The first time I saw Tirra Lirra, in the fall of 2006, I tried to listen with an open mind, but what they were doing just sounded like noisy, self-indulgent guitar jams to me. Trouble was, I couldn't tell whether I hated it because my relationship with front man Hank Henry is what I'd have to call "complicated" if I were friending him on Facebook—we used to be roommates and then had a girl-related falling-out—or because they were in fact kicking some real bullshit.
It turns out "bullshit" is the right answer, at least if you ask the band. "The show we played at the end of 2006 at the Bottle I count as the first show," Henry says. "We played like two or three shows before that. One at the Big Horse, and it was like hell. It was so bad."
"Tragic," says drummer Jared Sheldon.
"Brutal," Henry says. "At that point I was sitting down in a chair while we played. I played guitar and lap steel. . . . I think we just didn't know what we were gonna do. We were trying to be original and sort of flushing all the insanity out. It was dumb. I had this desk . . . and it was stupid, you know?"
At that point Henry, Sheldon, guitarist Chris Mathis, and modular-synth guy Tony Janas had been playing together for about a year. Their ideas—aside from Henry sitting at a desk to play—seemed pretty decent, but most of them were still hazy, so that what was supposed to be an experimental reimagining of the standard rock combo came off like a bunch of guys too lazy to do any actual songwriting and taking forever to get from point A to point B. "It was just jamming," says Henry. "We have tapes and tapes of the stuff. They're on our Web site in this secret folder, and we revisit them sometimes. It's like this other world of ridiculousness. For some reason we never made songs for so long."
The next time I saw Tirra Lirra was at the Empty Bottle this past November, opening for Ariel Pink and Cass McCombs. In the year or so since that terrible early show, something amazing had happened: they were fucking excellent. Instead of slogging aimlessly through those interminable jams, they ripped through a taut set of postmodern psychedelia, referencing everything from neo-tribalists like Indian Jewelry to 80s goth pop to the harsh proto-industrial weirdness of Throbbing Gristle. They hadn't purged the noise, just propped it up with actual pop structures. I found myself genuinely excited each time they started a new song.
Most of this growth is also evident on the band's only release so far, the five-song EP Breathe Bodies, recorded in early 2007 in Pierpont, Missouri, with Cooper Crain from Warhammer 48K and released last summer by the Static Station label (which Henry and Sheldon both have a hand in). Maybe the biggest change to the music has been in Henry's role. He's ditched not just the desk but the guitars and often sings from behind a single floor tom. More important, his vocal style has evolved from an unobtrusive mantralike monotone—just another texture in the sonic murk—into the focal point of the songs. He's developed a bit of melodic range and pushes his syllables with authority, so that his voice is compelling despite such heavy treatment with delay and other effects that you can't understand a thing he says.
"Vocally," says Henry, "I'm just like . . . at first I guess I thought it would be cool to do a more chanty sort of Eastern style. After we did the EP thing . . . the last song on the record, 'Alabaster,' it was more singy, more singing, like more of a song song. I love the Cocteau Twins but I'm not a woman. Can't sing like that. But I still like it a lot. I just like the idea that she could create really catchy melodies and it's still kind of weird, lyrically and soundwise."
You might figure that a band with a member whose main job is playing with knobs and effects pedals would go wild in the studio, shoveling on the overdubs and trying every gimmick in the book, but Breathe Bodies is a straightforward-sounding disc. Tirra Lirra recorded all together in Crain's converted garage rather than layering their parts on one at a time, and the performances capture the spiky wildness of their live shows. The music doesn't feel tentative and careful, like they were playing for the tape, and the final arrangements aren't overworked or overcooked. It probably helped that the tape machine broke down shortly after the band finished the basic tracks. "I forget who said it," Mathis says, "but if you work fast and cheap you're probably gonna get something more unique out of it than if you spend too much time."
Judging from a CD-R of recent practice-space demos, the first Tirra Lirra LP—which the band plans to record this year—could make the leap from good to great. The first of those demo tunes, the stunning "We Are All Strays," begins with droning guitar and rolling drums and quickly expands into a minor epic, riding a wash of distortion through an unexpected major-key progression to a triumphant high. If you replaced the eccentric parts of Tirra Lirra's instrumentation—Jesus and Mary Chain guitar noise, something that sounds like a looped snippet of backward strings—with standard alt-rock guitar crunch, the song would be ready for Q101. For some reason this half-and-half approach strikes me as even more perverse than making uncut noise—it's like the band has taken beard-stroker art music, put it behind the wheel of a sports car, and told it to go nuts.
But while their songs are flirting with normalcy, the guys in Tirra Lirra are the same bunch of freaks they've always been. They still generate new material by improvising, filling tape after tape with their jams, and lately they've begun using an even stranger method—like a visualization exercise you might do to break the ice in group therapy. "We started writing these songs while we were envisioning a lot of water and an island," Henry says, "and then every song was sort of like 'Make up a thing,' like 'Here come the natives.' Something more visual—narrative-type stuff. When I wrote the song 'Breathe Bodies,' I had this weird dream where there were two people on a boat and they just accepted that they were gonna die. . . . And then we kind of were like, maybe that's a good idea to give you a visual, because then everybody doesn't have to be told what to do, but we're in the same mind-set."
"It's a good enough description," Janas says. "It's not like 'You have to play a part like this,' but like 'Play more blue.' It works." v
For more on music, see our blogs Crickets and Post No Bills at chicagoreader.com.