Under the Surface

Cryptacize revolutionize musical theater with their new album, 'Dig That Treasure'

The first thing you'll notice upon listening to Cryptacize's Asthmatic Kitty debut, Dig That Treasure, is its sparseness--guitar, autoharp and minimal percussion are all that's on this record, and rarely are they all played simultaneously.

The second thing you'll notice is singer Nedelle Torrisi's voice, which delivers melodies with intense warmth. Then you'll wonder: What kind of record is this? It sounds less like pop or rock than the soundtrack to a whimsical theatrical production. All that's missing are puppets and colorful scenery.

This minimalist musical-theater vibe is exactly what Torrisi, guitarist and singer Chris Cohen (formerly of Deerhoof) and percussionist Michael Carreira are going for.

"Chris and Nedelle, especially Nedelle, love musical theater," said Carreira. "(Nedelle) kind of grew up on it, and I think if she had to choose a career, her first love would have been to sing on Broadway."

The San Francisco Bay Area-based band is even named after a musical that Cohen's father wrote in the '50s.

"A lot of times in the car, even, we're listening to a lot of musical-theater stuff," continued Carreira. "I don't know if I'm a big fan of a lot of it, but it really influences both of them."

But unlike musical theater, Cryptacize's songs aren't over-the-top or overly exuberant--they're theatrical and dramatic in their use of understatement.

Cryptacize's songs flow like stories, with Torrisi's guitar and autoharp weaving into Cohen's guitar as Carreira's percussive accents ground the songs and glue them together. Empty spaces between notes abound; keys change; strange things occur. Sometimes, there's sadness--the end arpeggio on "No Coins" is flat-out tragic, and then there's Torrisi quietly singing, "Love for its own sake does not a marriage make," on "We'll Never Dream Again." And sometimes there's pure glee: "Bells are ringing, gates are swinging--sing along," Torrisi sweetly requests in "Cosmic Sing-a-Long."

But perhaps the thing that makes Cryptacize's music even more magical is Carreira's percussion. Most of the rhythm on Dig That Treasure comes from South American traditional percussive instruments like a güiro, which Carreira described as "a hollowed-out gourd that has ridges on it, so you scrape it, and it sounds a little bit like a washboard," or a qweeka, which is a Brazilian drum.

When Carreira first heard that Cohen and Torrisi were writing songs together, he sent them a link to a YouTube video as a sort of audition tape.

"The only thing I was working on at the time really was a solo cowbell project, so I sent them a video of that," said Carreira.

Carreira's focused, creative approach to percussion gives Torrisi and Cohen's songs orchestral and jazzy dynamics.

"At first, especially for the first round of songs, it was a bit of a challenge, because the songs were really well underway before I got involved, so it became really interesting for me, because each song was like a problem that I had to figure out ... the songs didn't have that much rhythm," explained Carreira. "We wanted to retain what they had started, but maybe add more rhythmic components."

Even though it's the sparse and interesting textures that make Dig That Treasure exciting, Carreira said that for their new songs, the band is trying to get louder and faster.

"We're finding that playing in rock clubs, we definitely need a little more speed and volume," said Carreira. "For us, the impulse is to have more space than actually works, so in a way, we have to push ourselves to fill that space, because a lot of times, it just doesn't work in a lot of live situations, because they're loud, and people are drinking--it's not like musical theater where everyone is sitting in a seat and listening."

And so, Cryptacize are doing their part to revolutionize the world of musical theater, trying to find that happy medium between commanding the attention of rock fans with sparse instrumentation and beneath-the-surface theatricality.