From the early '70s to the late '80s, Jeff deLaval was a mainstay of Athens' homegrown music scene, helping found in succession the bands Kincade Road, the Hotcakes and the Wingnuts. Though the last-named outfit is still a going concern, deLaval finally called it quits in 1988, burned out on live performance.

""I had just had enough of playing gigs in bars,"" he says.

Since his retirement from the dance-band circuit, deLaval has concentrated on the side of music he really loves, composition. After building his daughter a horse barn, he took over part of it as a home studio, and began sifting through his older recorded material, all the while writing new tunes. Out of this mix-and-matching, and with the help of co-conspirators J.D. Hutchison and former Hotcakes vocalist Mimi Hart, has now come one of the more intriguing local albums in recent memory: ""Sleepyhead -- The Visit."" It will have its official debut Friday, at a CD release party at the Blue Gator from 6-8 p.m.

According to the liner notes, ""The Visit"" tells the story of ""two intergalactic travelers who decide to visit the planet Earth."" Confused by the behavior of earthlings, the aliens seek out their old friends, ""the long-recumbent band Sleepyhead,"" to help them understand human behavior in musical terms.

In an interview Tuesday, deLaval admitted that the unifying concept behind the record was more or less an afterthought.

""I had a really diverse group of songs that really sounded good together,"" he explained. The story behind ""The Visit"" was a way to link the tunes together thematically, he said, rather than a worked-out plot for which he wrote a soundtrack.

So deLaval didn't plan the album as a vehicle to convey deep and occult truths to a benighted humanity?

""There are profound secrets in there,"" he insisted. ""But they didn't come about that way.""

Whatever the message, ""The Visit"" is a memorable outing. Playing piano, keyboards, pedal steel, and a whole bunch of ""different boxes and modules and so forth,"" and using simple musical structures, deLaval conjures up a weird oneiric atmosphere that manages to convey both playfulness and apocalyptic dread. In, around and through the music weave Hart's soaring vocals and Hutchison's spontaneous prose poetry and/or inspired babbling.

The point of the whole excursion is the same as that of Lemuel Gulliver's -- to show homo sapiens from an outsider's point of view.

""It's kind of using the idea of the aliens,"" deLaval said. ""It was just a fun idea to work with, both sonically and intellectually. It was a way to offer a sort of objective picture of life on Earth."" Through the music of Sleepyhead, he said, the alien visitors are able to get a handle on ""human experience, and some of the more unsavory aspects of human experience.""

Though the narrative is more implied than explicit, the ""unsavory"" aspect comes through clearly, in pieces like ""War"" -- featuring spoken word contributions by Adolf Hitler -- and the album's sole cover, a Gotterdammerung version of Robert Johnson's already terrifying ""Judgment Day,"" featuring flamethrower guitar by Jimmy Smailes.

""These are very scary times, I think,"" deLaval acknowledged. ""I'm disappointed with the bipeds. When 9-11 happened, I felt like we were back in 1939 again. I feel like we have a new time now, a different time.""

Lest the listener give in to despair, however, ""The Visit"" throws an epistemological lifeline, in the form of a quote from physicist Arthur Eddington: ""The physical world is entirely abstract and without 'actuality' apart from its linkage to consciousness"" (i.e., what you see is what you get).

""That idea really interests me, that we in a sense create our own reality,"" deLaval said. ""Aside from how we understand what's happening, there's nothing there... Probably part of our problem as human beings is to realize that.""

Another guest speaker on the album is Louise March, founder of the Rochester Folk Art Guild and a pupil of the Russian mage G.I. Gurdjieff. On a hunch, I asked deLaval whether he'd been influenced at all by the piano works of Gurdjieff and disciple Thomas Hartmann, which have had an impact on musicians including former King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp. It's always gratifying to guess right.

""I love that music,"" deLaval said. ""In fact, it was listening to that music, and seeing what can be expressed in a very simple form... that made me want to express myself musically."" He noted that with the help of Joe Henry, a former director of the Ohio University orchestra, he was able to work with Gurdjieff's music and learn more about it.

A self-trained musician with no theory background, deLaval is realistic and resigned, but without a trace of self-deprecation, when he talks about what he calls his limitations as a pianist.

""I worked really hard at it for a while,"" he said, but finally came to accept that he started learning too late in life to ever become a virtuoso. ""But at the same time, if you want to express something, you've got to take the tools that you have,"" he added.

Even listeners with no interest in ufology or the fate of the species can enjoy the record for deLaval's intense, inventive music, ""Local Girl"" Hart's golden pipes, the striking cover art by Greg Dearth, and Hutchison's brilliant ravings. All of us in the In Crowd know that J.D. is the towering mean old daddy of ferrous-fundament folk music. But if you've spent an hour with him at a party, you also know he's got a wild verbal imagination, and a talent for mimicry of Jonathan Winter-esque proportions. Here he lets both off the leash, portraying ad lib characters that range from a jibbering alien to a pompous, post-modern pedant. Worth the price of admission, as reviewers like to say.

""John's great at that stuff,"" deLaval enthused. ""He's really got a wide range of talents.""

Before I ended the interview, I just had to ask. Has deLaval ever had a close encounter, of types one, two or three?

""No,"" he admitted. ""It's just a device to offer a perspective on the humanoids that are now operating on this planet.""

""Sleepyhead -- The Visit"" is available at local music stores, as well as through

Trending Recipe Videos

Recommended for you

Load comments