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Noise rock outfit They’re Dead trace the origins of Lansing’s DIY basement show culture

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Before they were called legends in Lansing’s DIY scene, Wolf and Slow were the youngsters on the east side going door-to-door asking for mattresses. Wolf rented a house on the corner of Francis and Fernwood Avenues as a rehearsal space where local musicians could come and make noise. The mattresses were for sound-proofing.

In the depths of Wolf’s basement, he and Slow began fusing their minds through jam sessions — a connection that would last for over 30 years.

“We grew up in basements playing rock ‘n’ roll,” said Slow.

With a mutual love for silent films, theater and improvisation, Wolf, 70, and Slow, 60, started a friendship that has survived the test of time. Wolf is John McIntyre and Slow is Monte Boutwell, but they prefer to go by their stage names. They have played in several bands under various names, either as a united force or split solo acts, since the late ‘70s. They’re Dead played Saturday at the Robin Theatre — their first time gracing that stage — where they played an original live soundtrack to silent films by American experimental filmmaker Maya Deren.

“We kind of came out of retirement and started doing these basement shows again and I was kind of surprised, like ‘why are all these kids liking what we do? Maybe we should keep doing this,’” Slow said.

Dressed as pathologists about to perform an autopsy, Wolf and Slow were joined on the Robin Theatre’s stage by operatic soprano Caroline Volt, Brad Trouper on drums and Joe Hart from The Jackpine Snag on the didgeridoo — a wind instrument developed by indigenous people from what is today considered northern Australia.

Washes of red, green and blue light illuminated the stage while the black and white films were projected on the backdrop.

The 45-minute set included an original song where the audience was asked to project a film on their minds — set to the eerie ruckus banged out on harmoniums, drums, electric guitars and of course, theremins and several effect pedals.

The band formed on Halloween in 2001 at the Sun Theatre in Grand Ledge. Slow was a projectionist and convinced his manager to screen “Night of the Living Dead” for the holiday.

To provide spooky sounds as guests arrived, Slow enlisted Wolf, who had a regular gig at the Odeon Theatre in Frandor Shopping Center performing live scores to silent films.

“People ask if we’re a Grateful Dead tribute band. We’re more of a George Romero tribute band,” Wolf said referring to the film director’s influence.

Wolf, who was raised in the Washington, D.C,. area, came to East Lansing in 1967 and studied physical science and English at MSU. He received two degrees by 1972 and remained on campus as a technologist while taking courses in telecommunications.

“Never quite finished the degree, but my transcript is now five pages,” Wolf said.

Wolf has been tinkering with ARP synthesizers and theremins since 1997, when he played in a local electronic band called Idle Hands.

He said it’s possible he was the first to bring the new age instruments to the local music scene.

The band joked that Wolf also beat Pink Floyd in integrating “the wall” into stage theatrics, referring to a structure Wolf built for a performance in the summer of ‘77 at one of the early Fun Fests — a defunct north Lansing block party in Old Town.

That same summer, Wolf and Slow met through a mutual friend’s progressive rock band called Eclipse. The group hosted a series of small shows in basements around town, even after Slow left Lansing to explore San Francisco and its experimental performance art scene.

When he returned, Slow had Wolf score his silent Super 8mm films and the two got right back to collaborating.

Over the past 18 years, the band has performed alongside films like “Fantastic Planet,” “Witchcraft Through the Ages” and “Hell’s Hinges.”

The bandmates explained that they do practice and screen the films beforehand, but rehearsing together would go against the nature of the band.

While the band’s rule is born out of creative influences of punk rock and the free jazz movement, according to Wolf, it’s more practical to play live instead of recording soundtracks.

He said this is mainly due to silent films “existing in different prints” or cuts.

“So there is no guarantee that the print I was watching to study the film was going to be the one that was actually shown,” Wolf said. “Plus, silent films were played back at 22 frames per second, sound was played at 24fps. So, there were times when theaters would screen the films at 24fps. It’s subliminal, but it’s faster.”

Wolf and Slow lamented house venues that have come and gone in Lansing, including The Ghetto Diaper, Zeppelin House, Panopticon and Brighter Days Bookshop, among others. The duo said that they have ventured past city limits for gigs in the past, but consider Lansing their home.

“During my punk days, the people at the venues weren’t that friendly,” Slow remarked. “So it was really nice when I was exposed to the house scene in Lansing when I was older with all these young people. Everyone was so nice.”

The band has no shows booked for now, but regardless of the setting for their next set, their credo will remain: Two theremins, two guitars and zero rehearsals.

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