Mystical Weapons on Improvisation, Vintage Gear & Weirdo Synths

Mystical Weapons is the brainchild of Deerhoof drummer Greg Saunier and Sean Lennon, who recently teamed up to form and record an album of the same name.

The two met several years ago and first played together as Mystical Weapons after Deerhoof opened for the Plastic Ono Band.  Lennon’s own Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger needed an opener the next night, and although Lennon said he was shy about asking Saunier if he wanted to do an improvisational duo with him to open the show, Saunier jumped at the chance.  In that evening, Mystical Weapons was born, and Lennon describes the show as “once-in-a-lifetime fun.”  The two decided to record together, trying to, in Lennon’s words, “emulate the feeling that we had at that first show.” 

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The album was recorded a few years ago in just several days, with Scott Holdsworth and Andris Balins at the engineering helm.  Saunier, who has done mostly DIY work with Deerhoof, notes that it was recorded “in a very beautiful recording studio” and “when you are usually DIY, then you appreciate these things that much more.  You squeeze the most out of the experience.”

“You don’t settle until it sounds better than what you could do at home, which it should with all that vintage gear and microphones and weird synthesizers and everything.”

Lennon describes how they used one of those “weird synthesizers,” the ARP 2600, which he describes as “an old, weird, warm-sounding synth” that was “a lot of fun to play.”  It’s a fairly famous synthesizer according to Lennon, and Stevie Wonder used it on tracks for Songs in the Key of Life.  No disrespect to Mr. Wonder, but he never made this machine sound the way it did in Lennon’s hands [editor’s note – I’m gonna let that slide, for now…].  On the song “Mechanical Mammoth,” Lennon adjusted the intervals on the ARP so that it was no longer 12-tone.

“So the music that I made on that song was actually not in the scale of Western music.  It’s pretty random.  So I think it sounds interesting, because it’s almost like machines.  It doesn’t sound like regular musical scales.  Because it’s not.  It’s like a bunch of machines.  Singing.”

Saunier says, “There were so many instruments in that studio.”  For him, playing piano was a highlight.  “A song called ‘Dirty’ is just me on piano and Sean on drums, completely improvised.  A grand piano after you’ve played a Casio for the previous ten years is a wondrous thing, and I think you can hear my joy on that track.”  Along with the standard drums, guitars and keys, the two used everything from a musical saw to the banjo to the kalimba to create beautiful sounds.  The duo coaxed unusual sounds out of another set of unique instruments when they used nothing but children’s toys to create the album’s atmospheric final track, “Consortium Musicum.”  “It was literally just me and Greg sitting with a pile of toys on our laps and improvising together,” Lennon says.

That improvisational theme runs through the entire album.  “It’s us doing free-form music,” Lennon explains.  “It’s our version of free jazz in a way.  Even though it doesn’t sound like jazz at all, because we’re not jazz musicians,” he laughs by way of explanation.

The two insisted that they would only overdub live and together, so that “we were never punching in or being meticulous or editing little parts,” says Lennon.  “If we were going to add another sound, we’d do it two at a time, and we would add another duet.  So it would always be us, improvising together.”  Saunier calls Lennon “an instant songwriter” and says of the recording process:  “Sometimes it was pure improvisation and sometimes we’d have ‘take two.’  Like it would start as improvisation but within a few minutes, we had a song written that we could more or less repeat.  Like each time we played it, it grew a little more.  We trust each other’s instincts and just go.”

The band’s website features “Mechanical Mammoth” as the soundtrack for a short anti-fracking film by animator Martha Colburn.  It is a cause close to Lennon’s heart, who says his passion for preventing fracking in upstate New York grows out of a desire to protect “New York City water and the health of all the people that live in Manhattan.”  According to Lennon, “It’s a very old concept – obviously drilling for oil and gasoline and using it, that’s what created the Industrial Revolution, and I have nothing against that having happened.  But what I do want is for us to shift gears and try to move towards a system that has a long-term sustainable future.  There are a lot of already economically viable alternatives to gas and oil.  And I understand that they don’t want to stop because it’s a lot of money to be made very quickly from it.  So I empathize with those people who want to make that money right now, but they have to look at the big picture.”

Mystical Weapons will continue to perform together between the busy schedules of both Lennon and Saunier, and according to Saunier, Colburn is the band’s “secret third member” who does the visuals.  She is currently in the process of making music videos for the band, and Saunier says “very soon Mystical Weapons will make a home for itself on YouTube.”  Lennon says the band plans to perform on tour together, but Deerhoof’s calendar has made scheduling that a bit difficult.  But, he says:

“It’s not that hard for us to book shows because it’s just the two of us, and we improvise, so all we need is a venue.  We don’t have to rehearse very much.”

photos by Charlotte Kemp Muhl

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