Destined: Teeth Mountain
Conveying the full scope of a musical community as prodigious and individualistic as that of Baltimore isn’t easy, but damned if the Round Robin tour didn’t try. With 30-plus acts stretched across two-nights at each stop, Dan Deacon’s ambitious musical carousel paraded proof of Charm City’s thriving underground through a circuit of the Northeast and Midwest last October, offering audiences the chance to sample just how bizarre and bountiful Baltimore’s experimental arts scene has become.
“There isn’t really a sound of Baltimore – it’s more of a spirit,” said Teeth Mountain co-founder Andrew Burt, explaining the varied, but unified group of musicians in tow. “There’s something that unifies us, but it’s definitely not a sound.”
Teeth Mountain was one of the most exciting ensembles along for the ride, often providing the inaugural jam for each installment of “Eyes Night” – the more abstract, theatrical group of performances that preceded the rowdier crew of dance-rock on “Feet Night.” But truth is, Teeth Mountain could have been successfully integrated into either lineup. The group’s exuberant, drum-driven jams would’ve fit right in among the wiliest of “Feet Night,” though their mesmerizing mix of strings, horns and reel-to-reel drones injected an energetic spice among quieter sets by Beach House and Jana Hunter.
“That’s part of what I feel is so cool about what we’re doing, is that it can’t be categorized very easily,” said the band’s other co-founder Kate Levitt, who originally met Burt in a philosophy class at Goucher College in the Spring of ‘07. “We’re not strictly a noise band, and we’re not a pop band, so we can play with someone like Dan Deacon and have his audience be engaged with it, and we can also play with someone like Nautical Almanac, or a noisier kind of band and have people be there, equally engaged with it, too.”
In a way, the group’s amorphous cast and sonic adaptability are characteristic to the open-ended camaraderie within Baltimore’s creative landscape. In a scene so large, varied and vibrant, it’s difficult to pigeonhole the many entities that comprise it. And nor should they be compartmentalized – the chemistry between such a range of ideas and personalities is positively electric, crystallizing brilliantly on the Round Robin Tour. As Andrew Bernstein, another original Teeth Mountain member, framed it: “We’re all individuals and we’re doing our own thing, but everybody is doing it together.”
The same could be said about Teeth Mountain’s composition. Aside from the main six-member core that includes Levitt (drums), Burt (laptop, violin, guitar), Bernstein (saxophone, drums), Greg Fox (drums), Justin Frye (cello, self-built instruments), and Max Euilbacher (sax, violin), the band has involved an ever-evolving group of members and collaborators, depending on whoever was on hand to jam or could make it to the next live show. And yet, despite the constant mix of participants and improvisational partners, Teeth Mountain have managed to maintain a cohesiveness that is both entrancing and animated.
“We have a sound that we’re going for, that we know we’re trying to achieve, and it can be done with various combinations of instruments,” Burt said. “And it’s fun, because it comes out in different ways.” Asked what the sound is that they’re trying to go for, Burt laughs, “I don’t wanna reveal the magic.” But after a pause, he settles: “I wanna hypnotize people – I want it to sound hypnotic. That’s my way to describe it.”
Falling somewhere between Henry Flynt’s “You Are My Everlovin’,” Psychedelic Underground-era Amon Düül, and a West African drum circle, Teeth Mountain’s music certainly has a spellbinding effect. Journalists, bloggers and concert-goers have frequently tossed out adjectives like “ancient,” “primal,” and “tribal,” mainly on account of the group’s heavy emphasis on percussion and group drumming that has become a staple in the group’s sound.
“We’ve always been interested in polyrhythms, like with having three or four drummers playing simultaneously. It takes time into a different place, and I think that’s part of the sound we’re going for,” Bernstein said. “Because that’s hypnotic,” interjects Burt. “That’s another thing that hypnotizes.”
The band’s communal approach also shares many common traits with other psych/drone/folk/beardo/improv/whatever collectives like No Neck Blues Band, Tower Recordings and Sunburned Hand of the Man. But while such groups are prone to sprawling freakouts that can ramble on to varying levels of stoned success, Teeth Mountain have foregone pretension and added a youthful raucousness to the recipe – one that they’ve been working to perfect since Levitt and Burt first began jamming together.
According to Levitt, Teeth Mountain was originally conceived with touring in mind, and the growing strength of their euphoric live show has clearly helped draw the attention of the indy media and blogosphere. Their first opportunity to play out came in July of ’07, when Levitt convinced a friend in Burlington, Vt., to book them at Radio Bean, a small coffee shop that regularly hosts performances. At the time, the group was in its original incarnation, which included Levitt, Burt, Bernstein, Greg St. Pierre, and former members Grace Bedwell and Owen Gardner. This was the lineup that recorded the band’s intoxicating self-titled LP (released via Infinite Limbs and SHDWPLY records last June) in mid-late 2007, with Burt and Gardner handling chief production responsibilities on a laptop and 4-track in the kitchen of Burt’s apartment. It was also the crew that chose “Teeth Mountain” as their moniker at a bar shortly before their first show. “You gotta put something on the flyer,” Bernstein said. “It’s nothing serious – a name is a name, you know?”
The first official Teeth Mountain tour took place during the winter of ’07/’08, along with Fox’s band, Family of Love. Fox was gradually absorbed into the band, often stepping in on drums for St. Pierre, who was unable to make some of the shows. Bernstein captured most of the performances on his portable recorder, which Burt later used as source material for the band’s self-titled cassette that was released last year on Night People. Featuring two sides of well-edited highlights, Burt spliced the excerpts between bursts of crowds cheer and ecstatic clamor. You can briefly make out a saturated chant on side two that sounds like “There’s some ho’s in this house,” before it gives way to a crescendo of cymbal crashes and distorted violin.
The group embarked on two additional tours in the summer of 2008, which found both Fox and Frye becoming full-fledged Teeth Mountain members. They both also live in New York City, so their opportunities to practice usually occur once a month, or whenever they’re able to make the trip south. Such distance would seem to pose a problem for many groups, but Fox expressed an affinity for the potential that improvisational performances offer, free from rigorous rehearsal and etched-out setlists.
“We aren’t even playing the music, we’re just pulling it down, just like people have been doing for as long as music has existed,” Fox said. “Teeth Mountain also seems to have a certain natural momentum that I can’t say I’ve felt in most other bands until recently. In Teeth Mountain, it’s definitely more laissez-faire, and it feels really good. Sometimes I completely leave the building while we’re playing, which is definitely the desired effect. No thoughts. Altogether, it’s somehow quite well-balanced despite the apparent and intermittent chaos.”
“Well-balanced chaos” would be an accurate tag for the Round Robin tour that followed last fall. For that particular jaunt, Teeth Mountain’s roster consisted of Burt, Levitt, Frye, Fox, and the reel-to-reel tape machine, though a heap of other musicians on the Tour such as Deacon, Hunter, and DJ Dogdick soon found their way into the group’s set on the road. By the time the Round Robin finally made its debut in Baltimore last December, the massive collection of artists involved had grown infinitely closer, forming an even tighter-knit community from their wildly disparate talent pool.
Levitt suggested that the “spirit” that binds Baltimore’s music scene lies in the efforts of each individual to create spaces for ideas and creativity to thrive. Though the search for a large 500-plus capacity home for a new Wham City continues (Levitt was also once a resident of the original WC, and still an active member), there are still plenty of DIY outlets throughout the city’s underground – from the Bank, to the Floristree, to Burt and Levitt’s own row house-turned-occasional-venue, The Comfort Dome. Baltimore isn’t merely built on green skulls and neon-clad hipsters, but a unique synthesis of twentysomethings all working toward a harmonic plateau of collaboration and imagination.
Again, that aim of collaborative, progressive experimentation seems parallel to Teeth Mountain’s nebulous course. Another tour is currently in the works, along with a potential full-length follow-up, now in the preliminary stages for release on Not Not Fun. But the group’s recording process is very a slow, plotted affair, giving meticulous detail to layers and density, and working to keep up with their continually shape-shifting sound. Concerning the trajectory of the group’s evolution, Burt half-jokingly stated that he doesn’t want the band to sound “ancient” anymore. “We’re gonna take it into the new century,” Burt said. With a sound that seems to transcend time, and a community as full of possibility as Charm City, that notion doesn’t seem too far fetched.
By Cole Goins