Myrmidons on crafting a mangled surf-rock EP
The Madison trio celebrate a new release, "Swamp Cocktail," with a show this Saturday at Mickey’s. (Photo: From left: Frank Jarman, Courtney Jarman, and Benjamin Bill. Photo by The Blue Umbrella Photography.)
Myrmidons are one of the more intriguing rock bands to have emerged in Madison in the past couple of years, crafting a slippery but rhythmically deft mix of eerily pretty surf-rock and lurching math-rock. The band began with siblings Courtney Jarman (drums, vocals) and Frank Jarman (guitar), who began playing together when Frank was still in middle school, and Benjamin Bill (also of William Z. Villain) later joined, juggling bass and keyboards in the band's live sets. The band's songs often center on Frank Jarman's stingingly twangy, twisty guitar parts, but Courtney Jarman's tense drum parts and high, wordless, Theremin-emulating vocal melodies often prove just as compelling. The band is about to release its first EP Swamp Cocktail, which they'll celebrate with a show this Saturday at Mickey's, sharing the bill with two local institutions of warped and technically accomplished rock: Czarbles (who will also be celebrating a short new release, Nauseau Trois) and Transformer Lootbag. Myrmidons and Czarbles might end up putting out their new releases as a split cassette, but in any case Swamp Cocktail will be available soon through Bandcamp—and ahead of the release, we've got an exclusive stream of the EP's second track, “Oh It'll Burn Ya." Courtney (who also plays in Madison electronic outfit Mori Mente), Frank and Ben met up with me last week to discuss the EP and their plans (both real and maybe not real) for future live shows.
Tone Madison: How did you arrive at this mix of sounds where you have a surf-rock influence but also a more complex rhythmic approach?
Benjamin Bill: It seems kind of accidental.
Courtney Jarman: Yeah, we just had a bunch of ideas and some of them come together sometimes.
Benjamin Bill: Frank plays a Telecaster through a Fender Twin Reverb, which is a very surf-y setup. I stole my brothers' American Stratocaster, which is like a $1,000 Stratocaster, and Frank's been using that lately. That's like what Dick Dale uses. That's the twang.
Frank Jarman: That splashy reverb is definitely the amp I'm using. I would say we listen to a lot of Mr. Bungle.
Courtney Jarman: That's the most obvious one, though. It's where you got kind of your guitar sound, just from Secret Chiefs 3—
Frank Jarman: But as far as a mix of ideas, that's kind of where I came from.
Benjamin Bill: We surf everyday, so that was the main thing. Because our surf lifestyle just bleeds in.
Courtney Jarman: Over the years, under just no-pressure situations, we just got together and started messing around with arranging different parts together.
Benjamin Bill: I came in and I was just like, “no no no. Bossa nova at every single section." Well, that's only kind of true.
Tone Madison: There's a variety of keyboard sounds on the EP, more so than in the live set. How did you end up incorporating those?
Benjamin Bill: Courtney has kick-ass keyboards. And she plays all the keyboards on the recordings. I play the bass on the recordings. Frank and Courtney write pretty much everything. They started the band before I joined, just guitar and drums. If we could, we would have two extra percussionists, a dedicated bass player, a tambura player, which is this [makes droning tambura sound]. We'd have at least one of those. And then upright bass, trombone, tuba, and dancing ladies—
Frank Jarman: Definitely a few dedicated dancers. And a magician.
Benjamin Bill: We are going to have shows with magicians. I just met so many magicians in the last month. I met three magicians and a hypnotist here [at the open-mic at the Rathskeller], and then I met another hypnotist on the bus who's awesome.
Tone Madison: Courtney, one of the main things that really sticks out in Myrmidons is this high-pitched vocal stuff you do. You sound like a Theremin, basically.
Courtney Jarman: That's the point, because I want to be an instrument and I don't like writing words, and it's way easier, and sounds cooler to have an extra melody on top of it. I have this vocal processor.
Frank Jarman: Like a good, epic vibrato melody.
Courtney Jarman: I want to use it on every song, but I can't. I wish I could do more with the vocals.
Frank Jarman: We should all get some vibrato vocal-effects processors, and all be doing that.
Courtney Jarman: I don't know about that. But I do think we're going to add a trombone for this next show so we can kind of reproduce some of the melodies on the recording. Some people though I wasn't using an effect at first, and it was a real confidence boost for me, so I just led them on. I just have a high-pitched squeal, and the effects processor is doing the vibrato thing.
Tone Madison: But the melody and pitch are actually you?
Courtney Jarman: Yeah.
Tone Madison: So it sounds like you go into writing these songs in an open-ended way, and not, “Oh, we're going to combine elements of this genre and that genre"?
Frank Jarman: I guess we kind of lean toward trying to use complex rhythms. So you could say it's kind of math rock-y, but there's no specific genre. We could be K-pop.
Benjamin Bill: In Korea they have hologram bands. You know about the hologram Tupac? OK, in Korea they have hologram blob monsters playing the bass, and they're, like, famous. It's really crazy.
Tone Madison: The third track on the album, "Odes To The Secret Canons I, Reclamation," is kind of a short interlude with a spoken part on it. What's the source of that? Is that an old sermon or something that you're sampling?
Benjamin Bill: That's our friend Benjamin Pierce. He wrote a series of poems called Odes To The Secret Canons.
Courtney Jarman: He came to an open-mic that Ben hosted a lot, and we really enjoyed his poems.
Benjamin Bill: I'm recording all his poems. His poems are so psychedelic, and they mean more and more when you listen to them more. It makes sense after a while, which it doesn't seem like it should. He goes to open-mics and sings weird a cappella country songs about like—one of his songs was “I'm Not a Stalker, Baby, I'm A Ninja Of The Heart."
Tone Madison: Is Frank in any other projects?
Frank Jarman: This is just my first band.
Benjamin Bill: So Frank gets to play sweet gigs with Czarbles—and we played with Dead Rider last year—Frank gets to play sweet gigs in his first band. Ask about anybody else's first band, and they'll just tell you horror stories. I played one gig where there were people getting free samples of this machine that sucks your gut into it and then freezes the fat cells and then you poop them out. My friend's mom works at a salon that has this machine.
Tone Madison: Wait, why were you playing music in that kind of setting?
Benjamin Bill: It was really fun!
Tone Madison: Right, but who thought there should be music combined with that?
Benjamin Bill: It was like a wine-and-cheese opening reception, and they were like, “Oh, we'll also give free samples of this gut-sucking machine that apparently hurts."
Tone Madison: That sounds fucking awful.
Benjamin Bill: Yeah, it does sound awful! Ben Willis played that gig too. That's probably why he moved to Michigan. And my brother played that gig, and he moved to Oklahoma shortly after that gig.
Tone Madison: The cover art for the EP is really striking. Do you have any idea what it's supposed to be?
Courtney Jarman: That's by Paul Smith, who's a kick-ass artist. He basically gave me a bunch of his sketches. He sits at this coffee shop all the time and makes these black-and-white sketches and scans them in and doesn't do anything with them, so I was like, “Hey, let me buy these off you."
Frank Jarman: We don't really know what it is.
Courtney Jarman: That's kind of why we called it Swamp Cocktail.
Frank Jarman: We just made up our own idea.
Courtney Jarman: Benjamin Pierce helped. He said, “neon swamp cocktail," and I'm like, well, “It looks like a swamp cocktail." But anyways, yeah, it just looks like a swamp monster.