The Mae Shi seemed like they would suck. They wanted to meet at a K-Mart so they could get their pictures taken in the portrait studio. They mailed their CD in a package stuffed with foil confetti—the shit got everywhere. The title of their EP To Hit Armor Class Zerois a Dungeons & Dragonsreference.
Then they switched the interview to Sears because it was a lot easier to get an appointment for a photo, and they drifted in one at a time, each with a plastic trash bag or backpack full of thrift-store clothes—ugly ties, tight sweaters, bad slacks—and started scanning the sheet of potential backgrounds: The senior-picture white muslin, sir? Or the cornball stars and stripes?
They looked like every kid you see at Koo's and acted like they just got out of the family station wagon, with impenetrable in-jokes and a fondness for one another that could only come from being confined in a lot of enclosed spaces together. They describe themselves as brothers, but they punch one another less. Except maybe for bassist and guitarist Tim and Jeff Byron: they really are brothers, and the interview can't start until Tim—the Mae Shi's de facto leader—shows up.
To Hit Armor Class Zero and their splatter-movie live shows are schizophrenic, four one-man bands in the same room. But they think—and do their interviews—as one. Mae Shi is collaborative, says Tim: Brad Breeck plays drums, but he'll come up with lyrics, or Exra Buxhla—a quiet, reserved guy; strange, considering his stage persona—sings and messes with the synths, but he'll come up with drum parts, too. It's something they call the fist-or-five method, adopted from the co-ops Jeff and Exra lived in during college.
"It taught us how to make decisions through consensus, the whole fist-or-five thing," says Jeff. He unfolds his hand, fingers outstretched: "Five is you're totally down with it."
Then he curls his fingers back up. "And fist is you won't stand for it."
So Mae Shi works on a show of hands: when they have to make a decision, they count fingers. Above three is doable. Three or below isn't, maybe, so then they . . . discuss. Or argue. Or whatever it takes to get the fists open into fives. A good way to get them to argue is to ask them what they're doing—with their music, with their philosophy, even just with their lunch plans, but especially the music.
The Mae Shi play strangle-throated electronically altered post-something-or-other. The riffs are big and the guitars are loud, but there's also an underlying synthesized symphony of bleeps and whirrs. Often their shows end with the band handing their instruments to the crowd to finish the set. So, um, punk rock?
"It depends. You see us at the Smell, and everybody's dashing around, then we're a punk band. Or it can be a performance-art band," says Jeff.
"I've definitely bled out my mouth," says Exra.
"Punk is about doing things differently, but punk is also really reactionary," says Tim. "It's all about sounding like the Beatles, just really fast."
"We're probably an art-school band," adds Exra.
"A hyperactive art-school band," says Jeff.
Tim disagrees: "We're not an art-school band. I didn't go to art school. And I don't think we're doing anything that hasn't been done 100 times already. Maybe we're making a hip-hop album and we're a rock band."
But Jeff's right there to correct him.
"I don't think we made a hip-hop album. Tim thinks we made a hip-hop album."
No, says Tim, possibly making a fist: the Mae Shi don't work like rock & roll. They layer, using riffs like samples, assembling disparate snippets into songs. They remix their own music and keep recording and rerecording throughout the mixing process.
They ended up with a 33-track monster: huge rock guitar, acoustic and electronic drums, and a start/stop/stutter dynamic that sounds like channel-flipping looks.
"The album's sort of like a painting we did. Then we sketched over the painting, and then we painted over it again. Then we made a collage over the thing," says Brad.
He's got a point. You can almost hear the brushstrokes at points, like when a vocal line from an earlier track pops up again in the next song. Several consecutive tracks grow from the same song: the first version might be a cappella; the next track repeats the vocals but slowly tips in instrumentation. There are five tracks named "Repetition" that finish the album.
And the band was signed via instant messenger. They say that CDs are passe and that mixes and iTunes playlists are the directions music is moving in. They have a lot of future plans—including a DVD release full of "Easter eggs," with videos for every song, including the five-second ones.
Their whole Mae Shi is a future plan: post- anything that's already post-something right now. But future plans also include lunch—and that's a whole other argument.
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"Do we want to go to El Pollo Loco?" someone asks.
"I'll five that," says Tim.
"No, three," says Jeff. "Three, and we'll discuss."
The Mae Shi perform with Child Pornography, Katie The Pest, Battleship and Quem Quaeritis at 51 Buckingham, 296 W. Second St., Pomona; www.51buckingham.com. Sat., 7 p.m. $5. All ages.