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Rabbit ears recommended, not required

This Joshua Tree, Calif.-based group specializes in desert rock space-tronica. And if you don't know what that is, it's time to find out. By Paige Newman
/ Source: msnbc.com

In talking to Todd Rutherford of Gram Rabbit, it doesn’t take long to realize that there’s a very important member of the band who doesn’t play on the album. Not a person at all, but rather a place: Joshua Tree, California, just two hours from Los Angeles and 40 minutes from Palm Springs.

“I drove up here and I got out of the car and I really felt the energy intensely,” Rutherford said, recalling his first visit. “I was taken aback by it a bit. My first instinct was: I need to get back in the car and sit for a minute. And just relax. This is really intense.” 

He uses that word — intense — a lot when he talks about Joshua Tree and the community of artists and “weird people” who have chosen to make their home there, whom he says are connected in an almost unspoken way. But it’s that place, he says, that’s given Gram Rabbit the freedom to be who they are — to try anything they can imagine.

“There’s a certain amount of pressure when you’re in the city and you’re writing music to appease a certain scene or genre of music, whether you want to or not,” he said. “Coming out to the desert in the middle of nowhere in this openness, in this amazing terrain, it just kind of frees you to use your imagination. There’s really no scene out here to appease or to play to, so it frees you up to do whatever the heck you want.”

And the Rabbits do just that. Out at the somewhat isolated Rabbit Ranch, Jessika von Rabbit and Rutherford cook up new songs, letting themselves become inspired by the desert terrain with its strange rock formations and ample animal and plant life. “We kind of describe it as living on Mars or something, another planet,” says Rutherford.  Sample-meister Travis Cline lives nearby and Rutherford’s brother, Eric, helps out on guitar.

Rutherford calls the music “desert rock space-tronica,” and admits that there’s probably not a category for that at your average record store.

I played the new CD, “Cultivation,” in the car during a recent road trip and found myself on a very dark, twisty road with no moon in sight. It’s really in a setting like that where you get the full effect of this record, which sways from style to style, with hypnotic songs like “Paper Heart” bumping up against I-dare-you-not-to-dance songs like “Bloody Bunnies” or the folkie “Angel Song.”

“We still feel there’s something intangible that connects all the music,” said Rutherford. “Lots of people, regardless of the song, can hear it and know that it’s Gram Rabbit.”

Jessika’s voice is an important part of that connective tissue. It can turn from seductive to spooky to playful depending on the song. On the song “Charlie’s Kids” she sounds downright inquisitive as she ponders the fate of the children born to Charles Manson on the infamous Spahn Ranch. “Leslie and Sadie and Tex weren’t the Bradys / we labeled them crazy  / but where have the babies all gone?” she sings sweetly.

“It was always something that intrigued [Jessika],” Rutherford said. “She’d wonder about what happened to them and if they knew they’re actually the blood of Charles Manson.”

This inquistive nature is also what drives the band to go in search of samples, which Rutherford says can be found in a variety of places, including the local Joshua Tree thrift stores. His favorite sample actually comprises track 2, “No Thoughts,” and comes from good buddy and San Francisco journalist Liam Mayclem, who pretends to be calling from the BBC. “From time to time, he’ll call us up and leave some crazy message on our machine, says Rutherford. “We probably have a good couple hours of Liam freestyling.”

If all this seems a little silly, Rutherford says that’s a common misconception about the band. “If we are quirky or silly, it’s for the song, and what we’re trying to get across,” he said. “More than anything I think there’s a lot of truth behind every song.”

Take a song like the fearlessly upbeat “Bloody Bunnies,” on which Jessika contemplates the overdevelopment of the place she loves. “You’re a humble man with a master plan / eat organic/ drive a Hummer in the summertime / way to go.”

The Rabbits firmly believe in exploring these kinds of issues in a song that’s also meant to get fans’ feet moving. And it’s the sincerity married with their sense of fun that makes the Rabbits so special.

Rutherford describes the band’s live shows as a mélange of masks, costumes (including big furry rabbit ears) and set pieces. Audiences, particularly those in Joshua Tree, are quick to participate, sporting their own costumes. “We feel it’s important to visually stimulate people,” Rutherford said. “Otherwise, why not just sit home and listen to the record?”

He chuckled recalling the band’s first shows in L.A. “Nobody knows you,” he said, “and you go to some little bar and you’re playing to 15 hipsters with their arms crossed and they’re all dressed in black. You can tell that a lot of them are pretty intrigued and getting off on what you’re doing, but you can see them battling with this question: If I look like I’m into this, am I still cool?”

Luckily, at least in L.A., those days of stand-offish hipsters are behind them. The band would love to tour the East coast, but like a lot of struggling bands, they currently just don’t have the funds. Now if they were opening for another, larger band it would be a different story. So Flaming Lips, if you need an opening act, would you please give the Rabbits a call. The brotherhood of the hare is ready to spread across the nation … and the world.

For more information of Gram Rabbit, visit: http://www.gramrabbit.com/.