Tonos Triad: wielding subversive strings 

Sure, suitcases make great bass drums. They're practical, too, because you can carry other equipment inside.

But how does one select the right model? Rod Schindler, utility man for Tonos Triad, found his at a Goodwill store.

"He picked it out by hitting various suitcases with a ladle until he found the right tone," says the band's guitarist, Yevgeny Baburin.

The unorthodox drum kit, with its cardboard box for a snare, is a visual hint to the subversive spirit behind this smartly dressed trio, with its otherwise conventional instrumentation.

In less than two years on the local scene, Tonos has carved a unique niche with its lineup of Aaron Ransdell on upright bass, Baburin on nylon-stringed classical guitar and Schindler on a rotation of instruments that also includes accordion, melodica and mandolin.

Composing together, the players assemble miniature suites that can shift in style, tempo and time signature several times over the course of three or four minutes.

They're half joking when they call the music "jazzpop/Eurofolk," but that's about as close as you'll get to a manageable description. Otherwise, you'd end up with something like "acoustic instrumental Latino-Celtic minimalist Gypsy funk-jazz," which is an unwieldy tag for such a sleek sound.

Little footprints

Simultaneously groovy and cerebral, the music can appeal to different audiences on multiple levels. And the band's small footprint and moderate volume are suited to unconventional spaces. If necessary, they can skip electronic amplification altogether.

As a result, Tonos Triad has built its reputation at an unlikely series of venues, from punk-rock bars to art museums, from libraries to underground happenings to upscale weddings and parties.

"Our music is flexible enough that we can play in all kinds of situations," Schindler says. "Sometimes we're background music, and sometimes people are sitting 10 feet away, watching our every move."

One frequent stop has been the Big Car gallery and performance space in Fountain Square, where Tonos will appear Saturday to mark the release of its first full-length album.

The self-titled CD, which reflects the band's stripped-down live performances, was recorded in just three days in Schindler's Noblesville living room, with engineering and co-production by Paddington Productions. Available soon at local indie stores as well as at the band's Web site, it offers 12 songs in 45 minutes, all between two and five minutes long, each tightly structured with small windows for improvisation.

Opening track "Abacadabacus" is a laid-back funk gem reminiscent of the Meters, built around a four-bar guitar melody. "Bad Turn" has a similar feel, with its irregular boogie riff played in unison by the guitar and bass.

"Three Martinis," on the other hand, is all over the map, jumping from a Spanish film noir vibe to a blues vamp and back again.

"Fisherman's Sweater," a waltz with a seafaring air and a melancholy accordion theme, is inspired by the folklore of Schindler's Irish heritage. "Guiro Joint" is the clearest example of a thread that Baburin carries throughout the album, the '60s bossa nova jazz of saxophonist Stan Getz and Brazilian guitarist Joao Gilberto.

Guitar teachers only

Tonos Triad came together in late 2006 but traces its origins to an earlier point, when Ransdell and Schindler met while working as security guards at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. They bonded over their common experience of classical-music training and classic-rock fandom.

"We've been in the garage bands and the basement bands," Ransdell says, "playing for 30 bucks and free beer."

Later, they both worked as guitar teachers at a Northside music store where, as they spent their days in confined spaces with budding six-string prodigies, they vowed to start a band that did not include a guitar.

"No vocals, no steel-string guitars," Ransdell said. "Those were a couple of the first rules."

Into the store one day came "Yev" Baburin, a classical guitarist who had emigrated from Moscow with his mother at age 5.

"I remember tanks rolling through the capital," he says. "That's about the time we left."

Also a guitar teacher, Baburin shared his love of South American composers Heitor Villa-Lobos and Astor Piazzolla. All three were fans of NYC avant-garde icon John Zorn. A band was born.

Ransdell, who had picked up electric bass guitar in high school pep band, decided to try his hand at the upright double bass, a far greater physical challenge. Schindler, a guitarist who had taken some piano lessons, picked up an accordion for the first time.

They took their name from an ancient Greek term, a reference to musical tension. Preferring tight arrangements to noodling jams, they spent most of the year developing material before playing in public. Spotting a promising market, they aimed specifically for a repertoire that would suit the city's broad range of low-key cultural events, like the open houses at the Wheeler Arts Center and other artist communities.

This particular circuit, they note, is a lot less punishing than playing bar gigs until 2 a.m.

"We're usually done by 10, so we can go out for dinner and drinks," says Schindler, the band's oldest member at 34.

"We only reek of our own cigarettes," adds Baburin, still in college and the youngest at 23.

They hope the new album will open some doors, help them solidify their presence locally and regionally, and perhaps spark a deal with a CD distributor. Meanwhile, they're keeping their day jobs as guitar sages, and they don't plan to tinker with the band's formula too much.

Schindler might add to his palette of instruments -- maybe a glockenspiel, he says, or "anything that fits in the suitcase." But his great fear is to be dismissed as a novelty act.

"It was never the idea to see how weird I look playing these things," he says.

On the other hand, the opposite might be even worse.

"I hope nobody thinks we're overly serious," Schindler says. "We're just a bunch of goons."

"Murder Swing" promotional video, directed by Brandon Spitz

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