“Can you hear me now? Good.” Verizon’s commercial capitalizes on the nation’s fear of being incommunicado by promising crystal-clear telephone connections throughout the land. The latest creation from the seven-member theatrical music troupe “Awesome” pledges no such thing. noSIGNAL is about failed connections in the worlds of men, insects, and technology. In a signature style that combines cinema, theater, and music, noSIGNAL weaves a nonlinear tale involving exiled bees, lost computer files, and martyred biological cells, combining instruments such as mandolin, banjo, and drums with kitchen utensils and typewriter.
The bee theme is apt, because the buzz around “Awesome” is building. This week, the group appears at On the Boards, one of the biggest venues it has played to date. So who are these guys? They might prefer to tell you who they’re not. The trumpet-wielding Evan Mosher maintains, “‘Awesome’ is not a rock band.” Proof? They do not have casually expensive haircuts or hipster T-shirts. Since their unveiling as “Awesome” at Annex Theater’s monthly cabaret Spin the Bottle in 2004, the collective (composed of Mosher, John Ackermann, Kirk Anderson, Basil Harris, David Nixon, John Osebold, and Rob Witmer) has been notoriously difficult to describe. Over the course of the past year, they have collaborated with vocalists (Sean Nelson), literary mavens (Jonathan Safran Foer and Charles D. Ambrosio), and directors (Matt Fontaine). While “Awesome” members have strong theater experience—many of them met doing sketch comedy— their prodigious talents allow them to traverse assorted artistic genres.
First embraced by the fringe theater crowd, “Awesome” now also counts music fans among its growing audience. And rightfully so. Delaware, the hit production of 2005 that questioned the reality of places never visited, is also a stunning debut album. In both, hilarious high jinks and perfect harmony collide with wistful earnestness. Irony plays no small part, as evidenced by the quotation marks that hug the band’s moniker. When pressed for comparables, members boldly cite the Beatles, They Might Be Giants, and Ween. As for influences: Nintendo, fruit, and Patrick Swayze. “They’re clues, buzzwords, sound bites,” says über-talented longhair Osebold, “of things we might sing about or that one might see onstage.”
In noSIGNAL, science, technology, and art meld when, for example, members demonstrate the infamous waggle dance—those hip moves used by honeybees to indicate the location of food, against a projected screen of television static. While the beehive is a symbol of the state of Utah, this time “Awesome” steers clear of geographic allusion and focuses instead on its humble inhabitant. The bee is used throughout the performance as an analogy for the configuration of societies large and small. Likewise, bee culture reveals itself in the group’s collaborative effort that the members call the “hive-mind.” The banjo-playing doctor of philosophy and self- proclaimed resident leprechaun Nixon explains it as “that moment when something sparks the same thought in all of us at once. When we all see a certain connection.” Like past productions, noSIGNAL is born of individual explorations of song and script that jell to form an underlying abstract theme seemingly made up of free association. In theory, this should not work. But just as Freud originally intended, audience comprehension is based on instinct rather than intellect.
On the Boards’ artistic director, Lane Czaplinski, says “Awesome” has many forerunners in Seattle, including multimedia performance groups Run/Remain, 33 Fainting Spells, and Locust. Unlike these predecessors, through, “Awesome” brings music strongly to the fore. So, are they a rock band? “If they are not rock musicians,” says Czaplinski “there is rock payoff.”
Musicians at heart, “Awesome” may forgo conventional plot development. Categorization may be next to impossible. But signal or no signal—they come through loud and clear.