I heard a tumor

Pub date September 1, 2009
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features


INTERVIEW Sacramento quartet Ganglians daydreams blissed-out harmonies — ones made hazy by distortion. As its sun-kissed psych-pop sounds become garbled, the band creates a prismatic realm, a sonic state of being somewhere between waking and dreaming. This polychromatic province, where myoclonic twitches and hypnotic jerks occur, is conjured by variations between fuzzy, thermal jams and abstract, pensive chants.

Vocalist-guitarist Ryan Grubbs grew up in Bozeman, Mont. In 2006, he moved to Sactown after visiting the state capitol with his grandfather, who was attending a big horn sheep convention. Guitarist Kyle Hoover, drummer Alex Sowles, and bassist Adrian Comenzind all grew up in Sac and jammed together in Comenzind’s attic.

"Ryan worked down the street from that attic and when he’d walk home, he could hear us playing," says Sowles, explaining the band’s serendipitous formation. "Ryan had a show lined up and he asked us if we wanted to play with him. It just kinda worked out." After a pause he adds: "And then there was a car crash right in front of the venue that we played at …" Hoover, Grubbs, and Sowles rally back and forth about the group’s chemistry, which "wasn’t actually all there at first," before concluding that "the chemistry was there, but we weren’t exactly sure how to pull it off."

In biology, clusters of cells perform the same function within a ganglion — for instance, dorsal root ganglia relay sensory information from the skin to the spine. This process is a metaphor for the band’s rapid maturity: progressing from the first show, which was an interpretation of Grubbs’ solo work, to the chemistry-click when the members began writing songs together (and finishing each other’s sentences).

It all makes sense, except: the plural of ganglion is ganglia, and the band’s choice of name has nothing to do with the neurological term. Instead, Ganglians is a haphazard smooshing together of words. "Mostly I just liked aliens, and a gang of aliens, so I thought of ganglians," says Grubbs. "I had never heard of it before, so it sounded really cool, mysterious and iconic. I found out later it was a cyst or something, spelled a little differently, which is cool because that’s kinda weird and it’s like a bundle of nerves, and nerves are all about perceiving things and stuff. It worked out perfectly, I guess."

Ultimately, the randomness of Ganglians’ name, and how it came into being, is probably a much better metaphor for how the band operates. Its two releases to date, a self-titled EP (Woodsist) and Monster Head Room (Woodsist/Weird Force), were released almost simultaneously. The EP came out first, but features many songs written after those on Monster Head Room. The latter "was more of a production thing," says Sowles. Or as Grubbs put it, "It was a labor of love, we really nourished it." Monster Head Room‘s relative polish is illustrated by re-recordings two tracks of "The Void" and "Candy Girl" from Ganglians’ self-titled release.

Ganglians usually build songs around a melody. Grubbs often finds his during a "mindless" and "routine" job as a busser/server at a sushi restaurant. "I just go into this trance, " he says. "Then I’ll run into the bathroom and record a little snippet off of a melody on my phone."

After piecing together Grubbs’ cell phone recordings, the band jams for a while, with each member contributing different ingredients for the song. Most contributions are based upon a theme or an idea, such as sounding like a forest, or like being underwater, or trying to conjure the feeling of a journey.

Grubbs’ lyrics spring forth from themes and sounds, as in "Valient Brave," from Monster Head Room. "From its rhythm-guitar," says Grubbs, "I knew it was going to be a war chant." Grubbs also builds lyrics around vowel sounds, as is evident in his use of slant rhyme: the same album’s "Cryin Smoke," for example, pairs "pasture" with "bathroom."

The idiosyncratic moments in Ganglians’ music express a randomness but also reflect an increasing attention to detail. These particulars are most easily perceived while listening to Monster Head Room on headphones: the back-and-forth thumps that begin "Valient Brave," the UFO blast-off in "The Void" (produced via an oscillator and space echo), and the field recordings of crickets, frogs, and wood crackling that permeate "To June." There is a charm in not knowing whether these moments were fortuitous, like the band’s formation and name, or calculated. The ambiguity only heightens Ganglians’ ability to bring its listener into its half-dream sphere.


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