Keep your ears open to the unexpected present, the unpredictable future. To new musicians – when they say, ‘It’s all been done before’, tell them they haven’t heard what you’re going to do next weekend.
Nils Frykdahl, The Prog Rock Website, 2002
Formed: 1999, Oakland, California, USA
Featured album: Of Natural History (2004)
SLEEPYTIME GORILLA MUSEUM’s first performance ‘was done for the benefit of a single banana-slug in an abandoned Newberry’s department store in downtown Oakland.’ At least that’s what the liner notes to their first album claim. As far as origin stories go, it’s ridiculous and, obviously, utter bullshit. But playful mystification and highly detailed nonsense are what this band is all about.
Formed in 1999, the group claimed to be the revival of an early twentieth century printing press and museum whose one and only exhibition was to set fire to their premises, causing much confusion and pandemonium among the public. ‘The museum of the future hides the past’ was said to be one of their many pronouncements, and the band is obsessed with arcane history. The veracity of the museum’s existence is unlikely – online references all lead back to the band and its interviews. However, this conceit allows Sleepytime Gorilla Museum to indulge their combined interests in avant-garde art movements and various strains of esoteric thought, weaving everything together into a complex system where nothing is certain.
What is certain is that Sleepytime Gorilla Museum the band is a combination of two groups from Oakland, California’s experimental rock scene. In 1999, Nils Frykdahl, Dan Rathbun and David Shamrock – all founding members of the carnivalesque Idiot Flesh – joined forces with Carla Kihlstedt from vocal group Charming Hostess, with whom the former three had also played as the Charming Hostess Big Band. Together, they formed Sleepytime Gorilla Museum with a guy called Moe! Staiano. SGM blended the traditional rock set-up of guitar, bass and drums with woodwind, brass, strings, various types of percussion, and a kitchen-sinkful of homemade instruments. Built by Rathbun and Staiano, these included such inventions as the ‘electric pancreas’, the ‘pedal-action wiggler’ and the ‘popping turtle’, all lending a unique textural richness to SGM’s sound: a bonkers blend of art-rock, modern classical and industrial styles.
The band introduced their classification-defying music on Grand Opening and Closing (2001) along with the aforementioned backstory, the title referring to the shortlived nature of the museum’s existence. Lyrical references to Dylan Thomas (“Sleep Is Wrong”), Hank Williams (“Ambugaton”), and Prince (“1997 (Tonight We’re Gonna Party Like It’s…)”) rubbed up against musings on sleep, the apocalypse and power – or more specifically, the lack of each. The baroque detail of the liner notes and lyrics was matched by the group’s heady music: the scrape, clatter and twang of homemade instruments bolstered by Kihlstedt’s eerie violin, Rathbun’s mind-bending bass, and Frydahl’s guitar Frippery. While all members sang, Frykdahl’s croaking baritone and Kihlstedt’s powerful croon came to the fore on a mix of twisted lullabies and prog-metal headsplitters.
Shamrock departed during the debut album’s recording, but stuck around long enough to appear on a live album called, um, Live (2003). With an emphasis on performance art, SGM were very theatrical in appearance – Frykdahl looks like a nu-metal Brian Eno – and their shows included puppet theatre, pseudo-scientific presentations and performances in the Japanese tradition of Butoh. Some of this theatricality was captured on the album, which focused less on the band’s music and more on stage banter, group routines and audience reactions as displayed in the title of the first song “Sunflower (Ssh. This Is It, Man. This Is What You Paid Your Money For)”. One moment even featured Staiano playing a Doobie Brothers record and bowing it like a violin, a technique which all DJs should henceforth be required to do by law.
Live was somewhat directionless and fragmented, but it cleared the air for SGM’s second studio album. Of Natural History (2004) was the troupe’s crowning achievement, released on the Web of Mimicry label run by Trey Spruance (Mr. Bungle, Secret Chiefs 3, Faxed Head). Frank Grau had joined on drums but left during the recording and was replaced by Matthias Bossi of Skeleton Key and The Book of Knots, and the album featured guest musicians including Dawn ‘the Faun’ McCarthy of freak folkers Faun Fables*. A wider range of influences was folded into the already eclectic sound, including electronica, folk and post-rock. Field recordings and samples stitched the songs together into a coherent whole in which the band pitted the manifestos of the Italian Futurists against those of the Unabomber while expanding on the museum’s philosophies. The Face DVD (2005) captured SGM at their impovisational peak, accompanying the movements of Shinichi ‘Momo’ Koga, founder of the Inkboat physical theatre and dance company, which often collaborated with the band.
Staiano left during the tour for Of Natural History, with Michael Iago Mellender taking over on unconventional instrumentation duties for their third and final studio outing. The untimely death of Nils Frykdahl’s brother Per – aka Ward C. Picnic, who had contributed artwork to each of SGM’s releases – influenced the music contained on In Glorious Times (2007). The album honoured Per’s life by weaving samples of his absurd phone messages between songs, and the material explored themes of mortality. Lead single “Helpless Corpses Enactment”, SGM’s unique take on symphonic death-metal, quoted from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, while “Angle of Repose” borrowed imagery from French-American artist Louise Bourgeois about the cycle of death and rebirth. McCarthy returned as a guest along with comedic New Yorkers The Billy Nayer Show, among others.
In just over a decade, the Sleepytime Gorilla Museum was once again closed, and they played their last shows in 2011. A final unreleased studio album, short film “The Last Human Being” and live DVD were rumoured for release but have yet to materialise***. Nevertheless, the group’s spirit lives on. Frykdahl, Rathbun and Mellender reunited with Shamrock to continue the SGM mythos with the more stripped-down prog-rock of Free Salamander Exhibit on their album Undestroyed (2016). Meanwhile, Kihlstedt continues to perform with Tin Hat Trio and Charming Hostess, as well as The Book of Knots with Bossi.
Like fellow Bay Area locals Mr. Bungle, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum ridiculed the notion of genre boundaries to create metal-damaged art-rock with a sense of humour. But SGM were more improvisational and less schizophrenic than the composed mania of Patton, Spruance and company. Their music recalled the bizarre conceptualisations of The Residents, backed by the junkyard percussiveness of Einstürzende Neubauten and plugged into the epic drama of Swans. You could even consider them an American answer to European ‘rock in opposition’ groups such as Henry Cow, Art Bears and Magma. And yet, as tangled as their web of influences and ideas were, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum arrived at an identifiable noise that was all their own: a sound like the complex workings of some cockamamie clockwork machine.
Sleepytime Gorilla Museum’s music grows from a tall mound of bullshit. But it’s bullshit produced by digesting a rich diet of art history. Not only was their convoluted mythology steeped in knowledge of the European avant-garde, but they put its ideas into practice, connecting Futurism’s hard-nosed art of noises** to a Dadaist sense of mischief-making and play. They yearned for a time when artists went on impossible missions to break from what had been done before and create unimaginable new things. This obsession with the past was merely a means to find new pathways to originality, and Sleepytime Gorilla Museum remixed history to invent their own future.
* Frykdahl is also a member of Faun Fables.
** The Art of Noise was a manifesto written by the Futurist Luigi Russolo in a 1913.
*** Free Salamander Exhibit were raising funds through Indiegogo to replace their busted tour bus. They’ve reached their goal, but any extra funds will go towards completing Sleepytime Gorilla Museum’s final album, their film “The Last Human Being” and the final Idiot Flesh album. You can support them by donating here (ends 18 July-ish).
Video for “Hymn to the Morning Star” from Of Natural History (2004)
PopUp TV interview (2007)
Live at the Bowery Ballroom, New York (2009)