In many of America’s larger cities, a night at the museum has come to be something very different than the childish antics on display in the recent blockbuster movie of the same name. In fact, what goes on in these museums after dark is anything but kid stuff. The little ones are ushered out, hipsters are herded in, the alcohol starts flowing, and bands and deejays add musical accompaniment to the revelry. Such was the case March 2 at the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles. Noise manipulators Matmos were joined on stage by Sun Ra Arkestra saxophonist Marshall Allen, followed by electroclash duo Ghostland Observatory, as part of the museum’s “First Fridays” series.
As we entered the museum, with its hulking Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton displayed prominently, odd noises could be heard coming from one wing, and many people were asking aloud, “Is that the band warming up?” No, that was Matmos and Allen, and “that” — random sound exploration, rather than a group of separate songs — was what they did on stage for forty-five minutes. Allen was decked out in shiny garb, screeching away at his horn. Drew Daniel and M.C. Schmidt of Matmos, dressed appropriately academic-like, were alternately manipulating a laptop and a turntable. Other musicians added the real touches of oddity. One was softly blowing into a tuba, and at one point picked up a plugged-in electric guitar and put it down the horn’s top. Another was inflating and deflating what appeared to be a huge white latex balloon. Other instruments included pedal steel and a large, Asian-looking harp. The stage was set up in the Hall of North American Mammals, which made for some interesting parallels between sounds and scenery. Allen’s sax could’ve been the growl of a grizzly bear, the digital percussion the thunderous movement of mountain elk. Even the human animals got involved; some audience members appeared to be having a primal-scream moment along to the music, howling in front of a display of stuffed coyotes.
Between live sets, a rather lazy deejay spun everything from techno to soft rock to Bollywood while a short nature film played. Then Aaron Behrens and Thomas Turner, who make up Ghostland Observatory, took the stage. If you’ve never heard of the band, imagine Fischerspooner with none of the gay camp. Behrens sang and sometimes played guitar. With his dark hair in pigtails, he looked like he could’ve been an Indian squaw who climbed right out of one of the museum’s Native American exhibits. When he wasn’t on his axe, Behrens got into total rock-star mode, strutting around the stage like Mick Jagger, lacing the mike’s wire around him like it was a boa constrictor. Turner sported a silver spaceman cape and could be found drumming or manipulating keyboards and other machinery. Apparently the band is building quite a little cult following, because throngs of (mostly younger) audience members were pulsating along to the music and mouthing Behrens’s vocals. His moves were making the girls squeal in delight. And he had not only the dancing, but also the rhetoric of a cock-rocking party starter down, too, asking the crowd, “Who’s in the house to have a good time? Are you in need of a good time?” The duo’s sound at times employed programmed beats right out of “Push It,” went through stretches of Spacemen 3-style drone rock, or centered on the keyboard craziness of Eno-era Roxy Music.
Behrens summed the night up well when he said, “We’ve played some strange places, but I think this takes the cake.”