Now voyager

Pub date June 16, 2010

MUSIC What might Jefre Cantu-Ledesma’s status be? Casual but committed, relaxed yet extremely productive sounds about right for the Alps music-maker, Root Strata label head, On Land festival organizer, and now the third leg of the recently formed Moholy-Nagy.

Not another reunion band-cum-supergroup — Cantu-Ledesma, Danny Paul Grody (the Drift), and Trevor Montgomery (Lazarus) were founding members of Tarentel — the new SF project shares a moniker with the Bauhaus movement mover-and-shaker, although the trio is much more unassuming than all that.

“I think Danny and Trevor had been playing for a couple months, and they called and asked if they could borrow one of my synthesizers,” recalls Cantu-Ledesma on the phone, taking a break from his day job in operations at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. “I said, ‘No, but I’ll come down and play it’ — an asshole move on my part, but that’s typical of me.” You can practically hear his tongue being firmly thrust in cheek.

Very casually, but consistently, in the spirit of a “nerding-out recording project” with the members switching instruments and utilizing a “junky analog” ’70s drum machine Montgomery found on eBay, the threesome hunkered down in its longtime Hunters Point practice space, making what Cantu-Ledesma describes as the “most synthesized thing any of us has ever done before. It’s largely improvised around bass lines or drum parts, so things weigh it down and other things can have freedom around it.”

“It’s more like hanging out with friends having some lunch and getting some coffee and making music,” he adds. “It’s not like, ‘Dude! We’re in a band!'<0x2009>”

Easy-going but quick to step back and see the folly or humor in whatever’s before him, often issuing a loud, bright laugh, Cantu-Ledesma seems less than impressed with self-important “band dudes,” even after years spent in an influential combo like Tarentel.

“Oh, gosh, are you picking up on that?” he replies, dryly ironic, when asked about it. “Well, even with the Alps, when you look at it on the surface, it looks like we’re writing songs, but we’re not writing songs. We just want to create stuff and not so much worry about the fidelity of recreating things.”

But what things Cantu-Ledesma makes, judging from the haunting watercolor tone poems of Moholy-Nagy — music that could easily slip into a cinematic mood piece like Zabriskie Point (1970) or Paris, Texas (1984) — and the alternately motorik-beatific and insinuatingly delicate experiments of the Alps’ new Le Voyage (Type). For Cantu-Ledesma’s forthcoming solo album, due this fall, he’ll dig into his more shoegaze-ish background, but for Moholy-Nagy, he gets to “exercise another side. I’m a total knob-tweaker kind of guy, but we get to move around a lot more than we get to on other projects. Things are tending to sound more quirky or funky than other things we’ve done.”

In a way this project is an extension of the San Francisco Art Institute painting and sculpture graduate’s interior, rather than audibly exterior, work. “I’m going to say this, and I’m not trying to be new age,” he confesses. “But honestly, I used to be really intense about stuff happening a certain way. But I worked on my own development and became more secure with my own personality. and that really helped in terms of — without sounding too Californian — just letting it flow.”

That goes for his collaborations with filmmaker and kindred SFMOMA staffer Paul Clipson: a DVD of their Super-8 films and sound pieces since 2007 comes out this summer and coincides with an August performance at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. “We love what we do, but there’s no plan behind any of it,” Cantu-Ledesma ponders. “I know this probably sounds facetious, but I’m not really motivated to make things happen — though obviously with things like On Land, you’re booking and buying plane tickets and stuff.”

On Land is firmly grounded in Cantu-Ledesma’s Root Strata imprint, which materialized in 2004, inspired by SF collectives like Jeweled Antler and then-Bay Area-based performers like Yellow Swans, Axolotl, and Skaters. It’s a way to present artists that Cantu-Ledesma and co-organizer and label cohort Maxwell Croy like and have worked with in the last year, in a “nice venue,” otherwise known as Cafe Du Nord. In early September, label musicians and friends like Charalambides, Grouper, Oneohtrix Point Never, Zelienople, Dan Higgs, White Rainbow, Barn Owl, and Bill Orcutt will appear, with video collaborations by Clipson and Nate Boyce, at the second annual gathering.

“Does the Bay Area need another music festival? Probably not,” Cantu-Ledesma quips wryly. “But you’re not going to see Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy or Vampire Weekend. We’re trying to show a different strata of stuff from California or Oregon, kind of a West Coast underground, or people who just fit into our tastes, which are idiosyncratic and weird.”


With Brother Raven and Golden Retriever

Wed/16, 9 p.m., $7

Hemlock Tavern

1131 Polk, SF

(415) 923-0923