I consider myself blessed to have made the acquaintance of the Sunrise Ocean Bender Record Label last year, their website describes them as, “an independent label based in Richmond, Virginia, specializing in limited edition vinyl releases as well as digital formats. From psych rock to psych pop, prog to space rock, electronic to the kosmische … the focus may be on elevation and release, but our mission is clear: shine a light on the sounds emanating from a thriving underground. We do this as partners, artists, facilitators and most of all, as fellow obsessives”.
As one of those unabashed “fellow obsessives”, I am delighted to say that SOB’s latest release of Chef Menteur’s ‘III’ fits snugly, perhaps even smugly, within SOB’s envious canon of work.
You can tell when something truly outstanding “trembles your earbones”, because only then are you prepared to discard your vinyl obsession with wanton abandon and embrace what SOB have described here as a, “Limited edition 3CD set ‘III’ including a re-release of ‘East of the Sun & West of the Moon’, the unreleased “companion” album ‘North of Tomorrow & South of Yesterday’ from the same sessions, and their newest tangent ‘Force Majeure’, remastered from a very limited sold out cassette release for full sonic glory”.
“Chef Menteur is a psych/noise/drone band from New Orleans”, is how the band describe themselves on Facebook, their website adds a little bit more depth, “Sprawling, ambitious, cerebral, essential … those are just a few words used when talking about Chef Menteur’s intoxicating cosmic brew of space and psych rock, drone, kosmische, ambient … Chef Menteur positioned themselves “upriver” from other music in their home-base of New Orleans and have proceeded to keep moving not only up, but out in every direction. Admitted “compulsive tapers in the practice room”, Chef Menteur excel in texture and mood. Incorporating vintage, modern, and analog instruments with improvisation as well as field recordings, Chef Menteur are baffling to nail down. And wholly their own”.
For me, listening to Chef Menteur seems akin to what that eureka moment must have felt like, when Stephen Morris stumbled across the image of the intensity of successive radio pulses, that later became synonymous with the cover for ‘Unknown Pleasures’…
Immerse yourself in Chef Menteur’s flavour via their highly polished webpage, courtesy of Dan Haugh, here – http://www.chefmenteur.org.
Chef Menteur are Aubrey Freeman (bass, guitar, trumpet, keyboards), Dan Haugh (electric banjo, keyboards, drums), Phil Rollins (guitar, keyboards, bass) and Alec Vance (guitar, keyboards, bass, vocals).
The bands name finds it’s origins in an old history book titled “A History of Mississippi: From the Discovery of the Great River by Hernando de Soto, Including the Earliest Settlements Made by the French, Under Iberville to the Death of Jefferson Davis” written by Robert Lowry and William H. McCardle and published in 1891. The book contains this passage, “What the Choctaws were most conspicuous for was their hatred of falsehood and their love of truth. Tradition relates that one of their chiefs became so addicted to the vice of lying that in disgust they drove him away from their territory. In the now parish of Orleans, back of Gentilly, there is a tract of land in the shape of an isthmus, projecting itself into Lake Pontchartrain, not far from the Rigolets, and terminating in what is called “pointe aux herbes,” or Herb Point. It was there that the exiled Choctaw chief retired with his family and a few adherents, near a bayou which discharges itself into the lake. From this circumstance this tract of land received, and still retains the appellation of Chef Menteur, or Lying Chief”.
A modern counterpoint to the notion of the “Lying Chief” can perhaps be found in the bands 2006 rendition of ‘War Pigs’, which used vocals remixed from George W. Bush speeches. This was further alluded to in part by Alec from the band when quizzed on the nature of their logo, “As far as the logo is concerned, it was something we came up around the time of the US invasion of Iraq, possibly as a symbol of protest, but also to evoke a certain mystery of eastern rites, real and imagined, and most importantly also connects us to the river Crescent City where we live, aka. New Orleans”.
‘III’ is one of those releases where I feel the music should do pretty much all of the talking, I can merely set the scene, provide the flight plan, be the spirit guide, if you will.
Having said that, the original sleeve art for ‘East of the Sun & West of the Moon’ by Thomas Peri, serves as a useful metaphor for the all encompassing nature of Chef Menteur’s music. The LP title was inspired by the book, ‘East of the Sun & West of the Moon: Old Tales From The North’, a retelling of Scandinavian fairy tales, illustrated by Kay Nielson. The title is juxtaposed with a ‘Boy’s Own’ “intergalactic planetary” space rocket, a melding hadron collider of folkloric past and fantastical future. McKenna’s natural evolution of man, “a monkey climbing aboard a spaceship”, having first descended from the “Tree Of Knowledge”…
This juxtaposition, for me, finds it’s sonic embellishment in the tracks ‘Færoe’ from ‘Force Majeure’, and ‘Reach for the Lion’ from ‘East of the Sun & West of the Moon’, tracks one and eleven respectively on the Bandcamp links below.
The ethereal ‘Færoe’ immediately stirred distant echoes. In the mid seventies, my 10 year-old former self spent most school holidays aboard my Father’s trawler, an awestruck formative visitor to the Færoe’s majestic yawning fjords, my fevered imagination rampant with Viking sagas. Such is the trasportative shimmering quality of this track, it’s translucent embrace effortlessly gathers me up, conveying me once more to those far flung desolate shores.
In contrast, the pounding riff from ‘Reach for the Lion’ conjures a similar epic grandeur, but this time in the guise of a Zeppelin-esque ‘Immigrant Song’ vibe, the ‘Lion’ yin to the ‘Færoe’ yang. The LP cover of ‘East of the Sun & West of the Moon’, for me represents Yggdrasil, the portal linking the realms of fairytale and fantasy…
Again, I asked Alec, “do you have some connection to the Færoe Islands? Having been there on numerous occasions as a child, your track ‘Færoe’ felt particularly evocative for me”. To which he replied, “I have always been fascinated by the Færoe Islands, but I have never been there, but I have been to the fjords of Norway as a child, and I have lived and traveled in the UK and Ireland. The song seemed evocative of northern lights, icebergs, midnight suns and midday darkness… however it also serves as an intro to the following song and there is a clue in a homophone of the name that connects it to the next song”.
I asked Alec some more about the world of Chef Menteur;
Chr – “Tell me about the connection with SOB and how ‘III’ came to be released through them?”
Chr – “Was the sense of abandonment, in the literal wake of Katrina, that resulted in the ‘Proud To Swim Home’ compilation, the catalyst for the Backporch Revolution collective to evolve?”
AV – “This is something that all of us would probably answer differently, as it affected us all differently. The compilation was a joint idea between myself and Dan, and we were definitely feeling a sense of abandonment and loss. Chef Menteur, who Dan had just joined, was working on an album called “The Answer’s in Forgetting” around that time as well —the sense of abandonment and loss, and post-traumatic stress is all over that record. It’s hard for me to listen to that one now. But there was also a sense of survival and perseverance which dominated at that time among people who had returned after the flood (whose chief culprit was a badly designed and maintained levee system and not the hurricane, which could have been a lot worse). Maybe it was just me, but the couple years before the flood, I really felt like our little local electronic/drone/weird music scene had become something really fun and interesting, and the flood really gave that a kick in the nuts. But then the next few years after was reignited with a sense of purpose and passion, it was in many ways better than before, everything meant something again, especially making music. You couldn’t be apathetic about anything. We didn’t know how to build a city back, but I learned to put in drywall and floors and do electrical wiring and we took a wiped out building and built our own studio. There was a lot of energy as we fought against that abandonment, in anger and in defiance, but also an expression of literal creativity: building and rebuilding, … and raising the flag of the city, to say: We’re still here damn it, despite what you might be hearing on the news that the city is hopeless and abandoned and totally uninhabitable”.
Chr – “To what extent does your being a self-taught musician inform the bands multifaceted sonic landscapes, is the sense of improvisational freedom always liberating?”
AV – “The band is always a joint venture that everyone contributes to equally, musically-speaking. For the band, there’s always been a tension between improvisational and structured mindsets. I’ve often had to be the one to argue for the more improvisational parts, but those can also be the most minimal and subtle parts, if you do it right. If you look at the bliss-out parts of many drone/noise songs from the Velvet Underground to Spacemen 3 and My Bloody Valentine, it’s not nearly as improvisational as free jazz. There’s parts of every good space rock band from of Ash Ra Temple to Hawkwind to more contemporary minimalist stuff like Astral Social Club or Mountains that are like that, every space rock band since really, but it’s still controlled chaos in that there is a philosophy to it, and a specific escape velocity that you ride like a wave.
But then there’s the other side of it, the James Brown aspect of nailing the groove on the repetitions, having a really tight arrangement. That’s also important. Fela Kuti is the most fun for me to listen to because there’s improvisation but it’s still always really tight. With the newer stuff there’s more focus on that kind of thing, I think. I’ve been listening to a lot of Turkish psych, and other stuff like Ethiopian and Cambodian music that was from the late 60’s/early 70’s era, and digging the western influences on eastern music and vice-versa. It’s hard to tell which came first, the chicken or the egg with that stuff, which is why I love it. I don’t need my music to be pure of any influences, I believe in playing what you want to play because you love it, no matter what “genre” people assign to it.
As far as being self-taught, well I wouldn’t know what it would like to be a trained musician, so I can’t really compare. Some people seem to be limited by their training, but others are able to transcend it. I’m not proud of any ignorance I might have with regard to music, and I’m always trying to learn. If I meet someone who knows something about music, I’m always trying to learn. Mostly by watching and listening, but I’m usually not too shy to ask if I have to. I used to think I knew a lot about music, now I laugh at that person”.
Chr – “I read that a lot of your song titles come from pulp sci-fi stories, I find the titles incredibly eloquent – is it fair to say that escapism forms the bands elemental backbone?”
AV – “That’s one of many possible influences. There are a lot of other literary and mythological and psychological references as well. Putting the college B.A. to use. There are many songs that have obscure cult references, I’ve always been fascinated with Scientology and other cults. Instrumental bands can name songs whatever they want, so why not have fun with it? Our first album’s title was a blatant reference to The Crying of Lot 49, because the sense of paranoia and cultural schizophrenia in that book really resonated with me, and I just really liked the way “We Await Silent Tristero’s Empire” sounded. “East of the Sun & West of the Moon” is an old Norse fairy/folk tale about a girl who rides a bear over the ice”.
Chr – “The new website is very polished, one of the best band pages I have come across – what added dimensions does Dan’s graphic vocabulary bring to the mix?”
AV – “Dan’s a very talented artist, designer, photographer, and videographer. His designs have been behind most Chef Menteur (and many other Backporch Revolution) releases, web art, videos and posters from the beginning. It’s also his day job so his talents are available (shameless plug), check out danhaughdesign.com“
All in all, not having heard Chef Menteur prior to Kevin McFadin of SOB’s introduction, this chronicle bears all the revelation of a Leif Erikson voyage of discovery. Chef Menteur may be “wholly their own” but I guarantee that once you have listened to them, they will be wholly yours as much you will be wholly theirs.
With Chef Menteur, the journey truly matters as much as the destination, continue that odyssey here with two typically idiosyncratic live videos from ‘East of the Sun & West of the Moon’…