A person can learn a lot about surviving in the music business from sharing a tour bus with Kim Deal. In the 13 years Jose Medeles has spent drumming alongside the Pixies bassist in the Breeders, he has absorbed many valuable lessons. He speaks admiringly of Deal's steadfast commitment to her vision, but the piece of advice he's taken most to heart with his own project, 1939 Ensemble, is less about staying true to one's muse than being willing to take that muse down difficult paths: "The easy road," he says, "isn't always the best road."
Certainly, a duo making instrumental music out of nothing but drums, vibraphone and ephemeral noise isn't taking any shortcuts to success. But Medeles and drummer David Coniglio have made it work. They've got a deal with Portland label Jealous Butcher and a new record, Howl & Bite, coming out in April. Nobody's getting rich, of course, but considering the commercial ceiling for post-rock bands with jazz and krautrock leanings, they're feeling pretty good about how things have gone.
"Everything's a bonus," Medeles says, sitting across from Coniglio at a coffee shop on Northeast Prescott Street, next door to Revival Drum Shop, which Medeles owns. "I would've been stoked listening to demos in my Buick on a cassette player."
Medeles has done 1939 Ensemble, in one incarnation or another, for years, experimenting in his basement between Breeders obligations. It never went beyond the demo-tape stage, until one day, inspired by the amplified thumb pianos of Africa's Konono No. 1, he tried running his 1939 Grand Apollo vibraphones through a distortion pedal. "I was all like, 'There it is! This is where I'm going with this,'" Medeles says. He recruited Coniglio, a Berklee College of Music graduate and regular patron at Revival, and the two set about jamming Medeles' notion—simple, glimmering melodies underpinned by big, shuddering beats—into existence.
Although the instrumentation might confound traditional rock fans, the band insists its goal isn't alienation but accessibility. They don't mind holding the audience's hands a bit, either. Instead of immediately overwhelming the listener with noise and odd time signatures, the duo deliberately builds its songs layer-by-layer, easing into its more obtuse sections.
âWeâre going to help you along this journey, because we want you to enjoy it,â Medeles says.
"It's just a couple ideas and that's it," Coniglio adds. "That's all you need to know."
If anyone is being challenged by 1939 Ensemble, it's the members of 1939 Ensemble. On Howl & Bite, Medeles and Coniglio resisted the temptation to expand their palette, holding to the band's minimalist setup. The constrictions, it turns out, were freeing: Working with only a few elements, every whir, whoosh and fragment of feedback took on added value. It might not be the easiest way to make a record, but then, as someone once told Medeles, the easy road isn't always the best road.
"It's a challenge because, at the end of the day, we're drums, vibes and noise," Medeles says. "And that's what's really exciting. Dynamics, tones, sounds—all that is in our arsenal.... That's what I like about '39: Everything matters."
SEE IT: 1939 Ensemble plays Mississippi Studios, 3939 N Mississippi Ave., with Paper/Upper/Cuts and Gulls, on Friday, March 29. 9 pm. $10. 21+.