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Nils Frykdahl of Free Salamander Exhibit talks consciousness, Leonard Peltier and bringing his kids on tour


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Free Salamander Exhibit’s otherliness pervades their music, lyrics and visual presentation. - COURTESY FREE SALAMANDER EXHIBIT
  • Courtesy Free Salamander Exhibit
  • Free Salamander Exhibit’s otherliness pervades their music, lyrics and visual presentation.
Nils Frykdahl is on a brief vacation before the summer touring season starts. He’s wrapped up a carpentry job in Sonoma County, California, where he lives with his partner, Dawn McCarthy, and their three daughters; he’s spent the day pulling dad duty, taking the kids to the playground and chatting with other parents about, among other things, the state of consciousness studies.

“One of the moms was trying to get a job at a place here in the county, the Institute of Noetic Sciences, that was started by former astronaut [Edgar Mitchell] who came back and decided that the next frontier of space exploration had to be inner space,” says the former Sleepytime Gorilla Museum member, who’s now touring with his current projects Free Salamander Exhibit and Faun Fables. “Everybody’s interested in consciousness, right? We’re all conscious... That’s maybe the only thing we can all agree on across the planet.”

The question, then, is what other things are conscious and where that line is drawn — humans? Other animals? Plants? “And then, of course, the panpsychists would take it all the way down to rocks and stones and every single atom and molecule in the universe,” he says, calling consciousness a property of matter.

Frykdahl, clearly, is not shy of heady matters and fundamental questions about the world. He contributes guitars, flutes and both harsh and clean vocals to art-rock/progressive rock/metal five-piece Free Salamander Exhibit. He also plays several instruments as half of Faun Fables, the art-witch songtellers started by McCarthy.

He’ll also have a third role: dad. He and McCarthy are bringing all three of their children along on tour. Indeed, the bus will be proper packed with a passel of kids — Frykdahl’s Salamander bandmate and longtime musical collaborator Dan Rathbun (bass/sledgehammer dulcimer/vocals) will bring his spawn along as well. It’s the fulfillment of a vision Frykdahl, McCarthy and Rathbun have had since the mid-2000s, when Faun Fables was on the road with Sleepytime Gorilla Museum.

“The touring with a bunch of kids bopping around the bus didn’t really happen the way we pictured it,” says Frykdahl. Sleepytime subsequently dissolved as a regular project when multi-instrumentalists Matthias Bossi and Carla Kihlstedt moved to New England. But with Salamander and Faun Fables on the bus, a new picture has been made real.

Free Salamander Exhibit consists of Frykdahl and Rathbun along with Sleepytime multi-instrumentalist Michael Mellender, former Sleepytime drummer David Shamrock, and multi-instrumentalist Drew Wheeler. Their music is complicated and angular, paying homage to the Rock in Opposition movement, a collective of experimental 1970s bands like Henry Cow and Univers Zero. To that end, they often use homemade instruments, perhaps most prominently Rathbun’s massive sledgehammer dulcimer — picture something like a lap-steel guitar, but 7 feet long, made with piano strings and played with a hammer. Frykdahl’s vocal lines fluctuate from death metal snarling to a resonant baritone to falsetto, all richly expressive. Further, they’re big fans of confusion, especially rhythmic confusion in their music.
“When I hear music and I can’t figure out what’s happening rhythmically, I get very excited, and I keep listening to it over and over again,” he says. It’s something that, to Frykdahl, has roots in African music. His understanding of African polyrhythms and, consequently, how he uses them, is filtered through Western composition — the result of his B.A. in music from the University of California, Berkeley.

“When I listen to some [polyrhythmic music], I can feel it, but I know it’s going right over my head,” he says.

Frykdahl’s lyrical themes match the otherliness of the music. His lyrics tend to be critical of core assumptions in human society, especially western society.

“In general, there’s a focus on questioning the relentless drive of progress... which is of course largely associated with the West,” he says. He’s not a revisionist — he has no illusions that it would be better to live in some past time or that time can be turned back. But Frykdahl always listens to the voices of outsiders and the downtrodden, from street preachers to political prisoners.

On Free Salamander Exhibit’s 2016 album, Undestroyed, the lyrics for the title track come near-verbatim from Prison Writings: My Life Is My Sun Dance by Leonard Peltier. Peltier is a member of the American Indian Movement and campaigner for aboriginal rights around the world; he’s been in prison since 1977, convicted for the murder of two FBI agents in a contentious trial Amnesty International has described as unfair.

“I was blown away by his intelligence and understanding of his situation,” he says. “It’s a dire situation, but he recognizes a larger scope of history that he is a part of and approaches it with an amazing forgiveness of those who have wronged him, understanding their place as cogs in this larger machine that has made it necessary to crush him.”

Salamander’s visual presentation has a theatricality as well; they’ve performed in a variety of outfits, from animal masks and cassocks to burlap cloaks and headdresses made from woven baskets. Frykdahl, in particular, draws makeup, costuming and performance inspirations from his background in what he calls “a fairly experimental version” of already uncanny Japanese Butoh dance he practiced with San Francisco-based troupe inkBoat, citing an emphasis on “creatureliness, human but not quite human.” From there, he traces a line to author Samuel Beckett’s suggestions of a post-human character that has all the elements of human life, but in the form of memory.

It all comes back to a question: Where is the line between “human” and the rest of life on Earth?


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