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The Dead Science -- noun phrase: unflinching stare into the indefinable.

The Dead Science pic #1
Overall, The Dead Science present a sophisticated picture: they're the perfect gentlemen. Formed in 2000, the current members of the self-named "tallest band in Seattle," Sam Mickens (vocals, electric guitar), Jherek Bishoff (electric bass, stand-up bass), and Nick Tamburro (drums/percussion) stand like slight, friendly giants at around a height of 6' 4", all with a colorful, easy, self-honest manner. A conversation with them lets slip an informal clarity, jumping unbelievably easily from Dungeons & Dragons and tentacled horror movie death at 4:00 in the morning to a natural, looking-glass probe into the wonders and problems of how and why people make music. They love what they do. They sell (and sign) pink T-shirts. The T-shirts give you a little sample of the crux of their wonderful problem: a great black bull takes up the attention of the whole foreground and looks back towards the tiny, tiny horizon, where you have a mortally-wounded matador in bed with a little cross over his head, next to a cute doll-house chair and table.
Their sound, not unlike the uncompromising rush of a bull, hits you with a blizzardly roar and ices you within a planned, pathologically beautiful, supernatural architecture. Mickens's cool, sensual, falsetto-register voice sounds like it could well have come from a man trying to wheeze as elegantly and beautifully as he can before being frozen to death. The lineup of guitar, drums, and stand-up bass couldn't get much warmer in tone or more traditional. The song structure is simple, but fattening the band's basic pop song bone structure are unexpected, improvised, driving, experimental sounds, or sounds that come off, well, a little like Prince -- at least in concept.
Following the trail of the band's three last releases, Bird Bones in the Bughouse (2004), Frost Giant (2005), and Crepuscule with the Dead Science (2006), a complex dual movement appears: the jelling together of a more confident and consistent sound concept for the band, paired with an even deeper dive off the ledge into the weird and alien. The music shimmers with the interesting, surprising material that comes from having an experimental jazz background and giving oneself over to a semi-conscious, driving emotional force with one foot beyond the veil. At the same time, the sophistication of that expressed emotional place rings with enough psychic volume to have caught the attention of some well-reputed connections (Xiu Xiu, Deerhoof, and the headliner and co-performer of their latest tour, Carla Bozulich). Dark, refined complexity, a haunting vocal sound, chiming guitar, compelling rhythm section, and a sense of control from within a contemplative improvised void warrant a well-earned comparison to the noir rock/pop icon Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds in the age of guitarist Blixa Bargeld.
I had the chance to meet up with Sam, Jherek, and Nick in Houston at Super Happy Fun Land on July 7, a show they played with Annie Rossi and Bozulich, and was able to ask them some deep questions about their music and what motivates them to do what they do. They were kind enough to give some deep answers.


SCR: A moment ago we were talking about a semi-conscious state involved in improvised music...would you pick up with that again?
Nick Tamburro: I think even developing the arrangements isn't really fully conscious -- at least it's not rational, and therefore it's not that conscious. We don't really know why that one little section needs to be quieter. It just seems like it does.
Jherek Bishoff: Yeah, and every night, there's the stuff that we play with completely different dynamics -- there's no reason for it other than just by chance. For whatever reason, it just seems like that section suddenly needs to be with no bass and no drums --
Sam Mickens: Just by impulse.
JB: Right, by impulse. It's been weird recording some of those types of songs because it's different every time, so we never know what way is best. We just do it whatever way it happens in the studio and then play it differently again every night after that.
There's an unseen, shattering sort of psychological darkness that I hear as a theme in your music. This is kind of a deep question, but what do you all feel is the value of making music about that kind of state? Whether it's in oneself or about other people?
SM: I've been thinking a lot in the last year or so about the value of making music at all, I guess, just because it's always felt like a really intensely natural and clear desire for me, and I think for all of us -- a really, really intrinsic, unquestioned impulse and "life path" or whatever. Just recently in the last several months I've tried to be really critical of it and think about why do I feel this way... Not why do I want to do it, but kind of to justify it, or how could I justify it?
Jherek and Nick should definitely answer this question too, but I feel like my feelings about the world, definitely about our situation in this country, are that it's so...intrinsically terrible and fucked up that it's kind of unaffectable. Like it can't really be altered or fixed by individuals in the way that it maybe could in the decades or centuries past. I've come to realize that I have this feeling that we're in this just horrible, and pretty unfixably horrible, situation in the world.
The Dead Science record cover
(Music courtesy of Absolutely Kosher Records.)

For me, at least, the most valuable thing to do within that, given that overhanging situation, is to make people feel as human or as elevated as possible. It's kind of like a hospice care kind of idea about the value of your life. You can't fix it, but you can make it as emotional and kind of comfortable, ease pain and make things feel as good as they can in this kind of impossible situation. I feel like that's -- at present, at least -- the purpose of doing this kind of pop music or any kind of art. For me.
JB: Me, too. For me, though, mostly, it's just complete impulse. I'll be working on music for 10 hours a day every day and after about a week and half of doing that, I'll be like, what the fuck was I just doing? Where did all of that come from? Why did I know to do those certain things? I just decide not to think about it, do whatever feels natural for as long as it feels natural.
NT: Yeah, it's hard. I've thought about that kind of stuff a lot, too. I've actually had a couple of moments on this tour where I'm sitting at my drums, I'm on the floor sitting with them, and then I look and think about how these things are the symbol of the number one thing that I'm trying to do in my whole life, which feels really strange. Some people are out there figuring out how to plant food in the desert, just all of these incredible things that are physically and really immediately helping people... I think it just feels, and has for so long, like so natural and unquestioned a thing to do, and maybe that in the world everyone is getting so much more alienated from what they're doing in their lives, that maybe that is a really important thing to do -- just to do what you impulsively do and not let yourself get separated from that.
JB: It's lucky we all just found each other, though... To find people who will throw everything aside and be like, I'm just going to do what I want to do and not anything else, except maybe work in a coffee job part-time or some shit to pay a few bills.
The Dead Science pic #2
I agree, it's incredibly rare... To me, this is something that defines courage in the face of our society, although I have to say that I've been seeing courage in a lot of different forms recently, including in an office environment.
SM: I think it's impossible not to sometimes feel really pathetic and ridiculous and weak in what you're doing, as compared to people that are maybe doing really serious direct actions or what feel like way more immediately affecting things.
I was going to ask if dreams play any kind of role in the music? Would any of you care to relate an influential dream that you've had?
JB: Other than playing soccer with the whole Cosby family?
NT: You know that's for all of us, even though just Jherek had that dream.
JB: I wasn't dreaming at all until I started reading again a whole bunch. Now I've been dreaming about playing with baby grizzly bears. [To Sam:] Have you been dreaming?
SM: No, I've barely, barely, barely dreamed at all, like once or twice a year, for the last few years of my life. There was a song on the last album that's called "Sam Mickens' Dreams," and in that song I think there was more of a feeling than its explicitly coming from dreams. What that song was about is that when I was a kid, I had lots of really, really amazing, incredibly rich, fantastical kinds of dreams where in the dream you would have days and days and weeks and weeks of your life, and then you wake up and it would be only a few hours later. Lots of recurring dreams where I would be living a certain life, and then I would have a dream a couple of years later that would be like a continuation of the same life. And a lot of the time waking up from those dreams, I would be totally heartbroken to be back in my real life. In the last few years it's been sad to me to not have that part of my life at all, and if anything it's not so much drawing from dreams as dreams being this distant, really intensely romanticized, unreachable part of yourself.
Do any of you dream in music?
JB: Yeah, I have a few times... I've composed a couple of songs that way, though maybe not for this band. There've been a couple of times where I've woken up thinking that I just figured out the most amazing thing ever and then I can't remember it right away.
NT: I once woke up with a six-note thing that was going through my head during a dream. I thought it was just so incredible and played it on a bass, and was like, "uh...no."
So what's the deal with Prince?
SM: [pause] He's really awesome.
[To Sam:] There have been comparisons of some of the falsetto that you use with some of Prince's vocals. Why did you choose that particular vocal style? Not to mention that you have all this stuff about him up on MySpace. What's up with that?
SM: Well, I think that from the time I was 13 or 14, I was really, really excessively into all kinds of experimental music and all kinds of international music, and other kinds of stuff, like rap and lots of other shit... Some of those things have a tendency to swing back and forth if you're a really aggressive, intense music listener, and definitely for the last two, maybe three years, I've personally been spending way more time listening to Prince and Michael Jackson. I think there are lots of other elements in the singing, like Jimmy Scott, who among jazz singers is a really, really huge, important person for me, and a lot of people. But yeah, I think those things have definitely found their way a lot more into my singing in the last couple of years.
JB: I think that it's due to the fact that if you pick apart that music, it's the most alien, experimental fucking shit out there. It's so much weirder than almost all free jazz for me. Like when you hear Michael Jackson and pick apart what he's talking about to realize that most of it is total nonsense...
SM: I'm not going to say that Michael Jackson's lyrics are nonsense.
The Dead Science pic #3
JB: Not nonsense, but him saying "Shamahn" all the time, and all those weird little hiccups that he does. And the production is always so... It's I guess the ultimate pop music, but when you pick it apart and really think about it, it's totally crazy!
SM: I think it's a really important point. I think for me and maybe for all of us, that's become a weird model for our band, even though our band doesn't sound anything like that, that Prince or Michael Jackson or James Brown or a lot of people really had these extremely experimental and unusual elements in their music that, when all composed the way they were, felt like the most emotional pop music, but their elements where all these really intense and unusual pieces or components.
JB: Pretty much totally elusive.
SM: It's this really exciting, weird, magical artistry that's kind of a thing to aspire to, that they can take these super intense, fucked up components and in their arrangement of them make them feel like the most natural and universal and affecting music. And I'm also just really obsessed with Michael Jackson and Prince both as people and self-mythologizers, performers and stuff like that.
If you had to choose what your gift to posterity or whatever would be, what would it be? Very epic question.
SM: I would probably say the greatest song album of all time. I think we should just end it there. [laughs all around] END