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Warehousing rock
Compound 440R create their own local scene

Compound 440R sits in Somerville quietly surrounded by Portuguese food joints, a dried-up cemetery, and an auto-body shop scarred with the unfinished graffiti scribble "PINK FLOY." You wouldn’t guess that a brick-faced warehouse with an entrance directly across from a loading dock’s open maw is doubling as an artistic incubator for U.V. Protection, an all-female operatic synth-pop trio of faux robots who compose make-out music for high-school science teachers. Or Big Digits, a pair of white-boy rappers in white pants who lead house-party choruses about pink chocolate and dance casinos. Or Squids, a grrrlish post-punk threesome who’re just as happy playing for high-school students at an outdoor shed in Palmer as they are headlining a rock club.

The Compound 440R story so far goes like this. A loose network of bands with a DIY ethos, an affinity for homespun costumes, and an art-schooled willingness for experimentation mulled over forming a musical/creative collective, something in the spirit of Providence’s long-gone Fort Thunder. Around the same time, these same bands were hunting for somewhere to practice: U.V. Protection were about to lose their South Boston space; Squids and death-disco duo Plunge into Death had grown tired of the "really, really dude" attitude endemic to their Brighton pay-by-the-hour rehearsal complex. So when Big Digits dude Mac Swell discovered a Somerville warehouse landlord on Craig’s List last December who was willing to rent to artists and musicians, they snatched up the place right away, even though it was a filthy mess of cobwebs, clay, and trash. Compound 440R was born.

Since then, the arts-collective umbrella has broadened to include the post-rock foursome the New You and Rescuers Row Row, an electro-and-guitar three-piece that’s a sideline for Cassette’s Michael Potvin. Plus, there’re two bands on hiatus who’ve shared the space: Crystal Understanding, a boy/girl electro-pop duo who just lost female half Sonya Sheats to France, and the indie-rock outfit the Operators. Last spring, when U.V. Protection keyboardist/vocalist Karen Tsiakals curated Compound 440R: Local Collections 2005, the 31-track release that included other local bands she "was excited about," it was something of a formal announcement of 440R’s arrival on the scene.

Tsiakals sold the double-disc collection for a mere $5, which suggests there isn’t a lot of commercial motivation among these artists. Most would rather perform in basements, backyards, and lofts than in traditional clubs. "We prefer to play alternative venues," says Squids guitarist/vocalist Kristin Myer one recent Monday night as 13 Compound 440R members cram into their practice space. She’s sitting on the floor of a high-ceilinged nook that’s choked with drum machines, keyboards, amps, and trophies. Over the summer "we played the Children’s Museum at the Milk Bottle and we played to a mean age of four. I was very surprised that our music really transcended any kind of genre. It was strictly danceable music. We didn’t have a PA — it broke, we just played, and we just kind of held it together."

"Nobody in this space is trying to be on the Warped Tour," adds Sidell. "Boston has a long tradition of ‘rock,’ and none of the bands that’re here are really ‘rock.’ "

In other words, you’re more likely to see Comp 440R members dress up in tattered, dried-blood-stained rags and perform as rhyming zombies than find them busting into guitar solos. And that’s exactly what Tsiakals, Sidell, and Swell do in their side project Z.W.A. ("Zombies with Attitude"), a kitsch-horror hip-hop graverobbers gang. "We’re kind of mini-stars in our own little worlds," says Tsiakals, the closest thing to a Comp 440R den mother. "[When] Mac and I first met, we were talking about collaborating on this Z.W.A. project. He said something about how it was like Missy Elliott and Justin Timberlake getting together."

"It’s just the idea of collaboration," Swell clarifies. "The hip-hop community has that. I feel like the rock community is very exclusive: ‘We’re a four-piece band and we only work with each other.’ Whereas someone like Timbaland works with Missy Elliott and Justin Timberlake and all these other vocalists."

There’s a lot of cross-pollination. Plunge into Death’s Jef Czekaj intermittently shows up live with the Operators. Squids drummer Sonia Brenner performs guest vocals on a brand-new Big Digits track. Potvin, a home-studio producer and engineer who works under the rubric Fun City, plans to help Crystal Understanding record their first release. Comp 440R bands even cover one another live: Squids have tackled a Big Digits song; Plunge into Death once covered U.V. Protection. And both Swell and Czekaj have spliced together digital DJ mixes of Compound 440R bands and posted them on a collective blog. (You can find Compound 440R on-line at www.compound440r.com.)

"We are all a lot more fluid with our definitions of what a band is," Czekaj says. "Everyone is sort of willing to give to other people."

That’s certain to continue. The three Squids, Tsiakals, and Emily Arkin from the Operators have started spinning records as a DJ collective. Earlier this month, their male counterparts made their DJ debut as 440 Soundsystem; it turned out to be a noise amalgam of laptops, guitar-effects pedals, and a dumpster-dived karaoke machine. And Sidell is wrangling together a drum-machine circle that he calls "electronic hippie music."

"Everybody wants a gang," says Sidell. "We tried selling crack — it didn’t work out, so we decided to have a musical gang."

Cassette | Great Scott, 1222 Comm Ave, Allston | Sept 23 | 617.566.9014 | Plunge into Death, O’Brien’s, 3 Harvard Ave, Allston | Sept 23 | 617.782.6245 | Squids, Great Scott, 1222 Comm Ave, Allston | Oct 2 | 617.566.9014 | U.V. Protection, Great Scott, 1222 Comm Ave, Allston | Oct 8 | 617.566.9014 | Big Digits, Middle East upstairs, 472 Mass Ave, Cambridge | Nov 10 | 617.864.EAST

Issue Date: September 23 - 29, 2005
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