Tim Sommer and Alexandra Scott are here for lunch after a Hi-Fi Sky rehearsal. A morning rehearsal alone says that Hi-Fi Sky isn't like other bands, and the debut album, Music for Synchronized Swimming in Space (Seersucker Fantasy) clinches it. The lead track, 'Ocean Bear,' begins with an ethereal guitar figure, over which Sommer's descending three-note bass guitar phrase -- played well up the neck -- appears. That phrase is echoed by Sam Craft's violin, and it becomes the track's theme. The piece abandons the phrase briefly, then returns to it, this time with Scott's voice wordlessly doubling the phrase while Craft plays quarter notes, tracing the chord changes. There are no drums, and there is nothing resembling a push. The music's not rhythm-free, but unlike so many New Orleans bands, the rhythm is not Hi-Fi Sky's central feature.
'Minimalism and drones are the root of everything good,' Sommer says. He enjoys that sort of provocative, professorial declaration, but he has the pedigree to make them. He wrote for Trouser Press in New York City in 1979 at the age of 17, which started a career that found him playing music in the 1980s with avant-garde composer Glenn Branca and his own group, Hugo Largo, which released three records of similarly minimalist pop. He spent the '90s working at MTV, then in the A&R department at Atlantic Records, where he shepherded projects for acts such as Hootie & the Blowfish, Duncan Sheik, Melissa Ferrick and Scott Weiland. For him, Hi-Fi Sky is part of the process of coming to terms with living in New Orleans.
'I started listening to Cajun music when I moved to New Orleans four years ago,' says Sommer, who served as a producer for Louisiana Jukebox before its demise last year. 'I liked the ballads and Amedee Ardoin.' He found himself drawn to the beautiful melancholy behind the melodies, so much so that he wanted to process them into his own musical language. 'It was so obvious to me to remove the melodies from the contexts they had always been associated with,' he says. 'It was amazing to me that that hadn't been tried outside of some of the work Daniel Lanois did.'
The three-note phrase in 'Ocean Bear' is a fragment of a Cajun fiddle part taken out of context and given a whole new backing. In that instance, it's so subtle that the song's Cajun roots are barely noticeable; they're far more obvious in the version of 'Ma Blonde Est Partie.' With Scott's ethereal vocal recessed in the mix and laid over a bed of keyboard washes, the song sounds like a distant, overheard expression of profound loss.
'For a piece that sounds effectively ambient and rhythmless, Alexandra stayed very religious about rhythms on that,' Sommer says. 'That has a rhythm to it that is extremely faithful to the original (recorded) version by Cleoma Breaux.'
While he explains this, the Supersuckers play a song that asks the crowd to raise their middle fingers high, and they oblige.
Later that week, Sommer, Scott and Craft perform at Voobrew. Scott sings without a microphone, presenting an unadorned human voice. The music doesn't feel as distant as it does on the album, and a lovely cover of the Velvet Underground's 'Pale Blue Eyes' actually has a chorus.
A Rampart Street coffee shop selling voodoo tchochkes and other goods for the inner, more spiritual you is an unusual venue, but it's consistent with the project's origins.
'The peanut butter-meets-the-chocolate moment was when I was driving past Belladonna (Day Spa) one day, and I thought, 'People getting manicures or massages have a lot of time to sit still, and they're always trying to chill out,'' Scott says. 'Everybody says this record makes them go to sleep in a nice way.'
Sommer recalls the rationale more bluntly: 'You said -- basically, 'Yoga music sucks. Massage music sucks. We can find an interesting place for the music. Let's go finish the record.''
For Scott, the music having a clear purpose is an important part of the Hi-Fi Sky project. 'I think that art gets twisted if it doesn't have a place, if it doesn't feed a connection,' Scott says.
Identifying a purpose for the music gives it a reason to exist, and it helps the band find its audience. Sommer recalls another local musician mourning the fact that his new CD would likely only reach 100 or so people in town. 'I said, 'Yeah, if you stick to the 100 people who go see indie rock in this town.' We're trying to find other people and try to bring them into the orbit of what Hi-Fi Sky might do,' he says.
For reviews of recent CDs by Yo La Tengo, Stereolab, Monade, Garbage and Scott H. Biram as well as a review of an Iggy Pop live DVD, see Opening Act 2.