The story of David Pajo starts predictably enough. In episode one, he discovers punk music and falls in love. Gets a guitar and thrashes. Once he gets really good at thrashing, he forms several peripheral punk bands with appropriately nasty names like the Genital Warts and the Fuck Shits. The bands break up, only to have critics call them "most influential," "seminal," and "legendary" after the fact. You get the picture. So much for that stale popcorn.
Episode two. The sequel begins with a twist and keeps twisting. After a stint with the Chicago electronic outfit Tortoise, our protagonist goes solo. Taking on enigmatic names like Ariel M and, later, Papa M, Pajo records stark, patient music without lyrics or obvious structures. It's music built in circles around simple melodies and the pure possibility of the guitar -- music that paradoxically sounds fresh and modern, but as old and unself-conscious as Smithsonian field recordings. At the center of his latest release, Live From a Shark Cage, is "I Am Not Lonely With Cricket," a 14-minute barrage of percussion and acoustic guitar that wipes clean the last vestiges of his three-chord punk rock past and leaves Pajo with a slippery image and a new sound older than vinyl.
Often, it seems, when a guitarist is celebrated for his technique, it's usually because of his quick fingers or his facility on the fretboard. Critics write something like "This is a textbook example for what the guitar can do." No one would say this about Shark Cage. Rather, Pajo has recorded an album that demonstrates how the guitar can sound. And the difference is significant.
On "I Am Not Lonely With Cricket," Pajo doesn't just repeat a riff, he bakes it in the sun so long that he lets its skin sear and the blisters rise. Without concern for forward motion or chorus and verse, Pajo looks to the vertical and the circular -- combining, repeating, and overlapping short melodic phrases until the layers are indistinguishable from one another. He stacks one percussive guitar string pluck against another and then does the same with harmonics. It builds until, as he says, it begins to sound like a music box.
"I like the way things overlap," says Pajo. "Maybe if [the melodic phrases] aren't in the same time signature, these weird new patterns start to develop out of it."
On "Cricket" and other songs from Shark Cage, Pajo celebrates the guitar as guitar. He lets the strings ring out and keeps the melodies simple. Though he experiments with subtle electronics ("Plastic Energy Man") and even tosses in a standard rock instrumentation on one track (the added drums and bass guitar of "Up North Kids"), his raw material is the natural sound of steel strings vibrating. With only a few exceptions, the only time the guitar gives up the foreground, it's in deference to another stringed cousin, the banjo. In a spectrum of guitarists and their sounds -- with, say, Eddie Van Halen at one end and Jim Hall at the other -- Pajo's trajectory definitely angles toward Hall.
"I really like the sound of the guitar -- the nuances of the guitar," he says. "I like the string noise when your hand moves across it. There's something really organic about it.
"I like to listen to a lot of different music from different countries. I have always been into folk and country," Pajo continues. "But more so lately. Like for this record, I fingerpick more. I've also been into a pure sound thing. With the rise of commercial music, I find myself going back to older stuff: music that's not as self-conscious as it is today -- which is a lot of old country music or ethnic folk. I think that that's what I'm trying to do -- be authentic about it. Be authentic to my own roots."
And surprisingly, Pajo is honest about his roots, which included a whole lotta Journey and few Pajo family folk jams.
"I grew up in the '80s," he admits. "I can't deny that. I grew up with a lot of guitar rock bands. But I don't want to fall into the same ego, clichéd thing. I was also against that growing up."
It's an honesty that becomes Pajo. He may be listening to old country, Filipino folk, and Indian classical, but he hasn't traded in his Gibson for a reed flute and a talking drum. In other words, he isn't trying to recreate ethnic folk, and he's light years away from tribal chants with a techno beat. This urban kid has translated these ethnic sounds into his own modest and authentic folk -- a folk music that's tailored to the electric guitar.
"There's got to be a connection," says Pajo, trying to reconcile his new music with his punk and metal past. "I played heavy-handed like that for so long, but now my attitude is the same. I keep trying to do things I've never done before. I don't get the urge to rock out that often, like I used to. Also, my musical taste has changed. Everybody goes through phases. When I got into punk, I sold all my AC/DC and Black Sabbath records. Later, I bought them all back."
"Your little game is up, George. If I get a hold of you, George, you're gonna regret it" -- answering machine messages, from the woman who apparently was being harassed by Pajo's grandfather, make up the only actual "lyrics" on Shark Cage. Pajo snagged an entire tape from his now-deceased grandfather's answering machine for the tune "Crowd of One." He kept the tape completely intact, including a phone number from a doctor's office receptionist, a call from a minister, and the somewhat darker messages left by this angry woman at the end of the tape.
"The main melodies [for "Crowd'] I'd had for a long time," Pajo explains. "But when I recorded it, it seemed really repetitive, like there should have been a narrative on top. But rather than tell a story, I found this old answering machine tape of my grandfather's from seven years ago. It has this bizarre narrative. He had been stalking this woman, it sounds like. That was a little creepy. Once I knew that I was going to release it, I had to ask my folks to make sure that they didn't mind -- that I was putting out this unflattering portrait of my mother's father."
The answering machine messages actually coalesce into a strange narrative, and, like an old murder and remorseful Appalachian tune, the grisly details turn up at the end. And when Pajo drums against the side of his guitar and then rearranges his mics to simulate sonic depth of field, he adds another little touch that manages to conjure the traditional but still sound modern -- kinda like the artwork on the disc's cover.
On the cover of Shark Cage, what looks like a giant coin or metal sheet is set against a flat background. Two ice skaters meet in the middle, and one reaches out and takes the other's hand to his chest. As Pajo points out, the skaters form the shape of an M.
"At the time, I wanted a band name that was more of an anti-band name," says Pajo. "More of a symbol or graphic image than a name. Then that became the thread. I also liked bands who changed their names. So I thought that that would be the one thing that stayed consistent. It would be a theme. This guy in Russia sent me photos of things that he'd seen around Moscow that made the letter M shape. I thought that [the skaters photo] was one of the cooler ones, because at first you don't notice that it makes the letter M."
Pajo says he took the album title from a show on the Discovery Channel, simply because it wasn't pretentious.
"I didn't want an arty name," he says. "I wanted it to be more assertive. But Live From a Shark Cage also suggests people who go into shark cages. People who really like sharks. [Sharks] aren't terrible creatures to them."
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