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Outer Bongolia 

Black Fiction's trippy tunes take listeners to unusual places

Wednesday, Aug 23 2006
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When I arrive to interview Black Fiction at leader Tim Cohen's Western Addition flat, three members of the band are marking Syd Barrett's recent demise in the best way possible. With a very large bong.

There is very little that is commonplace about Black Fiction, and this device is no exception. It's more a giant hookah, with purple, octopuslike tentacles splaying in all directions, threatening to reach right out and grab the nearest musician or journalist and smoke him. The Black Fiction experience is full of such peculiar moments, ones that make you feel like you've stepped into some hidden world — possibly a Lord of the Rings sequel, as written by Hunter S. Thompson.

Various artists may try on the cloak of eccentricity, but Black Fiction's six musicians appear to wake up on the weird side of the bed each and every morning. There's keyboardist Joe Roberts, who, when he's not selling homemade paper werewolf dolls at the merch table, crawls around the stage with a hoodie tight over his face. Anthony Marin is possibly the world's largest triangle player, his hulking presence softened by a burly beard. Fellow beardmate Tim Cohen is tall and angular like some Roman Centurion with a guitar for a sword, while squat, tattoo-covered bassist Evan Martin motions with his mouth while he plays as if he were bobbing for apples. Synth player Jason Chavez looks like your prototypical spliff-rolling underground DJ, and gaunt drummer Jon Bernson appears dialed in from some dark Tom Waits narrative.

Altogether, the sextet exudes an intense fervor, as if the collective shares a virus that has to be sweated out. Or, as Mission Creek Music Fest founder Jeff Ray suggests, "The overall vibe is reminiscent of the scene in the movie version of Hair in which all the hippy guys are trying to avoid the draft and turn their weirdness on full blast."

Appearances notwithstanding, Black Fiction has quickly become one of the Bay Area's most compelling, in-demand rock bands. Without so much as lifting a finger to dial a booking agent, the group has scored big-time gigs opening for Dengue Fever, Magnolia Electric Co., and the Mother Hips, playing such esteemed venues as 12 Galaxies, the Great American Music Hall, and Bimbo's. All this with a sound that's such a stylistic mishmash that it really shouldn't work. I mean, who in their right mind would try to make something coherent out of freaky folk strums, gritty hip-hop beats, krautrock-y keyboard drones, and lyrics about death and ghosts?

Perhaps a bunch of white kids in love with golden-era hip hop.

"We all have one foot in the indie world, but also at the same time we're all really into hip hop," adds drummer Bernson. "I can remember being into Zeppelin and RUN-DMC at the same time."

The seeds of Black Fiction were first sewn in 1999, when Cohen recognized a fellow traveler in Evan Martin, a co-worker at Rockridge's upscale eatery, Market Hall. On their lunch breaks, the pair would hang out underneath the BART tracks, attempting to fuse their individual tunes into one song (a process that would lead directly to the genre-busting work of Black Fiction). Eventually, they started a band called Hattattack, which toured with Bernson in 2001 on the Best of the West jaunt, a caravan of Bay Area folkie types.

Mission Creek's Jeff Ray stumbled upon the group, which was now called Feller Quentin, in 2004. "Initially, I was confused by the absence of a consistent musical genre, but it was an agreeable confusion," he says. "Somehow this chaos coalesced to form a great song."

Ray booked the band for his festival the following year — which was something of a problem since, by then, Feller Quentin had ceased to exist. Not wanting to miss out on the opportunity, Cohen and Martin convinced Bernson and pals Rogers and Chavez to come along. (Marin joined the crew after the initial gig.) They named the new outfit Black Fiction after the French mistranslation of the title of Quentin Tarentino's Jackie Brown. "We had melodica, marimba, glockenspiel — all sorts of stuff you wouldn't have at your first live show," says Cohen. "We just got up there, and something really magical happened."

Indeed, something magical still seems to happen at Black Fiction shows. There's the music, which feels improvisatory and unwieldy, like a rushing train barely clinging to the tracks. And then there are the musicians' distinct performing styles. Cohen can look practically unhinged, whether he's locking eyes with the audience in a death stare, or bashing away at his tom drum. Martin moves like a bull dancing in a china shop, while Chavez layers high-lonesome vocals over thumping beats. For his part, Marin often wears an expression of shock, like he can't believe he's actually in a rock band. And finally there's Roberts, who at one 12 Galaxies show, leapt up from the floor for the last number, dancing like a maniacal Snoopy recreating Flashdance.

"In a lot of ways Joe is the hidden genius in the band, if there is a hidden genius in the band," says Cohen.

"They've got such a motley bunch of characters," says S.F. psych-pop star Kelley Stoltz. "There's three guys banging away on xylophone, and a bunch of stuff is propped up on an old ironing board. There's not a lot of bands I go see where I'm jealous, but they really go for it."

Whereas Hattattack/Feller Quentin's tracks were strictly composed, rife with tricky time signatures that had to be played the same way over and over, Black Fiction's tunes are more conventional. "Those [Hattattack] songs had six or seven parts, and you couldn't latch onto them," Cohen remembers. "They would often leave the audience confused, and not always in a good way."

This doesn't mean that Black Fiction's songs — which can be heard on the Ghost Ride debut, released this week on the local Howells Transmitter label — are simple. Recorded at home on 8-track by Cohen with occasional help from all his bandmates, Ghost Ride sounds like a bunch of hyperactive children let loose in a damaged-toy factory. "Something Else" features tambourine, sampled beats, flute, kazoo, and a lead melody played on a glockenspiel, not to mention Cohen's vocals, which shift from sweet falsetto to menacing baritone. On the fractured funk of "I Spread the Disease," Cohen comes off like Al Green jamming with Jamie Lidell on pawnshop equipment. "Black Fiction" weds a thumping keyboard part and grimy Casio beat to a Canlike mix of piano, glock, and guitar; "You Must Not Bury Someone" features banjo and swirling synth parts — bluegrass on acid. Then there are the acoustic tracks "You Can Find Me" and "I Hope You Never Die," which are as sad, beautiful, and odd as any of Devendra Banhart's stuff.

At one point in the interview, Martin mentions loving the way Beatles' songs could be both happy and sad simultaneously. That's where Cohen's lyrics come in. He has a propensity for writing about otherworldly matters, but not in some stupid goth way. (He lists Ice Cube and Neil Young as his biggest lyrical inspirations.) He somehow connects the next world with this one, as on "I Hope You Never Die," in which a dead man mourns for his lover but also hopes she'll escape the Grim Reaper's clutches. In "I Spread the Disease," he documents a flu virus that he passed to his girlfriend, making the event sound both strangely romantic and deeply twisted: "I'm a pale skinny man when I spread the disease/ She don't love me when she is all that I need."

"I was very sick when I was a baby; I was in a coma for the first 11 days of my life," says Cohen. "The thing about ghosts is that I want to believe in them. I think I have a very romantic view of the world. I want to believe that ghosts are real, and no one ever dies."

Sounds like a sentiment Syd Barrett could appreciate.

About The Author

Dan Strachota

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