Music News

Local musicians find a catalyst in the RPM Challenge

Some Native Americans believe peyote puts them in touch with divine powers. "The white man goes into his church and talks about Jesus," says Quanah Parker, founder of the Native American Church Movement. "The Indian goes into his tipi and talks with Jesus."

Mescaline, the engineer behind such holy chitchats, is an alkaloid found in peyote that causes the user to experience hallucinations and a sharpening of the aural senses.

Peyote can be found in Mike Castaneda's neck of the woods. The Tempe native and experimental musician (who performs under the moniker Terminal 11) references the desert cactus in one of his best tracks, "Unicorn Peyote Kaleidoscope." Its herky-jerky rhythms and light-speed tempo guard a wide variety of sonic ephemera, from what sounds like scraps of background music of Nintendo's Ocarina of Time to the clipped moans of an ailing man. It's the type of song that would likely send your standard peyote-munching, hearing-enhanced individual to a padded room.

Castaneda's left-of-center, prickly handiwork is akin to the manic creations often written during the RPM Challenge, a "contest" that dares artists to record an album of original material (10 songs or 35 minutes) during the month of February. Castaneda was one of several Phoenix-area artists who participated in the challenge. What they learned was that coming away from the experience with a glut of new material wasn't nearly as beneficial as what they discovered about themselves as artists.

"It's about challenging yourself," Castaneda says. "Challenging how you write and record, challenging the way you normally do things. It's a kick in the ass to anyone who aspires to make music."

Founder Jon Nolan's impetus for the RPM Challenge was a rather provincial one: He simply was looking to cultivate the music scene in and around Portsmouth, a coastal city of roughly 20,000 in southern New Hampshire. He saw the challenge as something that would link local artists, regardless of genre and background.

"I'm a people person and I love to talk music," Nolan says. "I thought of how great it would be to have a common thing to chat about, no matter what kind of music someone produced."

During the Challenge's first year, in 2006, Nolan's hope was for 30 new LPs. Ultimately, there were 220 participants, 165 of whom finished albums. That total rocketed to 2,400 participants in 2007 and another 2,400 this year, with close to 700 of them finishing records. Every completed song will be put into the RPM Jukebox (at, and the participants' work will also be celebrated at a March 28 RPM Global Listening Party at Portsmouth's 800-seat Music Hall.

With Portsmouth-based newspaper The Wire helping to organize, as well as a second newspaper acting as an official sponsor, grassroots efforts have helped the RPM Challenge go global. This year, participants came from Brazil, Indonesia, New Zealand, and Russia. Yet despite its sweeping appeal, the challenge's ethos remains unchanged.

"It's a good-natured but belligerent challenge to everyone to put their money where their mouth is," Nolan says. "The digital era has changed much about music, but not the fact that it's about connectedness. You know, things like fellowship and inspiration. That's the bottom line."

Let's be honest; 29 days is a substantial chunk of time. Artists have created their masterstrokes with far less. Black Sabbath's influential debut was recorded in one day and entirely mixed the next; the Jesus and Mary Chain cut "Upside Down" overnight.

But as area artists discovered, pennies do pop up on the rails, sending the creativity train crashing into oblivion. Bruce Nguyen of Peoria, recording as Black Bob Haircut, endured a major casualty when the sound card on his Mac laptop croaked in the first week of February. Scottsdale native John Mullins (a.k.a. carrier signal) was waylaid by standard distractions — his car on the fritz, a family member falling ill. "It really is about perseverance," Mullins says. "You're not competing with the others in the challenge — you're competing with yourself."

Though artists like Castaneda are more interested in using sound as an agitator — the sleep-ending drone and crunch of a utility company trimming trees around power lines — Mullins yearns to mollify the listener. Snippets of his completed work feature plastic-bucket percussion serried with overdubbed piano lines. It's pure pop bricolage, though the sounds are familiar and comforting, like the metallic rattle of silverware in a drawer.

Still, there's a breakneck quality to Mullins' work, an obvious byproduct of recording under such a strict deadline — harried artists surrendering to whims and improvisation, less concerned with what works for eternity, than with what works now.

Despite such arduous working conditions, artists challenge themselves. With the March 1 deadline looming, the intrepid Castaneda textured his work with sounds and instruments he'd never considered (including his hairdresser's cello and his aunt's accordion). "I just started pushing myself down paths I had never gone [down] before," he says. "I just thought, 'I'm going to try as many new things as possible.'" Songs like "Out of Control" are a synthesis of melody and sonic absurdity, with Castaneda translating the restlessness of today's society into music, but with enough human touches to give it direction.

Mullins added "real world" touches to his work with field recordings captured on his Zoom H2 recorder. Nguyen's "band" was himself on guitars, a cheap EB-0 Epiphone bass, and the computer. Despite the stark individuality to his work, songs like "First Friday" are trenchant slabs of jackleg garage-punk. Nguyen sounds splendid on his own; bandmates would only scream over the din to slow down or turn it down.

"The best thing about doing everything yourself is, you can do anything you want, with no pressure to do anything you don't want to," Nguyen says. "Glenn Gould, a Canadian pianist and hermit, once said, 'Isolation is the indispensable component to human happiness.'"

However, there is a potent, underlying sense of community to the RPM Challenge. On its Web site, the blog section is brimming with Journal of a Novel-type entries, while on the discussion board, participants swap ideas, contacts, and addresses. Artists subscribe to a "we're all in this together" mentality, realizing that when difficulties arise, they can lean on others going through the same experience. When they leave February behind, they clutch a finished album, as well as a few new friends.

"People laughed when I told them," Mullins says. "I initially laughed when I heard about this. But it's a healthy challenge. You get away from that perfectionist way of thinking and you dedicate more time to what you love doing. Friends think I'm a bit weird, but that's okay. Nothing bad can really come out of this."

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Ryan Foley