Jesse Maxwell made sure to take a box of earplugs to his Friday gig.
It's not all that unusual for rock musicians to protect their ears at live shows, but Maxwell -- guitarist and singer for the art-punk quartet Employee of the Moth -- didn't intend the earplugs for himself or his band. They were for his listeners.
You see, Employee of the Moth's January 4 gig wasn't at some dank, smoky East Valley watering hole; it was on the fourth floor of Burton Barr Central Library, wedged into a tiny space for a largely preteen audience that had never heard its music before. And Maxwell openly fretted that his band, which covers a wide dynamic range, from the thunderous guitar rave-ups of a Built to Spill, to quiet, delicate mood pieces, might be too noisy for the room.
The show had been booked by librarian Andrea Barker as part of the library's after-hours Teen Central music program. Teen Central is a 5,000-square-foot space that opened at the library last April, with the goal of providing a safe and creative refuge for Valley youth. It includes 20 computers, surround-sound stereo music, a surprisingly hip CD catalogue, a living room, a cafe, and a wall devoted to local teen art. The space has offered a skateboarding workshop (exploring the history of skateboarding) and clinics in which musicians explain the history of a particular genre.
The program's strongest attempt to lure kids to the space has come with its music-performance series, Live @ Teen Central, which debuted two months ago with grant money from the Arizona Community Foundation, and has already featured a belly dancer troupe, a reggae act, and a Caribbean steel-drum group. But Employee of the Moth was something altogether different: a dark, trippy, guitar-heavy, underground-rock band. Would this kind of thing mix with the soothing ambiance of Teen Central?
Maxwell himself wasn't sure. He'd been contacted by Barker after she'd stumbled across the group's music on the Cornerband Web site. "When she e-mailed me, it was kind of weird at first," Maxwell says. "I thought, 'Why would they want our band?' She came to see our show and said the kids were gonna love us. We said, 'Okay, if you say so.'
"I have no idea what the kids are into these days. If it's what's on MTV, that's not us. But we try to be somewhat entertaining. We were like, 'The money's ours? We don't have to bring people?' And they said, 'No, the kids get in free.'"
The first thing that grabs your attention as you walk into the Teen Central wing of the library's fourth floor is how punk-friendly all the displays are. There's a copy of Dee Dee Ramone's autobiography, Lobotomy, prominently showcased, as well as a CD of Hüsker Dü's New Day Rising, Volume Three of the '90s music guide Parents Aren't Supposed to Like It, and a biography of Beck.
As Employee of the Moth prepared to unleash its sound and fury on 40 to 50 adolescents, Maxwell went to the mike and offered a mild caveat: "We highly suggest you wearing earplugs, 'cause we grew up not wearing earplugs and we're pretty much deaf now."
Many kids took him up on it, but even with the crowd forewarned, Maxwell and his bandmates -- bassist Dan Sitzler, guitarist Jacob "Vu" Dang, and drummer Geoff Orr -- seemed slightly tentative at first, unsure if their off-kilter song structures, unpredictable surges in intensity and enigmatic video-screen projections were slightly bewildering to their audience.
To Maxwell's credit, he quickly engaged his listeners by turning the earplug idea into an unconventional game. "Take out your earplugs," he said, "and whoever has the biggest glob of earwax wins a free CD." The majority of the kids stepped forward, and Maxwell obliged by giving them all a four-song CD of the band's music.
As the show progressed, it became obvious that this music, which makes no concessions to verse-chorus-verse orthodoxy, was going over. Although Employee of the Moth has played only sporadically since forming two years ago and is relatively obscure on the local club scene (Maxwell might be better known for playing guitar in Jim Andreas' post-Trunk Federation project, Down With Buildings), it's developed the kind of musical empathy that even most longer-lived bands don't attain. Maxwell and Dang's guitars at times recall the righteous squall of a Fugazi, and, in quieter moments, can even approach the interlocking latticework of Television.
The band members have strong classical-music backgrounds, and the rhythm section of Sitzler and Orr spent their high school years playing in jazz bands. This depth of musical understanding shows up in the subtle rhythmic nuances and mood swings they manage with ease.
The group is also fond of every manner of weird sounds. They use programmed beats effectively on songs like the acoustic-guitar driven "Ten Pin." And they repeatedly coax extraterrestrial gurgles from a Moog synthesizer. But the biggest hit at the library was their least-used instrument, a theremin positioned in front of Maxwell.
The instrument, most commonly associated with the wigged-out timbres of the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations," simply requires its player to move a hand above it to alter the pitch it makes. So Maxwell took five volunteers from the audience and allowed them to take turns on the theremin during the slow, hypnotic climax to the song "Disconnected."
By the end of the hourlong show, the crowd unquestionably had been converted. A line formed in front of the band, with kids asking various members of the group to sign copies of their CD. Maxwell and his bandmates even found themselves autographing drumsticks that Orr had given away after the gig.
Meanwhile, Live @ Teen Central continues with at least eight more showcases between now and the end of May, when its grant money is expected to run out. And according to Karl Kendall, teen services librarian for Teen Central and an unabashed Radiohead fan, the program will continue to push the musical envelope, as long as the lyrics of participating groups conform to the library's code.
"As a public library, we make sure that the groups understand what our policies are, and they will need to tone down any lyrics and subject matter accordingly," Kendall says. "And if that doesn't happen, we are able to shut down the show. But we've had no problem like that with the program."
Employee of the Moth is scheduled to perform on Thursday, January 10, at Modified Arts. The all-ages show starts at 9 p.m.
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