With Phantasm in Tutu, Heads on Sticks' David Mueller gets doing-it-wrong right | Music Essay | Indy Week
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"When I approach a song traditionally, it never comes out that way. If I just try to make a wheel, it'll come out really weird. They're circular and they spin, but that's about it."

With Phantasm in Tutu, Heads on Sticks' David Mueller gets doing-it-wrong right 

There's something wrong with Phantasm in Tutu, the new album from Raleigh band Heads on Sticks. The martial percussion and psychedelic guitar of "Ragnarok" are well formed, but the beat is destabilized by a sound that suggests the gallop of a tiny horse with seven legs. The sleek, evil funk of "Answer Jam" detours into talky rock guitar, a holdover from a Frampton jam. And the arpeggiated synthesizers of "I Can Get Back" speed up and slow down, as though powered by a rickety waterwheel.

But all the wrongness fits together into something very right: a fuller, more balanced take on the beat-based computer music that Heads on Sticks architect David Mueller has previously made. It's tempting to call it unhinged, but the songs actually have extra hinges, like folding rulers. Imagine if The Beatles, during their psychedelic phase, had access to visual sequencing programs such as Ableton Live and liberally spiced their music with electro-pop, krautrock, dub and funk. The fantasy fits Phantasm in Tutu.

It's quite a different look for a musician who, not so long ago, was touring internationally with the band Birds of Avalon on the dime of the well-connected Volcom Entertainment label. On the other side of that contract, Mueller finds himself again in the wilderness of small indie labels—a reality both disorienting and freeing.

"With Volcom, the trajectory we were on wasn't entirely ours," Mueller explains. "Working with fewer resources, you're out in the middle of nowhere. But that also means I can scream and beat my chest and run in circles if I want to—there's a liberating feeling to nobody watching."

Listening to the volatile Phantasm in Tutu, one thinks, "Yeah, no kidding."

Mueller, 38, grew up in Raleigh, where he still lives. His first mature band was called Strange, in which he played guitar and sang, and which included Lincoln Hancock and Brian Donohoe—both current members of the Heads on Sticks live band. Strange released one album before drifting apart. That's when Mueller, moving to bass from guitar, joined Birds of Avalon, a thunderous and psychedelic group that funneled grand rock theatrics into concise anthems. Birds of Avalon linked with Volcom Entertainment, the music division of the youth-culture clothing giant, riding in on the recommendation of Volcom signees Valient Thorr.

"It felt really surreal," Mueller says. "It's not like [Volcom] blew a jet engine of cash in our faces, but they had more resources than anybody I had worked with before, and connections to worlds I was only vaguely aware of. I still see us show up in some snowboarding video now and then."

But the Volcom stint ended with a whimper, not a bang, clearing the way for Mueller to focus on Heads on Sticks. After Birds of Avalon finished a new album, the label called to say it was out of money to promote the music. Instead of handing the label a record they'd spent so much time and money on, they recorded a new LP in a basement and in less than a month to fulfill their contract.

"The funny thing is," he says, "it might be my favorite record of ours."

Mueller, after all, likes a good musical experiment. He minted the name Heads on Sticks around 2007 as a catchall for his recording test runs. If Strange had been about learning to write songs, Heads was about learning to use technology, from samplers and visual sequencers to analog synthesizers and drum machines. After a lull in Birds of Avalon's schedule, Mueller rebooted Heads on Sticks with the 2010 album Mocking Bird, beginning a string of fairly rapid releases that showed a strong upward curve in technical proficiency.

Mueller's first exposure to electronic sample-based music was hip-hop; he dabbled in electronic music as a teenager, and then someone gave him a copy of the digital audio program Fruityloops in the early '00s.

"At first," Mueller remembers, "there was the kid-in-the-candy-store factor, and most of what I made sounded like video games and cartoons. It took a number of years to draw that string together with songwriting. But I was having a harder time writing music on guitar that I was excited about. Writing on keyboard and doing more programming, I was able to surprise myself. If I have an artistic goal, that's it."

Mueller created Mocking Bird entirely on a 24-track digital console, tinkering with drop-down menus on its tiny screen. Phantasm in Tutu employs software-loaded laptops, analog hardware and live instruments such as bass and horns to create a broader sound. The basic harmonic structures of Mueller's compositions often come from solo piano sessions at home, where a certain chord change will catch his ear. He takes those progressions in strange directions. Whatever Brains guitarist Will Evans, who plays with Heads on Sticks live, co-produced the album with Mueller. It's the first time he's indulged such a contribution, and it adds gravity to Phantasm's motion.

"I wanted the songs to have a sense of storyline, sonically," Mueller says. "With this kitchen-sink approach, the path to that is not clear. Will helped me make something where those loose ends are more tied up."

But this storyline doesn't come from Mueller's biography, nor can the emotional center be found in his lyrics, which are but one moving part in a hermetic ecosystem of sound. He's never been that sort of songwriter, he says, choosing to focus more on the meaning of the song as a whole than hinging all its interpretation simply on the words.

"I've always wanted to create music that was experimental and didn't follow anyone's template," Mueller muses. "But what I've realized with this record is that I don't have to reinvent the wheel. When I approach a song traditionally, it never comes out that way. If I just try to make a wheel, it'll come out really weird. They're circular and they spin, but that's about it."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Out of order."

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