Robert Johnson & the Browns are not bandleader and band, as the name implies, but rather two one-man bands that merged into a two-man band. The Browns is Todd Rittmann, better known as a guitarist for rock deconstructionists U.S. Maple. In 1996, he played one show by himself on drums and bass, recorded a track for the Camp Skingraft compilation, and then persuaded a friend to join the "band," which briefly turned into a "retarded vaudeville magic routine," exploring the discomfort caused by misplaced humor. Meanwhile Johnson, a former member of the Georgia band Slow-worm, was putting on shows where he'd play several guitars, sometimes at once, or maybe string four or five guitars and a bass along a wire and ask the audience to throw Superballs at them. Rittmann and Johnson began collaborating in late '97, and in '98 released a self-titled album on Rittmann's own label, Countywide. A limited-edition LP, Company No Company, was supposed to follow soon thereafter--in time for a European tour--but a snafu with the artwork prevented it from coming out until this past August.
The new album sounds like a haunted cuckoo clock, drifting between tuned and detuned, spacious and saturated, poignant and piercing. Sometimes the guitar twitches involuntarily, chattering like teeth in a half-dead body as it's dropped into a river. With titles like "Jealous of the Dead" and "I'm Gonna Say Blood a Lot," it could be mistaken for gratuitous art-school goth. But the cheese factor is negated by the way Robert Johnson & the Browns approach the intersection of order and chaos.
Rittmann plays bass, drums, and a guitar simultaneously while Johnson cranks out his harsh and elusive guitar solos. Onstage, Rittmann looks like he can't stand to be there, opening his mouth like he's about to say something, then gaping wordlessly, and striking the drums like someone's forcing his hand. The emaciated, cadaverous Johnson looks just plain fucked up. But their set is always incredibly tight. Each guy executes his part just sparsely enough to let the other fill up the space, making the hollow, disjointed structures sound like the work of a larger band. Several performances have ended with Johnson standing still in the middle of a dimly lit stage while Rittmann, with a glint of malice in his eyes, outfits him with as many guitars as his narrow shoulders can handle. He then gingerly places a crash helmet on Johnson's head, steps back to admire his handiwork, and hurls handfuls of rubber balls at his bandmate. The audience joins in, pegging both Johnson and the strings on his guitars, and a spontaneous sonic fracas ensues.
It sounds kind of stupid, but in the context of the rest of the act it proves a point. Robert Johnson & the Browns, like their kin U.S. Maple, play music that often sounds random and chaotic but is more likely carefully constructed. The only way the audience can know for sure is to participate.
Johnson and Rittmann have also pulled some one-off stunts, including a show at Roby's last year where audience members were told ahead of time to bring acoustic guitars and strum one predetermined chord. Some were showboats, playing really loud and fast; others took the matter more seriously, trying different rhythms. Most were nonchalant, strumming only when the mood struck them. Dull as the limitation was, it demonstrated that everything is open to interpretation. At another show, at 6Odum, they rode exercise bikes with plastic tags of various sizes mounted to the wheels. With guitars strategically placed below the wheels, the tags strummed the guitars with varying force, though eventually a pattern emerged, demonstrating that all music is to some extent composed.
These are all interesting concepts, of course, but they don't necessarily translate to aural fulfillment. At the band's first local performance since Company No Company came out, last Friday at the Fireside Bowl, they put most of the physical gimmicks aside, leaving the focus (mostly) on the music. Johnson, looking like a defanged Dracula in a skintight white shirt made from garbage bags and a tiny black satin cape with a big, floppy butterfly collar, methodically played one crunching, dissonant chord on a guitar, over and over, for about two minutes. Then he unplugged the guitar and picked up another, prompting a collective sigh of relief from the audience--only to resume the same chord and dull rhythm. As if to test the limits of our endurance, he did it twice more, keeping his bruised-looking eyes trained on the Fireside's dirty floor.
Rittmann, clad in a sleeveless black version of Johnson's ensemble, maintained a burning stare at the distance between his nose and the audience. Two times he strolled on and then back off the stage, as if undecided about whether to play at all. He rambled across his minimalist drum kit with one hand, played a bass strapped to his body with the other, and once in a while struck a guitar off to one side percussively.
There were no "songs," just variations on a circular, repetitive theme, but flashes of melodic sense bridged the wide stretches of confusion. (Who was it that said, "When it's dark enough you can see the stars"?) The only emotion shown throughout the entire performance was when Rittmann picked up a guitar, sauntered front and center, and broke into a beautifully elaborate, almost bluesy solo, a look of elation on his face. After 30 seconds, Johnson walked over and unplugged him, mid-jam. Resuming his previous stuporous expression, Rittmann returned to his drums for the second half of the performance, which almost exactly mirrored the first half.
The rest of the bands on the bill that night were hell-bent on going berserk. Technophiles Salvo Beta, who played first, more or less humped their synths and large drum kit, manipulating samples of what sounded like Marilyn Manson being pushed at warp speed through the birth canal. Their white-noise gabber rivaled Atari Teenage Riot's self-indulgent temper tantrums in impotency. Next came Kungfu Rick, who puked out one chugging guitar chord after another and screamed predictable antiestablishment lyrics. Melt-Banana played last, their patented avant-garde freakout carefully designed to create the illusion of craziness. But Robert Johnson & the Browns, no strangers to nutty antics, chose to force the audience to calm down long enough to think--showing that a little restraint can be way more intense than even the most explosive spazathon.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.