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Two's Company

From B3 blues-jazz to sheet-metal noise, zZz makes sparks fly


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What is this crazy little thing called bandmate love -- and why does it rotate around so many tight twosomes in rock & roll these days? Witness down-to-basics duos such as bluesy garage skronkers the White Stripes and the Black Keys, spastic experimentalists Hella and Helio Sequence, and nerve-frying electronic units the Metal Hearts and Terrestrial Tones. Now -- joining the roster and hailing from the city of hash 'n' houseboats -- comes Amsterdam's zZz.

The band name is zZz's only sonic connect to a snore. At first glance, the organs-and-drums duo appears to mirror the instrumental configuration of the sunnier, sweeter, married-with-child twosome Mates of State. Instead, within zZz's superheated circle of two, drummer-vocalist Björn Ottenheim and organist-vocalist Daan Schinkel adhere to a scorched-earth policy when it comes to the B3 blues-jazz legacy of Jimmy Smith, the dark-synthpop of '80s UK bands from blighted industrial cities and the feedback-chomping fervor of beard-rock psychos like Comets on Fire.

The two Dutchmen of zZz are tapped into a PlayStation sense of frenetic play and the sensuous-verging-on-sensual intimacy that only couples can generate. "Maybe Daan's my soul mate in music. Maybe I'm married. Maybe we're in love, like, musically, or something," said the amiable Ottenheim by phone from Seattle's Sunset Tavern, where zZz was about to open for DMBQ. "We just have this chemistry, musically, and it's hard to find that or to have a third person."

On the duo's 2005 debut, Sound of zZz (Howler/Excelsior), Ottenheim and Schinkel sometimes sound like a full-blown jitterbug combo set to maddening overdrive. The circuits sizzle and the juke joint is literally ablaze on the track "Soul," which is marked by nervous keys and a swing-set groove. Achieving an Oneida-esque, psych-fugue state with alternately staccato and swirling organ, "Godspeed" starts like a souped-up Nintendo score, then comes down fast, drifting into space-lounge territory as Ottenheim's lazy, lecherous baritone approximates both Nick Cave and Ian McCulloch.

Even as the duo musically name-checks the organ-based beats of B-52s and the hot, sexy, dead croon of Jim Morrison, zZz also brushes up against an industrial vibe that tugs at the leathery pantaloons of Einstürzende Neubauten. That pioneering band's imprint is clearest amid the nightmarish, sheet-metal layers of noise, squawk and feedback on "Uncle Sam." Yet "House of Sin" breaks it down to shouts, driving beat, manic organ and gurgling electronics.

Live, the two members swagger across the stage and bang their heads to the beat. In San Francisco's Tenderloin district last year, Ottenheim's kit was pushed up to the fore, alongside Schinkel's organ, as they crammed onto a small stage. "Ecstasy," Ottenheim hissed during the song of the same name, then lyrically bowed to David Bowie: "Keep on dancing. Keep on swinging." The duo's action onstage is, well, arousing. "Our live shows are very intense and -- " Ottenheim paused, "uh, orgasmic. They tell us it looks like we're having sex onstage with the instruments. And it's true."

Ottenheim and Schinkel's first union was unexpected -- like most steamy hookups. In late 2000, Ottenheim was living in what he calls a "student house" on a farm outside Amsterdam, when his father brought over an old organ. Schinkel, one of his housemates, began playing it one day. Ottenheim picked up his snare, rode his cymbal and started to jam along. One house-party gig led to another and yet another, until we come to zZz's current national tour and forthcoming Japanese tour with Fatboy Slim.

"We have a connection that we felt instantly," said Ottenheim. "That's very rare that you find [it] with five people, in that way. You're in a band with four or five people, you have to make concessions, you have to talk. Maybe I want to do it this way, or no, no, no, we're gonna practice this and that, this tune should be like this and this. With the two of us, we can just jam for hours. We don't have to talk."

Perhaps that's the key to the magic between many of rock's current duos: When the world gets colder, the wars rage outside and storms sweep in and upend coastal communities, we all look for connection -- in our music, as in our lives. And the simplest, most basic hookup comes down to two, maintaining the most elemental components of songwriting and catalyzing the fundamentals of beat and melody to make them sound vital once again.

zZz is at the Milestone with Tonka Kong & Ugly Dobro, Sunday, March 26, 8pm; $7;


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