When Tim Sommer was a kid listening to Kinks records, he had a question regarding the riff: Why not just riffs? "You hear one part and love it, and you pick up the needle or stop the CD player and play the part over and over again," says Sommer, who grew up in New York and came of age during the first tide of New York punk. "So why not take the riff from the song and play it all day and all night and have a song with nothing but the riff and play it over and over until it becomes hypnotic?"
Now, almost three decades later, he's finally getting a chance to hear that with his new band, a riff-based drone collective that borrows its name from the title of a World War II Dylan Thomas poem, "A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London." Alongside Sara Bell (Regina Hexaphone, Tres Chicas, Angels of Epistemology), Jenks Miller (Horseback, In the Year of the Pig) and Alex Maiolo (Violet Vector & the Lovely Lovelies), Sommer will play a sequence of three arpeggio riffs. The four players will start with the same riff and move at their own pace to the next part. Dissonance will creep into pleasantries, and pleasantries will emerge from the dissonance. As Sommer puts it, it's a Terry Riley idea attached to Pink Floyd guitar parts with a La Monte Young sense of sound and space.
If it seems like Sommer knows his composers, he does: In 1982, he was a member of seminal downtown New York heavy act Swans. In 1983, two friends named Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo quit performing in the ensemble of young massed-guitar composer Glenn Branca to concentrate full time on their band, Sonic Youth. They recommended Sommer, who as a 21-year-old, began a three-year run in Branca's band, playing bass in symphonies for guitar that moved slowly and gracefully through a series of harmonics. He left the band in 1986 to concentrate on Hugo Largo, his band that mixed avant-garde ideas of sound and more pop-oriented structures (Michael Stipe produced the band's first EP). This band, Sommer hopes, is a marriage of and reinvention for ideas from all of those acts.
"It starts simple, like a sunrise, and we're all in a beautiful place.... Interesting atonal and harmonic things should end up happening, and we'll all end up in the same place. Like a sunset."
A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London takes its premiere at Broad Street Café Saturday, Dec. 1, at 9 p.m. sharp. The band opens for Jeff Hart & the Damage Done and Meltzer-Hart. Tickets are $5.