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Emperor Moth
Emperor Moth: Art or Arthropod?

In a music world flooded by grunge/metal, jerk-funk, and mindless industrial, Emperor Moth of Gainesville stands out as a sharp contrast. Born in November 1991, this quartet—Chris Barber (percussion), Tim Hankins (viola, bass), and brothers Josh (vocals, guitar, bass) and Mischo McKay (drums)—are making some of the more creative and interesting music around.

Emperor Moth live is truly an experience. Even before the music begins, an eerie, ominous tone is set. It’s not because of the hazy lights illuminating the smoky darkness of the club, but because of the two towering structures Emperor Moth uses for percussion. The first of these resembles a more traditional drum kit, with odd cymbals and a few differences in arrangement. The second, and certainly the more striking, is Barber’s collection of old weather-beaten instruments, cymbals, and scrap metal. The steel pans are out of tune and distorted with dents that make them sound like a swarm of melodic Asian bees. There’s an unidentified aluminum dome that looks like a satellite dish or a wok lid. No matter how Barber strikes, scrapes, or rolls on it, it sounds like sinister laughter. The frame everything is attached to even makes some interesting noises. This setup is perfect for their song “Duel with the Octopus,” a somewhat chaotic tune with sporadic percussion and nervous, chilling guitar.

Yet not all of the songs are noise-damaged beats; rhythms are also used for texture. Combined with viola, jazz-tinged guitar, and intricate driving bass, the results are hypnotic and ethereal. The music goes beyond ordinary rock or alternative music, even standing in direct opposition to it. All band members are either self-taught or formally trained, but are now developing their own ideas and techniques. Combinations of classical composition, pulsating percussion, obscure lyrics, and folk music of other cultures can all be found in Emperor Moth. Sometimes the results are inverted and discordant. Other times the music is delicate and refined. It’s not a matter of consistency, but one of not being limited to any particular style.

How does songwriting and improvisation work in the band?

Josh: We split our time between working up songs of mine that I had completed and letting improvisation be a way of exploring potential directions. About one-third of our current set are songs that began as improvisation.

Tim: I don’t know of too many other bands who spend two or three months writing a single song. It’s more often the case that a band will write a song over a six pack of beer.

How do lyrics and vocals relate?

Tim: Being verbal about our interpretations is a dangerous thing. It inevitably limits the listener’s experience of the piece by creating a preconception. I would rather that people just let their imaginations find their own relative meaning.

What are some of the influences that have moved the band toward its current style?

Misch: It is a synthesis of each person’s particular background. No specific band moves us as a unit. We each reflect the very different tastes we all share.

Josh: The influences on Emperor Moth are our own experiments with the instruments we combine, the emotions that find their way into sound forms, and our chemistry together as friends.

What kind of audience is out there for Emperor Moth? Do you think people understand what you are doing?

Chris: It isn’t necessarily that there is anything to understand about our music; it is rather something to feel, and to recognize in one’s own interpretive way. I hope some day we are able to strike chords universal enough to cross traditional boundaries of audience discrimination. This is easy when one caters to mainstream conservative taste, which in progressive music seems to be the grunge/punk paradigm that has been around longer than some of these kids realize. But that’s not the kind of cross-section of people which interests me. I would rather some day be good enough to reach wide groups of people by appealing to their love of good music.

Josh: It’s been very receptive in Gainesville. When we first started playing last August, I wondered whether we might meet blank stares from an audience geared up more for the usual punk rock thrills.

Are you afraid of coming across a little too “artsy” or pretentious?

Josh: Not in the least. Everyone’s got their degree to which they will accept another’s language, emotion, method, content and choices. I do not expect our works to make sense to everyone. What we’re doing is right for us, and that’s all that matters.

How satisfied is Emperor Moth with the new CD?

Misch: Extremely satisfied. Josh worked like a dog to produce it. I think he did an amazing job.

What do you see happening in the future? How will the music progress?

Tim: I have no idea. I do nope that we explore more of the tonal qualities of our instruments and learn to use more abstract phrases and sentences to express our ideas. I like the idea of having more textured, fibrous sounds; like distorted or gravely sounds. I don’t have much of a taste for inorganic sounds like those made with effects processors. I prefer naturally occurring sounds and textures much more.

Josh: Our recent improvisations are leaning towards hypnotic rhythm cycles that I’m interested in taking further. Most significantly, we’ve all begun training in kickboxing.

Will there be any adventuring away from the Gainesville area soon?

Josh: Yes. We’re trying to find ways of making people out of town aware of us ahead of time, and still trying to find out which clubs are right for us.

Tim: It all depends on our monetary situation. Unless we can be guaranteed a good turnout, it is not likely that we would be able to make trips like that.

Emperor Moth, has just released a self-titled CD. Josh’s primary concern was to capture as purely and early as possible the current state of the band. With such complicated and diverse instrumentation, it was a difficult task. Yet it was a process that they would surely try again, but only after more of the current CDs are sold, to get the band out of debt. Five songs totaling twenty-six minutes make up Emperor Moth’s first official recording. Selections range from the seductive guitar of “Mercury” to the peacefulness of “Speak, Memory” to the thunderous ending of “Three Will Weave.”

The future looks good for Emperor Moth. Their music is reaching more and more people on its own merit, independent of the local cliques. The band can be reached at Route 2 Box 510, Micanopy, FL 32667.

Originally published in Ink Nineteen in June 1993.