"Arco Flute Foundation was more than a band," says Mike Tamburo, a founding member of the Pittsburgh- and Edinboro-based experimental group of the late '90s and early '00s. "It was really nine, sometimes 10 or 11 of us living in a house together, a bunch of creative people all making art -- working on films, paintings." No wonder he has trouble naming everyone involved: Every time you think you've got the whole story, he comes up with another person he'd consider a former member.
The four main musicians who did the bulk of the group's recordings -- Tamburo, Pete Spynda, Matt McDowell and Jeff Komara -- are reuniting onstage at Gooski's this Friday, along with sometime-contributors Ken Camden and Rob Dingman. But they're quick to insist that the whole of the project was much bigger than the six of them.
Tamburo, Spynda and Camden, all from the New Kensington area, played together in the mid-'90s as the Pittsburgh-based Meisha. "We were all into sort of weird experimental, noise, indie stuff," explains Spynda. The three of them getting together to play "just sort of seemed like it was meant to happen; a lot of other people were just into rock music." When Tamburo relocated to Edinboro in 1998, he found Matt McDowell and Jeff Komara, cementing the rest of the band's core.
"I happened to move into a house run by this slumlord, and it was basically divided into 10 apartments, and everybody in that house was amazing," says Tamburo. "It kind of made sense that we'd work together on stuff."
Spynda moved in not long after, and the collective began setting up shows in Edinboro for local and touring bands, and joining forces with other artists. "We worked with Andrew Davis, who was this crazy ceramicist, for a while," Tamburo recalls. "He asked us to play as a backing band for him and then we had him join the band. He'd dress up like Elvis, burn himself with a light bulb, and pour baby powder on himself."
Others made perhaps more utilitarian contributions: "I'd say Ange [Gagnon] was part of Arco Flute Foundation," Tamburo says. Spynda quickly agrees: "Ange was basically the reason we were able to keep doing what we were doing because she was making sure the bills were paid."
The Arco Flute Foundation sound was perhaps more directional and song-y in some cases than Meisha's output (thanks in no small part to Komara's percussive additions), but even at that, the band's music was abstract, taking the form of often-repetitive instrumental soundscapes. The songs seem not to travel along a chronological trajectory, nor even to double back on themselves, but instead build upon themselves in a crystalline structure. Get sufficiently into an Arco song and you feel like you're enveloped inside the sound.
The band released three albums on Cenotaph Audio, the Pittsburgh-based label run by John Fail. One posthumous release, Everything After Everything After the Bomb Is Sci-Fi, came out on Music Fellowship, of New Haven, Conn.
The band played its last show in 2003; Camden had moved to Chicago and the rest of the members went on to other pursuits. McDowell moved to Portland and Komara to Lexington, Ky. over the next few years, leaving little chance to return to playing together. Tamburo has toured solo since the band's breakup and plays in several bands locally; Spynda was in Air Guitar Magazine with Komara and others but more recently has concentrated on the regular world-music dance night Pandemic and bringing Balkan and world music to local stages.
Last year, McDowell and Komara returned to Pittsburgh for the Tamburo-created Fantastic Voyagers Festival (a weekend of solo performances), and the idea of a reunion glimmered in the co-founder's eye. "I thought, it's such an amazing group of people I've gotten to play with -- I'd like to play with these guys again," Tamburo recalls.
"That and we really wanted to do a comedy roast of McDowell," Spynda adds, noting the other event they have on the agenda for the reunion weekend.
While having members in such disparate geographic locales doesn't lend itself to a full-time collaboration at this point, the group doesn't rule out the occasional get-together in the future. Or perhaps more than occasional? The members who have moved away are "all yinzers at heart," Spynda explains. "They're just in denial. I think if the Penguins do well in the playoffs this year, and if the Steelers at least make the playoffs next year, maybe they'll move back."
Arco Flute Foundation with Harangue, Onodrim and Tusk Lord. 10 p.m. Fri., May 9. Gooski's, 3117 Brereton St., Polish Hill. $5. 412-681-1658