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Nautical Almanac Invades the West Side


Malik Yusef
Nautical Almanac

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Nautical Almanac

By Ian Nagoski | Posted

James "Twig" Harper and Carly Ptak look like creatures that have crawled out of a futuristic trash heap with an inexplicable communications technology. Clad in elaborate ripped outfits made from costumes they found at the estate sale of an old vaudevillian, the duo known collectively as Nautical Almanac bob their heads to rhythms perhaps only they can hear in the sounds emanating from their electronic manipulations. With rubber masks covering their faces, they loom over their knobs and wires and boxes like post-apocalyptic alchemists.

That's only this performance, though. With Harper and Ptak constantly wiring gear in new configurations and adding new devices to its arsenal, each Nautical Almanac show is something else. "We spend our performances trying to find our sounds," Ptak says with a smile.

"My motto is, 'Remember how it felt not to be able to play music,'" Harper says.

What results from these colliding philosophies is a carefully considered chaos born of technological refinement and cannibalism. It's the sort of unpretentiously fucked-up and poetically damaged sensibility that is quintessentially Baltimore, where artists are proud to be off the map.

Ptak and Harper established Nautical Almanac as an utterly "other" outfit when they called Chicago home and have only been here for a year. But in Baltimore they've found a place to live cheaply and without fear of gentrifying surroundings, which is the main reason the duo left the Windy City.

They've already adopted the hide-in-plain-sight oddity that makes Charm City charming. Witness the sign taped to the front door of their West Pratt Street home, which sits on a block that bustles during the day and looks like World War III has already hit at night. (They live around the corner from The Corner.) The fluorescent pink, hand-scrawled sign reads mail accepted for nautical almanac, tarantula hill, heresee records, carly ptak, james twig harper, chiara giovando.

Inside, a former doctor's office has been transformed into a psychedelic thrift store, piled high with old amplifiers, high-concept furniture, and wonderful plastic junk of all descriptions. Down the hall is a former examination room filled with cheap electronic gadgets and doodads, the raw materials for strange and unpredictable new instruments. Up the rickety stairs is a recreation room painted in a camouflage pattern and filled with books and thousands of thrift-scored LPs by middle-aged organists, hair-metal bands, unfunny comedians, and other weirdos and outsiders. Harper and Ptak live amid this quagmire and scurry like Santa's elves from one room to the next, delighting each other with dumb jokes and cracked ideas.

Only in their mid-20s, the pair owns the space and its fabulous bric-a-brac, which they hauled with them from Chicago last April. Harper is tall, lanky, wild-eyed, and energetic with a shock of wiry, curly hair. Ptak is shorter, unblinking, inquisitive, and prone to full-throated laughter. But when they settle, they hunker down on their enormous pit of a couch like contented cats.

They proudly point out their renovations to their half-crumbled workspace and home, which they have dubbed Tarantula Hill. It is home to their new label, HereSee, on which they have each recently released an album of home-wired electronics. They have already hosted dozens of travelling performance artists/experimental musicians, who have played Tarantula Hill for fans of the strange and amazing and exchanged sounds, thoughts, and, occasionally, body fluids with members of Baltimore's thriving experimental music and art scene. "We want to build an environment and community here as a hub of a national scene [of artists and musicians]," Ptak says. (Disclosure: The author numbers among the local musicians who have performed at the space.)

In fact, Harper describes Baltimore as "paradisiacal." To him and Ptak, their little nook of the city has become a low-rent urban utopia. Flashing with ideas and projects, they make their house feel like the command center for a spaceship getting ready for takeoff.

That is often what Nautical Almanac sounds like as well. The band's halting explosions of electronic sounds--buzzing, gurgling, chiming, and grinding, part engineering and part bricolage--gleefully defy categorization. It is the sound of another world, played as a language-less, intimate mind game between performer and audience. And it's just the tip of Ptak and Harper's creative iceberg.

They met in 1994 in Ann Arbor, Mich., where Ptak attended the University of Michigan and Harper was in high school. At the time, Harper was performing with a rotating cast of "subversives and fuckers," collectively named Scheme, who invaded Taco Bells, frat houses, and parades for impromptu performances on broken instruments. When Scheme was infiltrated by normal musicians, he splintered off with three friends, calling the new group Nautical Almanac and releasing an album under that name in 1994. Ptak joined as a "casual member" of this incarnation of NA, and eventually she and Harper became a couple.

In 1996, Harper and Ptak moved to Chicago. Harper, in the meantime, had been experimenting with short-circuiting his equipment, opening guitar pedals and "messing with them" and paying attention to the way sounds could be distorted by by wiring signal processors to themselves. He shared with Ptak his discoveries about how to control the internal misfiring of their equipment.

From guitar pedals and Radio Shack components, they progressed to building mail-order synthesizer kits and modifying electronic toys with names like the Rapmaster and Hot Lixx. Over time, new inventions replaced the old. "Once we feel totally comfortable with a piece of equipment, it gets replaced by something new--something to explore," Ptak says. With each new generation of mutated electronics, as with evolutionary variation, Harper's and Ptak's individual styles become more clearly articulated while remaining the same strange species.

Despite the 2000 release of the second Nautical Almanac album, Transcriptedivisions, they were misfits in Chicago's scene. "In four and a half years there we were asked to play twice," Ptak says. Rather than sulk, they produced their own concerts and toured the United States and parts of Europe in what Harper laughingly calls "a state of perpetual strandedness."

To make ends meet, they opened a storefront junk store called the Mystery Spot, where they lived ascetically in a back room. Lifelong thrift shoppers, they developed eyes for interesting and valuable remnants. Business picked up as more money crept into their neighborhood, but they found the clientele increasingly uninteresting and the store more demanding. "It got to be like a regular job," Harper says. "It wasn't as much fun anymore."

They were also poignantly aware of and unhappy with their part in the neighborhood's gentrification. After almost five years establishing their niche, they had made money but wanted out. During their "eight or so" tours, they had scoped out places to live, and Baltimore won out.

And now they're luring others here too. San Francisco musician Chiara Giovando recently relocated to collaborate with Harper and Ptak. HereSee has more projects from other artists scheduled for release. And they plan to reactivate their antique record lathe, which they use to cut "records" onto the faces of their CDs, which can then be played on a turntable. This future filled with more evolved and more anachronistic toys and treats seems bright. "Our technology," Harper says with a sense of both impending doom and imminent utopia, "will take over."

For more information about HereSee Records and Nautical Almanac, visit www.heresee.com.

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