James Onysko does interviews barefoot. Decked out in a tie-dyed T-shirt, with a wisp of dirty blond hair styled by a nor'easter, the fortysomething founder of the improv percussion group Drumplay is perpetually at ease. He talks about spiritual retreats and making his living playing conch shells.
But when conversation turns to Drumplay's upcoming collaborations with the art-rock supergroup Gongzilla at the Beachland Ballroom and Nelson Ledges this weekend, Onysko moves to the edge of his seat, teetering like a schoolkid seeking the teacher's attention.
"If you had told me, when I first started listening to Gong back in 1970, that Benoit Moerlen would be in my group and we'd have a chance to play with him, I would have never believed you," Onysko says, his bright blue eyes opening wide. "They were my heroes."
Beginning in the late '60s, Gong -- and later Moerlen, its acclaimed vibraphonist -- became a hero to a generation of emerging prog-rockers and avant-garde jazzbos. The group was founded by Australian guitarist Daevid Allen, who pioneered a new kind of highly virtuosic, improvisational jazz rock. Over the years, the band included such renowned players as guitarist Allan Holdsworth and drummer Pierre Moerlen (Benoit's older brother). In the early '90s, Benoit Moerlen launched the splinter group Gongzilla.
In 2000, on the eve of a U.S. tour, Gongzilla parted ways with its drummer. The band, which had met Drumplay in the late '90s at the local Strange Days space-rock fest, called Onysko for help. He recommended Drumplay percussionist Phil Kester, who promptly became a full-fledged member of the group. With Gongzilla returning to the States for another tour last month, the stage was set for the two groups to play together again.
But rather than simply sharing the same bill, Drumplay and Gongzilla will collaborate in a free-form jam session. This would be pretty much like Mushroomhead rocking out with Black Sabbath. On Friday, Kester and Benoit Moerlen will join Drumplay during the two bands' gig at the Beachland. The next day, the groups will play a full set together at the Rhythm Fest at Nelson Ledges.
"We fit really well together onstage," says Kester over the phone, piloting the Gongzilla van across the country. "The thing with Gongzilla is that you have this really European way of playing tunes with marimba, the vibes, the glockenspiel. You have this very thick, harmonic, percussive thing that really lends itself to playing with a group like Drumplay, which has a lot of similar ideas. It's really amazing to get those soundwaves in the air."
The Gongzilla gigs cap a banner year for Drumplay. In June, the group -- rounded out by Warren Levert and poet Daniel Thompson, along with more than a dozen other intermittent contributors -- played the Festival Internationale de la Musique Universitaire in Belfort, France, a three-day world music fest that attracts more than 60,000 people. Drumplay was the only American band invited. While abroad, the group played 13 shows in 14 nights, performing at jazz clubs in Germany and squats in Holland.
The band also met with increasing success at home, playing everywhere from Playhouse Square and Cleveland Public Theatre to open-air art fests and rock clubs. It draws a diverse blend of fans, from well-heeled world-music types to stoner- and space-rock aficionados who vibe to the group's otherworldly grooves. The recent addition of samplers, Onysko says, may open up the music to new crowds.
"It really adds another element. It almost doesn't sound like Drumplay. I just think we have to keep evolving it. I like to keep changing it up, with different players bringing in different instruments. It keeps it fresh."
Which is the whole point of a band like Drumplay. Bounded by nothing, the group embraces whatever sounds strike its fancy, from Gongzilla to electronica. It makes the group one of Cleveland's most consistently adventurous and engaging units.
"Duke Ellington said, 'There's only two types of music: good and bad,'" Onysko says. "I think if we're open to everything, then maybe we can take a little bit of this, a little bit of that -- the best of everything -- and create our own unique thing. I want people to feel that music is more than the typical conventions."