San Francisco's Sonic Terrorists
Al Qaeda's experimental noise attracts guest players from the Minutemen, Pinback, and the Locust.
By Emily Savage
photo by Chris Stevens
As with any band named after a terrorist organization, San Francisco noise group Al Qaeda is occasionally challenged by naysayers and angry MySpace messages. The anti-American accusations are without warrant, however. These musicians are neither extremists nor miscreants.
Bandmembers Scott Miller, Eric Sanchez, and Erin Love work as a chef and special education teachers, respectively. They aren't political activists, nor do they aspire to raise awareness through music. So why name the band Al Qaeda? "Because the Grateful Dead was already taken," Sanchez says with a laugh.
He adds that they also wanted to create a sense of dissonance: "It's a big 'not welcome' sign to people who aren't willing to check out music because of a band's name."
The group's sound isn't for everyone, either. Al Qaeda forces audience members to take a second or sixth listen before they hear everything that's going on sonically. Repetitive, haunting guitar riffs are backed by entrancing, pulsating manipulated sounds.
Occasionally the group, which formed in 2008, adds a phenomenal guest star on bass and drums. In addition to the core trio, Al Qaeda shows boast a rotating backing lineup of such well-regarded musicians as Mike Watt (the Minutemen), Rob Crow (Pinback), Gabe Serbian (the Locust), Mitchell Brown (Gasp), and members of Dry Rot, the Thralls, and Goblin Cock, among others.
The collaboration with Watt was just a shot in the dark, Miller says. "I've listened to the Minutemen and Black Flag my whole life, so we [e-mailed] him and said, 'We're doing what we want to do — do you want to do it with us?'"
Most of Al Qaeda's noise comes from Sanchez and Miller on guitar, keyboard, contact microphone, and tapes, and Love playing a Kaoss pad, a sound-manipulating synthesizer. Miller and Love occasionally perform guttural vocals muffled by louder instrumentation.
Miller has performed with a host of hardcore acts, including Surface and Cattle Decapitation. "I don't think I ever made a conscious decision to play noise," he says, "but the whole concept of manipulating sound and layering different sounds together is just a natural progression."
As is the nature of noise bands, much of Al Qaeda's music is improvisational, but the group always starts with an underlying composition. "At every show we have a basic song we are going to play, but it is very loose," Sanchez explains. "We let other [musicians] lead the way, and then play follow the leader from there."
The band has released close to 30 unique cassettes (selling 30 to 80 copies of each) and nearly a dozen seven-inches on various indie labels, the results of recording every practice. The trio's seven-inch with Watt on Canadian label Scotch Tape was dubbed "Collaborative Works."
Watt recorded his bassline from his home in San Pedro and then sent it to the trio to add to a prerecorded track. He then suggested they play a handful of shows together, an opportunity the group jumped at this summer. The climax of the five-day tour was a show at the Che Café in San Diego. "That was the highlight of my past 20 years," Sanchez says. "Turning around and seeing Watt, and then Gabe Serbian, then Rob Crow, and two full drum sets and video projections ..."
Alongside the big names, the trio counts among its supporters the DJs at Mountain View college radio station KFJC, who have invited Al Qaeda to play on air twice; one DJ has offered to help set up a series of guerrilla generator shows. But the most important fan of all? Perhaps that's Miller and Love's 4-year-old daughter, Caydence. The precocious music lover frequently attends practices and shows (decked out with full headphones) and plays along on a Kaoss pad.