With little fanfare over the last few years, Beyond Captain Orca! have established themselves as a cosmic force in the Seattle underground-rock scene. Their profile rose last month when they opened for UK hard-rock legends Uriah Heep at El Corazon.
Consisting of legendary producer and Skinyard member Jack Endino on guitar, 5-Track on bass, and Patrick Lenon on drums (they are often joined by guest musicians), BCO! specialize in epic instrumentals that explore the fiery, galaxy-brained territory staked out by krautrock mind-expanders such as Ash Ra Tempel and Agitation Free, as well as Japanese (t)rippers such as High Rise and Acid Mothers Temple.
BCO! display classic power-trio telepathy, moving from peak to peak with a kind of muscular transcendence. Check out their 28-minute improvisational set opening for Uriah Heep below to get an idea of BCO!'s sky-scraping interplay. Very few bands in the Northwest are going as deep and long as these guys do.
Now seems like a good time to learn more about Beyond Captain Orca!, and an e-mail interview happened as spontaneously as one of their extended jams.
How did Beyond Captain Orca! come together?
Endino: We play together in a band called MKB Ultra, and we always have places in our set allocated to pure improv, where we take a breather from the song framework for a time. We always have so much fun with those parts that I remember calling up 5-Track and proposing the idea of a 100-percent improv instrumental trio, and asked him if he thought Patrick would be into drumming with us, too. The only goal I suggested was, can we cast a spell over the listeners (and ourselves) while playing 100-percent improv on stage, without relying on repetition, or "solos," or rock/jazz song structures, or any other conventional approaches? We never really discussed anything else.
5-Track: Jack was really taken with Patrick’s drumming—as I have been since about 2004. My wife named the band, and I don’t know exactly what she had in mind, but to me the name combines Captain Beefheart, Captain Beyond (et al.), marine life, whale songs, and the stunning natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest.
Can you talk about Beyond Captain Orca!’s creative approach and its relation to the great explorers of ’70s krautrock?
Endino: We respect it, but I don't think any of us are great "students" of krautrock. I'm coming more from US/UK psych- and space-rock. A common krautrock "parameter" was hypnotic grooves with improv layered over the grooves, but that is not important to us. It might happen that way some time, and it might not. It's just, can we hold the room?
5-Track: We don’t talk a great deal about our creative approach except for the mantra, "We aim to cast a spell." Which I’ve interpreted different ways on different occasions. We all have sizable record collections and widely varied taste, so that informs what we play in the moment. Jack and I are aware of Julian Cope’s krautrocksampler—his japrocksampler is at least as influential for me. My big influences in Beyond Captain Orca! are more to do with Miles Davis’s Dark Magus phase, Jimi’s NYE Fillmore concerts with the Band of Gypsys, and Lee Perry’s Black Ark… with the occasional dip into Alice Coltrane, Mdou Moctar, Mainliner, Sun Ra, Betty Davis, Tinariwen, Earth, “The Soul Of Mbira,” Sleep/Om, Lauren Hill, “Gamelan of the Love God,” Olivia Wyatt’s Staring Into the Sun, D’Angelo, Congotronics, the Velvet Underground, Prime Time, early Santana, Gnawa music, Shabazz Palaces, Les Filles de Illighadad… Trance musics in general… I’ll listen to all kinds of music, but those are some of what figures into my approach right now in this band.
Last year we were invited to play a krautrock tribute night at Lo-Fi, and Chris Martin from Kinski had recently told us we sounded like Ash Ra Tempel’s first album. I really enjoy the first couple Ash Ra Tempel albums, so we played the show figuring Ash Ra Tempel was improvising, so we’d just try to jam along similar lines and that should count as a "cover." That is the most prep we’ve ever done for a show, and it wasn’t a lot. One of the resulting pieces, "Thence," Patrick says, is "some of the most interesting free playing" he’s been a part of—and he’s been part of a lot of interesting free playing. "Thence" is akin texturally to a free-jazz ballad, for lack of a better term, but it could also be heard as ambient or glacial, like side 2 of Ash Ra Tempel’s Join Inn or parts of Miles’s Pangaea. Milford Graves and Bill Laswell have some duets that sound a bit like this as well.
Lenon: I don’t know much about krautrock. Any reference to it in my playing is from related influences, as well as playing a lot of improvised music over the years with 5.
Why go down this path in the age of diminishing attention spans? (I'm way into it, but I’m sure there are others who will complain about the marathon song durations.)
5-Track: I think we all like to bask in the trance zone, including but not limited to the dance-trance zone, and it just inevitably takes time for the trance to get properly deep. The music can’t do its job in five minutes. I’ve always been into long, improvised jams, but especially now I’d say they provide an important service in that they allow people to not be distracted for a time, if that’s something they’re open to. Long songs also allow me to delay returning to my own body and mind, and I hope to give the audience that same joy.
Our set opening for Uriah Heep was a wonderful test of some of these things—the audience didn't know who we were, no one but our friends knew we were improvising, they just saw a local rock band opening for a classic rock band, and judging from the responses afterward ("I liked all three of your songs! But stay out of the bad acid!"), we went over nicely. So, there’s potentially an appreciative audience for what we do, whatever that is.
Lenon: Although many people may have shorter attention spans these days, we’ve found a good amount of people willing to listen to our sets. I think it is about finding the communities of listeners that enjoy it. Seattle may also be a good place to find people who enjoy and appreciate experimental music.
It may also be that in an increasingly corporatized, canned music industry and society, there are people who are actively looking for something stimulating outside of what they are used to hearing. Additionally, we are in an era where nostalgia and references to the past are prevalent in entertainment. Our music is essentially improvised rock, which may be nostalgic for some listeners considering rock isn’t really mainstream anymore.
Are all of your shows improvised? Are there general parameters discussed before you go onstage?
Endino: Yes, always improvised, and we try to record every show and post it to Bandcamp, albeit sometimes with some post-editing. The first few shows were pretty tentative; we were feeling each other out musically. We usually don't discuss anything else, except when to show up for soundcheck. Sometimes we have musical guests. We just start playing, and see what happens.
5-Track: I believe certain approaches to music and art are inherently healthy, like clean water or air and sunlight or eat your fruits and vegetables (not that I always do that, either). I took a class with [free-jazz drummer] Milford Graves in 1994, and he became a big influence on my musical thinking along these lines.
Music with an element of improvisation can help keep your neural pathways flexible and growing, but I could also talk about quantum physics, animism, healing energy work, or magick. Some of what we do in Orca is based on the rhythms of breath, and there are other approaches I’ve been toying with lately, but we don’t really ever talk about it before a show.
Improvisation and composition are two sides of the same coin, but I see an imbalance in the culture toward rigidly pre-composed music, so I try to help out by supplying an improvised counterweight—though the fact that we’re improvising is probably not important for the audience to know. With luck, the music is good enough that they’ll appreciate us with or without that information.
What are BCO!’s ultimate goals?
Endino: For me, for the band to be "proof of concept" that you can have a performing band without songs, or rehearsals, or any kind of overhead at all. Can a band like this exist, and function, and thrive? Will audiences accept it? Can we keep it interesting for ourselves and audiences and avoid settling into habits and routine?
5-Track: To make art according to our ideals while stealing the face of commerce. To have a real good time together playing music for friendly experiencers. To bring happiness to all sentient beings!