Old Time Relijun’s one-of-a-kind brand of music encompasses jazz, blues, art-rock and dance-punk, a 21st-century Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band led by multi-instrumentalist Arrington de Dionyso. After releasing seven albums on K Records in the late '90s through the 2000s, Old Time Relijun went on a 10-year hiatus, before returning this year with the EP “See Now and Know” and a lengthy tour. De Dionyso spoke with the Missoulian in advance of their show at the ZACC on April 27.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
How are you guys feeling about getting back out on the road for the first time in awhile?
We actually did a short West Coast tour a few months ago. We did, like, five shows in November, I think, so that was kind of a test run for how things would work on a longer tour. We’re definitely all really pumped and excited for doing some shows, you know, getting back out across the country. We’re coming through a lot of cities that we used to do really, really well in, so we’re hoping that we maintain that with our following and build upon that.
You've been through Montana before right?
Oh, yeah, we used to play Missoula. I used to play Missoula a lot back in the late '90s, back when it was Jay’s Upstairs was the main spot. We’d always pass through there. And you know, the music scene in every city kind of ebbs and flows, and there were some tours where we were trying to come through and there maybe wasn’t the right venue. I remember we played the Boys and Girls Club on one trip. It was cool, but it wasn’t promoted the way a rock show would be promoted, so it was more a few teenagers hanging out after school. It wasn’t a real show that time.
I’ve been through Missoula a couple other times with some of my other bands here and there. And of course, Chris Sand, who’s promoting (this show) has been a really close friend of ours since the very beginning. I think one of his bands was the opening act at one of the first two shows we ever played.
So the band is returning after about a decade-long break. What spurred the reunion and new record?
In the meantime I’ve had a lot of different types of projects over the last decade. Everyone was living in a different city. A lot of the music that I’d been doing in this intervening decade has been, I’d say, a lot more abstract in that it’s … well, let me put it this way: the thing about Old Time Relijun that I was really missing was that these are songs that bring people together and these are songs that people sing along with, in a certain way.
When I was doing more sound art, more purely experimental stuff, it has a really important, visceral impact, but it doesn’t really have that quality of drawing in the audience in the way that a rock band can.
We all felt that that thing that we do as a band is something really special and we owe it to ourselves to bring it back. And every year I was getting messages from fans and Facebook followers asking when Old Time Relijun is coming back, so it’s always been this looming question. Ten years came up on us before we realized it, we were all so busy doing other things.
In this crazy time we’re living in now, we feel our music has a certain urgency and intensity to it that I think addresses some of the things people are feeling right now.
Did you start writing these new songs from a certain perspective, or going for a theme for the EP?
It’s an interesting package of songs. It’s some of my most direct songwriting. A lot of our favorite songs on the past albums are sort of drenched in a lot of poetic imagery and mythological metaphors and a harkening to these sort of primordial architecture.
And this album, there’s still a touch of that, but this album’s a lot more direct and even a little bit literal. Which is sort of a different approach for me to take. I usually use a lot of symbolic reference points. But the track, I think it’s the third song, “I Know I’m Alive,” it’s just so direct and to the point. What more profound thing can you make out of that?
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There’s a Calvin Johnson (founder and director of K Records) quote where he called Old Time Relijun’s new record “a little more normal.” Sounds like maybe that’s how he meant it.
I don’t think there’s anything normal about it, but it’s — I like the word "direct." It’s to the point. Like the last song on the album, where I have the spoken intro, “In this world today, I’ve been a lot of places, I’ve seen a lot of people living in fear and isolation. You can live in the same house, live on the same street, and feel people turn away from each other.”
It’s just direct, it’s just saying something really important to address where people are. People are looking at their phones a lot, looking at social media and not even aware that people are being arrested at our border and being put in cages and having their children taken away from them every day. We’re just isolated from that reality.
You guys have always had some dance-y tunes, but “See Now and Know” feels more upbeat and party-like from front to back to me. Was that purposeful?
Oh, yeah, I agree. It’s also a question of the differences between our recorded albums and our live shows. Our live shows have always been in that dance-party realm, but with a more subversive element underneath it. You gotta make the kids move if you want them to hear the message, you know?
During Old Time Relijun’s hiatus, it looks like you did a lot of world music, learning and traveling around the world. There’s an instrument you play on the EP, the lalove, that you learned in that time.
Eight years ago or so I started spending a lot of time in Indonesia. I go every year and I have a few different communities that I work with there, and these are communities that are really working actively to keep their arts and music traditions alive and thriving and passed down to the young people.
But they also realize that in order to keep the really sacred, ancient music alive, they also have to encourage young people to learn those instruments and explore new sounds with that more ancient knowledge brought into it.
In Indonesia, there’s actually one of the biggest experimental noise scenes in the world. There’s a lot of young kids, maybe they grew up learning gamelan, maybe they grew up learning some of the really ancient instruments, but they’re also experimenting and searching for new directions with some of those sounds.
One of those cities is Palu, where there was recently a tsunami and earthquake that destroyed much of the region. In that city, I work with a man named Ojo. He’s a traditional instrument maker. The lalove, it’s a very long, slender bamboo flute that has the most impactful, kind of mysterious, whispering sound.
He’s working really hard to keep it. His father taught him how to make, and it’s been passed down for many generations. He’s working really hard to keep that tradition alive by encouraging people to explore the sounds of the instrument in new contexts.
So in Indonesia, sometimes you hear people playing it in a rock band or they’ll have be running it through effects pedals or what have you. But they’re doing that at the same time that they’re learning traditional scales. There’s a really vibrant musical culture happening.
I feel like it’s part of my task as sort of a, I’m almost a punk ambassador. I’m representing this interplay between different musical cultures. Part of my job is to teach people here in the West, in America, teach them about what’s happening over there. So that song, “Danau Lindu,” (which features the lalove) is named after a national park with a lake up in the mountains that’s the traditional homeland of the people who play the lalove flutes.
A decade later, will Old Time Relijun’s famous crazy, party-like live shows be the same?
Oh, my God, yeah. It’s even better than before. We’re a band that really puts all of our physicality into the music. There’s every bit of energy as there ever was before. I’m 44 years old, I don’t jump up and down nearly as much, but this show is going to be just as intense and sweaty as anything anyone’s ever seen.