I did not know what to expect when I was invited to see Demono play in the basement of the Sidney Hih building. I spoke with Neil Gasparka who curated the show that took place in the historic and disheveled building. He assured me the basement was not for the weak at heart. Former site of rock club The Unicorn, the basement of Sidney Hih at one point had been a nightly stop for seminal bands making a name for themselves between 1984 and the mid-90s. Since its close, Gasparka’s best guess is that nobody had set foot in it, opened a window for ventilation, cleaned out after a springtime flood, or two, or twelve. And he spent more time than he had imagined turning the basement into a space that people could at least enter and spend time in without fear of inhaling more mold than air.
Kulsick is a part-time musician and writer living in Milwaukee.
As I walked down the staircase into the basement, there was a sense of descending into a tomb, perhaps one of the secret passages in the pyramids leading to either the main burial chamber, a dead end, or a trap floor dumping the foolish treasure hunter into a pit of dusty darkness and snakes. I was watching my step as best I could, fighting with a single floodlight to illuminate the cavernous rooms. An air of mold spores and bleach beckoned me into the club room where Demono, a two piece comprised of the Ghost and the Channel, was about to begin. Ghost (guitar), a black robe draping over his head to his knees and wearing a one-horned Viking helmet, and the Channel (drums), dressed somberly in black and greasy focus, gave no indication to the twenty odd audience members that they were about to witness the ultimate heavy metal séance. Literally.
Demono began as a concept pursued by Nicholas Frank who wanted to create and record improvised music and then edit the recordings into short(er) pieces that stood out among the hours of tape. Frank understood that it was a gamble; when working with improvisation as a starting point, the truly surprising and notable moments or simply interesting sounds are often embedded among daunting hours of mundane and unremarkable moments. Counting on improvisation to generate something he would want to hear again was not unlike the treasure hunter trapped in the dusty snake pit who blindly reaches out and pushes each brick, waiting to accidentally find the loose one in the blackness that opens the wall to another chamber leading to a long corridor lit with torches and sounding with low echoes of ominously distant chanting. It is a necessary undertaking to pursue what Frank was intending, to capture the moments when music is being both created and heard for the first time.
According to Frank, the starting point for Demono was an attempt “to exorcise the demons of the fucking Boston song I’ve heard 924,000 times between the ages of twelve and seventeen on two different but identical radio stations.” The repetitive nature of commercial radio and its tendency to strip the “song as art” of the qualities that make it “art” the first three times you hear it, reducing it to merely “song” for the next 923,997 was Demono’s primary target.
But something happened on the way to the exorcism. Somewhere in their attempts to redeem their own personal connotations of and relationships with bands like Boston, Journey, and Pink Floyd, they discovered a residue that proved as interesting as Frank’s initial concept to make edited recordings: the guts of music. There is something in those moments that are more immediate and sincere than even the most successful song being played for the second time, let alone the hundredth, thousandth, or millionth. Sure, the improvised minute or two may not even sound like music, but there is something living there, something living and growing, feeding off its own ability to be heard and change shape. It is the very blackness of the trap room; the fear of hearing snakes everywhere, torturing each step in anticipation of feeling one underfoot, and the knowing that maybe there is no secret brick at all.
Frank calls the experience of playing as Demono a “colonic flush of rock sludge (that) dredges up a lot of toxicity.” He admits that it doesn’t feel good while it is happening, but it is cathartic. Wetzel agrees, and takes the catharsis to the next level, stating that he has no idea of how Demono even sounds, that it is a more physical than musical experience for him. The unpredictability of the music Demono was producing was creating an immediate and genuine response in themselves, albeit one they did not perceive as immediately musical or even enjoyable.
They decided to take Demono to the stage. Frank would take on the role of Ghost and Wetzel the role of the Channel, setting up an interesting relationship that an audience may not be able to perceive if they do not take the personas seriously. The performance of the Channel and the Ghost as personas (or ghostonas as the case may be) communicates the specific vision of Demono as what Frank deems “a heavy metal séance band.”
Ghost without the Channel, would be simply playing the guitar, roving between dredging riffs and wailing warbles on guitar, unintelligible to the average audience, much as a ghost would be to the average human.
The Channel provides two things to the live performance: one, an actual beat on top of which Ghost crunks and moans, and two, the illusion of a band at all. The Channel, clad in a black suit and wearing his eyes like swollen, burned out windows, weepy and caked with Vaseline, is the medium through which the demons of music speak, the gifted contact, the séance master. His role is to allow the communication between the Ghost and the audience to happen at all.
This added theatricality is also a nod to the history of rock and roll. Wetzel insists that “theatricality is part of performance and performance is part of rock.” Frank complicates the live performance of rock music by citing its own repetition. A sold out tour across America in 1978 is, perhaps, just as repetitive for the performers as hearing “Another Brick in the Wall” on the radio over and over again. “This repetitive theatricality distances the product from the initial impulse,” states Frank, wondering, “Is it even possible to channel that initial impulse during performance?” It is these initial impulses that Demono attempts to exorcise creation from the bastard history of music, from the distance between downloading Stained on iTunes and seeing Led Zeppelin’s first show as The New Yardbirds in Denmark in 1968, from the bottomless pit of regurgitated emotion through music.
Part of Demono’s strategy to resist the urge to repeat themselves is the occasional insertion of guest performers, always with their own persona and mythology and never with clear explanations of how they fit into the concept of Demono. Cowboy, The Beard, and Kid Beatbox have all made appearances with Demono, none for more than two or three songs, themselves musical apparitions with their own language to be channeled, whether it be a slide guitar, a bass, or raps.
The inclusion of these guest performers are admittedly the brainchild of the Channel, saying it’s his way of introducing a problem into the operation to see how it responds. Ghost sees the guests as a welcomed and forced motion to “avoid the literal,” to incorporate an element that is unable to be rationalized either in musical quality or personal mythology. It is, as Wetzel puts it, “like cash on a barrel head,” asking both the audience and the band themselves: Here’s something new and uncharted and what’re you going to do about it? As if the trapped treasure hunter found the loose brick, followed the torch-lit path, and found him or herself face-to-face with a red-eyed antelope-headed figure shrouded in silence and fog. Is this a good situation? Should I turn back? No, there’s nothing back there but a dusty snake pit. Foggy antelope it is.
The result is more than just a sonic variation in an improvised song and it is more than just a theater distraction in introducing a third or fourth character into a scene. It is a complication and adventurous exploration of how the Ghost and the Channel navigate their séance when new ghosts or spirits are introduced. It is a running-with-closed-eyes headfirst into the belly of music, into the massive pile of residue that years of individuals’ experience with music has produced. It is immediate. It is sincere.
It is Demono. And Demono itself is the guarantee they will never be the man they met on a boat whose goal it was to learn every instrument in order to recreate entire Rush albums. They are the guarantee that they will never be the Greek man who showed them a recording he had painstakingly constructed over the course of two years, resulting in yet another cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses.”
And that night in the basement of Sidney Hih, Demono proved it. I refuse to try to describe here what the show sounded like other than it sounded at all and it will never sound again. The Beard showed up. Kid Beatbox showed up. The Ghost was Tony Iommi playing an Ornette Coleman solo that, perhaps, Ornette had played as a frantic dirge for a pharaoh being robbed by a treasure hunter. The Channel both kept up and paved the way, slicing through the mildewed stage air to show the audience where the spirits were living, illuminating the blackness where options live, asking everyone to touch each brick and see if it moves. Because, for Demono, they all move. The fact that they might move is reason enough to push each one, and Demono insists both on pushing and pushing everyone to push.
In that basement, there were spirits everywhere. Frank spoke of how that room has had all sorts of ghosts and how some may, indeed, remain. From the bands that passed through when it was open, to their members who literally have passed beyond this world or that world, to Frank himself, who had played on that stage in a different outfit when he was a teenager, the Unicorn was raised from its slumber for 30 minutes that night. When it was done, Frank explained amazedly that he had just “played in the dead carcass of an imaginary animal,” itself a realization that one must look beyond the literal to see the true literal in every moment. Bricks were pushed. Ghosts spoke through borrowed voices. Spectators escaped certain death. The purple black of the Milwaukee evening welcomed all the living humans rising out of the Unicorn’s belly and granted them safe passage into the night, though did nothing to hide their tracks from the red-eyed antelope-headed figure who emerged hours later. Choices will always be made. Bricks must be pushed. Demono insists.