Ask the members of Mr. Free and the Satellite Freakout a simple question—in this case, "How do you all know each other?"—and all four members launch into overlapping stories, constantly interrupting and talking over each other, about random high school parties, childhood bands and Hitler on a stick.
One question has been asked; 15 minutes have passed. It's fitting for a band whose members all claim to have "musical ADD," and who have mostly known each other for a large percentage of their lives.
Guitarist Miles Bartlett, 23, and singer Dmitri Bartlett, 25, are first cousins, and both credit Dmitri's father with inspiring them to play music, via both his instruments and record collection. They started their first band when they were around 10 years old. Miles and drummer Ben Schneider, 23, became friends in middle school; Schneider had planned on learning to play guitar (which he now does as half of the band Otherly Love), but says he started on the drums when he saw Miles "was rippin' at the guitar by, like, 11, and I was pretty jealous."
By the time they were attending Tucson High School, they had a couple of bands together, including an early incarnation of Mr. Free. Bassist Nick Letson, now 25, meanwhile, was attending a different high school and playing in a rival band, the Mean Reds, who would go on to a deal with a major record label. When the Mean Reds needed a guitarist, Letson, who had seen Miles playing around town, called him and asked him to join.
Since it's tough to decipher four dudes talking at once, the short story is that the Mean Reds imploded; Mr. Free lost some members (including a Mormon who became increasingly uncomfortable with the band's antics) and gained new ones; and in 2006, the current version of Mr. Free was solidified.
Although they had played some gigs around Tucson, they gained almost instant notoriety by playing what they commonly refer to as "the bus shows." The band bought a used school bus, painted it Halloween orange and black with the group's name on the side ("It was almost legible," says Dmitri), tore out the seats and built a stage in back. They would park it on Fourth Avenue in the afternoon. When people saw the bus, they knew that a Mr. Free show was imminent; word of mouth meant a bus packed full of revelers that night.
While the bus shows helped the band make a name for itself, the bus eventually became a giant time-suck. The group had the idea to convert the bus to run on eco-friendly vegetable oil, a notion that was noble, if impractical. They found themselves spending more time working to maintain the bus than they did writing music.
"We didn't really work on any band stuff at all," says Dmitri. Today, they call the venture "a learning experience," at best. They recently sold the bus.
A typical Mr. Free show features the three instrumentalists earnestly playing in the background while Dmitri, well, goes apeshit while singing. He wears face paint and gradually disrobes, eventually stripping down to a mere loincloth—or less, if the situation allows it. He winds his way through the audience, toying with fans—getting in their faces, rubbing against them, sitting among them. He can be frightening, hilarious and confrontational, but never boring. It's a delicate balancing act between music and performance art—or, as Dmitri calls it, "spectacles and testicles." As such, most people refer to Dmitri himself as Mr. Free.
"You just kind of evolved into Mr. Free, and then he took over on you," Schneider says to Dmitri, who responds: "And I'm not even certain if I am (him). ... A persona, or, rather, multiple personas, evolved into whatever it is that we do now. I would prefer not to be him, but it's kind of hard not to be."
Which brings us to the band's first proper album, Guru-Gaga, out this week on Childproof Vinyl/Bloat Records, on which Dmitri sings, "You know me by name, but I ain't Mr. Free." Recorded in fits and starts over three years at several locations—including their practice space at The HangArt and that damned bus—the album is something of a revelation, even for those who have seen the band perform numerous times.
It is, in a word (and here's where that musical ADD comes in), dense—crammed with ideas that veer from one direction to the next within any given song. "Gimme All Yr Money" is a slinky, space-funk odyssey that finds Dmitri sounding a bit like Danny Elfman (he tends to alter his voice to serve any particular passage), before a fairly straightforward instrumental interlude that speeds up into straight-up punk rock, then into what serves as a chorus ... and on and on—all in less than five minutes.
Two songs on the album are divided into suite-like parts: "Thrillorgy" is divided into two sections, the first Cramps-like punkabilly, and the second something like what Frank Zappa might have recorded had he collaborated with DEVO. (A certain thread of Zappa's complex weirdness runs throughout Mr. Free's music.) The album's final song, its centerpiece, is the tour de force "Guru Gaga," which is divided into four sections, each with its own subtitle. It's not unlike a more musically complex, condensed version of one of The Who's rock operas, touching on Sonic Youth-style indie rock, carnival music, surf-rock, '70s-era prog rock and much more.
On first listen, the album can sound near impenetrable; there's almost too much going on. But listen again and again, and it reveals itself as being brilliant both in composition and execution—something that can easily get lost in the spectacle of Mr. Free's live performances.
"I'm conscious of it being an issue for some people," says Miles, "but if you're not gonna put in the time and pay attention, I'm not gonna be offended. All the people who are (watching us) are still seemingly enthralled and captivated by something, so it's just going to take them three or four shows to then realize, 'Oh, wait, there's also this fairly complex orchestration going on behind here.'"
Guru-Gaga takes care of that in a hurry.