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Beat First

A Little Bit of Everything Shapes Mahjongg's Rhythmic Alchemy

Mahjongg shuffles together postpunk, techno junk, and afro-beat, among other things.

By Michael Byrne | Posted 2/18/2009


Floristree, Feb. 18.

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Mahjongg's early 2008 K Records debut, Kontpab, begins with two-and-a-half minutes of drum-circle drone--like you're being welcomed to the Chicago outfit's fireside party. In that time, about half the total song, patterns repeat, stack themselves on other patterns, the rhythms become busier, and it all becomes a tight interlocking series of tribal polyrhythms.

The track, "Pontiac," doesn't have much to do with art-punk or computer funk or any of the other trappings of a good underground buzz band. Eventually, a loping bass line enters the song; wordless voices insert themselves into the background and slowly overtake it, ending in a whiff of primordial postpunk.

The track serves as a proper introduction to the wondrous little world of genre anarchy in which Mahjongg operates. Coupled with an off-the-rails, semi-improvised live show that's already reached lore status in the underground, this band has mastered everything-and-the-kitchen-sink dance-punk music, bridging lockstep postpunk revivalism and the cathartic release of a sweaty and loose basement party band--and does it with a record collector-cum-fetishists ear.

"What brought us together was more our taste than our talent," says Mahjongg's Hunter Husar via phone, relaxing on a rare day off from tour in Greensboro, N.C. "We learned how to play music after we decided [to start the band]. Everyone [in the band] has a really open mind about what kind of music they listen to, everyone is a DJ, everyone has side projects. We are all internet people and record collectors."

Of course, those tastes don't represent a complete scattershot of genre--Mahjongg is not a fusion melting pot, more an overlapping of different shifting plates. Beyond latter-day postpunk, those plates are, most importantly, a kind of junkyard techno of bold, raw electronic sounds (think Brainiac on meds) and the intense polyrhythmic movements of Afro-beat.

In truth, Afro-beat probably finds its way into a great deal of the current brand of neo-tribal indie music traveling the internet, though it doesn't get copped to very often. Husar is upfront about his band's roots and, while reluctant to name specific influences, he drops Afro-beat godfather Fela Kuti's name readily. "Our music is influenced by people that think about rhythm as the basis," he says.

On the stylistic flipside of that is a band that is as much rooted in electronic music, from the buzzing shrieks and toy laser-gun zaps of "Tell the Police the Truth" to weirdly pitched, brash synthesizers that drive many other songs on Kontpab. Save a few earlier tracks way more in the dance-punk fold and a newer, very polished 7-inch single recorded with Dub Narcotic's Calvin Johnson, none of it has the tightly ordered feeling of programming. Listening to the band's records, you get a feeling for what it must have been like to be in the studio--tight songwriting expanded on the spot with an impressive kit of electronic sounds and textures.

But what happens in the studio with Mahjongg is a small part of the story. As Husar explains, there's a considerable rift here between what the band puts down on tape and what happens on stage, a show that currently consists of three computer/keyboard stations, bass, and drums. "Our albums are kind of separate from our live show," he says. "Our albums are like art project things, a reflection of the songwriting process. They're not really recordings of us playing as we are live. Pretty much everything [is different live]. A recording might finish at a certain point and a song will evolve [live]. Every song is conceptually different." Indeed, on this tour, Mahjongg is taking only two of its songs from Kontpab on the road, instead preferring new material, and including a couple of spots for pure improvisation on the set list.

Much of Mahjongg's recorded material feels at least influenced by improvisation, so it's surprising to hear it as a new avenue in the band's music. "We've learned how to improvise over the past couple of years," Husar says. "We've never had any limitations on what kind of music we're supposed to be making. We're totally open-minded, as long there's some kind of boundary condition, so that when we go someplace, we can all go to that place together. That's what it's all about."

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