Math Pop for the Masses

Tera Melos Find Their Voice Through Upbeat Experiments

These days it seems like pop music has become an increasingly effortless affair. But it doesn’t have to be that way, necessarily.

Sacramento’s Tera Melos started out playing schizophrenic math rock, a genre named after the careful counting required for its polyrhythmic sound. Recently the band has brought their love of unorthodox phrasing and time signature-jumping to a pop context with last fall’s Patagonian Rats, and the release last week of their cassette-only EP Zoo Weather.

Finding a way to stand out amidst the wish-wash of indie bands floating around on the Internet requires innovation. “Since we started the band it’s been a goal to have releases in as many fun formats as we can,” said bassist Nate Latona. “Since a lot of people don’t have cassettes now it’s more of a conversation piece.”

The retro flavour to their release notwithstanding, Tera Melos has made a concession to the present technological reality, pairing their cassettes with a download card. Latona explained that while the band goes to great lengths to be unique, Zoo Weather finds them employing their technical ability to cover sonic ground in new ways. “Writing the last batch of songs was a big step out of the comfort zone for us, even though to the listener they may seem simpler,” said Latona. “It’s not as much about technicality. It’s still in there, but I think we try to use it more tastefully… I don’t think technical ability alone is worthy of praise.”

The group has been known in the past for blistering technical ability with a high-energy live show, including flips and cartwheels from members. Now, however, their math rock and acrobatics have taken a back seat to a refined arrangement and a newfound affinity for vocals.

“You have to be able to write a progression that hits somebody in the right place, to get it stuck in their head,” said Latona. “I’m not into doing anything fake. We’ve toured with bands that do that, night by night, it’s the same show. We’re one of those bands that feeds off the audience; if the audience is dwindling or sitting there with their arms folded, we may not be that into it.”

Zoo Weather isn’t the musical free-for-all their untitled debut was—now the band chooses not to pack their songs with the most possible notes per second. If their modus operandi as a unit has shifted, it’s perhaps in part due to the individual roles of the band-members taking on slightly different shapes.

“I was playing at first with three other guys going crazy with their parts; I had to hold things down,” said Latona. “Playing with [new drummer] John [Clardy] I feel more like my job is to serve the song. If there is a chorus with three notes, I’m comfortable smashing on those if it creates an effect for the other guys to work around.”

Clardy replaced former drummer Vince Rogers on the kit before the writing sessions for Patagonian Rats. While the member switch contributed to the band’s new sound, the two original band-mates were itching to make things a bit catchier, too.
“It was really refreshing because Nick and I already had in mind to make this record not all-over-the-place technical,” said Latona. “[John]‘s drumming is really rooted in rock while Vince is really rooted in jazz, so to have somebody come in who plays with a groove really made us realize how to take this in a different direction.”

Now Tera Melos have something like the best of both worlds, and will continue counselling their marriage of math rock and pop music. As for what listeners will get out of it, Latona just hopes they can form their own opinion on their art.

“I always want our music to represent the idea that there’s more out there than what you’re being told is cool,” said Latona. “It’s easy to talk about Battles because they’re doing something cool, so the same ten websites are going to essentially say the same thing about that band.”
“When it comes to us, I want people to understand that we are trying to do something that we feel is original. We certainly have musical influences but we never set out to echo them. It inspires us to do something on our own.”

More info:
Tera Melos with Marnie Stern / Il Motore (179 Jean-Talon St. W.) / March 7 / $12 adv $14 door

This article originally appeared in Volume 31, Issue 24, published March 7, 2011.