Two avant-garde San Francisco musicians boldly push the sonic boundaries of prog, jazz and funk.
Nubdug Ensemble’s Jason Berry and Amanda Chaudhary seamlessly fuse esoteric lyrics with experimental synths and cerebral instrumentation on their latest ingenious albums, Volume 2: Blame and Meow Meow Band, respectively.
“These albums have both really been connecting with a lot of people. They really inspire both of us to keep going … and things have been improving the past couple of months. Hopefully, we’ll be moving in a more positive place,” Berry said.
“With my music, I’m not looking for acclaim or huge financial sales. These things would be wonderful, but I just want to connect with people. If it makes somebody happy … then it’s like, ‘Mission accomplished.’”
Both Nubdug Ensemble and Chaudhary whisk listeners along genre-bending adventures filled with precious metals, mechanical wonders, white wine and public transportation. Each Volume 2: Blame and Meow Meow Band track instantly brings a welcome element of surprise and enthrallment and repeatedly plays inside appreciative minds.
“I wanted to try these individual sounds, and if you listen back to something like The Residents, I thought, ‘How did they make those sounds and what could I do with that?’ It’s very late ‘70s things with different kinds of technology to get that sort of raw thing, and they use different instruments here … or use this process or that process,” said Chaudhary, who also collaborates with Berry in Nubdug Ensemble.
“I thought, ‘What if I work with this drummer and this synthesizer player and see what happens?’ It turned out to be great, and that’s the genesis of some of the things like ‘North Berkeley BART’ and ‘White Wine.’ Once I started working with Calvin Weston in 2020, it was like this perfect vehicle for recording some of this music.”
Volume 2: Blame
Throughout Nubdug Ensemble’s Volume 2: Blame, Berry explores scientific, mathematical and futuristic storylines embedded within prog rock, funky blues and modal jazz soundscapes. Alongside a star-studded cast of collaborators, he creates an alternate sonic dimension that defies space and time.
“A lot of the lyrics came late in the picture, but I wanted something dealing more with scientific things,” said Berry, who previously played in Vacuum Tree Head from 1989 to 2019.
“The last song, ‘Block,’ is talking about particle wave duality, and the tune in the middle, ‘Bleep,’ is about a mystery. The first tune, ‘Blues,’ is still a living form, but it’s also based on archaic forms. I wanted to use something that kind of harken back to that.”
Inside the historic “Blues,” Berry and Nubdug Ensemble delve into addictive blues-jazz-funk fusion as cyclical bass, attentive drums, crashing cymbals, raw electric guitar, frantic synth, curious saxophone and glistening percussion engulf them.
Vocalist Jill Rogers sings, “How could you treat me with such contempt?/How could you treat me so badly for that trifling matter of silver/Withhold my money and try to pass off such poor-quality ingots/I will not accept ingots from you sir, one who treats me with contempt.”
“The lyrics are based on an object in the British Museum called the complaint tablet to Ea-nasir. It’s this 4,000-year-old cuneiform tablet that’s a complaint about the wrong copper ingots,” Berry said. “It’s like a bad Yelp review, and it’s a poetic retelling of that story.”
Next, Nubdug Ensemble trades ancient history commerce for futuristic mechanical possibilities on “Bluff.” Alarming synth, booming drums, rotational bass, serene electric guitar and thoughtful saxophone whip back and forth within the underbelly of an engineering marvel.
Rogers sings, “Poom, poom, poom, poom/Churn of the piston in the groove/Mechanical phenomenon/Every moment spent and gone.”
“Let’s imagine that you’re a scientist, and you’re dealing with the language of science all the time, and you don’t know how to express yourself emotionally,” said Berry, whose band moniker comes from a 2019 Vacuum Tree Head track called “Nubdug.”
“You’re trying to use the language of fluid dynamics to talk about what you’re feeling, and this would be after a long day in the lab.”
After decoding fluid dynamics on “Bluff,” Nubdug Ensemble shifts to forensic science on the mysterious, “Bleep.” Ominous synth, investigative bass, startled electric guitar, pounding drums, smashing cymbals, anxious flute and bold horns converge into a ‘60s-like film noir score.
Rogers sings, “In a field on its side in Pennsylvania/Economy, economy Pennsylvania/In a field on its side/Two ping-pong eyes/Formaldehyde, formaldehyde.”
“We were listening to NPR … and this is an unsettling story. There’s a place in Pennsylvania called Economy, and some kid was riding his bike, and he found this severed head in the middle of a field. It’s like, ‘Where did this come from? There’s no body, and there’s a mystery about it,’” Berry said.
“The head had been preserved in formaldehyde. By deduction, they figured out the head had been surgically removed. The NPR story we heard … was talking to the forensic artist. The thought was this was somebody who had donated their body to science and had died in extreme poverty … and their head had been removed and given to an institution or a medical school.”
To bring Nubdug Ensemble’s intriguing Volume 2: Blame stories to life, Berry (programming, keys, electronic sounds) assembled an A-list team of musicians, including Steve Adams (saxophone, flute), Myles Boisen (electric guitar, lap steel), Chris Grady (trumpet), Brett Warren (bass), G. Calvin Weston (drums, percussion), Rogers (vocals) and Chaudhary (keys, synths, electronics).
“I like to set up things, but I also like to have the ability for people to express themselves … when we’re working in the studio. I want to give credit to our engineer and guitarist, Myles Boisen,” said Berry, who collaborated remotely and in-person with his ensemble.
“I would give him a written part and tell him, ‘Look, just use this as a guideline,’ because I really like it when he brings his own thing to it. On the last track, ‘Block,’ he created all the guitar parts and all the guitar orchestrations. He made it into as much as his own tune as my own tune.”
Meow Meow Band
Outside of Nubdug Ensemble, Chaudhary creates a dazzling electronic universe filled with French supernatural chants, otherworldly cat sounds, earwormy commercial jingles, mellow jazzy instrumentals and funky synth freak-outs on Meow Meow Band. It’s the ideal soundtrack for a spontaneous getaway to a cosmic-themed retreat.
“Improvisation definitely plays a strong role in there. A lot of these things are structured, but within that there are solos, and we tried to get down on top of things. We left the tape running as they say, so we could get some of those serendipitous moments,” said Chaudhary, who started her own project in 2016 and has two cats.
“There’s also the straight-ahead structure of a jazz piece … having a chorus with solos and going right around back to the chorus. I like to have that simple structure so we can do a lot of rich, complex things.”
In fact, Chaudhary brings a refreshing jazz complexity to the jingle-inspired “White Wine” as vibrant saxophone, jubilant synth, humming bass, light drums, shimmery cymbals and hypnotic electric guitar ease the soul.
Vocalist Amy X. Neuburg sings, “White wine, crisp and refreshing!/Enjoy it on a summer day.”
“We built an entire jazz tune around it. Originally, we just came up with those jingles on our own, and I did some solo electronic versions of it. Then, I made it into a compact, very tight fusion type of thing,” Chaudhary said.
“To some degree, a lot of those things have words … and in my mind, I hear that they should have words, but I can’t hear what those words are. The words serve the music.”
Concise lyrics also serve the jazzy, funkified ode to Bay area public transportation, “North Berkeley BART,” which blends easygoing sax, soft drums, ticking cymbals, soulful bass, astral synth and peaceful electric guitar.
Neuburg sings, “North Berkeley BART/Serving up all your transportation needs/North Berkeley BART/Opened in 1973.”
“When I put this together, I realized it was the kind of thing that once people had it, they could start singing it. It’s got that melody, it’s got those hooks in it, it’s got that vamp going, and Steve Adams brings a very experimental sound to it … it’s a very King Curtis kind of sound,” said Chaudhary, who learned piano and started composing music while growing up in New York City.
“I’m a transportation nerd … I love highways and subway systems as a New Yorker. I don’t know how we came up with ‘North Berkeley BART’ specifically. We were singing in the car going by it, and we just built the song around that.”
In addition, Chaudhary built Meow Meow Band’s versatile sound around a talented crew of musicians, including Sheldon Brown (bass clarinet), Jamaaladeen Tacuma (bass), Serena Toxicat (vocals), Adams (saxophone), Boisen (electric guitar), Neuburg (vocals) and Weston (drums, percussion).
“It’s a lot of fun to hear it come together … the sort of MIDI scaffolding getting replaced with the real (sound). It’s great to be part of the rhythm section with Calvin (Weston) and Jamaaladeen (Tacuma), and when we laid the horns down, that’s when you really noticed it,” Chaudhary said.
“We had the horn players lay down their tracks one-by-one in the studio working with Myles (Boisen). They were given sheet music and examples, but then they played the heads, and they did their thing.”
The Next Chapter
After sharing their latest multifaceted releases, Chaudhary and Berry have already started working on new material.
“I definitely want to do a new one, ideally this year. There’s quite a bit of time left this year, but it goes by so fast. I do have a bunch of songs that I want to work with and people I know I want to work with, so we’ll see if we can make that happen,” Chaudhary said.
“Meanwhile, I’ve been doing so much music for film scores and videos for CatSynth TV and wondering if I can work with that material and if can be done musically.”
As for Berry, Nubdug Ensemble’s next album will include eight compositions and feature an ambitious creative scope.
“I’ve done this for the past three or four years now. I release in December, and when I send them out, people have time to listen, and it’s a captive audience. On my next one, I’m going to have fewer compositions, but they’ll be longer in length,” he said.
“The albums always end up being between 20 and 30 minutes long. That’s enough music for me … if I can make that the best 20 minutes that you’ve ever heard, then I’ve accomplished my goal.”