On the Beet with Timur and the Dime Museum

On the vanguard of both drama and rock music is Timur and the Dime Museum, an experimental rock band out of LA that aims to fuse the two together into an explosive combination. The band, independent, has created a new live performance called COLLAPSE, which is an audio-visual requiem for the Earth’s plight. The band’s been slotted to play BAM next week on the 17th to 19th; the band’s message with this new album/live show is one worth hearing and promised to be a spectacle worthy of your eyes and ears.

Check out my conversation with Daniel Corral, the band’s primary creative force, and Timur Bekbosunov, its charismatic, operatic frontman and dial in for a music video of “Heat, Beat and Treat;” the first release from COLLAPSE.

Neat Beet: Tell us about the songwriting and collaborative efforts that go into Timur & the Dime Museum’s creative output. 

Daniel Corral: I write all of the words and music for TDM. I make demos of all of the songs, playing all of the instruments, singing, etc. Then, everyone learns from written out charts and by ear from the demos. Of course, the songs don’t really come alive until everyone adds their amazing talent to it. For Collapse, I came up with the concept, then wrote all the words with feedback from Timur, our producer Beth Morrison, and our video artist Jesse Gilbert. Then, I made demos of all of the songs. Pre-production, we have theater-style production meetings to unify the multimedia elements. Timur and Jesse have a lot of thoughts as to the presentation and multimedia aspects, and I defer to them on those. Jesse has been amazingly thoughtful and imaginative in coming up with interactive video that really captures the layers of messages each song presents. Timur has a lot of thoughts about his interpretation and presentation, which are a powerful force of their own.

TDM occupies a unique locus between rock music and theater. What challenges do you feel you face existing there?

Daniel: Fitting between genres is always difficult, though it is the most exciting place to be. People don’t know where to place you in their preordained filing systems, and that is definitely the biggest challenge. Some people cherish these sorts of encounters, because they feel new and exciting. Others throw their hands up and go back to the easily classifiable. TDM is at a really interesting place right now. We have grown to inhabit larger theatrical spaces, but have also done smaller rock venues. So, we are working out how to move forward in a way that can sustain creativity and create a unique niche for ourselves. 

How does your music fit in with your often theatrical attire TDM dons on stage? It’s almost like a twisted Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Timur Bekbosunov: The band didn’t have costumes at first, it was somewhat an evolved journey. At the beginning, we had a friend, who worked for American Apparel’s PR office, and she got us matching shirts and jeans with handmade bow-ties. But following America’s Got Talent, for which we had costumes made by Sandra Powers – distressed, shredded and painted-over jackets – I thought that it would be quite fun to keep the visual element. I had several costumes by then, and it was only natural eventually to get costumes for the guys. I also realized that it would look better, if the costumes had a theme.

In 2013, we were invited by Beth Morrison, who saw us perform in LA after a production of Crescent City by The Industry, to create a show for the PROTOTYPE Festival at HERE Arts Center. I applied for a grant to cover the costumes from the Center for Cultural Innovation and got it! The costumes were tailored for us, and were inspired by galactic, vaudevillian and bohemian looks, found in weird anime characters. I sometimes change my costumes throughout the set, and audience doesn’t seem to mind, as it seems to push music a bit into theatrical sphere. Some of our songs tend to go towards the heightened, over the top, not exactly muted interpretation, and maybe by wearing costumes, we can get away with a lot of that! I was also tired looking at a lot of bands in t-shirts and jeans, so I thought why not go the David Bowie route, and glam things up with sparkles. Now, music always comes first in our shows, and costumes just simply expand the boundaries.

You’ll have to elaborate on which anime characters you consider inspirations for costuming! Which are your favorite series?

Timur: Probably a combination of Sebastian and Grell from Black Butler (sorry for this unfortunate name in English… I think that it really should be called the Dark Butler) and somewhat Ouran High School Host Club. Right now, I am obsessed with the ingeniously fantastic Hunter x Hunter, the 2011 tv series version, and the characters of Gon and Killua.

Who are TDM’s heroes in the indie rock world versus your dramatic inspirations?

Daniel: I grew up listening to rock of all sorts, particularly punk, metal, and what was then called “alternative” rather than indie. Some favorites from then: Sonic Youth, The Melvins, Joy Division, The Residents, Idiot Flesh, Fog, Ruins, Muslimgauze, Mr. Bungle. Some current independent artists I’ve been enjoying lately: AU, Skuli Sverrisson, Willis Earl Beal, Pumice, OOIOO, Kid Koala. Also, Saul Williams has been a big lyrical influence, and the coherence of Pink Floyd’s concept albums as well. Some of the rock influences on TDM that seem obvious to me are the glam rock likes of David Bowie, Roxy Music, Marilyn Manson, Alice Cooper. I know these aren’t all particularly “indie” groups, but I don’t want to get too esoteric. There is a huge list, and I could go on all day…

TDM is touring COLLAPSE, as well as releasing a record around it. What inspired this requiem for a dying Earth?

Daniel: There are a few factors that led towards Collapse existing as a “requiem for a dying Earth.” I grew up in Eagle River, Alaska, and my family is still there. I go to visit them whenever possible. Pulitzer-prize winning composer John Luther Adams wrote an article in the New Yorker about why he was leaving his home in Fairbanks, AK. One of the reasons he cited was the “accelerating reality of climate change in Alaska,” and that is so much more obvious there than it is in most of the lower 48. Every time I go home, I see this direct empirical evidence of climate change over time, and it is tragic, especially in the light of the apathy and denial that pervades our cultural. Obama is up there right now talking about the environment!

A few years ago I did sound design for several pieces by Michael Rohd and Sojourn Theatre. I was struck at how they were able to create these pieces that engage audiences in social issues in ways that are theatrically stimulating without being heavy-handed, something that often turns me off. I’ve since spent a lot of time thinking about how to make exciting things that attempt to make the world a better place in some way, even if by sneaking in ecological messages under rock songs. Finally, I was commissioned to write a piece for the 97-person choir at All Saints Church in Pasadena. To get in the mood, I spent a lot of time pouring over the scores of great requiems. I found myself wondering how it would work if I were to have enough hubris to attempt to write some sort of requiem myself. With the environment and social conscience on my mind, the idea of Collapse formed.

Being LA-based, in a region suffering a now-dire drought, do you feel like there’s enough awareness and respect for the land’s needs?

Daniel: Some cities in central California have had water restrictions for years. Los Angeles is just barely even considering it. There are fountains, lush lawns, and sprinklers watering the sidewalk everywhere. In Alaska, another example is the Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay. The proposed mine involves blatant disregard for the land’s needs, the water’s needs, the air’s needs, or the needs of the plants, animals, or the human culture that exists there. It’s a blatant money grab by people who don’t care what sort of permanent deadly toxic sludge they leave in their greedy wake. This is all an uphill battle. On the other hand, I have very young students that tell me about organic food, climate change, recycling, etc. These are things I wouldn’t have even know existed at their age. It sounds corny, but if we can keep this level of sustainability awareness on the rise, there is a tiny glimmer of hope that these kids (that are our future) will be able to make an effective positive change where we cannot – if it’s not too late by then.

Michael Jackson’s “Earth Song“, now twenty years past, comes to mind as another powerful effort seeking to alert us to the damage of our planet. Can you draw any parallels between COLLAPSE and that piece?

Timur: It is always tough to communicate in a song something important and urgent without getting too corny, and “Earth Song” certainly captures certain emotions, which resonate in a very authentic way. It is definitely our hope for COLLAPSE to appear as honest as possible and not be lost in the melodrama of things,  avoid the pitfalls of making it too much on the nose, as it already is, thus allowing for it to reach the audience on a visceral level. I know that a few lines from COLLAPSE will definitely stick – phrases like “honeybee, come home”, “heat, beat and treat”, or “born in the house of Moloch” – and maybe that will encourage some to research the issues Daniel developed in songs. 

Daniel: Earth Song is a powerful song, but it’s a lot more direct than most of Collapse. A goal of Collapse is to offer an equally honest answer, but in a multi-layered way. Someone just listening to the music might enjoy nice songs, or enjoy a great show if they see it live. However, if they were to pay attention to the words, their interpretation of the song might change entirely. So, we’re kind of sneaking these messages in sometimes. Earth Song, on the other hand, has a very clear message about how you should feel about what is happening.

A better and actual influence on Collapse and it’s layered message is the Gorillaz album “Plastic Beach.” Talk about layers. It’s a concept album about an exotic island made of plastic, sung by a band made up of cartoon characters (if I’m not mistaken, the first band to use holograms in their live shows, as well…). It’s essentially a collection of pop songs with a menagerie of famous guest vocalists, and it rarely talks directly about the environment. However, if you listen to the words, there is a clear and unsettling theme of ecological discontent that runs through it. Really great.

The ancient God, Moloch, is cited repeatedly in your work. Can you give us a history lesson on its significance and attachment to COLLAPSE?

Daniel: Moloch is all over culture in incredibly subtle ways. Often depicted as an owl, Moloch is an ancient god often associated with human sacrifice. He is usually invoked in pop culture as a sort of god of progress, mind, industrialization, etc. Some versions of Moloch that were influential on Collapse are in Allen Ginsburg’s Howl (Go to part II: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/179381), and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CPNaaogT8fs). In Collapse, Moloch becomes the perpetrator in the death of the earth. The deeper catch is that we are all Moloch, or at least have Moloch within us. There are also a lot of fantastic conspiracy theories regarding Moloch, the Illuminati, Bohemian Grove, etc. I don’t believe in those things, but they are really incredible and surreal stories. A great story about Moloch involves our costume designer, Victor Wilde. The words and music of Collapse were already finished when we engaged him to be part of the project. The logo of his fashion label, Bohemian Society, has a Moloch owl on it. So, by complete coincidence, our costumes ended up having these fantastic Moloch logos on them! It is crazy how perfect it is.

COLLAPSE was originally toured in March 2014, why the delay before bringing it East?

Timur: We are extremely lucky to be working with Beth Morrison Projects, which has been guiding the project ever since its commissioned premiere at Redcat Theater in LA. COLLAPSE is a conceptualized show with interactive video by Jesse Gilbert, costumes by Victor Wilde of Bohemian Society and lighting design by Tony Shayne, so it requires full forces of a theater or festival and an amazing sound engineer, who in our case is Jay Eigenmann. While we do perform songs from COLLAPSE in our shows, the whole production is best experienced as when it was conceived. It is such a fantastic and prestigious honor to be selected into BAM’s Next Wave Festival, and once we found out about it in 2014, COLLAPSE became exclusive for BAM and the NYC area.

We can see skeletal butterflies and apocalypse dreams in the music video for “Heat, Beat & Treat”; what can we expect in the video for “Cobalt Blues”? 

Timur: Heat, Beat and Treat was directed by an incredible artist Peter Wong from Malaysia and his company Nexus. Cobalt Blues will have no animation, and in fact parts of it are shot on film! The entire music video is directed, shot and edited by a brilliant filmmaker Sandra Powers, who has shot most of our music videos, and who has a dark, somewhat macabre aesthetic. The video will have that vibe, as the song is about fracking – and going for the shots of mining would have been too… obvious? There will be fog, a space traveler, different locations in LA, characters beautifully costumed by Lee Frank Perez with make-up by Cat Tanchanco. All of the band members will in it too! It will come out, but definitely before Oct. 20th, our CD release date.

Timur, how did you come to collaborate with DeVotchKa? That was where I first got acquainted with your style of music.

Timur: I had my very first gig with the amazing LA Philharmonic in 2007, singing in a symphony by Schnittke, and DeVotchKa was invited to perform a show as part of In the Shadow of Stalin music festival at Disney Hall. My name was recommended, and I got a chance to sing songs by Kozin with the band. I actually heard DeVotchKa in 2004 in Boston, and I was absolutely floored by their sound, so it was an intoxicatingly strange and exuberant experience to be sharing stage several years later. Nick and I stayed in touch, and he invited me to sing on one of their tracks in 2008. In 2010, by chance I saw them in Stuttgart, where I was singing at an opera festival. He invited me to join him on stage, it was a huge success, and since then, we have done it many more times, including their Halloween show in Denver and a show at Red Rocks. Nick is an accomplished film composer with major achievements, so he also invited me to sing on the soundtrack of Ruby Sparks. When it came time for Timur and the Dime Museum to make a new album, Daniel and I decided that it will be music from COLLAPSE. I ask Nick Urata to help produce the songs and thankfully, he said yes! I can probably go on for hours, how much I admire and look up to him and love his gorgeous songs, but he has certainly influenced my vocal style, though he still makes fun of my dance moves, which of course, are dedicated to him.