Mahjongg with J's Basement and The Outfit at Lee's Palace (529 Bloor West), Friday (May 6). $7. 416-532-1598. Rating: NNNNN
My interview with Mahjongg guitarist Jeff Coruillo begins on the topic of music, but in a matter of minutes we're discussing the migration trends of Chicago hipsters from Wicker Park to Logan Square and the difficulty of locating the Criterion edition of the Robocop DVD.
It's precisely those sorts of non-linear leaps of logic that characterize the Mahjongg aesthetic in clanking out electro-tweaked improv jams you can dance to. Just when you think they're locking into a pounding Afrobeat groove, you'll be blindsided by a banging Brazilian-esque break that'll set the whole rumbling mess on its head. Confusion is their friend.
"When the group first came together," explains Coruillo, who used to be known as Jeff Carrillo when he played ska with the Secretaries back home in Missouri, "we initially bonded over Brazilian music - particularly the stuff by Tom Ze, Os Mutantes and Caetano Veloso.
"But some people are into Bollywood music, others like Cambodian pop, and I think just about everyone enjoys West African Afrobeat. It's all just exciting music that doesn't necessarily conform to a Western ideal of structure. Everyone listens to some kind of music that no one else in the group likes, yet each of us is constantly trying to sneak those things into what we do. It's all part of the fun."
That irreverent sense of fun, a crucial driving force for Mahjongg, shows up in their nutty stage names and manic onstage free-for-alls, which often bear little similarity to the recorded versions of their songs released on their Machinegong (Cold Crush) EP and the recent RaYDONcoNG 2005 (Cold Crush) disc.
They seem to delight in subversively messing with perceptions of dance music and what Mahjongg is all about.
"Well, I don't know about the subversive part. We tend to look at the recording as just documentation for posterity, like a photograph. Instead of thinking about the image and trying to recreate it in performance, we're trying to get at what the feeling was before the photo was taken.
"But as soon as we get comfortable doing anything, we immediately reject it and go on to something new. Like, if we're playing a song that starts sounding a little too Afrobeat, someone will throw a wrench in it pretty quick. If everyone realizes it at the same time, you might get five wrenches being thrown simultaneously."
Considering all the stylistic shape-shifting and the general level of chaos with which Mahjongg comfortably function, it's not surprising that many journalists have been overwhelmed by the task of trying to nail down the Mahjongg sound. And the group members haven't been overly eager to help clarify matters.
"We're nice people, but we're a bit standoffish when it comes to talking about our music. It might seem like I'm being difficult, but I find it hard to talk about where we're at or where we're headed or being in the eye of the storm.
"Wow, I'm starting to sound like some guy in one of those terrible music magazine interviews that make me cringe. You know, the kind where they go on about how difficult it is to say what makes their band so special. I think I better stop right now."