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Rock in 5/4 time

The fractured existence (and fractal rhythms) of Bozart

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The term math rock gets tossed around pretty recklessly these days—though perhaps not as recklessly as it did a few years ago. There was a time when any band opting for counterpoint and compound time signatures over four-on-the-floor beats and verse-chorus-verse structure would invariably be compared to Don Caballero—a band so math rock that it actually got its own chapter under that heading in the book Progressive Rock Revisited.

A lot of discursively mathy bands bridle at getting tagged with the math-rock label, as though their guiding principle in songwriting was to make arrangements as studiously and calculatedly obfuscatory as possible above all other aims. But the fact remains that bands using irregular time signatures are the exception rather than the rule in most rock music, including the all-comers indie scene. So when I got word that Minneapolis duo Bozart was mounting another tour, I jumped at the chance to catch up with guitarist Peter Hawkinson. This, after all, is a musician so attuned to unlikely compositional stimuli that he once noticed a bird strutting in 5/4 time and was inspired to graft that unusual gait into a Bozart arrangement.

Hawkinson is still living in Minneapolis and calling himself a “housewife” because most of his time lately has been spent fixing up the house he and his wife are trying to sell before moving to Columbus, Ohio, where she will attend graduate school. He’s also been doing some “volunteer recording,” engineering four or five records for various Twin Cities bands. And listening to a lot of death metal—an unlikely influence on Bozart’s music, perhaps, but a genre that Hawkinson cites as a continuing fascination for both himself and drummer Derek Oringer. It’s all about the arrangements, he says: “If you listen to the Emperor album Prometheus that came out in 2001, that’s some of the best construction of rock music songs.”

Oringer, however, has been in Portland since 2001, playing in a metal band called Lachrymator (that’s Latin for something that makes you cry). Yet there’s a new Bozart album, The Steel Bridge (the band’s third, and the first one not to be named for a grain elevator also pictured on the cover), clearly recorded since the apparent rending-asunder of like musical minds Hawkinson and Oringer by Oringer’s move to Portland. What gives? How can you be in a band that plays music this complex while living over 1500 miles away from each other?

“We’ve gotten on a slow schedule of getting together a couple three times a year in Portland,” Hawkinson says. “I would come out whenever I had a couple of new songs and we’d get together and we’d record and maybe play a show or two around there. But this tour is the first time we’ve actually gone out for a multiple-city engagement since we were in Missoula last time, way back in the summer of 2001.”

“What’ll happen,” says Hawkinson of the long-distance collaboration process, “is when I’m writing music, I’ll make recordings of the new parts and put those on the Internet for Derek to listen to and write his own parts for, so he’s kinda been exposed to new stuff before we get together. On the last couple of songs that we mixed for this album, we actually went as far as to send each other files with overdubs to mix together. Most of the songs I mixed here in Minneapolis, but there were a couple that Derek mixed out in Portland, so the stuff was going in both directions.”

And, says Hawkinson, he and Oringer still intend to keep the band together once the “eastern office” moves to Columbus. Just don’t expect too much too soon.

“I think it’s going to be the same thing,” Hawkinson ventures. “I don’t see us ever going at a faster pace than an album every two or two and a half years. But we both really like doing that, and the response to our putting this latest tour together has been really good.”

As for the inspiration to keep writing Bozart songs, Hawkinson somewhat ruefully tells me that there haven’t been any birds strutting in 5/4 lately. He knows I find that story particularly intriguing, and he’s been thinking about what to say when I ask him if anything like that has happened again.

“I was trying to think if there’s been anything like that lately,” he reflects. “But I’m so close to the end of creating this record, it’s hard for me to step back and think about where it actually came from.”

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