It about 7:30 p.m. on a recent Wednesday, an interview with Cloris Leachman is interrupted by the bleeping noise that signals the National Weather Service’s emergency broadcast bulletins that seems to be of longer duration and even more hideous than usual. A severe thunderstorm warning has been issued for Guilford County, centered over Jamestown and moving in a northeasterly direction, that involves “dime-sized hail,” “deadly lightning” and “winds of up to 58 mph.” Around 8 o’clock the National Weather Service is urging caution against flash floods in Guilford and Alamance County.
In fact, subsequent news reports will flash scenes of abandoned vehicles in standing water on Bessemer Avenue and Aycock Street in Greensboro. By the time dusk descends, the downpour has abated at Jason Ward’s pastoral estate outside of Greensboro. He waits near the side door of his acoustically enhanced sound studio for his band mates in Irata to show up. “They’re towing people off Highway 29,” says Jon Case after entering the room. “It’s flooded.”
Jason Ward has an elaborate drum kit set up on two adjoining 4-foot-by-8-foot sheets of plywood. It includes a sampler and an electronic drum pad, along with a djembe.
Case and guitarist Jason Duff each have an array of pedals at their feet. The rehearsal is basically a run-through of a typical set list. A growling sample sets the mood for “Drunken Dwarf,” and Ward pounds out a brutal and intricate beat with his right arm while holding a second drumstick tucked under his chin. They move almost seamlessly into “Faun.” Duff’s guitar creates a pregnant sea of textural washes and drones, while Case’s bass drives home a monster rhythm. Ward’s drumming only intensifies. Duff uses a slide bar on his pinkie to diversify the sounds from his instrument still further. The music is loud enough, it seems, to tickle your spine, throttle your heart and rearrange other organs. Duff switches from guitar to saxophone that, filtered through an effects pedal, sounds like a distant siren in a thunderstorm.
Suddenly, the song is complete and the room is virtually silent. Duff laughs. “We can all go for extended periods without saying a word,” he says. “We were all in bands before this that had singers, so it’s kind of weird.”
When the band formed in late 2006, they auditioned a couple singers after placing an ad in YES! Weekly.
“We got all kinds of stuff,” Ward says. “It was terrible, at best.” Through a series of experiments, the three musicians determined that they liked the freedom of playing without a singer.
They liked being able to create moods through their instruments instead of having the emotional tenor of a song established by the subject matter in the lyrics. They liked kicking the standard verse-chorus structure aside. They liked not having to contend with an additional ego in the already fierce battle of their wills. And it was kind of funny when Duff would speak into the microphone attached to the saxophone to inform audiences at gigs that their merchandise was available for sale. Because of their status as an instrumental band, Irata often gets booked with another Greensboro-area instrumental band called a Bronzed Chorus. They like those guys, but otherwise don’t see a lot of similarities.
Jason Duff (left) and Jon Case of Irata rehearse in a studio set up in drummer Jason Ward’s house in southeast Guilford County. (photo by Jordan Green)
They were excited to cross paths with a Bronzed Chorus at the CMJ Music Marathon Festival last year at a music festival, and at Clemson University in South Carolina.
“We don’t think of ourselves as post-rock or anything like that,” Duff says. “With a lot of shoe-gaze bands you can’t tell one song from the other. We wanted to make sure every song has a distinct feel.” Case elaborates, “We want to rock. We try to throw in some ambient stuff to keep it interesting.”
Duff describes their 2008 self-titled debut as a mixture of surf rock, jazz and metal, adding, “I don’t think any other band sounds like us.” Ward objects, “I feel like that’s something every band says.” There is some talk about whether Irata conforms to any rules and, related to that, whether they might consider adding a singer in the future.
“Of course, there are rules,” Ward says. “Rule number two,” Case says, “is no one looks me in the eye while we’re playing.” “Rule number three,” rejoins Duff, “is Jon has to take at least one shower a week.” And that’s pretty much their comportment around each other: easy-going camaraderie as a counterbalance to the intensity of their musical pursuits.
They’re recorded about half of their second album, which they hope to release next spring. “We’ve been told our new stuff is combative, by which I think they mean aggro,” Case says, “so maybe the other half will be powder-puff.”
They may or may not sign with a label, but they’re considering hiring a PR agent and someone to help with radio placement. “We’re interested in marketing our music for video-game soundtracks,” Duff adds.
Irata performs with the Moaners at the Green Bean, at 341 S. Elm St. in Greensboro, on June 27. Call 336.691.9990 for more information.