As much an avant-garde ensemble and performance art project as they are a band, RPM Orchestra combines old-timey instrumentation with experimental sound textures to produce a haunting style of music that they call “Proto-Industrial Americana music.” Clarinets and banjos play alongside shortwave radios and typewriters. When the songs have vocals, they can veer from manly growls to eerily sweet, sing-song chants. They sound like a bar band playing in one of Winsor McCay's Little Nemo in Slumberland comic strips – dreamy and out of time.
It's not just the Phoenix band's sound that's distinct. They've also cultivated a theatrical approach to performing. Whether it's collaborating with butoh dancers, playing live soundtracks to silent films, or unleashing a cloud of butterflies outside a laundromat, each RPM Orchestra show is its own unique happening.
Which is why we're excited to see what the collective of Pete Petrisko, Jocelyn Ruiz, Jim Dustan, Vic VOID, and Eric Hunter have got cooking up for their upcoming Stepwise CD release show at the Lost Leaf.
Phoenix New Times talked with Petrisko, one of RPM's founding members and a longtime member of the downtown arts community, about the band's work and how they fit into the changing landscape of downtown Phoenix.
New Times: What's the meaning behind Stepwise? Why did you call your album that?
Pete Petrisko: That's a funny story. When we played September's Jerome Indie Film & Music Festival, we also spent the weekend up there shooting a new band photo and a bunch of snapshots to pick from for the front and back cover of the new CD. As it turns out, the best shots for all three included staircases, so we chose a title that references that. We couldn't tell you the meaning, because serendipity picked the theme.
Was the song “Curious Nature” on Stepwise inspired by the curiosity shop of the same name in downtown Phoenix?
The title is a definite tip of the hat, but the music itself is actually the score for a scene in an original surrealist silent film short we're working on. That scene has a lot of "nature film" imagery in it.
As a band, what's your creative process like? Is there a main songwriter who puts together the bones of your songs and the rest of you add meat to it, or is it a full-on collaborative process where each player has a hands-on role in the songwriting?
The couple of songs that become official singles on an album are initially penned by the respective singer-songwriter, either Jocelyn or Jim, and the rest of the band builds on that. For everything else we play and record – that's to say all the instrumental stuff, it's a bandwide free-for-all.
You mentioned silent film scores earlier. Over the last few years, you've done several live scores to silent films (from Lon Chaney movies to Murnau's Faust and beyond). How do you pick the movies you want to score?
We pick ones that appeal to us, typically doing two films a year, alternating between horror and other genres. We tend toward ones running an hour to 90 minutes, with a variety of scene changes in it because that keeps things interesting when it comes to scoring.
What's the composition process like – do you watch the films at rehearsals and improvise in real time, or do you work out certain themes and motifs you want to expand upon beforehand?
First we do a written scene-by-scene breakdown, so there's a narrative timeline to work from, and watching the movie individually so each of us has ideas to bring to the table for first rehearsal. At that point, we have a pretty good grasp of the overall mood or tone of a film, then aim to accentuate that.
Strong lead characters may have their own theme music – that's usually a melody worked out in advance, but otherwise the first rehearsal is largely improvisational as we screen and score along, seeing which of our musical ideas mesh and what doesn't work for the film.
As a film fan, do you find that scoring these kinds of movies gives you a different perspective and appreciation for these works?
We've definitely learned a lot from the perspective of how the "language of film" has changed over the last century. A single-camera shoot, with few if any cuts within a scene, is very different from how movies are edited today; black and white is a stark contrast to color; so on and so forth.
Is there a particular film that you'd love to score, but haven't been able to get around to due to rights or other issues?
The film we'd most love to score is whichever one would be best paired with a silent feature scored by solo Wurlitzer pipe organist Ron Rhodes, at the Orpheum Theatre's quarterly Silent Sundays event, doing it as a kind of traditional/experimental live-score double feature at some point.
We haven't actually spoken to anybody involved with Silent Sundays, but now we're hoping they'll read about the idea in this interview and contact us if something like that sounds like fun to them.
RPM Orchestra occupies an interesting niche in the Valley scene. On the one hand, you operate in most respects like a traditional band – you play out, you cut records, etc. But many of your performances have elements or approaches that are more in common to stuff like a John Cage chance operation or other “new music” artists. Being an experimental music band working in a more trad music city, has it been hard to find your place in terms of booking gigs and festivals?
We've found our own way, scoring films ... multidisciplinary performances with choreographer/dancer Debra Minghi, one-off performances like the Marching in Circles marching band, plus gigs at select music venues.
I ask because y'all have been around for awhile now and I'm kinda surprised that I don't see you guys at more shows. I wasn't sure if that was a deliberate choice to play less often or if it was just issues with getting bookings.
A big part of why we don't play out more often is because we don't have a rote set list – each performance is typically created from scratch, and that's a good six-to-eight weeks process there. So we tend to book shows anywhere from three to six months in advance, to give us the time to do that, over and over.
Considering your long involvement with the downtown music scene, what's your take on its current form? Since gentrification has basically turned Roosevelt into your “Good Eats district,” have you noticed any positive aspects for performance artists and musicians trying to find their way here or is it all going downhill in your estimation?
When gentrification happens, it doesn't stop with real estate. It's also about the loss of magic and ritual as the arts gentrify too. So, performance artists have either become stand-up comics or gone the way of many artists and the dodo bird on Roosevelt Row, and that's that for now.
The good news for musicians is that, like West Van Buren, RoRo is becoming an entertainment hub, as are other parts of downtown, and all these hubs will need bands, so ...
Are they any current venues, underground spots, or artists who give you hope that things can remain vital and interesting in our community?
What gives me hope is seeing more and more artists in the community rejecting the arts district model. If we learned anything from Roosevelt Row, it's that declaring your corner an "arts district" is pretty much how the arts community writes its own epitaph.
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Instead, we're now seeing smaller neighborhood-integrated creative communities taking root – galleries and other arts-related businesses found in or along the edges of existing neighborhoods, becoming part of that community instead of proclaiming themselves a separate district.
Like Alwun House exhibiting art and hosting performances while also engaged in community issues in the Garfield neighborhood. Or The Hive, Mucho Mas Art Studio, and Palabras bookstore all being within walking distance of the four neighborhoods intersecting at 16th Street and McDowell. There's several arts-related businesses on lower Grand Ave, all part of a larger business community on that main thoroughfare, surrounded by neighborhoods on either side. On South Central Ave, The Sagrado galleria and Azukar Coffee are working to serve their local community together.
So that's hopeful and interesting for sure, and far better than an arts district and the cultural colonialism that term implies.
RPM Orchestra will be performing on Saturday, December 9 at The Lost Leaf. Half the proceeds of CD sales from the show will go to the Phoenix Trolley Museum's relocation effort.