Indie dance-music band Mahjongg makes a play

by Len Righi

The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.) (MCT)

25 January 2008

Indie-rock band, Mahjongg, released their second CD, Kontpab, on January 22, 2008. (Allentown Morning Call/MCT) 

Given his druthers, Hunter Husar would rather not talk about what makes Chicago-based electronic dance-music collective Mahjongg tick.

“It’s something so special, we don’t want to explain it,” says the 29-year-old musician, taking a break from “living it up in L.A.” (i.e., eating bagels at his girlfriend’s parents’ house). “We really don’t want to understand our process.

“There’s no separating the music from the people who hear it, anyway,” he adds. “It continually blows my mind that people, even friends, will completely contradict one another about what the best part of a song was, or how it made them feel.”

So why is Husar now willing to expound on Mahjongg’s method of melding Afro-pop and funk with video-game blips and robotic rhythms influenced by such arty experimentalists as Kraftwerk, Human League, Throbbing Gristle, Shriekback and Gang of Four?

“We found out you have to reach out a little more if we want people to come and see us,” says Husar almost sheepishly.

Given the unusual quality of Mahjongg’s second CD, “Kontpab,” which was released Tuesday, fans of electronic dance music would be foolish not to meet Mahjongg halfway.

The four-year-old quintet - including mainstays Jeff Carrillo (vocals, guitar, bass) and Josh Johannpeter (drums) and new members Michael DeGraff (computer, bass, vocals) and Daniel Quinlivin (keyboards, percussion, vocals) - began a two-month tour on Wednesday in Buffalo, N.Y.

On stage, Husar is positioned behind a rack of electronic gear that includes a computer. “I’ve always been a keyboard guy,” he says, “and from the first industrial band I formed in southern Illinois, Mbulu, I played a computer. ...

“I used to use a sampler for (Mahjonng) live shows, but the possibilities are so much more with a computer. You can change sounds so quickly ... We first used computer to compose and record, but in 2006 shifted into using it live.”

With his computer Husar can not only play percussion but trigger a smoke machine, lasers and even a siren. “Smoke and mirrors,” he cracks, “just like politics.”

Husar, who grew up in a small town near St. Louis, Mo., met Carrillo and Johannpeter when he enrolled at the University of Missouri in Columbia to study physics and math.

Like Carrillo and Johannpeter, Husar had been been playing music since grade school. “What really made me want to play was (industrial metal band) Ministry,” says Husar. “I was visiting my dad in Chicago. I had heard about them because of MTV, and he took me to the Wax Trax building (home of Ministry’s label and where the band recorded) and I thought it was real cool. Ministry is not a big influence on Mahjongg, but they sure made an impression on me when I was a 7th or 8th grader.”

Around the same time, Husar met some kids who exposed him to music from different cultures. “We were just curious,” he says. “The lesson we had learned from punk rock and early rap was that the coolest thing you could do is do something original.”

Mahjongg’s originality is evident from the “Kontpab’s” outset. “Pontiac” starts with syncopated rhythm that suggests both African and Native-American drumming, creating a mental picture of a tribal campfire in the forest. Later, a Pink Floyd-style bass line and synth percussion join in, insinuating an ever-more-demanding automobile factory assembly line.

“We like to make music about what is real and what is illusion,” says Husar. “We like unexpected things to happen, unexpected things that are pleasant.”

On “Tell the Police the Truth,” video-game zapping clashes with guitar-screech feedback over a herky-jerky rhythm and a monotonic voice that advises, “they’ll believe you/if you’ve done nothing wrong/you’ve nothing to fear/start from the beginning/with all the details.” By song’s end you get the feeling all civil liberties have been annihilated.

“It’s an experiment in form more than anything, Mahjongg’s take on a calypso song,” says Husar. “If you listen to the vocal, we went for the darkest calypso song we could make.

“Jeff wrote those lyrics. They’re eerie and weird; they freaked me out. He’s a quiet person who writes a lot in his notebook. I believe he wrote that to me and Josh about how we were living our life at the time.”

Some tracks are fairly literal, including the dark, cacophonous “Those Birds Are Bats,” inspired by Carrillo’s dislike of bats and rats, and “Kottbusser Torr,” “a story about drugs in Berlin” and named after an area of a city with a relatively high crime rate.

Husar believes Mahjongg is prepared to recapture the momentum the band had after the release of “RaYDONcoNG” in 2005.

“After our last tour, band members lived all over the place,” says Husar. “We were itinerant, but in a good way. Then things just fell apart for us in 2006. It was a hard year.

“We lived all over (Chicago) - in a house we named Brenda, a loft we called Buddy and, after we got kicked out of there, a place called Camp Gay. When that place got shut down, we moved into the ghetto, to a place called the Magical Forest.”

Although that, too, ultimately would be “a failed experiment,” Husar, Carrillo, Johannpeter and others began “improvising more and jamming a lot,” says Husar. “Gabe (Viles) and Caryl (Kientz) weren’t involved. We had to move on.”

Topics: mahjongg
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