The Octopus Project embraces new sounds in making its own

July 24, 2009


Though a band always can claim bragging rights for playing one of the main stages in Grant Park, the 11:30 a.m. opening slot at Lollapalooza is a thankless one, especially on the last day of the festival, when the music might be heard by a few dozen hearty, sun-burned souls as everyone else sleeps in.

Nevertheless, when the Austin, Texas, quartet the Octopus Project took the stage in Hutchinson Field last year, it provided the perfect contrast to the bombast of the rest of the festival, creating a soothing, blissful vibe under the bright blue skies and entrancing everyone who listened to the band's gorgeous ambient/electronic soundscapes.

"Lollapalooza was fun in kind of an overwhelming and confusing way," says drummer, guitarist and bassist Toto Miranda. "It was definitely out of our usual realm of experience. But the goal always has been to make the most of whatever opportunities come our way -- to make the freakiest music we can and to get it in front of as many people as possible."

Miranda and fellow multi-instrumentalists Josh and Yvonne Lambert have been friends since they were preteens growing up in the same neighborhood in Houston.

"We all began getting involved in music together in high school -- there were quite a few different bands -- but we all ended up in Austin, which is where we started Octopus Project [with the final member, guitarist, bassist and keyboardist Ryan Figg]," Miranda says.

"In our earlier bands, it was always a little bit more normal rock 'n' roll," Miranda continues. "But as Josh and I started to work together more, we got more interested in different sounds -- weirder sounds -- which kind of led us to electronic music. Basically, we started this band as a blank slate to explore any sounds that caught our attention. Songwriting definitely is a big part of it, but the motivation comes from sounds first -- trying to put new sounds together and exploring new sounds that we might not have used yet."

This approach has resulted in a sense of timelessness on the group's three albums, "Identification Parade" (2002), "One Ten Hundred Thousand Million" (2005) and "Hello, Avalanche" (2007). The foursome alternately might evoke Pink Floyd circa 1967, Brian Eno in his late-'70s ambient phase, early techno giants Moby, the Aphex Twin or the Orb, or an electronic update of ancient psychedelic sounds, such as the gamelan or the drummers of Joujouka.

Miranda confesses that the musicians only discovered some of the '60s heroes they've been compared to late in the game.

"I don't really come from any kind of a classic-rock knowledge," he says. "I've only learned about that stuff gradually, like, 'Oh, that's where that comes from!'" But that doesn't mean the music doesn't work, and enhancing much of it is one of the most unique instruments in rock.

The theremin is, of course, one of the first electronic instruments, a primitive synthesizer that is played by waving your hands in front of two antennas. It's best known for providing the sounds of UFOs in B-grade horror movies from the '50s, as well as adding the distinctive swooping hook to the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations" and the noises from hell to Led Zeppelin's "Dazed and Confused." But unlike most of the indie-rockers who fool with this odd-looking gizmo today, Yvonne Lambert is an accomplished player, if not a virtuoso, conjuring complicated and nuanced melodies.

"Josh and Yvonne bought a theremin, and for a long time it was just sort of part of our collection of crazy stuff," Miranda says. "Then, at a certain point, she decided that she was really going to take it to the next level, and she put in the hours and got to be pretty amazing with it. Now, it's a tremendous resource to have when we're putting together a tune -- it's a really unique quality that we can try to utilize."

The theremin and Yvonne Lambert's beautiful but under-utilized vocals are two of the most winning ingredients on the band's new EP, "Golden Beds," which collects two songs originally recorded for a single released by the British indie label Too Pure as part of its subscription 45s series; a few songs that were shelved during the recording of "Hello, Avalanche" and a song from the first album that has mutated over the years to become almost a completely different tune.

"Golden Beds" serves as a perfect introduction to the band for new listeners, as well as tiding over committed fans until the next album, which the group hopes to begin working on after a busy summer of touring.

"We all write for different instruments, and we write complete songs or bits of songs and then hand them off to somebody else, who'll write all the parts for the next section of the tune or whatever," Miranda says. "Basically, we're all just trying to surprise one another with something none of us have heard before."