Playful Minimalism

Origami Ghosts are neither complicated nor scary; discuss

John Paul Scesniak decided to call his band Origami Ghosts, because he liked how it represented the idea of complicated nothingness. The Seattle native was teaching English in France and playing music with dulcimer player Joel Hanson.

Explained Scesniak, "The music sounded a little bit complicated because of the dulcimer. Well, to me it did. It probably wasn't that complicated. So I had this idea for a band that was complicated nothing--there's all this stuff going on, but it doesn't really mean anything."

Hence, the idea of folding a ghost made of paper. How would one even begin to approach that?

"Origami is really complicated and hard to do. I really hate origami, because it's frustrating," said Scesniak.

But in actuality, Origami Ghosts' music is not complicated nothingness, and it's far from frustrating--it's actually quite the opposite: minimalist everythingness, if you will, easy to listen to and surprisingly playful.

On Short Momentum (Hand to Mouth), the band's second album, Scesniak picks out melodies on his guitar as cello, and drums ebb and flow. (Dulcimer player Hanson no longer plays with the band.) It sounds vaguely punk, but at the same time, something like a calmer Pavement or even early Built to Spill.

"I'm not trying to make standard music," said Scesniak. "It's a little bit different, but it can also be a little pretty and nicely done."

Scesniak's lyrics tell stories, delivered with his earnest, not-quite-singing voice--stories which in some cases were written while Scesniak was teaching English overseas.

"Traveling really helps me write. When I'm not traveling, I find it a bit harder to find inspiration. Traveling is definitely a big part of my creativity," said Scesniak, who has taught English to people of all ages in places like Japan, China and France. "I think it's just being out of your comfort zone and being in places where you don't know what to expect, so your senses are really alert. It's fun traveling and writing about what you're seeing, because it's new. It's hard for me to sit there and write when I'm sitting in Seattle, a place that I know so well, and the people are pretty much the same."

Naturally, Scesniak has plenty of stories about playing music for his students. In France, for example, he and Hanson played in the school talent show. "Nobody got it, because the kids are all into the Carpenters and all this weird, cheesy music from the '50s. They're like 30 years behind, and we played our kind of weird ... well, it was weird for them, and we got a smattering of applause. It was funny."

When Scesniak was teaching in China, he taught his students Built to Spill's "Car."

"It was pretty conservative there," Scesniak explained. "A lot of the kids that I taught, their parents were growing up during the cultural revolution, so they couldn't really express themselves at all, and they didn't have a choice of music, and they couldn't even really explore everything they wanted to. So teaching them a song like 'Car,' where there are some lyrics that are pretty out there--actually talking about getting stoned and stuff like that--was pretty fun."

Clearly, Scesniak has no qualms about having fun with his music, and on Short Momentum, he wanted to make the songs more upbeat and happy than they were on his first record, Solving My Own Puzzles (Hand to Mouth, 2007).

"I just want to move around and have fun and get people moving around," he said. "Sometimes, people are dancing at our shows--that's really fun. It's fun to get people involved instead of just sitting there listening to the music. I don't want that. So I guess it was a conscious choice to make happier music."

And there are plenty of happy, fun moments on Short Momentum, like the cello intro on "Part and Feather," the bubbly "East Station," and the drums on "Story?" On the otherwise somber song "Dying Bulls, Dancing Gulls," Scesniak sings, "Think about the action before you stick your butt down into an accident," which is then followed by the word "butt" echoed several times.

Even the album title, Short Momentum, is playful. Maybe this playfulness comes from the fact that Scesniak started playing music later than most serious musicians, and played just because it's fun.

"I was never one of those rock 'n' roll kids who was, like, 10 years old in a band," said Scesniak. "I kind of missed out on all that. I played sports."

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