A jester-masked, berobed figure stands behind an imposing bank of keyboards before a stylish, boho crowd at the Hideout bar. There he generates unsettling waves of electronic horror—but it's subtle Lovecraftian horror rather than blatant shock tactics. The haunting, sometimes-antic miasma created by this audio wizard seems absurdly incongruous in this chic setting, but one feels privileged to catch a rare appearance by Jabon, aka studio engineer Scott Colburn.
A longtime key figure in Seattle's underground-music scene, Colburn is best known for producing albums by Arcade Fire, Animal Collective, Sun City Girls, and Mudhoney, among many others. But since 1985, Colburn's been recording solo pieces on the sly. This year, he's decided to take his special, rarely heard music to the live realm (many Jabon tracks and concerts can be heard at www.scottcolburn.com/jabon).
A Black Flag–saluting punk in the '80s, Colburn had an epiphany while listening to the Residents' Mark of the Mole. A music-appreciation course at Indiana University hipped him to Stockhausen, Charles Ives, and Morton Subotnick, and immersion in mid-'80s tape-trading culture led to him discovering subversives like Controlled Bleeding, Negativland, and Whitehouse. "I figured I could do that kind of music, too. Fortunately, I had access to a studio in which to do tape-loop experiments. Very quickly after that, the convergence of instrumental Black Flag (and [Greg] Ginn's instrumental trio Gone) and Chrome started to take hold. So from there on out, my tapes were made of 'rock' trio improvisation, weird Residents-esque pop songs, intercut comedy, and general madness."
Jabon flourished from 1985 to 1995, but then Colburn moved to Seattle and put the project on hiatus for about 14 years in order to focus on recording with Climax Golden Twins, Wizard Prison, and Sun City Girls guitarist Sir Richard Bishop, while also burgeoning as a producer working out of his Gravelvoice Studios.
Colburn disagrees with my "unsettling" adjective above, but he admits, "I think [my tracks] might be challenging in the mood department. I can't make happy music, but I can make funny music, so I think you need to approach it with a sense of humor and it will make more sense. I like to call my project Dark Ambient Avant Garde Disco Comedy. On any night, there's gonna be someone who is stoned out of their mind and will get into the drone. There will also be someone else who had a bad day and will appreciate the darkness. Someone else will just enjoy the wacky pop ditties and laugh. I'm trying to appeal to the full range of human emotions."
The Residents' multimedia concerts inspired Jabon to follow suit. "In Wizard Prison, I didn't want to play a show unless it would be an event," Colburn says. "We wanted to put something together that was unlike anything anyone had seen before. So we got a 9-foot-high and 12-foot-wide aluminum cage draped with a white scrim. We made Brakhage-like avant-garde films to project behind us so we were in silhouette. And we're wizards, see... in prison! And the music is the alchemy that allows our escape.
"For Jabon, I can play with or without films, with or without special effects, with any multitude of masks and disguises. The best shows will be the ones where I can pull off the carnival. The Hideout was close to that. If you watch the video from that show, several people just walked right up to me and took pictures with their cell phones. Probably to send to their friends to say, 'Look at this shit I saw tonight!'"
As for the upcoming Cal Anderson gig, Jabon's music seems like the antithesis of Saturday-afternoon-in-the-park entertainment. "I like the idea that it's gonna be sunny and hot out there, and I'm going to get onstage in a wizard costume and make some sort of freak sounds," Colburn says. "It just doesn't make any sense, and that's a good thing.
"The first set will concentrate on all my goofy pop numbers, the second set will concentrate on ambient improv. So in a way, the sunny day in the park is the perfect wrong venue. I think it would be fun to play a Laundromat, a parking garage, a beach, a forest, or the light rail!"
Sounds Outside: Jabon, Figeater, Syncopated Taint Horn Quartet, and others perform Sat Aug 15, Cal Anderson Park, 1–8 pm, free, all ages. Jabon performs at 2 and 3:30 pm.