Kenny Wollesen (far left) and Himalayas
Sean Francis Conway’s band doesn’t rehearse. Its members don’t own traditional instruments, nor do they have much technical skill or musicianship. In fact, Conway insists that Bombshell Boom Boom, the DIY marching band he helped found, doesn’t really have much to do with music at all.
“Honestly, the music itself is the last thing I think about,” Conway says. “Getting as many people together as possible, having a good time and possibly getting some free drinks is the real priority every time we play.”
Sound like a train wreck? Maybe. But if you think Bombshell’s the kind of band that’s more likely to have drinks thrown at them than bought for them, Conway says you’re wrong.
“I was really nervous at first that everyone would hate it, but probably about 80 percent of people are super-positive about it,” he says. “It’s totally unexpected, so maybe it’s the surprise factor, but it’s just fun and we’re always having such a good time, so I think people see that.”
Conway reports that the band’s improvisations usually go over well even though they’re loud, obnoxious, atonal and, most of the time, uninvited. “Usually, we’re just crashing the party, showing up at events like the Mardi Gras celebration in Hillcrest and things like that. This upcoming performance at Sushi is the first time we’ve actually been invited to play a proper gig somewhere.”
He’s talking about the next show in Sushi Performance and Visual Arts’ Fresh Sound Series, an ongoing showcase of experimental music, on Tuesday, April 6.
Bombshell may be a one-of-a-kind experiment in San Diego, but it takes cues from a growing DIY, activist, street-band movement happening across the country. These bands use performances to foster a sense of community interaction and inclusion while also raising awareness about issues important to the group. The music draws influence from New Orleans second-line brass bands, European Klezmer, Balkan and Romani music and Brazilian Afro Bloc traditions but is played with non-traditional, handmade instruments that allow anyone to get involved.
“The instruments are extremely approachable compared to if I was handing out trumpets or something,” Conway says. “So, it’s been really successful because even people who consider themselves non-musicians can still become a vital part of the group.”
Probably the biggest difference between the Sushi show and Bombshell’s other appearances will be the addition of accomplished jazz drummer and New York City musical mad scientist Kenny Wollesen. It was at the annual HONK street-music festival in Boston that Conway became friends with the eccentric yet humble Wollesen.
“Sean and I met several years ago at a residency at Mass Moca in the Berkshires and continued to play and keep in touch,” Wollesen says. “Last time we played together was at HONK, and he was telling me about Bombshell and the great musicians in San Diego. I also have friends and family in San Diego, so it really worked out perfectly to do a show together.”
To get an idea of just how down-to-earth Wollesen is, one kind of has to understand his background. He’s not a household name, but Wollesen has recorded and toured with the likes of Tom Waits and Sean Lennon. If you’re into jazz, you’ve maybe seen him backing up Bill Frisell’s smooth, echo-laden guitar licks or improvising with otherworldly experimentalist John Zorn.
“Right now, I’m working with master magician Teller [of Penn & Teller], designing the sound for his new play called Play Dead,” Wollesen says. “It’s a magic horror show where the finale is taking someone from the audience, cutting their stomach open and pulling another person out of their body.”
Somewhere in between all of this legit work, Wollesen found time to start his own marching outfit, Himalayas, as well as conduct clinics and workshops under his Wollesonic Laboratories umbrella, during which he teaches kids how to construct their own instruments out of balloons, PVC pipe and other things most people would consider junk. This is something that Bombshell does, as well, traveling to schools to help students make bizarre instruments like balloon bassoons, bottle-cap tambourines and driftwood marimbas.
This first proper gig, as Conway puts it, is going to be more of a happening or a performance-art experience than a concert, as well as a chance to play with his mentor and friend. Expect lots of audience interaction, improvisation and interactive sound sculptures and art installations.
Wollesen will be the featured performer with Bombshell backing him up, but both he and Conway insist that the most important thing is getting as many people involved as possible and blurring the line between audience and performer.
“I absolutely love it when it gets to that ephemeral point where it becomes very hard to distinguish between performer and audience,” Wollesen says. “For me, that’s when it gets really great. In fact, everybody involved and within earshot usually loses their sense of barrier.”
Kenny Wollesen and Bombshell play on Tuesday, April 6, at SUSHI Performance and Visual Art. www.sushiart.org, www.myspace.com/himalayasmusic, www.myspace.com/bombshellboomboom.