The first 15 seconds or so of the title track of Host Skull's new Totally Fatalist LP could be mistaken for an Arnold Dreyblatt track, or something from Arthur Russell's Instrumentals. Minimalist and repetitive, it builds tension -- then turns suddenly into a pop song. It is, in essence, a typical Dave Bernabo operation.
Bernabo -- whose bands and projects have included Vale and Year, Assembly and the new Ex-Kids, among many others -- started Host Skull with former Pittsburgher Will Dyar (The Skinks, Oakley Hall) only after Dyar had relocated to Santa Fe, N.M. The two Host Skull principals "traded tapes," as Bernabo put it (though it was all digital of course), building tunes written by both, with percussion supplied mostly by Dyar, a drummer foremost.
The duo worked with session musicians and friends in both cities. ("I had a lot of ins with folks in the classical world, so I was able to call some favors in," Bernabo notes.) They attempted to sell a 7-inch single to Antephonic, the Chicago-based sister label to Contraphonic, and ended up with a plan for an LP.
All well and good, but … how does one maintain a band whose main members live 1,500 miles apart?
"Since Will's in Santa Fe, we can't play together much," Bernabo says. "So we're starting two chapters of Host Skull. We'll each be playing Host Skull shows on different ends of the country -- hopefully at the same time."
This is where Host Skull becomes more than just another music act. Lacking the opportunity -- and maybe the desire -- to operate like a "normal" rock band, Host Skull takes on the tenor of a performance-art troupe. Simultaneous cross-country concerts. Art installations. Innovative music videos. Collaborations with various musicians. It's all rather intellectualized stuff for what is, after all, still a pop band at its core. (While the band is clearly charting its own course, a useful analog might be what Joan of Arc was doing in Chicago a decade ago.)
One planned happening next year involves an installation at 707 Penn Gallery, where visitors will be able to add audio to a Host Skull recording project that will also include ambient recordings and feedback loops. Bernabo also plans collaborations with local dancers. (The video for the song "Totally Fatalist" features whimsical stop-motion photo animation by local show photographer Hugh Twyman, and two co-stars, local dancer Jasmine Hearn and musician Liz Adams.)
In the short term, though, Bernabo and Dyar plan a reunion of sorts for a band that never really plays together. Host Skull will celebrate the release of Totally Fatalist with a show at Brillobox on Thu., Sept. 22. Dyar will be coming from Sante Fe to join Bernabo and the rest of the Pittsburgh band: guitarist Erik Cirelli, bassist Chris Cannon, saxophonist Brandon Masterman and percussionist P.J. Roduta. "And possibly a mystery member dressed as a shark," Bernabo notes.
HOST SKULL LP RELEASE with RAW BLOW, BERMAN/POWERS. 9 p.m. Thu., Sept. 22. Brillobox, 4104 Penn Ave., Bloomfield. $5. 412-621-4900 or www.brillobox.net