Backdated balladeers

A cold December wind follows two cautious but cunning Capricorns, one a child queen, the other a fairy princess (indeed, a child queen and a fairy princess), into a rabbit’s hole on the dark side of the planet. They emerge into the real world, Hamtramck’s Painted Lady, which is hazy with artificial light, cigarette smoke and the pale reflections of the few faces in the room, all turning to see the fetching Gretchen Gonzales and Faith Gazic enter the club.

Moments later, on a table opposite the bar, beers are set down and the two women begin talking about their calculatedly deranged pop art-music project, Terror at the Opera.

Gazic, this child queen who plays accordion, appears relieved that no tape recorder will be used, no actual interview undertaken, only conversation that might pry into the pair’s history. A notebook comes out. Her eyes show worry.

“But that means we have to trust you,” she says.

Gonzales, the guitarist fairy princess, takes the cue and says: “I’ll talk about anything, as long as it’s about my 300 years living in fairyland.”

OK. What’s all this queen and princess stuff? Is it fantasy? Irony? Manipulation? Well, there are some things a woman will never tell. So we just go with it.

Gazic says, “I rule my kingdom but I’m really 7 years old. More chocolate for the lions!”

So, then, what’s the difference between a child queen and a fairy princess? The question must be asked.

“The child queen delivers orders and rules her world,” Gazic says. “The princess gets things taken care of for her.”

As this exchange takes place, sprinkled with nonsense and mirth, music filters through the room. A jukebox in a far corner of the bar rotates selections made by Gonzales and Gazic: The Velvet Underground, Nico and Johnny Thunders steer the conversation outward.

Gonzales, who began playing serious crazy music in the early ’90s as a student at Michigan State University, says she learned early on how to add structure to the sound of a band, at the same time playing off what other musicians were doing.

“I learned a lot playing with John for eight years,” Gonzales says, referring to John Olsen, with whom she “grew up” in music.

Olsen is a member of Wolf Eyes, the Ypsilanti-based noise trio that in 2004 released the merciless Burned Mind. Gonzales and Olsen formed Universal Indians in East Lansing, and played around with alternate versions of the band (Dr. Gretchen’s Musical Weightlifting Program, Universal Wolf) before disbanding in 2000. By that time, Gonzales was already a “psychedelicate” guitar heroine in Slumber Party. She recorded three LPs with the band, which garnered a local and national following and did a UK tour before leaving it behind in 2003.

“Faith and I already started playing together when I was in [Slumber Party],” Gonzales says, not eager to talk about her former band. “I think what I did before [in Universal Indians], helped me become a more experimental guitar player. It taught me how to play with my thoughts and feelings.”

“Gretchen lives in the moment of sound,” Gazic says, awakening.

It’s more correct to say that Terror at the Opera is alive in the moment of sound, for Gazic’s instrumental and vocal contributions are as essential to the band’s sonic raison d’être as are Gonzales’. Her accordion brings both whimsy and darkness to TATO’s music, which can shift from modern to medieval and back again depending on her squeeze.

Her restless, husky wail is equally convincing, which it must be when the songs are populated with unicorns, bluejays and butterflies. In “Snakes and Moths,” it’s hard not to feel a chill when she sings, taking the point of view of the glass talking to the wine: “how long will you stay/ how long will you be mine?/ I feel so empty without you/ I feel so empty and see through.”

The music can hardly be called rock. “It might be 1 percent rock,” Gazic says. “And 49 percent goth.”

And what’s the other 50 percent?

“I don’t know,” she says.

“We call it gypsy psych,” Gonzales says. “We come out of the ‘free music’ tradition.”

“We want to take people on a voyage,” Gazic says. “Take them on a ride with stories and music.”

Writing in The Wire — the London-based magazine considered the critical bellwether for abstract and underground sonic art around the globe — Mike Barnes said in a review of TATO’s Snake Bird Blue CD that “some of the music on this record sounds like it could have been overheard at a country fair a century ago … It feels like the two musicians are invoking the ghosts of long dead parlor tunes, drinking songs and sea shanties.”

Terror at the Opera doesn’t sound like anything else in Detroit garageland, which is to the band’s advantage, nor does it sound much like anything produced anywhere else. Gazic and Gonzales say they share kinship with other talented “weirdos and anarchist bands” in the city, like Saturday Looks Good to Me, Human Eye, the Piranhas, the Genders and the art of noise-pop crowd at Time Stereo.

Some comparisons are being drawn to Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom, whose The Milk-Eyed Mender was thought to be 2004’s breakthrough for the so-called neo-folk movement, and to Michael Gira, who combined decadent confessionals with plodding industrial hardcore in the ’80s with the Swans. Terror at the Opera opened for Gira’s current band, Angels of Light, last year at the Magic Stick.

But however they try to blend in with any trends, be they local or international, it’s probably best that Gazic and Gonzales don’t fit in too well. They are perfectly matched outsiders: born in December within days of each other, though six years apart; not into the riot grrl or the girly-girl image (despite their weakness for filigreed adornments, and outlandish makeup and hair experiments), nor profanity (“We don’t use normal cuss words,” says Gazic. “We try to invent our own.”) or conventional merchandising. After all, they sell bookmarks — along with CDs, vinyl and buttons — at their sales table during live shows.

Terror at the Opera’s distinct charms are getting noticed and keeping them busy. Gonzales says a producer in Amsterdam has invited TATO to perform music for a traveling theatrical show that will play dates in Holland, Belgium, Sweden and Germany in 2006. The band has recorded film sound tracks (for former Detroit artist Kelly Parker), recently released a single, “In the Eye”/”Masquarade,” and is recording material for a new CD. The two women collect quirky records and play them out as DJs, called Terror on the Tables. The band is seemingly always sitting in, supporting, headlining or on the road; yet they manage to stay fresh. And they are adding more musicians to the live show including a drummer. Adoration is spread among girls and boys, critics and freaks, theater people and filmmakers, rockers and dancers.

Gonzales shares a story from a late 2004 tour. She says a fan approached her after a show in Nashville, where the Terrors were playing with Saturday Looks Good to Me.

“This boy was so excited. He kept saying, ‘That was so fucked up, so fucked up!’ It made my heart beat faster,’” Gonzales says, noticing her words are being recorded in the notebook. “Then he must have looked at my face, because he said: ‘I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you.’”

“We know he was giving us a compliment,” Gazic says. “We actually like it when we’re called ‘fucked up.’ It just sounds so 1999.”


Appearing Wednesday, Jan. 19, at Small’s (10339 Conant, Hamtramck; 313-873-1117) with Azita.

Walter Wasacz is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]
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