Tarpigh: Monsieur Monsoon

3 little pighs

Tarpigh like it weird and funny

As a consequence of their musical eclecticism, the trio Tarpigh leave folks grasping to describe them. They’ve been called art rockers, but “Do you hear any rock in there?” asks percussionist Eric LaPerna.

Well, no, not really.

Maybe they have more of a jazz sound? Tim Harbeson, who plays everything from trumpet to pump organ to recorder, sort of frowns, “Jazz?”

Tom Kovacevic, bassist/guitarist/oud-player etc., isn’t around due to a family emergency that has called him to Gary, Indiana, but I can almost feel him sort of scowling at the thought of categorization, too [this was all done in January of 2001].

So, if Tarpigh aren’t easily identifiable, suffice it to say that they like to dress up in funny costumes, use all sorts of puppets and props, even get linked with the performance crowd, but they know their shit: Middle Eastern rhythms, extensions of jazz fusion, and old-fashioned experimentation with anything they can get their hands on.

“I can imagine doing a show of just music,” says LaPerna, “but I can’t imagine doing a show of just theater.” So, tear yourself away from their puppets, gadgets, and masks, and try to focus on their prodigious ability with unusual instruments. And try to have fun right along with them.

“I think an important part of what we do is somewhat humorous,” says Harbeson. “Intrinsically, I wouldn’t want people to take it seriously.”

“We take the music seriously,” counters LaPerna for the reporter.

Harbeson is nonplussed. “Not to discredit the music,” he says, “but I like to laugh. I like to see ridiculous things.”

Much of this comes across on Tarpigh’s debut album, Monsieur Monsoon, released on Northeast Indie, and compiled over the past two years. It opens with “Chance,” a deep, monk-like chant followed by a growing conga beat, and then some of Harbeson’s recorder. The contrast with “Wayra,” which follows, is striking as soon as the lilting flute and charango enter. They move from haunting to heavenly at the drop of a hat. It is an introduction to a circus freak show of an album that will have you sticking your face through the bars of the cage for a better look.

A short list of instruments played on this album: dholak, djun, charango, talking drum, flute, quena, trumpet, bass, toy apple, toy crank, manjitas, keyboard. There are more, some of them you may have heard of; others will be a complete mystery. So much so that it’s often guess-work to even figure out who’s making what sound.

For instance, Harbeson’s trumpet on the back-to-back “Da-O-Rama” and “Monsieur Monsoon” is a pleasure. It begins in almost total freak-out, with squawks reminiscent of Miles Davis’s heroin years, then evolves into a pretty little melody over Kovacevic’s finger-picked guitar. But try to figure out “Toys,” a mèlange of squeezes, whirs, whistles, and beeps. In the liner notes we’re told all three of them are playing “lots and lots of toys.” In the hands of these musicians, every instrument becomes a toy, something to experiment with and use to make sure that everyone in earshot has a blast.

You’d think these kindred souls had spent their lives together, holed up even as toddlers banging Legos off Tonka trucks. Actually, the three didn’t come together until October of ’95, when Baraka, a local belly-dancing ensemble, asked Harbeson and Kovacevic to come and accompany them at a practice. LaPerna had just moved to town and had coincidentally called up Baraka’s Josie Conte to see if she needed a drummer.

“I remember that first night at the Swedenborghen Church,” says LaPerna. “We sounded good, and I moved up here to start a band. So we said, ‘Let’s do it.’ ”

“Right off the bat, we were practicing once a week, writing songs,” says Harbeson. “We had the name after a couple of months. We did our first show at the Free Street Taverna in June.”

In fact, much of what appears on Monsieur Monsoon was written at that time, but they got sidetracked a little bit. “Cerberus Shoal lost their keyboard player,” says Harbeson. “And we had mutual admiration for each other’s music,” continues LaPerna. “We saw them at the Free Street; Tim gave them a tape.” And soon the two bands were collaborating on the soundtracks to Tim Folland’s films Elements of Structure and Permanence. Immediately, Tarpigh went into Cerberus Shoal as full partners, writing “Homb” and “Umphalos” for 1998’s Homb recordings.

As quickly as it started, however, Tarpigh took leave of Cerberus by the middle of 1999. “We all left for different reasons,” says LaPerna without elaborating. “We didn’t leave and say, ‘We’re going to be a band again.’ ”

Luckily for lovers of originality and creativity, Tarpigh decided to give it another go, and they already report having enough material for a second album. They’re also collaborating with Amos Libby, a specialist in Indian percussion — who’ll be playing with them at their release party at the Skinny, Thursday the 25th — and exploring new forms of performance with the likes of Buffy Miller and Middle Eastern master Al Gardner.

But they’re not letting that distract them. “Everything else is a side project,” says LaPerna. “Tarpigh is the project.”