When Manjip Vhatti gets on the line two hours after Double Muslims' set in Charlottesville, Va., he talks about the music scene in Knoxville, the Tennessee city his band calls home. He raves about Tenderhooks, a power pop-glossed act with a jangly country heart. It's telling that Vhatti likes Tenderhooks, whose melodies are sharp and magnetic. Double Muslims, after all, are a challenging instrumental quartet with cello, saxophone, guitar and drums, exploring arithmetic shifts and textural invention.
Still, amid their occasional abrasion, constant rhythm shifts and meticulous interplay, there's a welcoming thread of familiarity. On "Errors of Menace," for instance, the band mutually moves in tight steps, drummer and founder Eric Lee directing things with his stop-time breaks and spinning orientations. Cellist Marcelle Good and guitarist Jason Bordman alternate between wide textural passes and fluid consonant phrases. But Lee's drumming mutates until it pops and swings, and the band's crosstalk winks with playfulness.
Vhatti didn't play on the recording of "Errors of Menace/Stupor Creek" released by Laboratory Standard Recordings as a seven-inch record, but he knows it well. He studied it before he wrote his sax part, considering its themes and motivations and effects. He plays on it every night now, but finding his spot in a track this strident, he says, remains a struggle.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: Tell me a little about how Double Muslims came together.
MANJIP VHATTI: The band has been together two years or so. Eric [Lee, guitar] is the guy who has had this Double Muslims moniker for a while, and he's always known Marcelle [Good, cello] and Jason [Bordman, drums]. He and Jason were in a band before this. Before, Eric just used the moniker to do whatever he wanted to do in town, you know, solo shows or drums-and-guitar stuff. A couple of years ago, Eric and Marcelle and Jason decided to get together and write some songs. Those three got together and started playing shows and did a small tour, and I joined the band in May. I've only been in the band for a few months.
So you didn't play on "Errors of Menace/Stupor Creek," right?
No, that was recorded in January, so I'm not on there. In our current set, we have two songs I wrote with the band, and the rest I put parts in the song. I play on "Errors of Menace" now, but I'm not on that record.
That's a different perspective, finding your place in this song as a saxophonist months after it was recorded.
Well, Marcelle went to school in New York in March or April, so when I joined the band in May, it was just us three—drums, guitar and saxophone. It was always understood that Marcelle was coming back for this tour and a couple of shows in Knoxville, but we had to write parts for the old songs and write new songs. When Marcelle came back, she'd have to write her parts for those songs.
It's interesting because any other band I've been in, it's been a collaborative thing from the start. But this is sort of like an exercise or a puzzle. Something's already there and you have to listen to it and decide what the intent is and how you can magnify the original intent without destroying the method that was already there. I don't want to sound like I'm soloing over the track, so I had to listen to these songs a lot. I'm not still happy with my parts, but I don't think that's easy, either—to be absolutely happy with anything you ever do.
You mentioned the original intent of the song. What did you hear as the intent?
That song is a really tense song, especially relative to the other songs we play. It's only successfully played when some tension is built up and sustained among us and among the audience. I'm not going to be able to throw off some Dixieland sax line. That would destroy the feel of the song, so I have to capture and magnify the same tension that the song has. We all pretty much agree that it's our least conventional song and probably most interesting song.
How do you find yourself thinking about tension musically?
Tension is a difficult thing to achieve because it takes confidence on everyone's part. Each member has to add just the right amount of his instrument to get the right tension. This band we just saw, for instance, created good tension and they were very subtle about it. If any one instrument had just—well, it was a quiet sort of tension, so if the drummer had just smashed his cymbal, then it would have destroyed the tension they'd worked up to over five minutes. But I don't want to give you the wrong idea: The "Errors of Menace" song isn't improvisatory, either. It's meticulously arranged, despite how it might sound.
Yeah, when I first heard it, I certainly thought it was improvised around a few core changes and concepts. Do you stick pretty close to it each night?
Sure, but when the Rolling Stones play, some nights they're feeling wild, maybe. They play around with what they have and play in slightly different ways. That's how it is with any band, I think, unless you're reading sheet music.... That was one of the requirements when this band was getting together, though: We're going to write songs. We're not leaving everything up to chance. We're going to write it. I agree with their decision to do that.
Double Muslims plays Thursday, Aug. 30, at Nightlight with The Whole World Laughing, Clang Quartet and Diagram A at 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $6.