One of the city’s best bands uses only one instrument, won’t work in clubs, doesn’t sing, and for right now at least plays only one hour-long song. Jellyeye–an eight-person Wicker Park drum corps led by Shu Shubat and Bryn Magnus–is part theatrical troupe, part dance company, and the perpetrator of one of the most intense musical experiences currently available in Chicago. Taskmaster Shubat calls the group a rock band, uncompromisingly asks new members to make the kind of time-consuming and permanent commitment they would to a rock band, and says the group’s forceful theatricality is merely a grandiose extension of any number of basic rock moves. “The energy of the music is the important thing,” Shubat says. “I didn’t know what theater was until I met Bryn. The only way we think of it as theater is because [that’s] where we play. Clubs are too small; that’s where the theater comes into it. We can control the environment better there.”
Jellyeye’s forte is heavily choreographed, intensely physical drum assaults, thunderous and complex, which they perform on an awesome set of custom-designed rolling drums. Ensemble member Bill Wallace, a graduate student at the School of the Art Institute, builds the instruments, the most spectacular of which are formed from giant 50-gallon oil barrels that look like they’ve been crushed in the paws of Godzilla. The drums are welded to steel, wheeled undercarriages, a simple expedient that explodes the notion of the stationary drummer. The performers move them about wildly during performances and bang on them with leather-and-rubber-tipped three-quarter-inch dowel rods, far bigger than the largest drumsticks available. They flail their arms wildly, shout, and generally create a bone-shaking racket.
Shubat grew up in the suburbs but left home as a teen after she was caught in bed with a boyfriend. In the mid-80s she was in an early version of Eleventh Dream Day, and later she played in the Indigos with drummer Oliver Seay. Then she and Seay spent some time “collecting instruments” for a new band. “It was time to do something,” Shubat laughs. “We had all the instruments and a room to do it in.” The room–which features a dozen of Shubat’s guitars hanging on one wall and a specially built practice floor–is in Shubat and Magnus’s loft near Western and North. Seay is Jellyeye’s composer and official musical director but is currently living back in his home state of Georgia. Magnus grew up near Madison. After a little high school and less college he became “a dropout type of guy,” wandering the country as an itinerant laborer before coming to Chicago to join his sister, Jenny Magnus, the performance artist and Maestro Subgum singer. Magnus hooked up with the Maestro performance offshoot called the Curious Theatre Branch, where he developed his deliberately absurdist, weirdly sci-fi, metaphorically impenetrable brand of play writing.
The trio pared their musical vision down to drums and created Jellyeye. Their first major work, Avalanch Ranch, included a rudimentary version of the band’s current drum corps; a twangy, warped C and W band on the side; one of Magnus’s typically outre scripts (it featured one character with a “jellyeye,” a third eye hidden under her forehead, revealed by the blow of an ax); and a vocal-and-slide-guitar solo spot for Shubat. For an MCA benefit at around the same time, they premiered a rudimentary version of a new Magnus opus, Blood Lotus, whose coups de theatre included double-sided costumes–one a skeleton suit, the other a porcelain-faced oriental doll outfit–and a set of glowing drums, candlelit from within. In its final form Blood Lotus will incorporate film, more music, and propane tanks attached to the drums that will allow them to shoot fire. Already in the works for nearly a year, this show is starting to test even the extravagant ambitions of Jellyeye. “This is a much more realized sense of what the true environment of the full opera is going to be,” Magnus says, “but if we don’t have it up by this time next year I’m going to be depressed.” Tonight (Friday) they premiere an hour-long excerpt from it at Filmmakers (1543 W. Division, 11 PM, $7). Shows continue Friday and Saturday nights for eight weeks. This excerpt, which will be the central drum piece in the final version, dresses the eight drummers in white and projects films onto their moving bodies.
“It’s hard to build the instruments first,” Shubat says. “Imagine having to build a guitar every time you want to play your songs.” Imagine as well finding a constantly changing cohort of drummers turned actors (and actors turned drummers) willing and able to learn long, intricate drum parts. “There are natural drummers and taught drummers. Natural drummers can move,” says Shubat. As for the actors, “they’re pretty quick at just about everything. A lot of the time the only reason they’re not musicians is that they haven’t yet focused on it.” Anyway, “you don’t have to be the world’s greatest guitar player to be a great rock guitarist,” she notes. “You just have to have a style. And us, right off the bat we’ve got a style.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Brad Miller.