Sitting at the Northside Italian restaurant Sangiovese and swishing a glass of wine, Greg Rode, one-half of the Indianapolis jazz/electronic duo Mystikos Quintet, sums up his minimalist approach to writing and arranging music with a succinct phrase, which, taken literally, might lead directly to John Cage's "4'33'": "I'm not a big fan of notes." Despite Rode's misgivings - and he talks more about his love for riff-based jazz than a desire to overthrow the Western musical tradition - there are more than a few notes on the Quintet's third and most recent album, Club Dub A Go Go. What there aren't are mindless improvisations or skittering polyrhythms. Club Dub's 11 tracks blend jazz and down tempo-dub with an organic, roots-based feel that's created by the use of jazz or blues vocal samples (including Son House's a cappella "John the Revelator") or live instrument samples (several tasty trumpet and saxophone solos).
Rode, 54, tall and thin with spiky grey hair and often wearing an intelligent, contemplative frown, discusses his work, changes in the music business ("You've got to do what people used to consider selling out - you want your music on a Mitsubishi commercial") and ageism (when he first got into electronic music, younger musicians shied away from working with him because he was edging into his late 40s), while his other half in Mystikos, Kyle Hodges, 33, bearded, soft-spoken and in an intense struggle with militant groundwires on this night, spins a DJ set for the Sangiovese bar crowd (with turntables atop a covered grand piano), incorporating Mystikos tracks into a set that ranges from jazz and funk standards to the latest remix by Austrian down tempo duo Kruder and Dorfmeister.
Rode and Hodges had something new to talk about when they got to the restaurant for their gig on this early November Saturday night: the recent inclusion of Club Dub lead-off track "Bring Me What Ya Got For Me" on NBC's Lipstick Jungle, a show in the vein of Sex in the City (based on a book by the same author), but frothier and shinier. The song plays over the opening to a scene at what seems to be the fake launch party for a fake tennis magazine, and while it occupies the center of the soundtrack for about 15 seconds (including the lead-off vocal sample to the track, a woman singing soulfully and directly, "You've got the love I need"), Hodges is disappointed they didn't let the song play until the first breakdown.
Slicing and dicing
To demystify a few things, Hodges hasn't always been part of the Mystikos Quintet, and there's never been five members. Rode made his living as a guitarist and keyboardist in roots rock bands from the mid '70s until the early '90s, playing the upper Midwest and Canada and trying to sell his constant output of songs to alt-country musicians without success. He got married, gave up the life of a professional musician, went to school and eventually ended up in Seattle, where he met up with a group of electronic musicians who were younger than him and told him all about the magic of computers. "They showed me how you could use technology to manipulate loops and samples, and basically take great sounds that you would normally have to pay thousands of dollars to session musicians to play," Rode explains. "Using the computer, you could take these pre-recorded sounds and rearrange them, slice them and dice them, and make something new."
So when Rode moved to Indianapolis and found himself without a job, he took that time to create the first, self-titled Mystikos record. "The reason I called it Mystikos Quintet was I wanted to create the sound of a live band, a live jazz band, but with a definite beat orientation. I wanted people to listen to it and think that it was a band. It actually worked because I had a lot of people come up to me and they were shocked and surprised when they found out there weren't five people. I got offers for live performances." While Mystikos still couldn't perform as a live band, per se, various elements combine on a Mystikos track to create what does sometimes sound like a live-to-tape, organic jazz recording: Rode plays guitar and keyboard on some tracks, vocal samples are sometimes obviously edited and at other times left whole, instrumental tracks sometimes sound like musicians riffing over the chords in real time, the drum set samples are mic'ed in a jazz style with crisp drums and plenty of cymbal.
Hodges - who Rode calls "pretty much the No. 1 down tempo DJ in the city" - was working at Indy CD and Vinyl when he heard that first Mystikos album, which he enjoyed and thought the work of a kindred spirit, and made some initial entreaties to Rode, proposing that the two might work together. But when Hodges heard Rode's second Mystikos release, The Second Record Album, he wouldn't take no for an answer. "I pretty much demanded we do something together, or at least try something," Hodges says. On the night after the inclusion of the song on Lipstick Jungle, Hodges remembers that the first track the two worked on together was "Bring Me What Ya Got For Me."
Dr. Goldfoot and Blue House
After they found that they were both kindred spirits and also capable of working together, the two set about collaborating on the third Mystikos album (as well as, eventually, an up-tempo, club project called the Watusi Brothers). Hodges explains the division of labor: "Greg would come up with lots of ideas and structures of songs, and then I'd sit down with him and help fit it all together, fine tune things, or just give credit in telling him, 'Don't touch this song.'"
Mystikos hasn't yet found the ideal venue or even performance approach; Rode talks of finding an appropriate club for down tempo or jazztronica or incorporating live musicians and video into DJ sets. And for the next record, Hodges says that "We want to write everything and have specific musicians perform what we want them to perform, with their taste in mind, and then take that and cut it and transform it into a Mystikos track. We're going to use live samples from databases and live samples that we've had created specifically for us." A few weeks after the Sangiovese interview, Rode says (via e-mail) that he and Hodges are working on a slew of projects in lieu of live performances, including "an attempt to combine delta blues with dub and house sounds" (working title: Son of a Blue House), "an attempt to revive some of the minimalist rock of the late '70s and early '80s with club sounds" (working title: Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs) and new music by Mystikos and the Watusi Brothers.
Mystikos Quintet (2006)
The Second Record Album (2007)
Club Dub A Go Go (2008)
As the Watusi Brothers, Martini Time (2008)
Hear more from Greg Rode and Kyle Rhodes and tracks by Mystikos Quintet on The Sound of NUVO at nuvo.net/music.