A Novelty, but Not a Novelty Act: Jeff Wichmann, October 26 at Rozz-Tox Print
Music - Feature Stories
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Thursday, 18 October 2012 05:01

Jeff Wichmann

In what is likely a statement of the painfully obvious, Jeff Wichmann said that his new album Ahhhhh!!!!! is “something that, as far as I can tell, no one’s ever created before, which is a koto/trumpet album with a lot of electronic blips and bleeps.”

And that’s not all. “I wanted to create an experimental rock album using the koto and the trumpet, as opposed to recording a koto album” of traditional compositions, Wichmann said in a recent phone interview. “Most koto players just do that. I found that limiting ... .”

Wichmann, a former Quad Citian (and former Reader employee) now based in Chicago, will be headlining the official release show for Ahhhhh!!!!! at Rozz-Tox on October 26, and it’s almost certain to be a unique experience. The trumpeter and koto player will be joined by guitarist Jeff Kmieciak (a bandmate in Tenki, which plans to release its final album next year) and, on at least one song, Konrad (the Quad Cities electronic-music artist whose remix of the title track is included on the new record).

While the koto/trumpet core is certainly a novelty, Wichmann is not a novelty act; he’s not passing rock songs through the filter of traditional instruments, as has been done countless times with pianos and orchestras and string quartets. Instead, he’s using his instruments within the rock aesthetic.

Trumpets date back many millennia, and the koto – a traditional stringed instrument from Japan to which Wichmann was introduced at Augustana College – is well over a thousand years old. His use of them, however, is wholly contemporary. For many tracks on Ahhhhh!!!!!, layers of kotos were run through phasers in post-production, so they sometimes “sound like maybe electric guitar,” he said. “The koto can be kind of challenging to record sometimes, because it can sound plunky – beautiful, yet plunky. So I wanted to dirty it up, and make it more approachable for audiences to listen to.”

The title track – which opens Ahhhhh!!!!! – serves as a bold, driving, and concise primer, in two minutes laying the groundwork for the remainder. Big, scuffed beats push things forward, and the trumpets build to a frenzied climax, but the two sets of koto sounds – one largely unprocessed, carrying the melody and interest, and the other functioning as rhythm guitar – show how artfully Wichmann has brought his primary instrument into a foreign land.

That’s followed by the cinematic textures of “Sunrise” – suitable for scoring an unbearably patient and tense cat-and-mouse scene – and “Run,” which continues down the path of “Aあhhhhh!!!!!” but brings vocals into the mix. Then “F--- it! I’m Rod Blagojevich!” is a soulful workout for trumpet, bass, and beats.

After that, Ahhhhh!!!!! takes a decidedly different turn. The most Eastern-sounding thing on the album to that point – purposefully, one guesses – is the melody line of “Voodoo,” which as a whole is a careful but largely faithful teleportation of one of Jimi Hendrix’s signature tunes to Japan. Wichmann said it was the first cover song he learned on the koto: “It is weird. You can play blues on the koto. That’s all it is.” In a follow-up e-mail, he wrote that the first time he played his version of the song for an audience, “I realized people could relate to the koto in a direct way that didn’t sound so foreign. It was an ‘Ahhhhh’ moment for everyone.”

Then comes “Tokyo 2010” (arranged and mixed by HAL, who also contributed two remixes), a 12-minute digital cut-up of koto, noise, and street sounds in which the natural placidity of the Japanese instrument is ripped apart by a modern cacophony.

From there, things calm down for a while. The expansive and seemingly narrative composition for unadorned koto “初秋 – Shoshuu (Early Autumn),” leads naturally into “Look” and its gradual introductions of trumpet and electronics.

Then the progression of the three distinct sections of “Time” closes the album proper with a ballsy incoherence that ultimately coalesces, as sleepy, somber vocals and koto give way to agitation, what sounds like a bagpipe, and a final, satisfying coming together of everything that’s come before: koto, trumpet, electronics, and voice.

Wichmann said that working on the album over the past five years wasn’t a revelatory experience – that he didn’t see his instruments in a new light through the rock context. But he admitted that there was no guarantee the project would gel: “The only surprise was that it worked.”

Jeff Wichmann will perform on Friday, October 26, at Rozz-Tox (2108 Third Avenue, Rock Island; RozzTox.com). The 9 p.m. all-ages show also features Konrad and The Multiple Cat, and admission is $5.

For more information on Wichmann, visit JeffWichmann.com.