The Bob
A Pocketful of Miracle Room
Lots of bands can dance this mess around; until recently, none has attempted to make a mess sing. Say hello at last to the New York City trio Miracle Room, equipped with enough imagination to raid your average landfill or lumberyard and turn it into a junk orchestra of mind-bending flamboyance. On its debut EP, released last year by Bar/None Records, the band (then composed of lead vocalist/guitarist Steve Marsh, bassist Ed Greer, and drummer Rock Savage) whips up a polyrhythmic firestorm with the help of propane tanks, 55-gallon steel drums, water jugs, metal rods, cookware an power drills. Tracks like the raga-esque "Mother of Destruction"--a whining, chiming affair undercut by a frenzy of industrial noise--the reverberating, relentless "These Are My Friends," and the exotic "Untitled"--created by making a number of sounds on an amplified steel pipe (the results make you feel like you're being transported on a subway through the fifth dimension)--are mighty fearsome on tape. But to fully appreciate Miracle Room's songs one must hear them in live performance, where they're accompanied by a special visual, visceral lunacy. The group has been known to dumbfound its audiences by playing barn doors strung with piano wire and guitar pickups, or electrified packing-crate lids; and to base its stage show on such strategies as taking a bullet-ridden car apart with power tools and loading it with smoke bombs, or building a doghouse while using every tool and piece of wood as a musical instrument. Why go to such trouble to enhance the sonic experience? "When we play live we're going for a very complete intoxication of the audience," Greer explains. "We're out to spin some heads, and whatever we're doing visually helps a whole lot.
The things we use don't look like you should be able to get those sounds out of them or make music with them." Marsh adds, "You can look at it this way too: It's like prehistoric people didn't do their ritual to the mother goddess with just music. I couldn't imagine making music just with sound. You can listen to something intellectually and perceive it that way. But to make the musical experience real, to make it a real body experience, all of the senses have to be bombarded. We're going for that life-changing kind of thing." As the child of Baptist parents--his father is a minister and his mother is a teacher--Marsh wasn't exactly encouraged to pursue music while growing up in Austin, Texas. Still, he knew from a very young age that he was destined to be in a band. "I remember when I was about five or six years old, having a very romantic experience with a drum in a big churchyard next door to my house, because it was next door to the house of the girl I was crazy about," Marsh says. "She of course wasn't having anything to do with me, so I was out there playing the drum. It didn't work, but it fixed me for life." Marsh first formulated the concept of Miracle Room during a stay in New York City five years ago. Upon returning to Austin, he hooked up with Savage and Greer (an immigrant from Northern Ireland). Marsh says the group was not modeled after any special prior influences--"I listened to a lot of stuff growing up, but I was never able to put it into a formula. The band kind of had to work itself out in my pointed little head." But a couple of influences become self-evident when a listener experiences Miracle Room. For one, the quartet's low-tech tools and methods are reminiscent of early blues musicians. "We're definitely grabbing the end of the thread going back to the blues and all the way back to their ancestors and all the ancestors before that," Marsh says. "There are a lot of threads to grab. We're trying to make a shirt out of them." Miracle Room spent a few years getting established (and growing frustrated) on Southern turf before relocating to New York in early 1989. The trio's decision to move was based on equal parts instinct, Marsh's prior experience in the Big Apple, and a toss of the coin. "I just felt New York would be the place I'd want to end up in to make it happen," Marsh says. The city has continued to reward the band far more fully than Austin ever did. Not long after their arrival, Miracle Room scored a record deal with Bar/None (the ensuing EP was produced by fellow New Yorker Hahn Rowe, of the now-disbanded Hugo Largo) and also struck up a friendship with the owners of the Knitting Factory, where the band has become a regular attraction. Miracle Room's song "Open Heart" was featured on the first 'Live at the Knitting Factory ' compilation. The club even sponsored the group's first tour of Europe last winter. Those who have caught recent performances by the group have witnessed some important changes. Longtime Roomie drummer Savage left the band at the end of last summer. According to Marsh, his replacement, Clem Waldmann, has assumed Savage's role with the same sort of assertiveness the Iraqis displayed in annexing Kuwait. "Clem just kind of walked up to us, announced himself and took over. He was the first person we talked to and auditioned." Waldmann was attracted to the band by the centrifugal role percussion plays in Miracle Room's music, and the fact that all its members contribute accents to the rhythms made by the visually overwhelming and sonically disturbing array of tanks, cans, tom toms and snares. "The percussion setup is a very even, across the board, separation of power," he says. "It's not like you have this front man who's dominating the band and everyone else is backing him up. And there's a different perspective on being a drummer, 'cause you're normally sitting behind a drum set in the back of the stage. This is more out Waldmann's most significant opportunity to live up to (and transcend) the Rock Savage legend came last October, when Miracle Room set out for points west--like Chicago, Texas and California (for the first time)--on a two-month tour. The prospect of taking their act on the road for such an extended period prompted the group members to rethink just what their visuals should be. They opted for a video show augmented by a stripped-down approach to live performance art. "They're sort of like home movies from hell," Marsh says of the videos. "There's not much of a narrative to them, but they definitely add to the meaning of whatever it is we're doing." Marsh's wife Jane Dowling joined the band as coordinator of these films; she also sings, performs spoken word segments and plays a "tape guitar"--a piece of wood to which two- and three-foot strips of prerecorded audiotape are attached (sound is created by running a playback tape head along the strips manually). "The addition of these elements is an attempt to compartmentalize that kind of once-ever show--like the car thing--into something that can be done on a regular basis, have the same effect but not take so long to clean up afterwards," Marsh says. Does that mean that we'll never see those over-the-top, washing-machine-and-car-shattering happenings at Miracle Room gigs again? Sure we'll see 'em, as long as the band continues to, in Greer's words, "stumble across ojects demanding to be taken apart and beaten to death." "God, we're always having demented new ideas," Marsh says. "They just don't stop once you get started."

Pat Grandjean