The atmosphere in Mind's Eye Digital Recording is jammed with sound waves, the kind of badass, bottom-loaded frequencies that blow woofers and mess with eardrums. Bionic Jive, a Tempe sextet, is rehearsing songs from its forthcoming Six Million Dollar Band CD, a psycho-delic joy ride that makes groups like Prodigy and Insane Clown Posse come off like repressed schoolboys.
Bionic's front man Derrick Burrows, a.k.a. D., rocks back and forth, his pinky, thumb and forefinger extended homeboy-style. Born and raised on the south side of Chicago, D. floated on the drug scene, made friends in a witches' coven, wound up on his mother's floor on a bad acid trip reciting passages from the Bible, got clean, did time in a radical church, had a daughter and moved to Phoenix.
Right now he's hopping up and down like his pants are on fire, his lips muttering an unintelligible language. It's as if Stevie Wonder were impersonating Mr. Bungle.
"We don't know what the hell he's rapping about, ever," says guitarist Mike McGreggor, a midsize punk with a shock of platinum hair. "When we first met him, we thought he was the pizza man."
Midnight is fast approaching. Beers have been gulped, amps have been pushed to their limits and any attempts at serious practice have dissolved into a musical free-for-all. It is decided that everyone should take a break. Guitarist Larry Elyea settles onto a sofa cushion between McGreggor and Chris Elsner, the group's multi-instrumentalist, dubbed TG1 ("The Gifted One") by his bandmates.
Elyea, who also owns Mind's Eye, is the mastermind behind the Bionic concept. "I just wanted to do something totally original," he says. "I didn't care if it sucked."
A veteran of the local scene, Elyea played in an outfit called Soulgrind with bassist Richard Cunni. When the band split apart, Cunni made plans to move to Colorado, where he saw a future hawking skateboards. "I bribed him to stay by offering him a car," says Elyea, "but then he said he'd stay for free." They added drummer George Robbins and TG1, a former member of Polyester Apple Jazz who plays keyboards, sax and turntables and whose father is related to Chopin.
"Your dad's not like that guy in Shine, right?" McGreggor asks, adding ominously, "Don't leave the family, son. Where are you going, TG1?" Elsner looks at the floor and laughs.
While most of the band members have been longtime friends, D. was recruited from the classifieds. "D. brought in this Christian tape and at first I thought he was kind of weird," says Elyea. "But I heard this really talented vocalist singing a form of music so totally foreign to what we were doing, and I thought the mixture would be really cool."
The resulting cosmic slop is as crusty as the controls on Bootzilla's mothership and just as revolutionary. The singles "S Flavor" and "D'Wylin," for instance, are easily traced to old-school funk, but just when you think it's safe to jive, Bionic slides into an aggressive gangsta rap that will make your skin crawl. "S Flavor," for instance, patches space-age keyboard effects with a lonely sax melody, then crescendos into a heavy rap laden with turntable scratch, vocoder harmonies and snare beats crafted with the precision of a nuclear clock.
"The concept of what we're doing," explains D., "is the birthchild of some twisted vision of what Larry had, to come up with a new style of music, one that doesn't have a definition." For a band that counts Tool, Tom Jones and Jamiroquai among its influences, that sounds about accurate.
It also makes perfect logic that Bionic would burn through bizarre incarnations such as Pimply Divine, Electric Larry Land, and Earth, Wind and Larry, before arriving at its current moniker. Elyea blames the name on Cunni.
"He was surfing the Net one day and he saw the words 'Bionic Jive' on the screen," Elyea says. "He didn't have a piece of paper, so he ripped a tile out of the bathroom floor and scribbled the name with a Magic Marker. Richard's the kind of guy who, like, if it's cold in the winter, he'll, like, saw the arm off his couch and use it for firewood."
Ever since the band formed four months ago, the members of Bionic Jive have been amazed at the enthusiastic response to their music. "You want to know the weirdest thing that's happened to us since we formed?" asks McGreggor. "We got on stage. We played some music. Then people clapped."
This is not to say that the road to success has been a smooth cruise on a luxury liner. If anything, it's been a bumpy, tedious drive in a U-Haul without air conditioning.
Consider Bionic's third public performance. The event took place at Rocky Point, Mexico, known for attracting all-night revelers to its white, sandy beaches. The featured act was international rap star Coolio. Forty-thousand fist-pumping fans were expected to fill an outdoor arena as Bionic debuted its funky jive. There was just one glitch: Only 200 people showed up.
"It would've been cool if there were thousands of people, but there weren't," Elyea says. "To top that off, we all got Montezuma's Revenge for two weeks after the gig."
"Montezuma who-ma?" D. plops down at a spinet and plays grandly as though he's performing to a large, appreciative audience. Before joining Bionic Jive, D. lived in Portland, Oregon, where he played keyboards in bands with names like Pleasure and RIA (Reveal Inner Awareness).
"I was a crystal-meth freak at the time," says D. "I was hanging out with a coven of witches, and I did a whole bunch of acid for a long time. One night I had a bad trip and I thought the devil was trying to kill me."
D. fled the scene in Portland and moved to Phoenix. For a while, he was a street-corner minister, or, as he puts it, "One of those guys on Mill Avenue who would pray for you and try to get you saved." Sometimes he would sit in on R&B, blues and jazz sessions at Beeloe's Cafe or the Melody, downing cups of coffee and scrawling poetry.
"My girl broke up with me at the time and I was all tweakin' and shit," continues D. "I was buggin'. You know how that is, brokenhearted. So I just figured I'd work and relax my position on everything in life. One day I decided to sing and not worry about all the drama."
D. had never heard of half the influences listed in Bionic's want ad, but when he read Stevie Wonder's name, he figured it was a fate thing. "When I answered the ad, I didn't question it was my gig. This guy was looking for me."
"Oh, God, here we go," chuckles McGreggor, feigning a tortured look.
"Man, I'm a spiritual person."
Elyea swaps winces with McGreggor and mumbles, "Here we go."
"It's not like he preaches or anything," says Cunni, joining in on the fun. "He just rambles for hours."
"You have to understand, I spent four years in the church before I ever came into this band," D. says.
"That was a long Sunday," quips Robbins.
"Problem was," McGreggor continues, "they thought this meteor was coming to the Earth to pick him up, and he decided not to go."
"It's a good thing, too," says Elyea. "'Cause we were ready to sit and wait a whole year to find the right singer. D. was the first person to call."
Suddenly all attention shifts to Robbins, who's extracting a small syringe from a leather case. Cunni blanches and sits down. "Oh, man, I've never seen you do that." Robbins carefully loads the syringe with insulin and inserts the needle into his abdomen.
"Wow, he's shooting up right in front of everybody," says McGreggor. "By the way, just for the record, we promote all drug use. Larry and I, uh, we share needles with Chris."
Elyea shoots a goofy look at McGreggor. "Uh, can we go into the other room and tell Mike we'll be right back?"
Someone has cranked Six Million Dollar Band in the control booth, and D.'s intense rapping can be heard over the energetic groove of "Listen to Me": "I'm not trying to blow your mind with all the knowledge I possess/If I was guilty of some sort of sin I'm sure that I'd confess . . ."
D. adjusts the black bandanna that falls halfway down his back. "You know, I could just rap like, 'Oh, I'm really cool, shoot 'em up, bang bang' and shit, but that's just drama. I'm tired of all the drama."
Bionic Jive is scheduled to perform on Saturday, October 25, at Big Fish Pub in Tempe; and on Friday, October 31, at Electric Ballroom in Tempe. Call venues for showtime.
Get the Music Newsletter