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Gram Rabbit's Desert Visions

Most people might think that synth-y drum-machine beats and country drawl, Blondie-ish raps and murderous folk tunes, spaghetti-Western landscapes and titanium spaceships are an odd mix, but to Gram Rabbit, they're all part of the same bizarre landscape.

This is a world where Jesus and the Devil grab a beer on the way home from work, and where a soft country melody accompanies lyrics like "I kill a man 'cause his back is sore."

Gram Rabbit's debut album, Music To Start a Cult To, now out on Stinky Records, draws on the otherworldly beauty of the town they call home, Joshua Tree, California, a place of endless night skies, eccentric performance artists and a yearly festival celebrating the band's patron saint, Gram Parsons, who died there in 1973. It is one of the most original and compelling pieces of music to come out this year, seamlessly welding electro-pop, country, new wave and performance art into a distinct and instantly recognizable sound.

Jesika von Rabbit, the band's singer and co-founder, said that sound came to her and Todd Rutherford unexpectedly, through a single demo that Rutherford played for her one evening. Von Rabbit had been living in L.A. before moving to the desert; Rutherford came from San Francisco. A friend they had in common had invited both to participate in a garage band, which von Rabbit says never really took off. It did, however, give her and Rutherford an opportunity to meet and decide to work together.

Rutherford recalled hearing von Rabbit's voice for the first time: "We were just out there in this weird garage in the middle of the desert that night," he said during a recent phone interview. "Her voice just blew me away. I had been living in San Francisco for five or six years and hadn't been moved like that by any performances I had seen. I decided I needed to pursue this. Here was someone I wanted to work with."

Yet it took several false starts before Gram Rabbit took shape. Von Rabbit and Rutherford continued to struggle with their me-too garage band, wondering how to set themselves apart. They began working up a set of Parsons covers for the town's Gram Fest and searching, as many bands do, for a sound that was distinctly theirs.

The demo for "Cowboys & Aliens," played one night at the garage-band rehearsal, was a revelation for von Rabbit. The track, with its sparse drum-machine rhythms, insistent bass and reverbed guitars, was all instrumental then. It has since been layered over with von Rabbit's deadpan voice. As it appears on Music To Start a Cult To, the song recalls Blondie's "Rapture" in some ways, but could hardly be farther from the garage-rock conventions of the early '00s.

"As soon as I heard it, it was like the epiphany, the light bulb went off," said von Rabbit, who takes her name not from the movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit? but from the Jefferson Airplane song "White Rabbit."

"I was like 'This is cowboys and aliens,' which sums up what we are about," she continued. "Not that I want to put a limit on it, but the desert scene is Old West cowboys, but it's also aliens at the same time. You can see the beautiful wide-open skies, but also possibly UFOs. We started our journey from that song."

That journey took a sidetrack when von Rabbit and Rutherford ran out of money and lived for six months in Rutherford's hometown of Porterville, California, across the street from his grandparents. During this period, the two saved money for equipment and recorded demos and picked up the third member of Gram Rabbit, Rutherford's high-school friend Travis Cline. (The band also had a second guitarist at that time, who has since departed.) Cline began taking over the electronic elements of Gram Rabbit's performances, triggering beats and playing samples.

The band moved back to Joshua Tree and began playing shows in Silverlake (a district of Los Angeles) and elsewhere as the Gram Rabbit Experience.

Their show evolved into a very theatrical experience, with von Rabbit donning rabbit ears and developing her performing alter ego.

Why rabbits? "Rabbits are kind of a psychedelic animal, and Easter has all these weird pastel colors," von Rabbit explained. "It's kind of a weird psychedelic holiday, strange pastels, bunnies — it's kind of Willie Wonka-ish, which is another favorite movie of mine. It's all tied together somehow."

She added that people now call her Jesika Rabbit even when she's not in costume. "I'm always wearing ears, even if they're not visible. They're always kind of there," she joked.

After honing their songs through live performance and making demos, the band recorded Music To Start a Cult To in a Silverlake studio in early 2004, working with producer Ethan Allan (Tricky, Kristen Hersh, Luscious Jackson).

Rutherford said that the band was, at first, concerned about relocating their desert sound to urban Silverlake. Still, the album retained a healthy dose of Joshua Tree's weirdness, sampling local eccentrics like Jemma Omega O'Day, who sings at the end of "Land of Jail" and whose "Goddamned beautiful" is tucked into "Disco #2."

Von Rabbit recounted fondly, "Jemma is a certified schizophrenic, sort of a mad genius. He performs out here. We first saw him when we moved out here, four years ago, and you'll see him at open mics, and you don't know what to think. He's falling off chairs. He's throwing things. He's having fits. He's marching out of the room. He's kind of a strange, poetic, musical performance artist, and we took the sample from 'Land of Jail' from a collage tape he made for us."

Other songs are rooted in the Joshua Tree community as well. Von Rabbit remembers trying out "Devil's Playground," the disc's most conventionally country track, on ailing local performance artist Coyote King a day before he died, then again soon after at his wake, in front of hundreds of people. "I played it for him, a day before he dies. And he said to me, now that's a good song, Jessica. And we played it at his wake and the whole room was just tearing madly after we played it."

Gram Rabbit's dramatic live show, their skewed take on big themes like Jesus, the devil and space aliens, and the album title Music To Start a Cult To makes some people uneasy, said von Rabbit, and the band has earned its fair share of adjectives like "creepy" and "wacky." The song "Kill a Man," with its easy melody and homicidal lyrics, has been interpreted by some as a call to Manson-like carnage. Rutherford, who wrote it, says it's actually about non-violence.

"I'm always disturbed at how mainstream culture has been so desensitized to killing," he said. "Every time you turn on the TV news it's always who killed who. And it's just so matter-of-fact. It's just become entertainment. I wanted to write a song that would make people who have been desensitized to killing by mainstream culture think about others."

Gram Rabbit have been slowly building a following, gaining traction on college radio and playing a five-week residency at the Echo in L.A.'s Echo Park district. The band expects to tour outside the L.A. area soon, and they have new songs, which Rutherford says are very different from the tracks on Music to Start a Cult To.

But sounding different from other bands and from their past work has always been part of the plan, explained von Rabbit. "It might be hard for people to listen to the record and know what to do with it in their head, what little box it's going to go in. And that's the thing. It's not going to go in a box, but that's kind of what is exciting for us and what is exciting about life — that everything isn't the same." — Jennifer Kelly [Wednesday, September 29, 2004]  

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