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On a recent Wednesday afternoon, I stood in the garage of a Paradise Valley home, surrounded by carillons, chromatic bell instruments that had their heyday in the 1700s.
The antiquated, Dutch contraptions — which sound like clinking church bells fused with sharp piano tones — are the namesake of local electro indie band Carillons, which includes musicians/mad scientists Eric Graf, Mitch Manger, and Brandon Kreitler. Manger is the one who hoards the downsized, 20th-century versions, and I was completely in awe as he walked me through a maze of six-foot, 150-pound brown cabinets that electronically activate chimed bells with a piercing, slightly out-of-tune quality. I seriously felt as though I'd just stumbled into a secret museum.
It's appropriate that the group is called Carillons. In the same way that I had no clue about the little-known devices until that day, the band is exclusively an underground studio project. They rarely play live because they would need to hire a fleet of moving trucks to transport their gear, which includes the concealed bell instruments as well as glockenspiel and vibraphone.
If it weren't for one of my editors, I would still be in the dark about Carillons and the quirky characters that front it. A few months ago, New Times Managing Editor Amy Silverman told me that she had met my "musical twin" in Graf, a 22-year-old who recently graduated from ASU with a journalism degree. She said this because Graf told her (and I had said something similar in the past) that we didn't like any music she would have heard of, except for Radiohead. We're both more inclined toward progressive, art-rock sounds, and neither of us believes that a "song" has to follow the typical compositional structure. When Graf responded to my initial e-mail, he wrote, "I'm always wary of the 'musical twins' phrase, although that's probably because I get an image of two 6-year-olds dolled up like JonBenét [Ramsey], singing Disney songs. Not good."
I laughed out loud at this, then discovered that Graf fronts a band called Ecclesia, who are signed to Portland, Oregon-based Arena Rock Recordings. Their 2006 debut album, Birdsong Over the Interior Castle (which will be re-released on vinyl later this year), reminds me of a more chilled-out version of the French ambient pop of M83 or The Album Leaf's experimental constructs. Guitar passages sprout suddenly out of the electroscapes. Lo-fi digital scratches pulsate along with minimalist guitar licks, then transition into upper-register drones and bawling, lyric-less vocals. A kalimba (a handheld finger piano made of wood and metal keys) and mallet-stricken bells chime along to daydreamy synths and extended sections of glitch. Then there are the darker parts, like those tapes my friends and I played backwards, trying to find devil talk. The music would be the perfect score for a contemporary film noir.
The upcoming Carillons record does sound compositionally similar to Ecclesia in that the music is filled with transfixing movements. However, Carillons' music feels more like a collaborative, organic effort. There is more emphasis on Steve Reich-like minimalism, sections of comfortable space, and soothing quiet that's absent from Birdsong Over the Interior Castle.
When I met Graf and Manger at the latter's house, I gasped as I walked into Manger's studio. There were about 15 effects pedals on the floor, connected by a rat's nest of cables. Just to the left, a half-dozen electric guitars sat upright in a rack. A bookshelf in the corner contained ProTools manuals, more than 40 mallets, and a bunch of microphones. It felt like a college freshman's room, but instead of week-old pizza boxes and the tart odor of gym socks, Manger's space looked and smelled like the dusty storage room of a music store, sans mothballs.
The well-spoken Graf is currently pursuing a career in journalism. However, music is his first and deepest love. Along with being a member of Ecclesia and Carillons, he performs on guitar every Sunday at Praise City Church in Laveen, where the house band plays funky hymns. About the gig, Graf says, "These guys are pros and they kick my butt every Sunday because they are just so good, but they make me such a better musician, and I feel like it improves my ability to hear."
The more Graf talked, the more impressed I was with his vision as a songwriter and musician. (Basically, he's way too cool to be my twin.) And the music speaks for itself. One of Carillons' tunes that I'm digging on features the sounds of chirping birds — which Graf recorded outside his house at four in the morning — morphing in and out of the fractured synths. According to Graf, a naturalist theme runs through several of the songs. "When the first demos were recorded, all of the windows were open, so there are guitar passages with birds in them. At first, it was, like, 'whoops, there are all of these birds in my songs.' But then, actually, it sounded cool and had a more natural feeling."
Along with Graf's sonic craftsmanship, Carillons' soon-to-be-finished debut heavily involves the nutty professor workings of Manger, a 23-year-old mini-genius who wears short-sleeve polo shirts and generic jeans, speaks in a monotone, and has a perpetual blank expression on his face. Manger, Graf, and Kreitler record separate passages in their home studios, then send e-mail and Instant Messenger mixes back and forth. Then Manger adds sounds from many of the instruments that I saw at his studio, such as a 4-foot-long hammer dulcimer (a stringed instrument played with mallets) held upright by a sorry-looking tripod, and close to 100 uniquely tuned bells with U.S. flag and American landmark designs.
And then there are the esoteric carillon bells will be featured on their second album. After the garage tour, Manger took me upstairs and played several scavenged carillon keyboards that look just like pianos. Not all the keys and notes work — they are (no joke) being repaired by a Ukrainian electrician who used to work in the Soviet space program — but that doesn't stop Manger from snatching up and reselling these clumsy, half-working collector's items on eBay. (One such customer was Faith No More/Mr. Bungle/Faxed Head guitarist Trey Spruance, who drove from California to pick one up from Manger.)
Because the recording process is so complex and layered with odd instrumentation, it has taken Carillons 2 1/2 years to complete enough songs for a full-length. "It's embarrassing how much time it has taken to get this far. Sometimes, you just ask yourself what's the opportunity cost of this," Graf says. "What if I just joined a regular band and played a four-piece rock song? At some point, you just decide that I've gotten this far and I'm going to finish it, no matter what it takes."
Whenever Carillons release its album, I'll be waiting — with bells on.