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Motherboy: Ambient Art Rock Band Bends Genres

The ambient art rock band Motherboy is only loosely a rock band. The trio — Kate Alexandrite, Nikolay Maslov, and Zaid Yousef — comes closer to sound art, but that classification isn’t entirely adequate either. Their sets are a multimodal interplay of ambient music, video and performance. 

Motherboy debuted publicly early this year in a series of performances at the FAR Bazaar held at Cerritos College. The sprawling complex of classrooms and studios in the college’s mid-century fine arts building offered an intriguing setting for the group’s live sets. The Bazaar was a final farewell to the 55- year-old building before it fell to demolition, while another shiny new building stood ready to replace it. 

Motherboy at Far Bazaar | Courtesy of Motherboy
Motherboy at Far Bazaar | Courtesy of Motherboy

Motherboy orchestrated its performances to exploit the physical space — they set up in the old photography studio in the fine arts complex — by making “sculptural interventions with the existing structures like the cubbies, the flooring, the ceiling and the history of that site,” Yousef says. During their performances, he moved about the space withdrawing pieces of paper, prints and other works that remained in the classroom, moving objects from one set of cupboards to the next, as if the exercise was a commentary on the archive itself. As Yousef performed, Alexandrite’s video — which she shot from the window of a passenger jet on approach to LAX — overlaid the scene. 

 “Much of what we do deliberately escapes notation,” Maslov says. “It was almost like a literal ‘art band,’” he muses; if you start a band with artists, what would that sound like? The fun of it, he says, is that none of them approach the project with a preconceived objective. Alexandrite concurs: “We were never thinking, ‘How do we present this?’”

Motherboy performance at studio of Zaid Yousef | Courtesy of Motherboy
Motherboy performance at studio of Zaid Yousef | Courtesy of Motherboy

Maslov, the Curator of Film and Multimedia Projects at the UC Riverside Culver Center of the Arts, and the only member of the group with musical training, is Motherboy’s de facto musical seer. The collective is structured sonically around his guitar and various percussive sounds, and vocalizations, performed by Yousef. 

“We started this project [asking] what am I going to play?” says Yousef, whose studio in Riverside is where the band usually rehearses. When they first started talking about the project, he didn’t have any instruments, so he decided to use sculpture, or other objects not typically associated with music, to produce sound.

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 “In one of our first practices, Nikolay was on the guitar with pedals, Kate was projecting [video], and I was smashing rocks on the floor,” Yousef says. “That sound couldn’t compete with the volume” of Maslov’s amplified guitar, so Yousef decided to use contact microphones. After that simple leap, he quickly added a loop pedal and a synthesizer.

Motherboy performance at studio of Zaid Yousef | Courtesy of Motherboy
Motherboy performance at studio of Zaid Yousef | Courtesy of Motherboy

Maslov is a self-proclaimed fan of ambient and drone; his guitar work gravitates toward the textures and dynamics of those genres. Working with a number of electronic effects, he lays down loops that have a recursive quality that allows for improvisation. Alexandrite, who works in video, performance and other media, broadcasts video during their sets to create an ambient visual texture that overlaps with and responds to Maslov and Yousef’s playing.

Drawing from a library of about 250 to 300 different video clips that she has shot herself, Alexandrite works with up to four layers of video at once. With each unique performance, she links various aspects of the video to the sound elements. “It’s something I’ll set while we’re playing,” she says, so that she can anticipate the next transition. At other times she follows Maslov and Yousef free-hand, manipulating video on the fly. Yousef thinks of it as video jamming.

 “It really becomes like an instrument,” Alexandrite says, comparing her live video work to the loops and the effects that Maslov and Yousef use.  

Motherboy at Far Bazaar | Courtesy of Motherboy
Motherboy at Far Bazaar | Courtesy of Motherboy

Motherboy’s sound range is similar to a typical band setup. The guitar provides the mid-range tones, Maslov says, while Yousef’s vocalizations often occupy the higher frequencies. The rhythmic or percussive elements, which Yousef generates with the synthesizer or by banging heavy objects attached to contact microphones, sit below the guitar. It’s a play on the traditional rock band dynamic, Maslov explains, “and sometimes to start a performance, I’ll ask Zaid to come up with a rhythm on a loop pedal, whether it’s a vocal rhythm or something else, and that’s our jumping off point. Almost like a count-in to a song.”

Although Motherboy may be easiest to conceptualize as a band, it is structured around improvisation across media. The music provides a loose structure, around which the band builds a pulsing visual and sonic performance. Maslov suggests a link with experimental film pioneer Stan Brakhage who was interested in how film could communicate without language or a codified symbolic order. Alexandrite’s videos, which are non-linear and narrative only in the sense that they record the tangible world rather than being abstract, border this territory. 

Listen to a Motherboy performance

For their Cerritos performance, however, there were clear references to the site and to other identifiable events. Before playing the FAR Bazaar, Yousef says, Motherboy discussed possible concepts for the performance. They were aware of the 1986 mid-air collision of a Piper Archer and a DC-9 passenger jet over Cerritos. Alexandrite says that she shot her video footage with the Cerritos performance in mind. Maslov remembers listening to “Ambient 1/Music for Airports” (1978), Brian Eno’s concept album, “a lot” before the FAR Bazaar. 

Another LAX connection emerged as the weekend unfolded; the day before the FAR Bazaar opened, President Trump signed his travel ban. Between sets, Alexandrite and Mazlov drove to LAX. Mazlov recorded the crowd’s protest chants on his phone, and during their subsequent performances, he fed the audio into the pickups on his guitar. 

But at a performance in the black box theater at UCR’s Culver Center in early June, the video was much less specific. Shots of the Hollywood hills cropped up regularly, but most of the video could have been recorded anywhere in the greater LA basin, from Riverside to Santa Monica. Since the Cerritos performance, Alexandrite says, she has shot video differently. What she finds interesting now is how it can be used abstractly. What might be boring "as a narrative piece of video is perfect for building up a texture or ambiance."  

Top Image: Motherboy at Far Bazaar | Courtesy of Motherboy

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