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The Lucky Dragons: Droning, collectively

March 12, 2010 |  5:44 pm


The Los Angeles band blends performance, music and visual art

Near the end of "Live Sprawl," the Lucky Dragons' performance at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA last month, a sly, silly orgiastic scene broke out, like something lifted from Woody Allen's "Sleeper."

Awash in an eerie blue light, eight or nine swarming audience members groped at several colorful cords attached to a computer, drawing and modulating delirious sounds from the jury-rigged instrument with their own touch. Others danced around them or piped in on plastic recorders that were there for the taking.

Sarah Anderson and Luke Fischbeck, the duo at the center of the Los Angeles art collective-cum-band, crouched on stage or sometimes wandered into the thick with a microphone and primitive percussion. Lanky, fine-boned and skyscraper tall -- Anderson, who often calls herself Sarah Rara, is 6-foot-1, Fischbeck 6-foot-5 -- they closed in on a peaceful drone oscillating between tribal drum circle and tropical meltdown.

At the forefront of a growing number of bands that yolk together artistic and musical practices, the Lucky Dragons have performed at several museums, including the Whitney in New York and the Pompidou Center in Paris. Like kindred local spirits Los Elegantes and My Barbarian, or YACHT from Portland, Ore., they view performance, visual art and music as one seamless expression.

The homemade synthesizer, developed in 2005 by Fischbeck, is made with conductive tentacles that convert bioelectricity -- skin contact -- into musical sounds. With a ministerial calm, as Fischbeck had on many other nights, he introduced the instrument that the Dragons have salaciously dubbed Make a Baby into the palms of the willing.

For the most part, the duo makes and plays music with their laptops, but they also have a battery of makeshift synthesizers and percussive tools fashioned from found objects, including the seedpods of Gold Medallion trees in their Echo Park neighborhood. Their songs often build off of a knotty skeleton of tribal beats, with near-New Age washes of synth and hypnotic delicate textures, earning them comparisons to other soundscape-creating bands like Iceland's Sigur Ros.

A few days prior, Fischbeck, who studied electronic music at Brown and Harvard, explained trying to involve the audience. "The idea is to take away any barrier between people. The music can be created right there with everyone . . . that's a kind of equality."

That egalitarian approach is a big part of the Lucky Dragons' appeal, along with embracing technology as a means for spontaneous communion. It also extends to the band's structure: Fischbeck started the band in 2000, four years before he met fellow Brown student Anderson, who he says slowly faded in over the next couple of years. The group also often involves co-conspirators from the experimental music community, including multi-instrumentalist David Scott Stone, High Places' Rob Barber, who handled effects processing at MOCA, and Pit er Pat drummer Butchy Fuego.

Invited as residents of the Engagement Party at MOCA, an ongoing series that showcases artist collectives who operate through "non-object-based practices," the Lucky Dragons created the entire environment for the members-only party celebrating "Collection: MOCA's First Thirty Years."

Large video screens flickered with psychedelic, natural-world images, like a tumultuous sky with double rainbows. Pulsing beats leaked from the DJ booth staffed by local collective the Wildness. Throughout the space were various pods for playing with gadgets designed by the band. A giant rock, for instance, emitted sounds whenever another rock was waved over it.

At one point, Anderson, dressed in white with her blunt bob grazing her jawbone, paid homage by serenading Kiki Smith's glass sculpture of spermatozoa. She played a saxophone, an instrument she'd only recently picked up. "If you see me playing something I don't know that well," she said, "maybe you'll pick up a new instrument too."

<b>Audience grabbers</b>

The Lucky Dragons' presence at a major art institution is in keeping with a trend in Los Angeles and New York. As museums suffer from budget cuts and ponder their relevance at a time when film and, on a smaller scale, community-based art spaces have captured the zeitgeist, they've turned to resourceful ways to lure in young visitors with immersive, performance-heavy environments.

Whether it's Yeasayer playing among the dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum, or Animal Collective collaborating with artist Danny Perez on a site-specific performance piece for the Guggenheim, more museums have seen the value of incorporating bands into their programs.

And the artists get a showcase for trying out new directions. For Anderson and Fischbeck, MOCA was an ideal space to challenge the assumed hierarchies of playing a show, where rock star is idol and the audience role begins and ends in passive hagiography.

"We're trying to toy with the formal elements of performance," Anderson said. "Ideally we want to present the show in a way that would inspire someone to walk away and make their own music. It's about meeting people head-on in the room."

The Lucky Dragons, named after a Japanese fishing boat that became a symbol for anti-nuclear sentiment, typically perform on the floor, sitting or crouching with their instruments and computers, which works well at Echo Curio or the Smell, where they are regulars. Of course, that tactic has rubbed some club owners of the bigger venues in Los Angeles the wrong way.

"Putting a computer on the floor can really make people nervous," Fischbeck said. "We try to make everyone feel heard before we perform, but once it starts, we do what we want. Then they see that it's not so bad."

For "Live Sprawl," the band did perform on a stage, though a minor one that raised them only a couple of feet off the floor. They didn't spend much time on it anyway. They've also been known to play two concerts in different cities at the same time.

The band has more than 20 recordings, many of which they've self-released or put out through small labels such as Teenage Teardrops, but these almost function like arbitrary containers for their continuous practice. Reoccurring themes do emerge, especially the idea of tapping into communal power, whether with nature or in the impromptu social circles that can spring up at a show or at their Sumi Ink Club, their open drawing party that's hosting events at the Pasadena Museum of California Art through May.

When asked about their future, the Dragons aren't sure. For now, they are floating between teaching as visiting lecturers (upcoming stints include Goldsmiths, University of London and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago), design, art consulting and playing gigs., or as they call them on their website, actions.

"We might have to get less scatterbrained," Fischbeck said.

Anderson smiled at him for a moment and said, "I totally disagree."

-Margaret Wappler

Photo: Sarah Anderson holds up a microphone for an audience member playing the recorder. Credit: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times