When circuses had live bands, mostly in the early half of the 20th century, they frequently employed a type of song called a "screamer." These were the blazing-fast tunes played as animals galloped 'round the rings or after a particularly daring feat had been performed. They're hard as hell to play -- ask a brass player what it's like to triple-tongue his instrument (though maybe not in mixed company) -- and they often pack in several music styles at once, with two melodies, just to add to the urgency of the cacophony.
Katzenjammer, the latest pop curiosity to blow in from Scandinavia, comes running out of its debut CD with a real screamer. An insistent, jabbing trumpet begins, then an urgently plucked banjo. A crowd punctuates the rhythm with shouts of "Hey!" Then a woman is singing, "This evening's too quiet / Oh, we need a real riot / to shake and to break and to bite like a snake!" The chorus warns of an impending storm amid a tempest of acoustic guitars, a balalaika, drums and four women having a weirdly urgent, Nordic hoe-down.
That's "A Bar in Amsterdam," only the first of such genre-crunching, multi-instrumental tracks on "Le Pop" from Norway's Katzenjammer.
9 p.m. Thursday at Schubas, 3159 N. Southport
Tickets: $10; (773) 525-2508, schubas.com
Between them, the women of Katzenjammer -- Solveig Heilo, Anne Marit Bergheim, Turid Jorgensen and Marianne Sveen -- produce a circus of sound. I mean that both as metaphor and direct comparison: the wild and daring feats they perform on a wide variety of instruments (... tuba, piano, accordion, mandolin, harmonicas, kazoo, xylophone, melodica ...) elicits the oohs and ahhs of a circus performance, and the music they're mashing up draws from many of the same wellheads that fueled circus music more than a century ago, from Sousa to Slavic gypsy music.
But does it rock?
"Someone yesterday said our record reminded him of Led Zeppelin," Bergheim said during a recent phone interview from Nashville. "In a way, I kind of understand what he means. We're all into rock and it's just natural to bring that into our music, even with these instruments."
It's not as if one person plays the banjo and another plays the tuba. The stage is littered with noise makers, and the members of Katzenjammer take turns grabbing whichever device is required for the song.
That contributes to the circus-like atmosphere that thrilled onlookers during their performance at 2009's South by Southwest showcase in Austin, Texas. After that, David Byrne bestowed on them his badge of hipness by booking Katzenjammer to open his stage at Bonnaroo. An online buzz started thereafter, which built earlier this year with a leak of the sunny kitchen ballad "Tea With Cinnamon." This summer they come back ashore full-strength, hitting Chicago next week for a club gig and back next month with the reconstituted Lilith Fair.
"We have 15 instruments on the stage at the same time," Bergheim said. "We rotate them. ... We've kind of learned them as we write the songs. When you know the guitar, you can transfer the basic principles kind of to mandolin and banjo, and if you know how to play piano you can play the accordion, too. Kind of. You don't have to play advanced stuff, though. It doesn't have to be big solos. That's not what we do. All together it sounds really good."
It's definitely a three-ring, free-wheeling approach. "Tea With Cinnamon" sloshes with carnival tempos, the tall tale of "Hey Ho on the Devil's Back" lurches and leers like storytime with Gogol Bordello, and the title track is a drunken acoustic punk jam scorning someone's behavior: "You'd sell tickets to a funeral / 'cause you need tickets to ... the Cramps!" Then, over a new polka refrain, they clarify: "A rock 'n' roll band!"
A lot of positive reaction to their SXSW performance last year was posted on hard-rock Web sites and blogs. Members of the band have acknowledged a slight debt to hard rock, at least in the level of energy they're striving for. Norway is home to an impressive array of hardcore death metal bands. Even the lounge-pop Cardigans, from neighboring Sweden, were comprised of players with heavy metal backgrounds. (They couldn't help but cover "Iron Man.")
Katzenjammer, too, is a German word meaning "discordant sound" or, more colorfully, "cat's wail." The word sometimes is employed to mean a state of bewilderment, i.e. a hangover. They took it from a cartoon strip, Katzenjammer Kids.
"We've been exposed to a lot of different kinds of music. We challenge ourselves to try different things," Bergheim said. "There's a folk wave coming on now in Europe, probably here in the States, too. People want to go back to their roots and eat organic food and stuff like that. I -- I forgot my point. It's hard to say what I mean in English. Just that -- we're exposed to more kinds of music in Europe. There's more to, you know, dig up. Americans find this interesting, like a big jumble."