Grand Illusion

The hometowners of Grand Ulena insist they're not a local band

Oct 16, 2002 at 4:00 am
St. Louis-based noise-rock contrarians Grand Ulena might live here, but they're not, repeat not, a local band. Aside from their début performance, an inflammatory set opening for Wilco at the Pageant last year (which was well worth the price of admission in itself, and the bonus pleasure of watching expressions of horror, bewilderment and hostility registering on the faces of so many dumbstruck Wilco fans -- well, that, as they say, was priceless), the complex and uncompromising trio, who practiced for years before playing an actual show, haven't performed in their hometown at all. According to the band's official one-sheet, they nevertheless "consider themselves the ambassadors from [St. Louis]." Call it integrity, call it perversity, call it good old-fashioned snootiness, but if you want to see Grand Ulena's brilliant, brutal, dissonant and unequivocally rockin' hardcore art-fuckery for yourself, you'd better hightail your ass over the river: On October 27, they'll be opening for Wilco again in Champaign, at the Foellinger Auditorium, and on November 8, they'll be playing with like-minded provocateurs Flying Luttenbachers and No Doctors at the Fireside Bowl in Chicago. (See for more information.) A split seven-inch with Sicbay is due out later this month, and the band's first full-length, Gateway to Dignity, will be released on CD and vinyl next February on the Bloomington, Indiana-based label Family Vineyard.

However unfathomable Grand Ulena's no-local-show policy might seem on the surface (Radar Station, for what it's worth, thinks it's a scream), the individual band members -- bassist Darin Gray, drummer Danny McClain and guitarist Chris Trull -- don't have anything against St. Louis and can be found happily gigging about in various other projects. Gray, who just released a fascinating and frustrating solo electric-bass CD, St. Louis Shuffle (Family Vineyard), will perform on Friday, October 18, at the Lemp Neighborhood Arts Center (3301 Lemp). Extra-fancy improv threesome Ernesto Diaz-Infante, Annette Krebs and Chris Forsyth are the headliners. In the often overlapping worlds of improv, experimental, free jazz, "serious music" and avant-minimalist aleatoric electrosludge (OK, we just made that last one up), these guys and gal are the real-deal hot shit.

Speaking of which, has every rock band in town splintered off into an experimental-noise side-project? Grandpa's Ghost regularly morphs into the Ben Hanna Project; the Electric into the Black Rainbows; the Conformists into the Mellowfeathers, and Thurston only knows how many other local rock stars are out there, aspiring to get their skronk on. Pity the poor noise ensembles who've been doing it all along, such as Cenozoic and Brain Transplant -- where are they supposed to go when they wanna get all weird 'n shit? Surely it's time for things to start moving in the other direction, so everyone can continue to épater le bourgeois and all that. May we humbly recommend the oft-neglected barbershop quartet format?

At least when Trull isn't playing in Grand Ulena, he's not doing a noise side-project. He's the singer/guitarist and principal songwriter for the Brown Company, a strange and delightful strawberry-blondish supergroup that plays a kind of winning math-pop for dirt-rockers. The guitar runs are intricate without seeming overtly flashy, and drummer Karen Stephens (formerly of Bunnygrunt, now of the Fantasy Four) and bassist Matt Harnish (formerly of Bunnygrunt, now of Julia Sets, the Ben Hanna Project and probably at least a couple of other bands -- no wonder Mr. Fancy can't find the time to write much stuff for the RFT's music section these days!) both do an ace job of keeping up with Trull's swift switcheroos. At a recent set at Lemmon's Basement Bar, a pal remarked that they kinda reminded her of the Meat Puppets. She was right -- imagine the Meat Puppets, circa Up on the Sun, minus all the cannabis and plus a bunch of really weird/hilarious song titles, such as "Pedophiles Stay up Late (to Watch Blossom Reruns)," "Safety Dunce" and "Freebird Club." Watch out for their amazing Christmas carol, "All I Want for Christmas Is for You to Get the Hell Out of My Life," which will appear on a local-band Christmas compilation that Harnish is releasing on his Bert Dax Cavalcade of Stars label. If you just can't wait -- and why should you? -- the Brown Company will open for Sicbay on October 19, at the Lemp Neighborhood Art Center.