You’d be hard-pressed to name one college professor who you could really picture rocking in a dingy Tucson performance space. For the department of English’s John Melillo, though, playing rock ‘n’ roll with his DIY band Algae and Tentacles is practically a second job.
“For me, music and the literature and poetry that I study are linked,” Melillo said. “In a way, I’m fascinated by the questions asked by both questions of sound.”
Melillo describes Algae and Tentacles, which has existed in name since 2010 when he was living in New York City, as “a noise project that became a pop project and is now turning into a noise project again.”
Sound is extremely important to Melillo, whose songwriting incorporates white-noise breakdowns and looped backward guitar just as often as pop-rock choruses. The result is one of the most experimental yet curiously approachable set lists in Tucson, and it’s this variety of sound that sets Melillo apart.
“I want to be eclectic in that way,” he said. “I’d never pretend like I’m too good to have a set sound or anything. I just don’t want to repeat the same musical tics over and over.”
Part of what has allowed Algae and Tentacles to avoid a musical rut for three years is its alternating members. Since beginning the project in New York, Melillo has played with several drummers, at one point even setting up two separate drum kits. His assorted collaborations with friends have found Melillo recording acoustic dirges in a cave, organizing shows in the depths of the desert and underground.
“I tend to write songs and come up with structure on my own,” Melillo said, “but it’s in the collaboration that there’s an act of transferring songs from the art.”
When Melillo came to Tucson, Algae and Tentacles welcomed poetry graduate student Hannah Ensor as its drummer.
“Writing on my own is sort of the old-fashioned approach to songwriting,” Melillo said, “but with Hannah, there’s a lot of experimentation involved. Between the two of us, it’s a matter of making sounds and seeing what works.”
Although Algae and Tentacles has been stationed in Tucson for the last two years, Wednesday’s show at La Cocina marks the kick-off for the band’s first-ever West Coast tour.
“The big thing about a song is that it’s a vague kernel of an abstract structure,” Melillo said. “The performance is the enactment of that, it forces you to make a decision.”
With the cassette/digital-download EP Little Body released in March and imminent mini-tour, Algae and Tentacles seems more poised than ever to “bring noise into the conversation,” as Melillo said.
“Because of Tucson’s size and community, I think it’s the perfect place to start trying to push the limits of sound and create something new for how artists express themselves,” he added.