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If you're having trouble sounding out Rural War Room, which refers to a radio show, a record label and a musical group, don't worry. It's not meant to be easy. Which makes it a fitting title for each of the three projects, all of which share a common goal: sparking the listener's curiosity through exposure to new music and new sounds (as in, often difficult music and sounds).
You may have heard the radio show if you happened to be listening to KABF late on a Tuesday night. If you came across it while scanning the radio, you likely either quickly moved on to something a little more comfortable, or you found yourself resisting the urge to turn the dial because you just had to know what the hell it was coming through your speakers. As hosts Donavan Suitt and Byron Werner say, "There is a stagnancy in the human ear that we want to correct."
Suitt and Werner are the hosts of Rural War Room, the radio show, and they make up the core of the musical group of the same name. They also run the record label, which produces and distributes the music of mostly avant-garde or kitschy Arkansas artists (like Elton and Betty White).
Their paths crossed at a convention for the Church of the SubGenius, a sort-of religion based on parody of region and mainstream society. Said Suitt about their chance encounter, and their general philosophy on life and their music: "If something happens that you think is a coincidence, it's monumental. It means you're in the right place at the right time, and you should go with it."
Werner had been working in California on various jobs, notably creating special effects for "Star Wars" and "Poltergeist" before moving to Little Rock. Werner's screen work includes the shot where Luke shoots the torpedoes into the exhaust shaft in "Star Wars" and the scene where the hands come out of the TV in "Poltergeist."
"I got tired of staring at a screen all day long," Werner said to explain his move.
Suitt was born in Little Rock and was a member of the Red Octopus theater troupe, and also worked with the Upright Citizens Brigade comedy group in New York with fellow Little Rock native Matt Besser.
The duo began broadcasting in 2004, choosing "Rural War Room" as a name that would make for an interesting station identification. Their goal with the radio show is purely to expose the audience to music it wouldn't normally have access to. They have possibly the broadest range of any radio show in existence; they play anything and everything they can get their hands on, including many foreign imports.
"If you don't understand the language, you only hear the voice as an instrument. You can connect with the emotion more," Werner said.
In addition to their love of collecting and playing strange and exotic records, Suitt and Werner also share an interest in sound manipulation and experimental recording, which they have each been doing since their teens. Through their work on the radio show, they began experimenting together, and with the addition of a handful of musicians they met through the Internet, they decided to form what they call a "cyberband." Which means they pass tracks back and forth amongst members so that they can collaborate across oceans. Along with Werner and Suitt, the group consists of Maurizio "ErMan" Mansuetti from Italy, Moimer Papalescu from the Czech Republic and several other part-time collaborators from across the world, who are all accomplished musicians in their home countries with several projects of their own. The group's slogan, "World Wide Weird," echoes their international roots and their desire to expose the rest of the world to strange new sounds and new musical ideas.
Suitt and Werner use techniques like "hand spinning," which is done by switching off the motor on the turntable and using the hands to control the speed of the record, often slowing to a pace that makes the original sample impossible to decipher. They'll spin records until sounds start to coalesce and interact in the right ways (or they find the right sound at the right time). They then send the track back and forth between themselves and international members, who add synthesized instruments, theremin and other flourishes. The track might get remixed multiple times by various members. Once the track is finished, Papalescu handles the mastering.
Understanding the process that went into the recording of their new record, "The Flaming Yawn," (look for the pun), might help you understand the actual music, but it doesn't really prepare you for what you'll hear. The closest known relatives to the songs on the album are probably by musical deconstructionists DEVO, 1980s sound collage outfit Negativland or the infamous "Revolution 9" from the Beatles' self-titled, so-called "White Album." Don't let that scare you off, though; even if you found yourself skipping "Revolution 9," you could still end up getting lost in one of "The Flaming Yawn's" 14 tracks, unable to let go of the feelings that these mixed and mashed sounds produce.
As Suitt said, "We're trying to trigger memories with sound, to get people to use parts of their brain that they don't normally use."
Highlights from the album include "Bubbling With Delight," which incorporates a duel of sorts between theremin master Mansuetti and "Theremina," a female singer who mimics the theremin's signature sound with her voice, and the title track, which samples spoken word from a record entitled "Teach Yourself ESP."
Werner also designed the album's artwork. The image is actually a photograph of a collage made out of discarded wrapping paper that's been hole-punched. Werner's physical collages mirror the group's sound collages, each made by manipulating old discarded or dismissed materials into something striking and new.
You can find "The Flaming Yawn" and the band's previous album and EP on its website www.ruralwarroom.com or on iTunes and Amazon. Along with the new album, Rural War Room has several other projects in the works. They collaborated with the Japanese group PEVO for a song on the upcoming DEVO tribute compilation, "DEVOtional 2010," released Aug. 28. They are also currently working on "Timothy Rah Rah," a tribute album to counterculture figure Tim Leary, which should be released later this year. If you want a chance to see them in action live on stage, Suitt and Werner will be performing as Rural War Room at Maxine's in Hot Springs on Saturday, Sept. 25.
If you feel like you're up for an adventure or a challenge, definitely check out Rural War Room from 10 p.m. until 2 a.m. Tuesdays on KABF, or download some of the cyberband's tracks. You may not like everything you hear, but chances are you won't get bored. If you're lucky, maybe you'll happen to hear the right sounds at the right time and your chance encounter with Rural War Room will lead you down unexpected and rewarding paths through the landscape of the weird.