Sweet Malloy rehearses on a farm — in a shack that looks as though it was created for its purpose by a top-flight team of Hollywood set designers.
It's a small shack — maybe a dozen feet across and twice as deep — packed with an efficient clutter of music gear and books. One end contains a neatly made bed, the other a hot-plate kitchen. A woodstove dominates the center of the space. The shack doubles as the home of guitarist Carson Ward.
Ward and his shack-host band rehearse here twice a week. The six members of Sweet Malloy crowd into the small space and make the old barnwood walls ring with some of the most eclectic and interesting music being made in Southern Oregon. Music fans that happen upon a Sweet Malloy performance aren't likely to forget it.
Ward, singer Jonathan Ash and a mysterious figure known only as Lumin play electric guitars that have the look of quirky antiques — the off-brand, vintage counterparts of more familiar-looking, classic Fender and Gibson models. Vocalist Helen Vaskevitch plays the melodica, a small, air-powered keyboard played by blowing into a flexible tube attached to one end. She also plays a kazoo that she has inserted into a big, loopy horn that looks like it came out of a Dr. Seuss illustration. This is a real crowd-pleaser.
Drummer Robert Doctor has assembled a percussion rig built around an old Samsonite suitcase with the kick pedal from a bass drum bolted to it. Along with bass player Rusty Shure, the ensemble produces charming and occasionally unwieldy layers of sound that draw the listener in with a core of elemental, garage-band rhythm. An audience member at a recent show told them they reminded him of Captain Beefheart.
The band formed 16 months ago when Ward, Ash and Doctor assembled an hour of original material and opened for The Stamps at Paddy Brannan's in Ashland. The trio had so much fun that they soon began jamming in the shack and signing up to play at area open-mic sessions. Vaskevitch joined soon after, adding a vocal dimension to the band's emerging sound that began to give it a greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts quality.
In spring and summer of 2012, Sweet Malloy inaugurated Friday night's live music at Ruby's Neighborhood Restaurant, 163 N. Pioneer St., Ashland. The weekly gig gave them a steady outlet and served as a sort of proving ground for their growing body of original songs. Ruby's is on a wintertime hiatus from hosting music, but Sweet Malloy will take up residence there again starting in May.
Ash and Ward view the band as an ongoing, collaborative art project dedicated to expressing and fostering a sense of unique, local culture. Both of them live on the farm and are involved in a vibrant, local-food movement. The band grows out of this lifestyle. Live music by the gigging garage band (or in this case, jam-shack band) is as local as it gets.
Sweet Malloy's music is the members' homespun contribution to regionalism.
In musing on the nature of the band, Ash draws an insightful distinction between art and craft. Craft, in his view, is a tool that can be used to create art but shouldn't be confused with the art itself. In other words, the technically best guitar player isn't always the most interesting to listen to. Sweet Malloy tries to keep their instrumental approach — and, by extension, their sound — raw.
"We don't have much refinement," he says, "but we do have a certain freshness."
As a part of their efforts to stay fresh, Sweet Malloy dedicates a portion of every practice session to free improvisation. It's either the first thing they do when rehearsal starts or the last thing before everyone heads for home. They believe this helps the individual band members learn to communicate musically with one another, stay focused on the artistic goals of the project and helps prevent the craft-work of rehearsal from subverting the creative expression at the band's core.
"It's healthy for us to just be rambunctious," Ash says, "and it's healthy for our audience. We're after an energetic release. I think we need it, culturally."
Jef Fretwell is a musician and freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at email@example.com.