Chef Menteur started its musical life chopping and looping, then found its way back to more conventional methods.
All but the most cynical bands are labors of love. There's too much work for too little return to play music for anything but personal reasons. In the case of Chef Menteur, there are enough structural impediments that members Alec Vance, Dan Haugh, Brian Abbott and Phil Rollins have to love making music. First, they make open-ended, psychedelic music, which has only been really popular if your band's name rhymes with Sink Toyed. Many musical adventurers in New Orleans can find gigs in small rooms, but Chef Menteur needs some volume to get their sound making those venues problematic.
The band's new album, East of the Sun & West of the Moon, further illustrates the quixotic nature of Chef Menteur's existence. The album's primary release is as a limited edition two-record set in a gatefold sleeve hand-printed and signed by artist Thomas Peri, though in a concession to how people actually listen to music these days, each album comes with a download code you buyers can grab the album for their computers. It's also available at iTunes - they're not that singularly minded.
In this week's conversation, Alec Vance talks about the band's history, and the pros and cons of existing largely to record. East of the Sun & West of the Moon took two years to record as they layered tracks then slowly whittled off parts and in some cases, length. The results are often beautiful and majestic, but they're firmly rooted in a rock 'n' roll aesthetic. There are no obvious exercises of technique, and when Vance mentions Neil Young in the interview, a should-be-obvious influence comes into focus.
It's hard to imagine a more user-friendly version of this kind of music. "Narconaut" announces the album's presence with authority, slamming the guitars before settling into a sustain and tremolo-heavy track that's firmly rooted in garage rock. "Terpsichore" is a lazy, spacy blues punctuated by the streetcar rolling by, while "The Forest" has glitchy laptop percussion loops percolating under hanging organ chords while a sampled voice announces, "I know a place where animals play." The album's centerpieces are "Oxen of the Sun" and "Ganymede" - the former a a guitar-oriented epic that maintains its direction and sense of itself for its near-12-minute duration; the latter, a 19-minute drone that stays in constant subtle motion throughout the piece.
As I tell Alec Vance in today's interview, my 16-year-old self understands this music perfectly. Descriptions of the music sound brainy and theoretical, but East of the Sun & West of the Moon is all about the physical joy of making a cool, distorted rock 'n' roll sound, and continuing to make it until there's a compelling reason to do something differently. That Chef Menteur does it with a sense of balance and beauty and drama is a bonus. It's one of the most exciting albums to come out of New Orleans this year and needs more people to hear it.