The Austin Chronicle

Spontaneous Composition

By David Lynch, April 16, 1999, Music

(l-r): Craig Chin, Monte McCarter, Travis Hartnett

photograph by John Davis

At best, a band's first gig can be a little shaky. Given that there are innumerable factors at work -- personalities, timing, performance anxiety -- plenty of things can go wrong. For some, an inaugural gig can be much worse: a comedy-of-errors marriage between the Keystone Cops and Spinal Tap. It goes without saying, then, that rare is the band that forms on the day of its first show. Rarer still is the group who records their first live endeavor and subsequently releases the sonic document as their first album. Yet this is the christening story of Austin's spontaneously composing instrumental collective, Futura.

"It was the very first time we ever played together," states Craig Chin, the local trio's bassist.

"Yeah, I met Monte that night I think," adds guitarist Travis Hartnett referring to Futura's sonic chemist, Monte McCarter.

The date: September 4, 1998. The setting: Fringeware, the hip information kiosk at the Polaris end of the Drag. There Chin introduced Hartnett and McCarter to each other, and that same night all three performed together for the first time. The result: Spontaneous Compositions 1: Live at Fringeware, three amorphous tunes of loops and beats, underworld bass, and ethereal guitar. Since Spontaneous Compositions 1 is the group's first outing, you'd expect it to be less than perfect. And you'd be right: You can hear all three musicians negotiating the new terrain. Nevertheless, even on the first number, "The Other Side of Margo St.," Chin, Hartnett, and McCarter display shades of uncanny synchronization that have come to define the group's live performances and recorded output. Call it destiny, call it luck, call it whatever; the band themselves were just as surprised.

"What's spooky about the whole thing is it really came together," says the animated McCarter. "We're getting better and better the more we play, but I think we were all pretty stunned that it worked so well at first. And that people liked it."

In fact, if burgeoning crowds at the band's regular, last-Friday-of-the-month Mojo's gig are any indication, more and more locals are liking it. Like another Austin improvisational trio, Drums & Tuba, the members of Futura share experimental wanderlust, technical prowess, and musical vision. If that sounds vague, it's because Futura's style is flexible and proficient enough to traverse established genres; their improvisational and experimental intent gives many formally trained musicians the willies: "What, no score? No set song length? No lyrical cues? How do you even know it's a song?!?!" Live, the effect is like riding in the back of a speeding truck with your eyes pointed toward the evaporating horizon. You know what just went by, you can sort of make out the periphery, but you don't have any idea what's up ahead.

Jazz musicians also live by a similar seat-of-the-pants performing style, but Futura's music is not jazz -- at least not in the conventional sense. Futura and jazz both aim for meaningful spontaneous composition, but that's where the comparison ends -- unless you're counting the University of North Texas in Denton, home to a renowned jazz program where fellow photography students Chin and McCarter met in 1991. Once the pair relocated to the bohemian Valhalla of Texas, it was only a matter of time before the Futura triangle came together. Hartnett had checked out McCarter spinning DJ-style a few times, while McCarter would often go to hear Hartnett's one-man, guitar-fueled ambient band, TikTok. Bassist Chin knew both parties, and, earning the moniker "Glue," brought Futura's components together.

"Craig and I wanted to work in a trio format," remarks the soft-spoken but intense Hartnett. "So we were looking for someone to handle the drum end of things."

But Hartnett and Chin weren't simply looking for some run-of-the-mill, 4/4 drummer. They sought something more experimental, more on the fringe: "We wanted someone who played a weird drum kit," Hartnett continues. "Or something small enough to play in smaller places. At first we wanted a tabla player, so the songs would have a different beat."

While not accomplished on the Indian two-drum percussion setup, Monte McCarter was the duo's wish come true: something with a beat, but different. "I knew Monte and I had heard his DropCycle stuff -- real good drum loops," endorses the mellow Chin. DropCycle is McCarter's trip-hop/spaghetti-Western solo project, the yin to Hartnett's TikTok yang. In Futura, McCarter's turntablist scratching incorporates everything from children's records such as Babar the Elephant to the soundtrack of Ben Hur. Also in McCarter's tool chest are samplers, sequencers, digital drums, and a radio scanner used to pick up police dispatches and weather radar. The quick-talk of airport control tower dialogue is a favorite: "Usually the dialogue is real short," interjects Hartnett, "things like, 'Jesus,that was close!'"

But while Futura's beat keeper uses knobs instead of sticks, the result is a far cry from the poppy cheese of Sugar Ray, another group who uses turntables for drums. Futura's sound is darker, more introspective.

"I use midtempo beats," explains McCarter, "so I can speed it up if the crowd looks like they want it, or slow it down if they want to zone out."

"Yeah," adds Chin, "we're heading into a more chill direction."

Much of that cool, laid-back feeling is the product of Chin's exploratory bass lines. The bassist, who currently plays and sings in local rockin' pop combo Sector 7G, uses foot pedals and signal processors to change the character of his electric four string, a crucial component of Futura's sound.

"I've been listening to dub a lot recently -- Laswell," responds Chin when asked about his influences. "In an improv setting, everything I listen to leaks in because there's no telling what's going to happen. I don't know where I'll have to pull stuff out of. Spacey, groove-oriented Seventies Miles -- that'd be my stepping-off point for this group."

If McCarter and Chin approach their instruments from unorthodox angles, then Hartnett's whole raison d'être is to be different. The longtime local guitarist, the veteran in the trio, has performed live in Austin for over 10 years now. This experience includes lead guitar duties in Skellington, Britt Daniel's precursor to Spoon, and playing bass in Swag/Hollowbody with former Poi Dog Pondering guitar wizards Adam Sultan and Ted Cho. Hartnett formed improvisational duo TikTok with multi-instrumentalist Jon Matis several years ago, the guitarist's partner approaching the duo's sound in typically unconventional style. "Non-musical, Fred Frith-prepared sounds," states Hartnett. "He'd also tape a mike to his throat and do circular breathing chants."

According to Hartnett, TikTok the duo played everywhere in town -- once. When Matis moved to the East Coast to begin compositional studies, Hartnett decided to keep TikTok alive as a solo act. The guitarist, who's currently delving into Philip Glass' operatic and ensemble works, is most visibly influenced by Robert Fripp, string savant founder of King Crimson and sonic texturalist par excellence. Yet Fripp's influence isn't based solely on distant appreciation: Hartnett has been taught by Fripp directly, in the guitar master's classes in Argentina and Seattle. Thus, in both TikTok and Futura, Hartnett's guitar sometimes sounds like a spaceship, other times like an organ, and more often than not, like a science experiment; in short, seldom like a stereotypical guitar.

The man can shred with the best of them, but in Hartnett's hands, the instrument is more like a strung electronic trigger than speed metal stroker or an acoustic string piano. His stereo amp setup emanates lush, evaporating chords and thick walls of sound. To create his sonic pastiche, Hartnett uses a formidable rig of echoes, processors, and foot pedals he calls "the Deathstar." It turns out that the game plan of both the former duo-incarnation of TikTok and Futura share much in common.

"It's basically the same thing," chuckles Hartnett. "We'd just show up and set up our equipment. Someone would start making noise, and the others would follow. It was never planned or anything."

Starting from scratch is one thing when you're playing by yourself. It's quite another when you're playing in a group context. How does Futura rehearse for gigs?

"Every gig is a rehearsal," explains McCarter. "Every rehearsal is a gig."

What happens if it doesn't click, if the magic's not there?

"Sometimes it doesn't come together on a song," continues McCarter, "but then we just stop and fire up some new beats and see where that goes."

How does the trio know what they're going to play on any given night?

"We don't know," says Chin matter of factly. "We find out when we start."

"Yeah, we never really know quite what will happen." adds McCarter.

It's not wise, then, to view Futura's 4-CD canon, recorded and released in the span of eight months, as established songs that are reinterpreted at each gig. Futura songs are not static compositions with stock chord changes, mandatory bridges, or clichéd endings. They're snapshots of an amorphous, continuously composed musical flow; a truly unique musical event never heard before, and never to be performed again. Of course, in less than proficient hands, this free improvisation ethic can fall flat fast, coming across like a gaggle of noodling wankers. The key is to play as a group, not as three individuals playing by themselves.

"After you get to a certain point as a musician, anything you do is going to be competent," voices Hartnett. "You can play in key and hold up your end. But at some point, things suddenly get much, much better. And everything locks in."

So, if Spontaneous Compositions 1 sounds like a band in heavy research and development mode, their latest album, Futura Live 3.11.99, documents the band's signature sound in true form. Chin gives the lowdown.

"In the first three releases, we would take out the segues to make it more concise. But our last release is just a straight show from beginning to end. It's the most representative of exactly what it is we do. We didn't do anything to it, other than dump it onto disc."

No overdubs, no multi-tracking, just a straight-to-tape recording of the chilled wall of sound which poured forth from the Mercury's stage, site of the live recording. In addition to their DIY recording ethic, Futura's use of new technology and incorporation of diverse styles is a symbolic glimpse into the future of improvised music. "It's a way to explore a lot of musical spaces that you wouldn't necessarily get to in a regular band," opines Hartnett.

Futura may not be destined for the Procrustean bed known as the Top 40, but don't be surprised if in the near future more bands follow their spontaneously composed lead.

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