warm and dense as the waters around a tropical archipelago.

The Alan Sparhawk-produced Yellowstone is quite another kettle of fish. It's the work of a group that's extremely musical, far more so than most experimentalists. (Unlike many of their peers, If Thousands are not too snooty to delve into, say, melodic slowcore on Yellowstone, or try their hand at electronic beats, as they did at a recent show.) The enigmatically titled "we sent h. l. r. e.," for example, begins with a soft, rockish guitar and rhythmic Morse code beeps. Slowly, McShane and Molina add layers of crystalline electronics and glacial guitar, creating a gently susurrant, finely textured sound bed for the sampled voices that appear and vanish like ghosts. The end result is vast and mysterious--the audio equivalent of walking out into Duluth harbor on a January night, eyes fixed beyond the full moon, waiting for the saucers to appear.

If Thousands is an otherworldly band, to be sure. After all, there was a time when they claimed to literally make "music to be abducted by"--and their songs have only gotten stranger since. If and when the green guys come to reclaim their Moog, McShane and Molina will be ready.

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