The guys in Mahjongg are happy to tell you all about themselves, as long as it's OK if they make some of it up. "We like to keep certain things secret," says Hunter Husar, who plays bass and runs a laptop for the mostly local outfit, but that doesn't account for their tall tales about how they met at Burning Man or how they're all Hare Krishnas. Sometimes they try to convince other bands on the bill they're part of a religious sex cult. They've been known to roll into a venue claiming to be a band called Sexual Vietnam; no, they'll tell the promoter, we've never heard of this "Mahjongg."
If their profile keeps rising, though, it may get tough to find a promoter who'll fall for their shtick. Mahjongg's debut EP, Machinegong, came out January 20 on Cold Crush, run by Dim Mak owner Steve Aoki and Derek Fudesco of Pretty Girls Make Graves. The Seattle label's attracted a lot of attention with a roster of cool-kid party bands that includes Gravy Train!!!! and Cobra High. Of course, the bio that went out with advance mailings of the EP is a big joke too--it's the xeroxed bio of an all-girl hip-hop group with the name crossed out and "Mahjongg" written in.
The real saga spans six years and a couple thousand miles. Husar, a former quantum physics researcher at the University of Missouri, now moves furniture and mixes sound at the Hideout; guitarist Jeff Carrillo, a former playwright, lives here too. But violinist Caryl Kientz, an improv musician and performance artist, lives in Portland, and drummer Josh Johannpeter does lighting at a venue in Columbia, Missouri. And bassist-keyboardist Gabe Vijles doesn't keep an apartment anywhere--he runs a theater cafe in Columbia but stays in Chicago for weeks at a time.
They all met in Columbia in the late 90s: Kientz and Vijles grew up there; Carrillo, Husar, and Johannpeter were attending college. Husar and Carrillo roomed together, but though both were making music--Carrillo playing guitar in the ska band the Secretaries, Husar assembling drum 'n' bass tracks on his computer--joining forces didn't immediately occur to either of them. "It took us a long time to figure out that we had any music in common," says Carrillo.
Husar says he first met Vijles at a gas station at 3 AM: he was buying condoms, Vijles was the clerk. Eventually they were properly introduced, and Vijles brought his friend Kientz into the circle.
After living together almost a year, Carrillo and Husar started to collaborate casually, recording Carrillo's acoustic guitar parts on top of Husar's loud, harsh beats. "Word got around there was this thing we were doing," says Carrillo, and in late 2000 they were asked to contribute a track to a college radio station compilation, then to play at the release party the following May. That's when they adopted their current name.
Their early music was "really ambitious, dramatic, and instrumental," says Carrillo. That first show featured Carillo, Husar, and Johannpeter playing guitar, bass, two drum sets, and a computer, plus a marimba and a xylophone they snuck out of the university. After that they'd perform only once every four months, always with a new set. "Bands in Columbia would play so often that no one would go to anyone's show," says Husar. "We didn't want people to get sick of us." Vijles sometimes joined them onstage as a jackass freestyle rapper calling himself Jojo Jojo.
After a year and a half of local gigs, Mahjongg set up a western tour for September 2002, mostly using contacts found through Maximum Rock 'n' Roll's Web site Book Your Own Fucking Life. They'd recruited a jazz bassist friend from Saint Louis, but the chemistry wasn't there. "He'd ask, 'Where's the pulse?'" Husar says, and they couldn't tell him. "He bugged out a day before the tour began." They asked Vijles to fill in--though they'd known him a few years, they'd found out only a week earlier that he actually knew how to play any instruments. "I was just sitting there," Carrillo says, "and Gabe picked up a guitar and started playing all these Tommy songs." While learning his parts in the van, Vijles started singing along, and the others were happy to hear vocals added to the long instrumental jams. "We didn't want to get lumped into post-rock," Husar says. They'd already begun incorporating more Afrobeat rhythms and what he calls "happy mistakes"--glitches in samples, wrong-sounding notes.
Kientz, who'd moved to Portland in 2000, got Mahjongg on a bill with her tongue-in-cheek performance-art ensemble Squirrel Meat. "I'd only heard their early recordings, which sounded very Stereolab-ish," she says. "I mean, they were good, but whatever." But when she saw them, she says, "my jaw dropped to the floor. I hadn't seen a band like that in a while, and they were my friends."
Back home, Husar decided he'd tired of his research job and announced he was moving to Chicago. Carrillo followed a few months later, and band members traveled back and forth to work on new material. Last May Kientz was in Columbia and stopped by a friend's house to find Mahjongg in the middle of rehearsal. Her spontaneous vocals blended in well; they asked her to join the band and bring her violin.
They headed out on tour again in July, bringing along copies of a seven-song CD-R they'd recorded in Husar's basement. The disc is a high-energy celebration of polyrhythm, plugging the improvisational qualities of African music into a grid of German techno; it's tinged with Jethro Tull-like flutter and guy-banging-on-a-tin-can weirdness. It really doesn't sound like much else out there. Carrillo explains, "There just wasn't a band to rip off that we could all agree on." The Seattle show was nearly deserted and they had only one customer at the merch table, but he bought a few CD-Rs. Three days later they got a call: Cold Crush wanted to release the disc as an EP. Turns out the fan in Seattle was a friend of Derek Fudesco's. "I didn't know anything about them," Fudesco says, "and didn't know anyone who'd ever heard of them, [but] I thought they were awesome."
He signed the band sight unseen, something he'd never done before, and met them for the first time in October at CMJ, when they played the Dim Mak/Cold Crush showcase at the Knitting Factory. Mahjongg didn't have a prominent spot on a bill that included Gossip, Young People, Pretty Girls Make Graves, and Dance Disaster Movement--they weren't even on the main stage--but they toured their way back home with Pretty Girls Make Graves. Suddenly they were playing to 100-plus people a night and sleeping in hotel rooms afterward.
And things were different back in Chicago too. Before CMJ a typical Mahjongg audience consisted of 30 people, all seated; since, they've played barely publicized shows at Buddy and the Texas Ballroom where the crowd had to be asked to spread out for fear of what all that dancing would do to the floor. Though the band didn't see any of this coming, they don't seem too surprised either. "We're not held back by fear," says Husar. "We're not afraid of criticizing each other or making fools of ourselves. And we fucking know how to party."
On Thursday, January 29, Mahjongg plays an in-store at Reckless Records on Milwaukeee. The band celebrates the release of Machinegong the following night at the Empty Bottle, then headlines the Hideout on Saturday.
Peter Margasak is on vacation.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joeff Davis.