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Friday, May 12, 2006

Raunchy blues-rock duo takes audiences on a trip


Special to The Japan Times

If music writers were more creative, the term "garage band" wouldn't be used in so cavalier a fashion.

News photo
Bjorn Ottenheim (left) and Daan Schinkel of the drum-and-organ duo zZz survey Amsterdam's cool underground scene

Having attained critical mass in the late 1990s as a label for rock groups with a loud, sloppy sound allied to conventional song structures, the term is usually used for artists who, you can be sure, have never played in a garage.

Take Bjorn Ottenheim and Daan Schinkel, a drum-and-organ duo who go by the name of zZz. Although they've been pinned with the garage-band tag, according to their bio they first started playing in the basement of a farmhouse in the Netherlands. Reached at their home base in Amsterdam, they now rehearse in a very different environment.

"We're currently on my houseboat making music," Ottenheim, the drummer-vocalist, says in his deep rumble of a voice. "You wanna hear some?" The phone receiver blares a teeth-rattling riff by cult '60s band ? and the Mysterians that lasts about 15 seconds. Ottenheim says in his characteristically stilted syntax, "Stuff like that, that's what we do."

What zZz does more exactly is blues-rock with a big beat and some psychedelic touches. This style has become de rigueur for bassless duos whose sales point is mostly technique and volume -- The White Stripes, The Black Keys, The Kills. But those bands are centered on guitars issuing bursts of chords with lots of space around them. zZz's sound, however, is dense and continuous.

It's also dirty. Schinkel's organ doesn't have that smooth, cool Hammond B3 quality that's so emblematic of classic rock, soul and jazz. It's more like a reedy Farfisa organ piped through a beat-up speaker and cranked to distortion levels.

Another thing about garage bands is that their members tend to be more interested in impact than musicianship, but Schinkel provides both. His melodies are more than just the usual blues rip-offs, and his solos and fills are complex and idiosyncratic. His clearest antecedent is Ray Manzarek, but writers who compare the group to The Doors do so for a different reason.

"It's completely accidental," Ottenheim says when asked about the numerous references to his Jim Morrison-like vocals. Then, without any pun apparently intended, he adds, "It's a bit of an open door. People make that comparison because of the organ, so the vocal link might be easier to make. I guess it's a compliment in some way."

He does sound eerily like the late Lizard King when he gets stentorian and drops cliches like "let's make love all night long," but Ottenheim lacks the air of self-importance that hung over everything Morrison sang.

"I've also been compared to early David Bowie," he says blankly. "And we've been compared to [krautrock band] Can, because in concert we sometimes have to kill time and so we take the audience on a real trip."

The hippie drug slang is appropriate, and if zZz conveys anything stereotypically Dutch in their music it's that Amsterdam is not short on smoke-filled dens where people go to get stoned. Most of their songs are about sex, and the ever-present, pounding beat is unmistakably carnal. "It's a natural theme," Ottenheim comments matter-of-factly. "We're both just two very horny guys." On their Web site you can even watch a video of Schinkel being humped by a female fan while performing on stage. "We're doing very well," Ottenheim admits when pressed about the job's fringe benefits in this regard. "So far."

The mix of stoner cool and musical earnestness hits at the heart of zZz's appeal. Artless without being ironic, unapologetically raunchy but dedicated to craft, the pair transcends labels by returning '60s blues rock to its roots as dance music. "Amsterdam has a real vital underground scene," Ottenheim explains. "There are a lot of really cool electro kind of bands, this gay kind of electro stuff. You could call it hardcore Soft Cell."

Their first gig was a party for an alleged drug smuggler. "We had only been playing together five days, and only had five songs," he explains. "We were invited to play at other gigs, and things just increased from there. We haven't sat still since." He admits, however, that the appeal may have had a novelty component. "Nobody can believe it's just two guys on stage making all this noise."

It never occurred to them that their instrumental makeup might be limiting. "We only see it as a forte. An organ has a much richer sound than a guitar" -- which, as it happens, is Schinkel's main instrument.

If anything is limited at the moment, it's the group's fan base. Their debut album, "Sound of zZz," has been released in the Netherlands and the United States, and came out in Japan earlier this month. And while they're a fixture in Amsterdam, they have yet to tour Europe extensively. However, they've been to America six or seven times. Ottenheim has lost count.

"During the tour last fall we went through Memphis and we saw Graceland and visited Sun Studios," where Elvis and Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis started. They even tried to record there. "We were all set up and we said we wanted to put some space echo on the organ and the engineer said it was impossible. He was completely drunk. We'll try it again the next time we pass through. Maybe he'll be sober."

Rowdy American rednecks might be the perfect audience for zZz, and they were apparently a huge hit at the most recent South by Southwest music industry festival in Austin, Texas, in March. One wonders, though, what audiences make of their moniker, pronounced as if air were escaping from a tire.

"After our first gig we got together with all our friends, drank a couple of beers, smoked a couple of spliffs, and started coming up with all these names." Eventually, they switched from names to sounds. "We came up with [makes a duck noise] and [a long rolled "r" sound]. Finally this girl suggested zzz. Everybody thought it was awesome."

But haven't they been teased about the name's graphic connotation, since ZZZ is shorthand for snoring in comic books?

"Well, it definitely has nothing to do with sleeping," Ottenheim says. "Though, it is kind of hard to shout out in a club."

People with dental bridges might have problems. He laughs. "Hey, that would be great. Lots of false teeth all over the dance floor."

zZz opens for Fatboy Slim, May 17, Zepp Sapporo; May 19, Makuhari Messe, Chiba; May 20, Zepp Sendai; May 23, Zepp Fukuoka; May 24 and 26, Zepp Osaka; May 27, Zepp Nagoya. For more information, call (03) 3444-6751. To listen to zZz, visit www.soundofzzz.nl


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