At the Wheeler: Gandalf Murphy & the Slambovian Circus of Dreams
Ryan Summerlin January 10, 2008
ASPEN So how do you get a name like Gandalf Murphy & the Slambovian Circus of Dreams? It helps to start with an earnest desire to alienate a certain highly influential segment of the listening public.Once upon a time, Joziah Longo and Tink Lloyd, along with Sharkey McEwen, were part of the promising New York City progressive rock band, the Ancestors. To Longo and Lloyd, husband-and-wife bohemians who believe strongly in the sanctity of their art, the band may have seemed too promising.The labels were chasing us. It made us neurotic, said Longo. Compounding their annoyance was the fact that it wasnt necessarily the Ancestors music that attracted record executives. The bands 1994 album Brigadoon had been produced by Eddie Kramer, renowned for working with Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. Kramers involvement set the recording industry abuzz, and the band wasnt equipped to handle the deflected interest. The big guns were coming to see us the presidents and CEOs, said Longo. And we were this quirky band, renegades, and they made us nervous.The Ancestors were sufficiently jittery to cause Longo and Lloyd to flee the music business. For two years in the mid-90s, the two retreated upstate to Westchester Community College. They stopped making music, but kept an eye on their careers, taking courses in graphic design and digital arts. They also met Tony Zuzulo, a professor who taught them digital media and turned out to be a talented drummer. The biggest benefits of the hiatus, however, came not through any connections or tangible skills, but rediscovering how they felt about their music.
It was a real good detour that we took. It allowed us to find a center, said Longo, from the couples home in Cold Spring, an hours drive north of Manhattan. (The couple has continually drifted farther and farther from the city.) We had an anti-industry posture which sucks as much as kissing up to the industry. You lose the sense of your art. Youre chasing your own tail. We got out of that by not caring even if we never played again.When we took the two years off, we found where our hearts were, and we came up with this band.The band needed a puzzling, awkward name. Gandalf Murphy & the Slambovian Circus of Dreams seemed to do the trick. That was partly to ditch record labels interest, said Longo, who still bears the rough accent of his native South Philadelphia.But Gandalf Murphy & the Slambovian Circus of Dreams was also meant to suggest a sound, an approach to music and being in a band. We wanted something that sounded huge and implied enormous possibilities, said Longo.Longo, the principal songwriter, and his bandmates Lloyd, a former classical flutist who plays accordion, cello and theremin in the band; McEwen, who plays guitar, mandolin and keyboards; and Zuzulo, the drummer succeeded in keeping the suits at bay. Its kind of like we put gargoyles on the church, said Longo. The bands CDs have been released on the independent High Noon Records.But in terms of conveying an idea of their music, Gandalf Murphy & the Slambovian Circus of Dreams misses the mark. Whatever the name suggests green-clad elves playing lutes in the woods? Celtic-gypsy punk? is not what one hears on Flapjacks From the Sky, the bands most recent studio album, a two-CD set released in 2004. The music is rootsy folk-rock, grounded in acoustic guitars, gentle rhythms and lyrics, which run toward romance and an optimism that echoes the 60s. There is the occasional scent of psychedelic rock in McEwens electric-guitar solos, but the general idea is closer to John Prine. Longo appreciates what he calls the nonlinear nature of the music, noting that they have been called a hillbilly band, and also compared to Pink Floyd.
Im not sure if we threw a curve with the name, said Longo, who hesitates to disclose his age, but admits to having firsthand experience with the 60s. People expect something a little more Zappa-esque.GM&SCD may bring the sound closer to their name with their next release, but only slightly. The new CD, The Great Unravel, features a couple of big, anthemic, arena-rock things. Poppier kind of stuff, said Longo. Maybe like early Pink Floyd-type things, fragmented and poetic.While the band threw off record industry interest, they have earned the adoration from another crowd: music listeners. Gandalf Murphy fans are known for their uncommon affection for the group. Longo says the bands CDs have been funded almost entirely by unsolicited donations from fans. The band has been given three cars over the last year, to ensure they make it to their next gig. (Having to abandon a broken-down touring vehicle in a venue parking lot is not an unknown occurrence for Gandalf Murphy.) A New York Times article in 2004 focused on a family that cooked turquoise-colored pancakes for a crowd of 450 at the CD release party for Flapjacks From the Sky.Surely some of the support is merely a return of the personal warmth that Longo and Lloyd generate. And it must also stem from a sense that if Gandalf Murphy is going to make it from one gig to the next, or get around to releasing a CD, theyll need some assistance. (The Great Unravel is still being recorded and mixed, while the band has a CD-release party scheduled March 1 in Philadelphia.)Were these fumbling, stumbly-ass artists, said Longo. (This notion was buttressed by Lloyds monitoring of her husbands interview, to make sure he didnt say anything too amateurish.) We need some kind of organization around us. We need a team to do anything. But were looking for a group of friends, a tribe, people who want to do something totally new.That sort of helping hand isnt going to come from a record label. That was true back in the days of the Ancestors, when a label deal was still the brass ring, and its true now that the major label model has collapsed, and all sorts of bands, from Radiohead on down, are making up their own indie paths.We dont want to be in a situation where we have to hire a lawyer we cant afford, said Longo. But now, were being offered smaller things. Were not afraid of smaller things.Gandalf Murphy & the Slambovian Circus of Dreams perform at 8 p.m. Friday at the Wheeler Opera House. Tickets are $22.50 and $firstname.lastname@example.org