Music

Percussion Passion

1939 Ensemble's Drums, Noise, and Vibes

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"I'M REALLY HAPPY people are liking the music, because it's... weird. I just scratch my head and say, 'Man, that's so cool.'"

After drumming for the Breeders for 12 years, José Medeles could be expected to take it for granted that people are willing to pay actual money to see him play live. But he seems pleasantly baffled by the buzz surrounding 1939 Ensemble, his drum-and-vibraphone duo with David Coniglio.

1939 Ensemble isn't quite like anything else. With drum-and-vibe arrangements combined with post-industrial noise—and no words—what's most surprising about Howl and Bite, their first LP (out April 16 on Jealous Butcher), is how easily enjoyable it is.

The effortlessness is the result of a partnership between like-minded auteurs who have been around long enough to have developed the enviable quality that's often reduced to the word taste. That two such drummers could find each other and share a vision seems to defy the odds, but these particular odds were stacked: Medeles owns Revival Drum Shop in Northeast Portland. A certain type of drummer is drawn to Revival, but Coniglio stood out even there.

"I realized I couldn't do it all by myself, and he was the first guy I thought of. In my eyes, he's the perfect drummer. He loves Billy Martin as much as he loves Dale Crover from the Melvins, and he went to Berklee, so he's got jazz chops."

About the name: 1939 is named after the year their vibraphones were made, nothing more to it than that, but Medeles says that he's come to enjoy thwarting the expectations it gives rise to. "It sounds like we're an old-timey jazz band, so we're throwing people off from the outset."

There's nothing retro about 1939. Each track on Howl and Bite paints an entirely different atmosphere, and that is the astonishing thing about the album: With only vibes, drums, and noise, every song transports you to a specific place and mood. "Roshambo" sounds like being chased through a decaying urban landscape; "Blades," with the addition of a trumpet, is a soundtrack for impeccably dressed, permanently hungover chain-smokers; "Big Sleep" is a percussive art deco lullaby, with cello.

The current incarnation of 1939 Ensemble started in 2010. "The Breeders had just done the 10-year anniversary of All Tomorrow's Parties—Tortoise, Battles, Explosions in the Sky, Shellac. It reminded me of how much I love angular beats and aggressive drumming and noise. And it made me want to change what I was doing with '39."

Howl and Bite was recorded in two days, with no overdubs. They wanted the live experience to be as close to the recording as possible—the same attention to dynamics and the play between instruments. Medeles is loyal to his fans; he feels that they trust him with their time and money, and it's a responsibility he takes seriously.

"I'm not gonna act like it doesn't matter that people come see us," he says. "I'm not gonna be like, 'I don't care, man, we'll play in this art space forever!' In a way, 1939 has already succeeded—we've made a record, we play shows, people come, some people get it, some people don't. It's very taxing, but it's a tax I'm willing to pay because I want to play this music forever."

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