Narco States keep generating ‘premeditated chaos’

Narco States in action.

Narco States in action. Jeffrey Aronen

“We basically told him, 'Play more shitty.'”

Those were the instructions drummer Robb Lauer received when he joined Narco States, according to the Minneapolis quintet’s vocalist, Michael Meyer,

“It was intimidating because I'm jazz/funk-trained,” says Lauer, who recently replaced the band’s previous drummer, Justin DeRusha. “If you play jazz, you can play with anybody that plays that kind of music, but this is definitely not jazz. I wasn't sure at first, but I got this long rambling e-mail from Michael that convinced me to try it. So these guys gave me a bunch of music to listen to—Neil Young, 13th Floor Elevators, MC5—and I just tried to un-teach myself, to play an energetic, chaotic wall.”

“He was playing kind of stiff at first, but then there was a show where Robb just broke open, like he didn't give a shit,” Meyer recalls.

“I remember that show,” says Lauer. “Nick [Sampson] was doing a bass run, and I thought, 'Just do it.' It might be muddy and chaotic, but as long as the bass is solid—I think Nick's bass, his mastery of tone, is a big part of the signature Narco States sound. It's so recognizable.”

You’ll encounter that signature sound at any Narco States show, where the band conjures up a churning wall of psychedelic sound punctuated by Meyer’s unpredictable antics—he can often be seen crawling around in the audience or swinging from the nearest rafter. The overall effect is a sort of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” freakout that would fit nicely in a Kenneth Anger film. But there’s more method to their madness than might be immediately apparent.

“I don't think we want to do, like, a Grateful Dead thing," organist Aaron Robertson explains. "We're not a jam band. The songs are short and tight, but we leave room for spontaneity. It's kind of premeditated chaos.”

Narco States' second LP, Temples Into Tombs, the follow-up to 2014's Wicked Sun, dropped last August, and their release show featured a six-band bill with their Piñata Records labelmates at the Hook and Ladder in Minneapolis. Eschewing the modern digital audio workstation and its potentially infinite number of instrument tracks, Narco States recorded Temples Into Tombs on a modest 8-track Zoom recorder with band members playing simultaneously.

“Usually no more than two to three takes. Minimal overdubs,” says Robertson, who also doubles as sound engineer and producer. “We tried isolation, recording everything separately, but it didn't seem to work for this kind of music and the sound that we were going for.”

As frenetic as those recordings are, there’s plenty of nuance as well. Take the distinctive lead guitar sound on the album's sixth track, “Ahemait.” “It was just a Cry Baby wah-wah pedal, with the guitar in drop-D tuning,” says guitarist Nate McGuire, who seems to be the Quiet Narco. “We actually wrote and recorded that song in the same day. Like, 'We have a riff, let's do it.'”

“There's also a theremin on that song,” Meyer adds. “It's one of the few overdubs. It's an optical theremin, so you're supposed to wave your hand over the sensor, but I wave the light on my phone over it to get some pretty crazy sounds.”

The band just got back from a short tour out east. “We were blown away by Columbus,” says organist Robertson. “Saratoga Springs had awesome food. We had a booking agent who laid the groundwork, so that was really helpful.”

“We played in Montclair [New Jersey], which reminds me of West End,” says Meyer. “There's a Starbucks and a Juut on every corner. But the club we played at was a hidden door that led to a theater that was like a secret cabaret stage.”

“When we were in Madison, we did an in-studio performance on the college radio station WSUM, and from doing that show we had this big crowd of young people turn up when we played later that night, which was cool,” adds Lauer. “And they liked it, they were really digging it.”

In addition to recording and touring, Narco States handle just about every aspect of their music. Robertson, who has just finished building a DIY record-cutting lathe, says, “We're thinking of doing a limited run of seven-inch records. Hand-cut, maybe 20 or so, and we'll just put everything in the sleeve that we can.”

Meyer designs the band's Crowley-styled artwork. He offers this explanation of the album title’s significance: “It's an existential title about our bodies—our bodies as temples.”

“And Temple of Doom was already taken,” jokes Sampson.

Narco States
With: The Pour Organs, Psychotic Reaction, Black Satori
Where: Hexagon Bar
When: 8:30 p.m. Wed. Oct. 11
Tickets: No cover; more info here