If Jackson Pollock Played Music

Photo by Cola Greenhill CasadosCreate (!) is a jazz band. And a psychedelic band. And a punk band, a prog. rock band, a hip-hop band, a funk band, a metal band, a noise band and a classical ensemble. And if this Long Beach instrumental collective has any wide-eyed, lofty dreams about making it big, well . . . they don't. They can't, not as long as they're scattering Britney's fans from their gigs, as they once did. Not as long as their "songs"—more like aural sculptures, really—range from 43 seconds long to more than 10 minutes. Not as long as these songs have such titles as "Rocking Madness in the Bowels of San Pedro While Observing the Maximum Occupancy Rule of 7" (try cramming that onto a Billboard chart), inspired by a set they performed in a Pedro coffeehouse at which there were exactly seven people.

This is because Create (!) are not interested in the simplistic structure of the modern commercial pop song. Nor are they much into coming up with catchy hooks or crafty choruses. They are stocked with ample grooves for proper ass-wiggling, but the band frequently seems to tire of a groove soon after it latches onto one, preferring to abandon rhythm for barrages of freakish, experimental electro squonking or a distortion-pedal solo.

Self-described avant-gardists, Create (!) are the sonic equivalent of a Jackson Pollock canvas: messy and untamed on first look, but deliberate and well-choreographed if you stick around long enough to notice.

Take a recent live show, for which drummer Steve Richardson and bassist Orlando Greenhill did their faces in white tribal makeup. Guitarist Chris Schlarb zinged away on his guitar, though some of the noises he made didn't sound like any guitar most of us would recognize. A pair of horn players lent the set a New Orleans R&B feel. Then there was the Rhythm Game, in which Greenhill yanked a woman out of the crowd and made her the honorary band conductor, who led Create (!) through a gamut of breakneck tempo switching, from slow, loping, near-country crawls to Bad Brains-like thrashcore. It wasn't very clean or professional—but the spontaneity is the message.

Patterns, the album they sell at shows, gets even weirder. There are random guitar screeches, hip-hop drum patterns, poetic raps that instantly recall the Watts Prophets or Gil Scott-Heron, and turntable scratches—all in less than a minute. This ain't no ordinary rock record. Elsewhere, they throw out doorbell chimes, silly raps about Pippi Longstocking, breakdancing cops and the Tiger Woodstockpalooza, taps, frenzied licks suitable for either chilling or moshing, "Amazing Grace," and bizarre buzzes that sound as if they went and amplified a bunch of electric toothbrushes. A fascinating listen, for sure, and when it's nearly over, you have to agree with the voice on a track called "Comprehension vs. Enjoyment": "I don't know what all that fancy jive means, but I like the sound of it." Create (!) get off on all this improvisation, forcing themselves to carve something fresh for each new performance, taking that nervous energy and inertia and possibly creating something groundbreaking with just a mere twisting of an unplanned bass riff, relishing the risks of what might happen. "Every time I play," Greenhill says, "I wonder what I can do that'll really freak people out. It's humbling because you want to think of something new each time. I'm always thinking of different noises I can make with my instrument."
Illustration by Mark Dancey There have been other sonic explorers, like Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra and John Zorn, all of whom inspire Create (!)'s main men. There have also been countless other lesser-knowns—mostly New York-based—who've similarly challenged musical definition. And that's partly why Create (!) was created. "We really wanted to have an avant-garde music scene here in Long Beach," says Schlarb, "some place like the Knitting Factory had been in New York, the hub of the no wave scene. But we didn't see any of that here. They held a Noise Fest here once, but that was about it." Schlarb linked up with Greenhill in 1999, when both were searching for something deeper and more meaningful than the narcissism of trying to distinguish themselves from the plethora of sound-alike punk and emo bands on the local scene. "We got together and tried to define what we wanted to do, but we couldn't," Greenhill says. "But we knew we wanted to do more. We wanted to have an impact on the community." They've done this by spreading the philosophy of creativity—hence their name—letting people know that anyone can break the musical rules. Especially kids. Create (!) was asked earlier this year to play a show at the Long Beach library where Greenhill works his day job, and the set evolved into something of a mini-workshop. "The kids were telling us they weren't creative at all, and that was kind of heartbreaking," says Schlarb. "I had some instruments that I'd been collecting for a couple of years and brought them with me. By the end of the class, I had given them all away, mostly small percussion stuff. But by the end, all these kids were playing music—all these kids who had said they weren't creative." "And the reason we put the exclamation mark in our name," says Greenhill, "is to emphasize that, to bring it out in people. Everybody is creative by nature—every thought you have you create. People always relate creativity to art, but you can be creative typing a paper. You can be creative in the way you look at a stop sign. Or making a pizza—culinary art. The fact that you see buildings around is the result of someone's creativity. People don't realize how simple it is. I think in this society, they teach as if creativity is so complex, that it's so far from us." "We're not taught to imagine anymore," Richardson adds. "People have become so used to having others imagine for them and then going out and buying it." "Like Disney," says Schlarb. "They call their creative people Imagineers, like they're the imagineers and you're not." "That's the thing about this band I like," says Greenhill. "We point and say, hey, you can contribute to this. If people knew that, especially the youth, they wouldn't have such a nihilistic philosophy, like there's no freakin' future. And even after John Lydon said that, he recanted—he said there's no future only if you don't make one for yourself. "We want to affect schools, prisons, everywhere we can go and let them know they don't have to just settle for what's in front of them. There's more out there." Create (!) perform with Awol 1 and Bizzart at the Java Lounge, 3800 E. Pacific Coast Hwy., Long Beach, (562) 597-6171. Sat., 8 p.m. Call for cover. 21+.

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