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"I'm looking for the word. I'm trying to find it in my mind," says Particle drummer Darren Pujalet by phone from his Los Angeles home.
Eventually, he finds a descriptor -- which, no surprise, takes more than one word to convey.
"The music has certain steps, like steps on the stairwell," Pujalet says. "We take it to another level, and each night, some steps are bigger and some steps are smaller, and the stairwell can twist and turn in different directions. We reach pivotal landmarks a lot of the time in what we do."
Particle reached a different sort of landmark earlier this fall. The veterans of the L.A. freelance and cover band circuits played their 400th Particle show in just over three years since forming after three of the members jammed together during a booze cruise around the San Francisco Bay. Over that stretch, the band has become one of most adored new bands in the national jam-band scene on the strength of its supremely tight, unpredictable live shows. It performed a marathon five-and-a-half-hour set for tens of thousands of fans this past summer at the Bonnaroo Music Festival in Tennessee. Last spring, the band landed a second-stage spot at the more prestigious Coachella Valley Arts and Music Festival in Indio, California, playing a much shorter but nonetheless well-received set. It has also shared stages with bassist -- and son of Aaron -- Ivan Neville, prodigal Blues Traveler harmonica player John Popper and ex-Doors guitarist Robbie Krieger.
This week, Particle speeds through Arizona in eventlike fashion, hitting the Orpheum Theatre in Flagstaff, the Rialto Theatre in Tucson and the Bash on Ash in Tempe on successive nights. For $30, enthusiasts can purchase a "Particle People Pass" to attend all three shows.
Similarly, Particle is planning an all-night New Year's Eve bash in Miami. A week after that, it performs as part of Jamcruise, which, as the name implies, is a cruise out of Fort Lauderdale populated by 10 crunchy, noodling bands.
The band has quickly accrued those achievements and gathered an intensely faithful following -- so-called "Particle People" have devotion sites posted all over the Web -- despite the fact it still has yet to sign with a label or release the studio album it's had in the can for close to a year.
"This band isn't anything that was planned," says guitarist Charlie Hitchcock, who took over for original guitarist Dave Simmons after Simmons died of diabetes-related illness in December 2000. "It's just like been a 0 to 60 success-wise. Everything has moved so fast."
It all promises to move much faster once the band's long-delayed debut album, Launchpad, is released. Pujalet says the band is now negotiating with several interested labels and hopes to have it out by early next year.
The 10-song album, Pujalet and Hitchcock say, offers condensed versions of established crowd favorites. Otherwise, it should give the uninitiated a distilled sampling of the band's live formula. The all-instrumental formula (the band doesn't use lyrics or vocals) is unique bordering on bizarre: part Middle Eastern exotica, part James Brown, part disco, part space-invading Pink Floyd and part Edgar Winter-Golden Earring arena rock. A fan jokingly referred to Particle's style a couple years back as "space porn," and the band now uses the moniker as a source of pride.
On the epic "The Elevator," for an example of "space porn," the band builds an unhinged, acidic guitar whirlwind out of the initial coupling of Steve Molitz's prog-rock, elves-in-the-snow keyboards and Eric Gould's spooky, near-hip-hop bass line. Meanwhile, Pujalet's metronomic drumming sounds as if it's pulled from an old New Wave record.
"Without vocals, the music has to tell 100 percent of the story," Pujalet says. "We're really free to go in different directions each night we play. We try to change up our songs so they don't always sound the same."
Yet for a studio album, the group's performance obviously has to take a lasting shape, one the band can live with permanently. To help them maintain their live chops on disc while making sure everything still worked, Particle turned to an unusual source to produce Launchpad. Tom Rothrock is known for his work with earthier, much more deliberate singer-songwriters such as Beck, the late Elliott Smith and Richard Thompson. Pujalet, though, says Rothrock's background as a friend to folkies helped Particle immeasurably; since the band had never even considered notions of restraint, someone had to jump in and work to boil the songs down to their essence.
Launchpad may allow Particle to gain a wider audience and enable the band, in Pujalet's dreams, to stage productions on a U2-size scale. Even so, fans will continue to put a premium on the band's live shows, as fans of most jam bands tend to do. And Particle, from the sounds of things, will be happy to oblige. On Halloween, the band hosted an Afro-and-bell-bottoms '70s funk theme party, building their jams solely out of covers of songs by the Trammps, Kool and the Gang and other disco-era stalwarts.
"A lot of times we do late-night parties," Hitchcock says. "Those are really unique. They go on until people drop. They can go on until 9 a.m. sometimes. Sometimes, they're after-parties [following regular shows]. Other times, people just want to stay up all night. It can be a unique experience as players. When you get that tired, you kind of let yourself go. You get more inspired."
"There's playfulness onstage, and that's what improvisational music is all about," Pujalet adds.
Though perhaps it's not all as inspired as the ace performers say. Tell Pujalet about his bandmate's "0 to 60" comment, and the drummer laughs.
"He's using my quotes again," Pujalet says. "We just rip each other off."