It's a quiet night in downtown Plymouth, where blankets of snow and warm lit windows give the impression of a sleepy village. What's going on inside the neighborhood church is a different story altogether, though. That's where the band Inkface is soundchecking, making a racket that betrays the tranquil feeling outside, as band members Michael Sabatini and Garrison Panyan volley guitar riffs and synth effects back and forth and a pair of engineers obsess over control panels and wires.
If the guys seem like they're being particularly geeky about their sound, it's because they have to be: They just negotiated a deal for valuable studio time at friend and musician Chris Breest's converted church studio and living space. They set up in the studio's large live room, where they can play through their set live a few times and capture their best takes. But really, if they seem geeky, it's because they are kind of geeky. As a jam band, Inkface — which currently consists of "Nasty" Nate on bass, Andrew Brengle on drums and Michael Basty on percussion, in addition to Sabatini and Panyan on guitars, keyboards, and synthesizers — plays an intense sort of atmospheric instrumental rock that sounds equal parts jazz improv and sci-fi movie soundtrack.
In a way, the band's current incarnation is a 180-degree turn from its origins. The project started out as Sabatini alone noodling around on his computer, creating ambient instrumentals. To be sure, Sabatini counts himself as a fan of electronic music, citing the Movement electronic music festival and Ann Arbor-based label Ghostly International as some of his favorite things going on in local music. When he wanted to start playing his songs for an audience, it grew into a larger electronic project.
"For a while, it was just three of us with computers," he says. "Then we had this guy drum with us for like a week, but that didn't last long."
As the project grew, Sabatini found the computers to be too restrictive and too precise for what he wanted to do, especially when mixed with the human element of live instrumentation. "Computers can't follow you. And they can crash," Sabatini says of the limitations of that route. "Our songs would have different time signatures, and Andrew would get two different clicks in his headphones."
"We had a show booked as 'Oldface,' shall we say," bassist "Nasty" Nate says, referring to the band with the computer setup. "But we had been jamming without the computers, so we were like, fuck it, we're just going to play this show as us with only three days of playing together. So we did the show and just did a bunch of drunken jamming."
The band found a shared interest in the fluid, organic nature of the computer-less setup. "There's a lot of moments when we're just jamming that everything clicks, magically," says Panyan. Nate adds, "With backtracks, there was no room for jamming. The songs have a solid structure. Now, we'll be just jamming, and Garrison and Sab will be, like, ridiculously shredding together, with nothing but a head nod and a goofy expression. And that's the only way any of us communicate when we're playing."
"I think that's how our music will always be," Sabatini says. "There are parts, but not compositions; its not a verse-chorus-verse thing." Nate adds, "We'll play one part for a while, then make a goofy expression and switch to the next part."
But while the band's configuration and songs may have changed, there remains a degree of continuity between the two projects. Both incarnations maintain a cinematic quality, comprising songs with different parts that suggest different scenes, which could easily serve as the soundtrack to a film.
And there's another degree of continuity. Nate: "We really just want to make music epic as fuck."
"I don't think we're influenced by cinematics so much as it just kind of happened that way," Sabatini says. "Well, we do love movies, though," he adds. "If it was a movie it'd probably be a horror movie."
"I play video games and bass, and that's pretty much all I do," confesses Nate.
Panyan concurs: "everything we write, Nate somehow ties it to Final Fantasy video games or Star Wars."
It's just as well, because both sagas of nerd-lore are well known for their memorable soundtrack compositions. The band then collectively digresses and geeks out about David Lynch movies, the 1920's vampire film Nosferatu, and Koyaanisqatsi before returning to the subject at hand.
"With the computers, they were trapped in a cage for a long time," says drummer Brengle. "We're still learning each other as a band. But the more you know something, the easier it is to change it on the spot."
"Yeah," Panyan pipes up. "And that's more cinematic."
Saturday, March 13, at the Roc Bar, 1020 Ann Arbor Rd., Plymouth; 734-459-4190 (with the Great Googly Mooglies); and Friday, March 19, at the Majestic Café, 4140 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-0210. With the Tone Poets and K@tdog.Lee DeVito is a music critic for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org