By Tanner Kent
The Free Press
— String theory, in the scientific sense, attempts to bind the properties of quantum mechanics with general relativity.
Heavy mental lifting indeed.
String Theory, in the musical sense, is an idiosyncratic, area three-piece band -- sans percussion -- that has melded elements of folk, rock, gypsy jazz and blues into an existential exploration of music and theme in their latest CD release “What’s the matter with Captain Gravitone?”
Heavy stuff in its own right.
“It’s definitely risky,” said Eli Hoehn, co-founder of the band that is hosting a CD release party Saturday at the Red Sky Lounge. “It’s about this idea of a superhero who is having an existential issue. ... He’s gone into the future with his superpowers and he’s found nothing there. All the good he’s done never has an impact down the road.”
Wayne Schmidt started the band with Hoehn about four years ago before adding Jason Helder last year, He added: “It’s the kind of music where you could almost close your eyes and imagine something theatrical.”
The band’s philosophical underpinnings become apparent on the first track as “Divisible By One/In My Mind” introduces listeners to the tormented title character. Showcasing the band’s nimble musicianship and penchant for unexpected tempo changes and transitions, the lyrics begin to lay a thematic groundwork for Gravitone’s inner dilemma:
“And down inside/ Something in me longs for leaving/ Still I’m bound to stay here in this place/ Face to face with modern living.”
The all-instrumental title track dresses Gravitone in musical melancholy before “Darkness” drops him off at the door of despair: “I regret the hell/ And all the years I’ve thrown away/ In trying to help everyone else/ Because they never seem to learn to help themselves.”
As the album continues to explore Gravitone’s existential morass, a handful of tracks offer pleasant diversions. “Leather Alice” sounds like a folk-tinged show tune about a real (and not particularly loveable) woman to whom Hoehn once sublet his house. “Minor Swing” is an up-tempo reprisal of guitar virtuoso Django Reinhardt’s oft-covered instrumental.
But the music always returns to Gravitone. The final track, “On Being & Nothingness,” is a slow-moving and elegaic number that leaves the hero on the precipice of some decision. Hoehn admits it’s an ambiguous finale, but he said it won’t be the last listeners hear of Captain Gravitone.
“We left it open for a lot of possibilities,” Hoehn said. “We won’t revisit it right away, but sometime down the road.”
Overall, band members said the album represents the intersection of a wide variety of styles and musical perspectives.
Schmidt said band members describe String Theory’s sound as “jazz-folk-blues-rock-fusion.” Another apt description might be “notgrass” -- that is, music that retains some of the trappings of bluegrass (no drums, lots of banjo) but adheres to few of its tenets.
Hoehn said he prefers unconventional banjo players, those that expand their sound beyong bluegrass tunes. To that effect, Hoehn plays a six-string banjo that allows him to play a lower register of notes and different scales. Growing up as a lad who coveted Beethoven recordings for Christmas gifts, his playing and songwriting also retains a certain dramatic and symphonic feel.
After a long hiatus from music, Hoehn picked up his instrument again about four years ago and found a kindred spirit. With Schmidt’s background as both a rock guitarist as a youth and a classical guitarist in college, Hoehn found a musician equally interested in blending styles and embracing idiosyncracy.
The two tried playing as a duo for several years, but felt something was missing. Enter Helder, whose naturally elongated playing style complemented the band’s sound.
“We always kind of struggled playing as a duo with timing and having a full sound,” Hoehn said. “(Helder’s) meter and fullness have been extraordinary. He allows us to take off and do things we couldn’t do as a duo.”
As a trio, the band is also hoping to expand its live performances. They are collaborating with a local writer to combine instrumental music with poetry. They have also collaborated in the past with Mankato Mosaic, including the performance group’s upcoming presentation of “50 Shades of Winter,” which debuts Nov. 29.
“As we’ve moved along, all this stuff has evolved,” Schmidt said. “We’re getting to a point now where we’re starting to have our own sound.”