For some bands, I vividly recall the moment they emerged into my consciousness, stamped across my memory like a signpost noting, “Beyond here, everything changes.” For others, isolating how I discovered them is more of a forensic exercise.
I’m pretty sure that however I came to know about Rick Brown, it had something to do with Yo La Tengo. Rick drummed in an early-’80s band called Information, which ended up mutating into The Scene Is Now, who I first heard of when YLT covered their bananas-minimalist-epic “Yellow Sarong” on their Fakebook album, the liner notes noting only, “You can never say enough about The Scene Is Now.” (They weren’t wrong.) He also, along with his wife Sue Garner, played in a stunning panoply of below-the-radar indie-rock bands in the Yo La Tengo orbit: Run On, Fish & Roses, V-Effect, Timber, and probably a dozen others that came and went over the years. I first personally heard Rick and Sue in yet another ephemeral band, Rattle, when they opened for Antietam (who have been playing alongside Yo La Tengo since their very first show) and Dump (solo project of Yo La Tengo bassist James McNew); it was Rattle’s first-ever gig, and for all I know their last, as they’ve never showed up on record to my knowledge.
I first really experienced Rick Brown in all his glory, though, when he and Sue appeared in yet another guise — Two Mule Team — at the venerable country-punk dive bar Hank’s Saloon opening for Sloppy Heads, a band co-fronted by my friend Jesse (who I first met at a Yo La Tengo show at Maxwell’s in Hoboken when I noticed he was scribbling down the song titles as they were played so he could post the setlist to his website, and who later wrote the definitive book on YLT, Maxwell’s, and indie rock). Sue was playing guitar and singing. Rick was playing a wooden crate that he was also sitting on, which had a drum kick pedal mounted to it backwards, and which he also struck with his hands and with sticks, plus maracas and plastic trumpets and a homemade xylophone and a strange device that I later discovered was a Playskool Talk ‘n Play cassette machine jury-rigged to act as a sampler. Even if the music hadn’t been memorable — it was, ranging from edgy folk to experimental noise, at once familiar and threatening to head off in unexpected directions — the sight alone would have been.
Eventually, through the churning sea of connections that is Facebook and email lists and running into Rick at other people’s shows and having him say, “By the way, I’m playing next week,” this led me to 75 Dollar Bill, which, unbelievably, is even harder to believe than Two Mule Team. Brown arrives at each show with his wooden crate loaded with assorted implements of percussion, unloads them, then sits on it and begins to thump (and occasionally sing). His partner in crime Che Chen, whose bio describes him as a “sound artist and improviser,” plays guitar that is usually described as North African-inspired, combining to create hypnotic swirling patterns that are right on the edge between soothing and unnerving. Sometimes Sue plays, too. Sometimes Cheryl Kingan, who plays saxophone with The Scene Is Now and occasionally Antietam, joins in. Sometimes, as in last Saturday’s show that I missed because of a snowstorm, there are a huge number people on stage at once, and it’s hard to tell where 75 Dollar Bill leaves off and other bands begin. I’m still not exactly sure what they are or why (or sometimes if!) I like them, which is kind of exciting.
In many ways, 75 Dollar Bill are the perfect subject for this series, because they’re not at all a band I would have happened upon but for a string of happenstance connections — I don’t generally make a habit of listening to Mauritanian-tinged experimental groove noise rock grounded in drumming on a plywood crate. (Does anyone?) To be honest, I’m not even exactly sure when or how the tracks from last year’s much-lauded cassette release WOOD/METAL/PLASTIC/PATTERNS/RHYTHM/ROCK ended up in my iTunes; I probably purchased them from their Bandcamp page at some point. All I can say is that somewhere along the way, my mind became expanded in a direction that is headed to unknowable places — and if that’s not the definition of art, I don’t know what is.
plywood crate, maracas, shakers, bells, a drum