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The Arts

Rethinking music, stardom, and familiarity

The Lentils don't want to be labeled, and want to pursue their own vision

BRATTLEBORO—The Lentils, a Brattleboro-based band, bills its genres as “post-dad-rock,” “fake pop,” and “mermaid-punk.”

Lentils leader Luke Csehak describes the band’s sound as incorporating varying degrees of complexity: “It’s not punk-rock simple, but it’s simple.”

The sound changes from show to show, Csehak says, explaining this helps differentiate it from his former group, The Happy Jawbone Family Band, which he describes as a classic five-piece rock-band format “where we tried to protect the song. There wasn’t much variation.”

The Lentils, Csehak adds, are much more improvisational live. He describes those sessions’ feel as looser and more fun.

“We go past the point where the audience is uncomfortable,” he says, admitting the band “sort of play[s] with audience discomfort and expectations while still being respectful of what people expect at a rock show. I can both surprise them and give them what they want.”

Csehak says that creative tension — “the play between being grounded and ungrounded” — is what artists and the audience look for in an artistic experience.

“The strangeness has become familiar to me. It’s less a dichotomy and more of a confusion that I participate in,” he says.

He adds that he believes failure and risk-taking are more important to art than skill is: “It’s tougher than just practicing skills, learning scales, jazz changes, etcetera.”

Instead, Csehak assesses himself by asking himself whether he’s doing a good job: “I look at my life and ask those vague, soul-searching questions. People who prioritize musicianship don’t understand this commitment to risk. You learn to use failure as a part of your repertoire. It’s more interesting."

The lineup

Csehak stands as the only permanent member of The Lentils. Other musicians play a show or two and move on.

One musician in orbit of The Lentils is Brattleboro’s Peter Nichols, member of the former Great Valley, the critically acclaimed, self-described “pretend pop” band.

“Peter’s band moved away, then my band moved away, so we started playing together,” Csehak says. There are so few of our musical circle left.”

Another sporadic member of The Lentils is Nehemiah St. Danger, who moved to Vermont from Washington at Csehak’s behest. They’d lived in Oakland together in 2002 and hung out at Mills College, whose Center for Contemporary Music is considered by many to be the premier center for the study of experimental music and composition.

Csehak studied at Naropa University in Boulder, Colo., where, in 2008, he graduated from the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, founded by Allen Ginsberg.

“I only really started writing and recording songs as a way to procrastinate from doing my schoolwork. I discovered I liked writing music more than poetry and experimental fiction,” Csehak says.

Still, his Naropa education contributed to his songwriting.

“This familiarity with strangeness separates me a bit. There aren’t many songwriters out there who read Bernadette Mayer,” Csehak says, explaining Mayer was a second-wave New York City poet who was friends with the poet Ted Berrigan. Csehak says he studied other writers “who explore subject matter of the experimental tradition.” This, he says, gives him “a perspective different from a typical rock ’n’ roll song."

A few months after graduating Naropa, Csehak moved to Vermont, first settling in Westminster, where he built a cabin in his ex-partner’s parents’ backyard. The couple had wanted to live “completely alone for a while,” he explains.

Seeking a break from that isolation, Csehak says he met people in Brattleboro doing “awesome things” with music. He says he found the local musicians friendly, and soon launched The Happy Jawbone Family Band, which recorded nine albums and received acclaim in the underground music scene.

The band played together for four years before breaking up in 2014. Then he needed a new band. “I was going crazy not playing music any more,” Csehak says.

Hard at work

Although Csehak says The Lentils have only been around for six to nine months, they have been quite busy.

In 2014, they released a handful of recordings on three record labels; they played in Chicago, New York City, Boston, and Easthampton, Mass.; and they have an LP due in April.

Early lastNOTE (Unknown Author, 2015-01-24T20:39:44): Original said “this.” So when was this piece written? Are all time elements correct? summer, The Lentils recorded a split 7-inch single with King Tuff for the July, 2014 edition of The Pitchfork Review. Brattleboro’s own Kyle Thomas, of King Tuff, chose The Lentils to provide the flipside for the release, and Thomas’s older brotherNOTE (Unknown Author, 2015-01-24T20:40:56): Query: Only older brother? Not setting Luke off in commas? Luke provided artwork for the record’s sleeve.

A few months later Byron Coley’s Northampton, Mass.-based Feeding Tube Records put out a “pretty, little, one-sided 12-inch that comes with a self-help book about attaining immortality and it really works! Just try my method for one week. you’ll never go back to alchemy,” the band says aboutNOTE (Unknown Author, 2015-01-24T21:07:49): In liner notes to? its album “My Pillow Lava Part One: My Deaf Son.”

The opening track, The Wrong Song, in its sparse instrumentation (guitars only, no percussion), multiple tracks (to give the song texture and depth), and self-contained lyrics and echoing vocals, pays homage to Pink Floyd-founder Syd Barrett’s solo work, especially Terrapin and She Took a Long Cold Look, from his 1970 album “The Madcap Laughs.”

The single Madeline appearing on the “Gnar FM: Back To SchoolNOTE (Unknown Author, 2015-01-24T20:47:58): Cover says School but publisher refers to it in copy as Skool. Leaving as is.” compilation released by Gnar Tapes of Portland, Ore., came out in September. The opening line, “i wish i never learned how to tell the unreal from the real,” echoes the creative tension the band uses to great effect in musical style and lyrics: the odd from the familiar, the dissonant from the accessible.

“The Lentils Holiday Party 2014,” a multi-band compilation released in November on the underground Boston label BUFU Records, features two tracks from the band addressing a holiday tradition most office workers know and dread: Secret Santa.

Secret Santa Part One employs a falsetto male vocal style familiar to fans of 1980s R & B pop but with lyrics straddling the line between the quotidian and the skewed:

...’cause the way you occupy my every thought, I deserve workman’s compensation...

I’m gonna buy you some scented candles and a bottle of rum, you and Santa gonna have some fun.

Ooh girl, your secret’s safe with Santa, you’re secret’s safe with me.

The sound is multi-layered but with a hook, like pop, and avoids the self-conscious complexity of overproduced cleverness. This helps to further separate it from a novelty song, often the purview of non-traditional holiday music.

A listener might trace the lineage of a song such as Secret Santa Part One from Captain Beefheart’s dissonant take on American blues, especially their 1967 “Safe As Milk” debut album or Brian Wilson’s composition for The Beach Boys’ “Busy Doin’ Nothin’” (Friends LP, 1968), the lyrics of which (ostensibly) include detailed directions to Wilson’s house; or poet and University of Pennsylvania professor Kenneth Goldsmith’s year’s-worth of transcribed weather reports, published as poetry (“The Weather” 2005).

The Lentils take something mundane and rote and transform it into something creative, interesting, and enjoyable.

Csehak says of “My Pillow Lava” and “Holiday Party": “Both represent two roles for The Lentils. The former is dark and introspective but with an air of lightness.” He adds he intended to make it clear he had fun recording it.

The Lentils’ newest album, “Brattleboro Is Flooding,” is due in April as a joint release of BUFU Records and Gnar Tapes. Csehak says, “I wrote the title track when Brattleboro flooded during Irene."

In addition to sharing in the communal mourning after the 2011 storm, Csehak experienced personal losses around that time.

“After Happy Jawbone broke up, it felt tragic. Then I broke up with my wife, people left town, and Alex Firth died,” Csehak adds. Firth, 27, was a beloved local artist, musician, and cook who died suddenly in March 2014.

Csehak says he didn’t want to play Brattleboro Is Flooding in town for a while, because “it’s too close to home."

He says he struggled with the song for a few years: “I could never quite get the feel right. It’s a darker recording, sounding very tragic.”

Then something changed. He started playing that song in an upbeat way “and it made sense. It gave the song a tension between the feel and the subject matter,” Csehak says. The reworking did the trick.

“It has fun moments but it remains emotionally cleansing for me,” he notes.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #290 (Wednesday, January 28, 2015). This story appeared on page B4.

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