As he hunches over his digital piano keyboard, appropriately dressed like an Old West saloon pianist, Mac Mann's arms jump and drop like a marionette's as his shoulders sway queasily to the rhythm of his band, Get Hustle. The glamorous and ornately tattooed vocalist, Valentine Hussar, wails cryptic calls for apocalypse with the incensed intensity and sensual fervor of Nina Simone. Drummer Ron Avila's inventive and precise beats synthesize the rhythmic impulsion of jazz with the dramatic flair of cabaret. Meanwhile, organist Mark Evan Burden, the band's sole native Oregonian, ties piano and drums together with crashing waves of shimmering chords.
Most bands beg for an audience. Only a select few are so commanding and uncompromising as to deliberately avoid interviews. Get Hustle, Portland's demure and obtuse cabaret quartet, is understandably reluctant to discuss its esoteric music, preferring to leave interpretation to the listener. This makes a journalist's job of providing clever lift-out quotes difficult, but makes perfect sense considering the band's complexity. And so we granted their wish: The band provided WW with factual details, but little by the way of discussion about its means and motivations.
These deliberate obscurantists create visceral, theatrical, disjointed songs using the simple elements of drums, piano, Hammond organ and vocals--no guitars, no bass, no frills. The band's unique mosaic of influences ranges from antique cabaret, Krautrock, frenzied hardcore, French pop and free jazz. The resulting creation sounds like Jacques Brel and Kurt Weill tunes interpreted for a film by Ed Wood. Its brand-new third record, an EP called "Dream Eagle" on San Diego's Three One G Records, was recorded last July in the band's house, across the street from a graveyard in Northeast Portland.
"The goal of everyone in the band is to be a contributing instrument," Mann says. "It's more about the music that we're making. Nothing's really borrowed from anywhere. It's all specifically from within ourselves."
The Get Hustle's current lineup conspicuously lacks standard rock instruments--they would be out of place in such atavistic and primal music. However, co-founding guitarist Dave Stone (also a touring member of the Melvins and Unwound) added eerie textures from the band's 1997 inception until its previous album, 2000's Earth Odyssey. Since Get Hustle left Southern California for Portland's drearier pastures two years ago, the band has been a percussion-and-keyboard quartet.
"It usually starts with a beat," Mann says of songwriting. "It all comes from that, and there's no real method, so it takes a while, but eventually things fall into place. Everyone in the band is pretty individual in playing their instruments, and it shows."
Get Hustle's roots lie in the early-'90s San Diego punk scene, an insular movement fostered by the label Gravity Records, which issued frantic art-hardcore recordings by the likes of Heroin, Antioch Arrow, Clikatat Ikatowi and Angel Hair. Echoes of those now-defunct bands reverberate in the chaotic sounds of such better-known acts as Blood Brothers (set to play this Thursday at B Complex) and At the Drive-In. At the time, though, the Gravity Records milieu was a little like Andy Warhol's Factory collective--if you weren't part of the scene, you were unlikely to understand the art. Outsiders often criticized Gravity bands for their mod-styled fashion and alienating secret-society attitudes.
Mann and Avila initiated Get Hustle's aesthetic in Antioch Arrow, the seminal post-punk group whose Birthday Party-at-hyperspeed adrenal layering revealed immense musical talent, reaching beyond the confines of hardcore punk. Antioch Arrow eventually morphed into a Gothic sound that hinted at things to come: Songs slowed and guitars were relegated to sound effects while rhythms, piano and horror-movie organs took center stage. Upon the band's collapse, Mann and Avila moved to Los Angeles to join Stone and short-term bassist Mackie Osborne (wife to Melvins guitarist Buzz), with Hussar eventually assuming vocal duties.
The new band quickly released a 7-inch single and 12-inch EP on GSL recordings in 1998 and set out touring the US with Unwound, Joan Of Arc and the Thrones. In August 2002, Get Hustle performed a week's worth of shows on Oops! The Tour, a musical sideshow showcasing bands with peculiar aesthetics like The Locust, Arab on Radar and Lightning Bolt. Upon last week's release of "Dream Eagle," Get Hustle again sets out to tour the States throughout November.
While Get Hustle may not go out of its way to let the mainstream world know of its existence--and, really, why should it?--those fortunate enough to catch the band live or listen to its new album will discover that one of the most challenging and clever bands in existence is living in near-secrecy in our own backyard.
"Dream Eagle" EP (Three One G Records)
Three One G is owned and operated by Justin Pearson, bassist for sci-fi "screamo" outfit The Locust.