Horns of plenty

Shaun O'Dell moves from sight to sound with Sword and Sandals and WR/DS

Shaun O'Dell is best known for his visual art, such as the work above, but he's also made noise with Sword and Sandals


MUSIC Shaun O'Dell is best known for his visual art work — work that has earned him a Goldie from the Guardian, a SECA Award from San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and more recently the Tournesol Award at Headlands Center for the Arts. Less known is O'Dell's work in music, likely because over the years the artist has distanced himself from the scene, its attendant clash of egos, and the oft-inevitable creative tussles. "I'd been in bands before," he says by phone. "That's part of the reason I went into visual art. I didn't want to collaborate with people anymore — it just got weird and stressful."

So when old friend and Thee Oh Sees leader John Dwyer — for whom O'Dell played sax on an early Coachwhips recording — asked the painter to try his hand at his latest project with Randy Lee Sutherland (Vholtz, Murder Murder) a couple years ago, O'Dell obviously wasn't planning on major sand scuffles or gladiatorial touring.

The three started playing together, and lo, "it worked." Meaning, the trio might play a little before a performance and then bring it all together live, while improvising. "It wasn't rehearsed music — it was more build-up-a-language music," as O'Dell puts it. "The energy was really about the live thing, but there was a lot of energy between the three of us whenever we played. It was good that way — no hassles."

"We played shows a lot of times with noise bands, and we weren't trying to make noise — we weren't trying to make chaos. We were basically searching through the chaos to find these common places for us to make harmonic things happen or melodic things happen or rhythmic things coalesce," O'Dell recollects. "I think the music was interesting to me because both those guys were committed to communicating but not afraid to explore and have the music fall apart at times, and I think on the record you can hear that."

You can hear that sense of play, exploration, and driving pulse on Sword and Sandals' studio debut, Good & Plenty (Empty Cellar). O'Dell and Sutherland, both on alto sax, weave in and out of each other's lines, calling like exotic birds, while Dwyer picks up such unexpected instruments as the flute on the untitled second track. Dwyer and Sutherland took turns on drums, O'Dell played tenor and Sutherland bass clarinet, and all three played keyboards, with Dwyer, and on one track, Anthony Petrovic of Ezee Tiger, interjecting with electronics and a ramshackle Moog at engineer Lars Savage's Mission District studio.

Tracked live during one all-day Ben Hur of a session, sans overdubs, Good & Plenty's improvisations pull at the ear insistently, with one foot lodged in the warehouses of SF's post-punk/-hardcore experimental music scene and another in the wild, woolly outback of improv. "All three of us have played music enough to commit to playing off the top of our heads and listening enough to make something work," observes O'Dell. "I think that's what made it different."

It's all different now: after two years with Sword and Sandals, two 2007 live CD-Rs, and a track on a Zum TwoThousandTapes compilation earlier this year, O'Dell has left the band. Instead O'Dell and Sutherland are carrying on as a duo dubbed WR/DS, playing the S&S release-show-of-sorts at Viracocha and O'Dell's book release party at Park Life Gallery. O'Dell hopes to incorporate a string section at Park Life, wryly describing WR/DS repetitive, sometimes-Terry-Reilly-inspired experiments as "art gallery music. It means we like to do it in spaces that make acoustic music sound good. It's kind of a joke — but kind of not a joke."

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