Outfitted in his trademark baseball cap and pop-culture t-shirt (promoting the Texas Chainsaw Massacre), multi-instrumentalist Bob Pence, a.k.a. Crowmeat Bob, is an easy-to-recognize figure.
Whether playing in the large jazz/modern classical outfit Micro-East Collective, performing his own compositions in Defenestrator or as a recent addition to local rock band Cold Sides, Pence brings a unique finesse to each group. But he's quick to declare he is by no means an expert on anything he plays.
"I can't really play any instruments. Trombone is the only one I got schooled in, but I was young, so it's forgivable."
Originally from the Washington, D.C. area, Pence migrated to North Carolina seven years ago, settling in Raleigh. After a stint in film school, he applied his high school musical training on trombone to guitar, then horns, focusing on alto sax and bass clarinet. He made the leap from "trained" musician to developing his own style outside any rules of study. "It's an intuitive method--investigating the most extreme, unusual sounds the instrument's capable of, as well as incorporating styles from all different kinds of recordings I've heard. Remaining focused and intense but also allowing for aleatory insanity. I'm hardly the most technically skilled by just about any standard except perhaps the ones I've developed in my own relation with each instrument. I suppose it's what you call a 'voice,' or several voices."
The ability to extract only the desired sounds from an instrument, however nontraditional or unfamiliar as they may be, sets Pence apart in his adventurous music; like a gardener who selects only the most unusual, mutant blooms from a plant to create an intoxicatingly fragrant bouquet.
"There's that William S. Burroughs cut-up of the popular saying, 'You've got to break the rules before you can know them," he says.
On stage, Crowmeat Bob (he says it's a nickname from a friend who watched him as he "stepped in some crowmeat ... had to scrape it off with a hunting knife--15 years bad luck") ignores the norms and wades deep into the sonic mire, headfirst.
His first serious inspiration came from Hamlet, N.C., genius John Coltrane. "I used to listen to 'A Love Supreme' over and over. Also a shit-load of Sonic Youth and all kinds of other junk." At a music show in Chapel Hill he ran into someone with whom he could apply these tenets, improviser Ian Davis of Micro-East Collective, who asked him to join the group. "The Micro-East is something I had fantasized about doing before I even knew it existed. I mean I knew about groups like Globe Unity Orchestra, King Ubu Orchestra, Sun Ra's Arkestra, Cecil Taylor's big band projects ... It was great because I got to apply some of the organizational ideas I'd been messing around with in smaller bands to a good-sized orchestra and got some really great effects. And I met a mess of cool musicians. People willing to do off-the-wall shit. I've played a lot of music in smaller groups with people I met in that band."
Pence's style moves freely from jazz improv circles to rock bands, including his new gig with Cold Sides. His sax forays snake through the band's guitar and electronic songs, lending a different timbre and otherness.
"In stylistic terms I tend to think of James Chance and John Zorn when I play with the Sides."
In Defenestrator--the name comes from the verb defenestrate, which means to throw out of a window--he composes mostly long-form pieces for sextet using guitar, horns, cello, Moog synthesizer and drums. The tunes swing as well as they lunge through wholly modern electric passages of joyful noise, all while recalling some great loft scene of yesteryear. Look for upcoming work from Pence in various groupings, and current releases like Defenestrator's Raw Deal CD and a forthcoming recording of a soundtrack performed to the silent film "Fall of the House of Usher" at N.C. State last year.
On Saturday, Feb. 28 Crowmeat Bob is performing in a duo with John Aguero for Recess, an experimental improv series held at Nightlight in Chapel Hill. Also on the bill that night are Zeke Graves, Pykrete (Chuck Johnson) and David Nahm. The event is a memorial benefit for local musician and friend Randy Ward.