Xenat-Ra

A Personal History of Xenat-Ra, by Dave Trenkel

On the surface, Xenat-Ra is like most bands, a bunch of friends getting together semi-regularly in a practice room to make some noise and have fun. What I think sets us apart is the range of material we draw upon for inspiration, and the collective musicianship of the band. We’ve never really set out to create a post-modern fusion of genres, we just play and see where the music takes us. We all share a love for hiphop, both the classic and the modern underground styles, jazz, from classic through soul jazz to the most avant free improv, rock, particularly prog and metal, funk, dub, afrobeat, and are open just about anything else. We hope to do this in a way that is not self-conscious, just trying to challenge our individual and collective musicianship to get to new places.

I’ve played in many bands over the years, some lasting a gig or two, some never even making it that far. Others have toured, recorded and had a regional impact. I feel incredibly lucky to have had some of these musical experiences in this crazy career. Still, Xenat-Ra has to be the most challenging and satisfying musical projects I’ve ever had the honor of sharing.

This post is based on my reflections and memories, and I hope the rest of the band will chime in to give their perspective.

In the mid 1980’s, I gigged around the NW, playing bass in a spiky-haired New Wave pop band called Mental Health, along with Craig Harris, Dave Patana and Jim Buckley. We played Corvallis venues like Mother’s Mattress Factory and The Crazy Horse, and gigged extensively around the NW. Another band playing many of the same clubs was Runaway, led by Dennis and Mickey Monroe. Their son JD played drums in the band for a while, he was 13 at the time, and already a killer drummer.

Mental Health, circa 1983

After Mental Health, I played traditional African and Latin American marimba music with the band Balafon, a group I had connected with through studies at Oregon State. Balafon played a lot of shows and festivals, a highlight for me was opening for Fela on several West Coast dates. I was already a huge fan of the Afrobeat pioneer, and the shows were amazing. After I left, Balafon went on to tour even more, open for the Grateful Dead, and release 2 CD’s on the Shanachie label.

Around the same time, I had connected with several Corvallis musicians who had moved to Portland, guitarist Eldon Hardenbrook and drummer Bernd Minde. We started a trio called Bad God, trying to find a middle path between the seemingly irreconcilable genres of Punk and Prog. We played a bunch of shows in the thriving Portland underground music scene, at clubs like the Blue Gallery and The Satyricon. Bernd has gone on to play with Smegma, the legendary Portland noise band. Eldon and I then went on to start Das Neonderthrall, with drummer Henry Franzoni, who had been in Face Ditch and the Tone Dogs, two legendary Portland bands. Das Neonderthrall released a cassette in 1990, and in 1991, we were part of the 7th Sign of Stress 10” vinyl compilation on Gettin’ Grumpy Records. We played a bunch around the NW, and opened for artists like Elliott Sharp and others.

Handbill for a Das Neonderthrall show, circa 1989

In the late ’80’s, I was studying music at Oregon State, and got involved in the Jazz program that reeds player Mike Curtis was organizing. Mike is a wonderful musician, and has been a friend for many years now. Mike left after a few years and turned the Jazz program over to Rob Blakeslee, a trumpet player that had just relocated to Portland after stints in Dallas and Los Angeles. Rob released a number of extremely cool, avant leaning jazz records in the ’90’s, working with people like Vinny Golia and Nels and Alex Cline, among others. Rob was a great educator, he turned me onto so many great artists, taught me a lot about composing and improvising, and gave me a lot of practical advice about the reality of being a musician, organizing bands, rehearsals and shows. I also studied piano with Steve Christofferson in Portland, though I would ultimately focus on bass for many years after college.Through the OSU jazz program, I met guitarist Mark France and saxophonist Matt Calkins. Mark and I became regular collaborators, playing a lot of free improv and experimental music together.

A chance meeting with Eyvind Kang, then a student at Cornish in Seattle, led to a jam session that we recorded, and under the name Shovedevil, we released several tracks on the 7th Sign of Stress compilation. Eyvind has gone on to have an amazing career, playing with Bill Frisell, John Zorn, Secret Chiefs 3, Beck, and also releasing a string of solo albums.

The Seventh Sign of Stress, 10″ ep + comic, feat. Arcweld, Das Neonderthrall and Shovedevil

Mark, Henry Franzoni and I started the power trio Minus, a group that blended free improv with funk, metal and dub. We released 2 CD’s on my New & Improv Music label, a self-titled disc in 1995 and 2001’s Dark Lit. We played several hundred gigs around the NW. I still get feedback from people that Minus was an inspirational band of that era, which is a total honor. Mark was also a member of Thousand Pieces, a great avant-jazz/funk band with Troy Grugette, Dan Scollard and Lance Morrison, and also appeared on several releases by Seattle-based singer-songwriter Aiko Shimada, another former Corvallis resident.

Minus, Venetian Theater, Albany, circa 1999.

Through the mid-90’s, JD and Matt played with Huzzah, a terrific funk band that tore up the local clubs and released a CD in 1996. I was working with JD at Happy Trails Records, which still exists, a nexus of the Corvallis music scene. JD was also exploring turntablism at the time, one of the first people in the area to take DJ-ing to a new and more creative level. JD and Matt both became adjunct members of Minus, sitting on on our gigs whenever possible. JD added turntables to our 2001 record Dark Lit, and his playing was integral to that record. As The Turntable Enabler, JD has gone on to be one of the premier hip-hop DJ’s in the local area.

Huzzah!

In 2000, I released a solo album under the name Admiral Twinkle Devil, a collection of home-recorded dub and electronica tracks I had assembled over the previous decade. JD and Matt both played on the record. In 2001, JD and I performed a duo concert at Happy Trails, improvising on turntables, keyboards and electronics, which we recorded and ultimately released under the name 030201.

Admiral Twinkle Devil: Wabi Dub, 2000

I first met Ben Metzger through Happy Trails, he and Chris Kennedy had been coming into the store for years while they were in high school, Ben mostly buying hip-hop cassettes, Chris digging through our used vinyl. In 2001, they presented me a copy of their Future Sunz album Future Suckz. At the time, I probably smiled, nodded and thanked them, and filed the CD away under Local Artists. I remember it was probably a few weeks later before I actually listened to the record, and realized it was an amazing underground hip-hop album, one that still remains a favorite of mine. The Future Sunz still collaborate, and Chris has gone on to a successful career composing for film and television in LA.

After Huzzah, JD and Matt formed the Nautical Sauce Posse, which took a more modern, alternative take on funk music. After Minus broke up, I played bass in the last incarnation of NSP. Trumpeter Tim Mclaughlin, also an NSP member, invited Matt, Mark, JD, and I, along with drummer Steve Weems, to form Eleven Eyes. With guitarist Mike Pardew eventually replacing Mark, Eleven Eyes toured extensively up and down the West Coast, and into Montana and Colorado. JD provided turntables, and later drums, for Eleven Eyes from 2002-2006. I played bass with the Eyes from 2002-2010, and produced two CD’s, 2003’s Depth Perception and 2005’s Scope. Metzger also appears on Scope, and did many gigs with us as an MC. Eleven Eyes is still a vital force in the Eugene music scene.

Eleven Eyes, 2003

In 2003, Mark and I were invited to participate in a performance of John Zorn‘s improv game piece COBRA, conducted by Zorn, for the Oregon Festival of American Music. It was an amazing opportunity to work with one of my major inspirations.

In 2002, JD, Matt and I played a free-improvised set as part of the first Portland Live Looping festival, organized through the Loopers’ Delight mailing list. We called ourselves Top Dead Center for that and several subsequent shows. Over the mid-2000’s, I started becoming more and more interested in playing keyboards again, which had been my main instrument in college, and in particular, the Hammond organ. In the fall of 2007, we revived the Top Dead Center name to play a benefit concert for Ben Beekman, a good friend and fan of ours who had been injured in a housefire. We invited Metzger to join us, and after the show, we all decided that the band was doing something interesting and worth pursuing. I decided that I would strictly play keys in this new band.

Top Dead Center circa 2003

We changed the name to Xenat-Ra after finding that there were a number bands using the Top Dead Center moniker. Xenat-Ra sort of makes reference to Iannis Xenakis, Frank Sinatra, and Sun Ra, three artists with virtually nothing in common. What can I say, in the internet age, it is harder and harder to come up with an original band name.

By 2009, Mark France was gigging around the area in Walk The Plank, a great jazz/rock fusion trio with bassist Page Hundemer and drummer Brian Bucolo. Xenat-Ra shared several bills with Walk The Plank, and at one show, when WTP was scheduled to play but cancelled, we invited Mark to sit in with us. Up to this point, we joked that we had a strict “no guitars” policy in Xenat-Ra, but had always said that if we were to ever add a guitarist, the only one suitable would be Mark. After playing with us on that one gig, Mark became a permanent member of the band.

Also in 2009, I was hired to produce a record for the Celtic band Ordinance. Joel Hirsch, newly transplanted to Corvallis after years in New York City and LA, played percussion with Ordinance, and he and I immediately bonded over a mutual love of obscure progressive rock bands, Gentle Giant in particular. I’d begun playing in a latin band, and invited Joel to join that project, which eventually became Orquesta Monte Calvo.

In the spring of 2010, Xenat-Ra released Live. We used the proceeds of the sales of that CD to fund several days of recording at Otto Gygax’s GXM studios in Philomath. Otto is a very fine percussionist and is also a founding member of Orquesta Monte Calvo and a former member of Balafon . We asked Otto and Joel to sit in on one tune for the session, which led to Joel playing on most of the other tracks and ultimately joining Xenat-Ra full time. He and JD have an amazing chemistry together, and adding Joel to the mix has taken our groove to a higher level.

Xenat-Ra: Live, 2010

In 2011, the readers of The Corvallis Alchemist, the weekly alternative newspaper, voted Xenat-Ra the favorite local band, and voted JD, Matt, Mark, and I as favorite players on our respective instruments. They also voted Ben as favorite poet. Given that Xenat-Ra is such an odd, uncommercial and uncompromising band, we were especially honored to receive these accolades. We worked up and performed a set of Rolling Stones tunes for the Alchemist-sponsored event “Everybody Must Get Stones,” a night of music by the Stones at the Majestic Theater featuring us and several other local bands, a very fun and inspiring night.

Now, we are finally preparing to release our official debut studio album in the fall of 2012. Stay tuned for more about that! It’s been an amazing trip so far, and I look forward to where it all takes us in the future.

Switch to our mobile site