Even though I feel that flu everyone has been getting coming on, I’m still feeling pretty good as I listen to Mutaytor’s awesome new album “Unconditional Love,” plan an upcoming event at the historic Westerfeld House where that album was recorded, and bask in a great review of my book that came out on Burning Man’s Jack Rabbit Speaks newsletter this evening.
I’ll be doing a full review of Mutaytor’s album for the Bay Guardian later this week, and I hope to see you all at the party on March 11. But in the meantime, I thought I’d share another chapter from the book, The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture, this one starting on page 223. Oh, and if you’ve already read the book and liked it, please consider writing a reader review on the Amazon or Barnes & Noble websites, or wherever you think it might help spread the word.
Playa-born Mutaytor Keeps Rockin’
Mutaytor might be the ultimate Burning Man tribe, an eclectic group of Los Angeles-based performers who came together on the playa more than a decade ago, forming into a band that’s like a traveling circus that evangelizes the burner ethos and culture everywhere they go, just by being who they are: sexy, scruffy, wild, warm, colorful denizens of the counterculture.
Mutaytor is perhaps the most popular and iconic musical act to emerge from Burning Man, a group whose spirited performances on and off the playa reflected and helped to shape and define the culture that birthed them. And if that’s not enough cultural cred, many of the two dozen members work for Burning Man in various capacities, from building Black Rock City with the Department of Public Works to forming the backbone of event’s regional network in Los Angeles.
My path has crossed Mutaytor’s many times, from watching them play at my first Burning Man in 2001 to joining them on the burner-dominated Xingolati cruise ship in 2005 to later being invited in March 2010 to watch them record their fourth album, “Unconditional Love” in the sprawling Westerfeld House, a Victorian mansion on San Francisco’s Alamo Square that is the legendary former home to such countercultural figures as Satanist Anton LaVey and members of the Manson family to noted ‘60s promoter Chet Helms’ Family Dog Productions and the band Big Brother and the Holding Company.
The house is now owned by Jim Siegel, a longtime Haight Street head shop owner and housing preservationist who did a masterful restoration job, showing a striking attention to detail. Siegel owns the Distractions store on Haight Street, one of the few walk-in outlets for buying Burning Man tickets, and became a friend of the Mutaytor family in 2004.
Although the dancers and other women who perform with Mutaytor weren’t at this recording – Siegel said they usually prance around the house topless and lend a debaucherous energy to Siegel’s house – he still loves the energy that the band brings when it invades his house: “It reminds me of my hippie days living in communes.”
Buck A.E. Down – a key band member, singing and playing guitar, as well as producing and arranging their songs – said the album and accompanying documentary film is Mutaytor trying to build on a career that began as basically a pickup group of musicians and performers on the playa.
“We’re a total product of that environment,” Buck said of Mutaytor’s musicians, dancers, acrobats, fire spinners, aerialists, thespians, producers, culture mavens, and facilitators of the arts. “We’ve been underground for 10 years and have a voluminous body of work.”
Mutaytor tapped the lingering rave and emerging Burning Man scenes with a mix of electronica-infused music and performance art to develop a distinct style and loyal fans. “So, between that and Burning Man, we developed just a ravenous following.” With this built-in fan base of burners and ravers, Mutaytors was able to start getting gigs in the clubs of Hollywood, San Francisco, and other cities that had significant numbers of people who attended Burning Man.
“We became a very recognizable and tangible part of that culture,” Buck said, noting that burners sought out Mutaytor to plug into the feeling of Black Rock City, if only for a night in their cities. “What we were able to do is provide that vibe.”
Christine “Crunchy” Nash, Mutaytor’s tour manager and self-described “den mother,” said that Larry Harvey has been very encouraging and supportive of Mutaytor, urging them to essentially be musical ambassadors of the event and its culture. “That’s one thing Larry said to us is I want to do this year round and that’s what we’re doing in LA,” Crunchy said. “Most of the people in the band have been going to Burning Man for more than 10 years.”
Buck added, “We’re like the Jews, the wandering Jews,” which totally cracked up the group, but I understood what he meant, particularly as he went on to explain how the burner tribes are scattered through the world, but they retain that essential cultural connection.
Particularly down in Los Angeles, where the Mutaytor crew regularly works and plays with other Burning Man camps, from the Cirque Berserk performers and carnies to longtime members of my own camp, Garage Mahal, Crunchy said their extended tribe really is a year-round, active community of burners.
“It really is like we are there in LA and we just pick up and move to the playa,” she said.
Crunchy said they have family-like connections in San Francisco – to such businessman-burners as Jim Siegel and JD Petras, who both have sprawling homes where the band can stay – and in cities around the country that have big, established Burning Man tribes, from New York City to Portland, Oregon.
“It’s the movers and shakers of the San Francisco community and others that have allowed us to survive as we’ve tried to make it,” Crunchy said. “It has made traveling so much easier because we have places to stay at many places we play.”
Buck said that was essential to their survival: “You take that kind of culture away from Burning Man and we would have broken up a long time ago, or we wouldn’t have even formed.” Just as Mutaytor is rooted on the playa, its members also wanted to root this album in a special place and immediately thought of the Westerfield House.
“There are just places where stuff happens, just certain environments that are special places,” Buck said, noting that Mutaytor is made up of musical professionals – from session players to sound guys at venues like the Roxie and for concert tours – who have three recording studios at their disposal among them, but they chose to do the recording here because it felt magical and personal to them.
“We had an epiphany on the road and decided we just had to record it here,” Buck said, adding how well the decision has worked out acoustically. “Rather than just recording the band, we want to record the house. That’s how we’ve been miking it up.”
Each room on the group floor was filled with musical instruments and recording equipment, and Buck said excitedly that they have been resonating with this 150-year-old building: “We’re getting some of the best tones.”