Savage Aural Hotbed

Article from the New North Artscape (Aug-Sep 1990) - by Lisa Haller

A Hotbed of Sound

Starting out penniless, unable to buy instruments, four guys decided to scrounge junk heaps and alleyways for objects that would do the trick: saw blades, plastic barrels, a steel I-beam, trash cans and some kind of a metal frame laced with wires. Armed with fiberglass drumsticks (weighing about three times what normal drumsticks weigh) they took the name Savage Aural Hotbed and began pummeling and clanging out a suprisingly syncopated line.

This was two years ago, originally they had a permanent saxophonist. Since then, they've played everywhere from the Lake Harriet Island bandshell to Speedboat Gallery to Mayslack's, and this past winter they played as Aural Hotbed at the Southern Theatre for the Walker Art Center's Out There series. Originally rounding out Tin Kong and Rendered Useless, Savage Aural Hotbed consists of David Sarrazin (vocals, percussion, special effects), William Melton (percussion, clarinet, bass), Valts Treivergs (percussion, trombone), and Mark Black (percussion). With the instruments they use now, the sound is so loud they don't have to worry about amplification — at some shows people have complained that the music was too loud.

For all that noise, Hotbed is not widely known. A year ago they released a self-titled, three-song EP on Useless Records, and one song, "Same Thing" got a bit of airplay on college and community radio stations. Until recently Hotbed's performances have been infrequent. This is changing, however. And their small but fiercely dedicated rank of fans is growing, and dancing more often. Sarrazin attributes the dancing to the fact that they are playing fewer clubs (where everyone is mostly preoccupied with looking good). But people are still happy to watch because Hotbed's performance, visually, is as stimulating as the music they play.

According to Sarrazin, their percussion influences are varied, he credits African, Far Eastern, British and Japanese styles. Combining these with the weird sound effects squeezed from the I-beam and nylon whips, they spread a keening vocal across the top.

Their idea for the syncopation that makes such a compelling stage show is derivative, drawing from the British Regimental beat, they use precise, big arm movements that have no bearing on the beat actually played. From the Japanese drum ensemble, Kodo, they found an opposing style that worked as well. Kodo is a group of young men and women trained to play drums that range from lap-sized to some so large it requires several men to move them, and sticks the size of Little League bats are required to play them. The Kodo tradition began when the power and territory in a Japanese village had was in direct proportion to how far its drummer could be heard in the countryside. The essence of Kodo's sound, however, lies in their choreography. Like the British style, Kodo's performances are marked by the two elements of arms and beat; unlike the British, Kodo integrates the two so that the result is an organic, interdependent performance. Hotbed uses both traditions in designing their music, choreographing the shows to reflect big arms and big style.

As a result of their performance at the Southern Theatre for the Out There series, the band began to simplify their props. They had to be on and off the stage in 10 minutes — certainly not enough time to set up complex audio systems. But they found that keeping the structure of a show simple didn't wash out the special effects; it gave them space to fill.

Minimalist, yes, but not barren. Vocals get strung across beats, punctuated by a strobe light or a whip. The drums fill any loose corners in the room and the band members' arms flow within the vocal and rhythm structure.

Because Hotbed is dance music, song lyrics might seem superfluous. But in their performances, the vocals become successful as sound rather than meaning, although there are notable exceptions such as "Same Thing" and "In a Cage," a song about a gerbil. In other songs, the humor is in socio-political commentary. "Plug it In," for example, is about the manner in which television permeates and controls our society.

The band is currently recording again, employing Kevin Cole's expertise to produce a more technical, precise sound than on the EP. It brings to mind that "seductive, ongoing, meditative, pick-at-your-brain-and-feet" sound that characterizes groups like Ministry, Nitzer Ebb and Front 242. The difference is that Savage Aural Hotbed does not use synthesized drumbeats and their sound is far more primal.