Photo by Tom Starkweather
Algae & Tentacles is a band born of the contradictions between noise and quiet.
Singer-guitarist John Melillo started the band about five years ago in New York, but the project coalesced when he settled in Tucson in 2011. With different drummers, sometimes solo or sometimes adding additional guitarists, Algae & Tentacles
has explored the two halves of Melillo’s musical aesthetic, always making the most of the inherent tension in styles.
“We started out playing more crazy performance stuff, but it always had this bedroom component to it. I was mixing between loud, noisy nutso stuff and quiet, home-recorded stuff. I’ve always bounced back and forth between those things,” Melillo says. “I like combining these styles, noise and folk, and have them play against each other. Both sound fresher, they sound new to the ear if you set up one context and then slap the listener with a different context.”
That musical mission is at the forefront of “Algae & Tentacles,” the band’s first full-length release, out this week on California’s Lightning Records. Though Melillo has recorded and put out small cassette tape releases on his own over the years, this more formal debut spans the history of the band as well as its musical breadth.
“Some of the songs are pretty old material, things I’ve been playing since the beginning of Algae & Tentacles. And some are Tucson artifacts for sure, created here in this space,” he says. “But there’s always going to be this constant bit of Melillo weirdness that will run through all the songs that I couldn’t quite escape.”
Melillo says songs like “Magellan” and “Cuddle Up” that come from the Tucson era of his life sound “have something that tries to expand spatially in a different way. They’re more stretched out.” And a New York song, like the relatively poppy “Little Body,” has “something very basement-y and claustrophobic, in a good way, about it.”
“It’s nice to have this sense of a layered effect of all the different types of songs I’ve written over the years,” he says. “It’s about the different parts of my life and it’s about the different spaces I’m in and feelings that happen because of that.”
Recorded in two phases, at the HangArt about two years with drummer Hannah Ensor, and last fall at Melillo’s home, the album has a feel of continual motion, the songs cast against each other to emphasize their contrasts.
“Other people have very specific projects, they say ‘This is going to be the shoegaze project’ and then they’re onto something different. I do want to try to combine the contradictory impulses,” Melillo says.” Sometimes it seems schizophrenic, but I also feel like it’s necessary to have those styles push against each other and meld into each other. I want to avoid having a single sound, or avoid having the boredom that happens with that.”
Melillo found appropriate collaborators in Lightning Records
’ Seth Olinsky and Ali Beletic, who founded the label with the slogan “We believe in the transcendent power of rock ‘n’ roll.”
Melillo met Olinsky, who plays in the experimental folk band Akron/Family and a solo project Cy Dune, in New York. Both were participating in composer Rhys Chatham’s 200-guitar performance at Lincoln center.
“We met first in this giant rock ‘n’ roll symphony, so we knew we had this affinity,” Melillo says.
Serendipitously, Melillo, Olinsky and Beletic all moved to Tucson and the Algae & Tentacles performances made the band a perfect fit when Lightning Records was launched last year.
“I’m really glad to be able to be part of this group of back-to-basics rock ‘n’ roll people,” Melillo says. “Lighting is about cutting down from all the bullshit and getting straight to something that’s hard and minimal, something that’s to-the-bone rock ‘n’ roll. We always shared that aesthetic and we talked about how that vision really fits what Algae & Tentacles is doing.”
Melillo tends to shake up the Algae & Tentacles lineup regularly, experimenting with the different ways a song can sound. The album’s first track, “Prester John,” serves as an example of just how far a song can stretch over time.
“That song began just as an exercise in trying to make something that sounded like a weird mixture of Gregorian chants and blues,” Melillo says. “I’ve done that song both as a hand-clapping, a cappella song and then also recently expanded it so it was for four guitars, playing an extended 20 minute version.
“A song is not just a particular collection of sounds. It’s an idea that gets reiterated over and over again and you’re trying to squeeze out all the possibilities that idea could offer,” Melillo says.
That idea aligns with Melillo’s day job, researching the relationship of sound and noise to poetry and lyrics as an assistant professor at the University of Arizona.
“I do recognize that the kinds of things I study have an affect on the kind of music that I like to put together. They’re separate, but ultimately tied together,” he says. “It’s fun the way the academic world works allows me to expand on the ideas of artists who might be marginalized in a way. My own music definitely ties into that.”
Algae & Tentacles will celebrate with an album-release show Thursday night at Exploded View, 197 E. Toole
. Also on the bill are Wet Marble, Schlappi, The Rifle and Virdee. Admission is $5 or $10 with an “Algae & Tentacles” cassette tape.
“I love what Exploded View does. I love vibe that anything can happen. It’s amazing they’ve opened up this space for noise, for the weird, for the out kinds of art in Tucson, so that’s always attracted me to the space,” Melillo says. “I love shows that are inside of just concrete blocks. The minimalist space really attracts me as a place that resonated with what I want to do musically.
“It’s going to be a combination of the extremes Algae & Tentacles does,” Melillo says. “It’s going to be the full spectrum, lots of noise, but some sweet spots too.”