A blank canvas. That’s what Marie Landragin sees in her mind’s eye when she’s about to play guitar with Free Idea. Just before the first note rings out, she sees a frame, some material, potential for the space to become anything. When the music starts, she says, it begins painting forms, “and there’s color, and very often, I see it as a landscape” that develops as she and her bandmates build out a patiently meandering psychedelic rock set.
Usually that landscape has a lot of water, perhaps a lake, and as Landragin listens and plays, she sees stones tossed into the lake, ripples appearing and expanding across the surface. Sometimes there’s a storm coming. Other times, she sees a cave, with crystals dripping from the ceiling.
Every time Free Idea plays, Landragin sees a different landscape, because not one guitar lick, chord progression, bass line or drum fill is composed ahead of time. Everything is spontaneous.
It’s the kind of music that Landragin yearned to play after years of playing psych- pop-rock songs with Borrowed Beams of Light, and very intricate, highly composed songs with heavy rock/metal band Corsair. She wanted to play music that had no rules…but that was also palatable and interesting.
So Landragin asked musicians she knew to be both experienced and adventurous to give the no-rules music thing a go. Guitarist Brian Knox and bassist Will Evans were up for the challenge, as was drummer Greg Sloan. “When you don’t say ‘yes,’ you miss out on a lot,” says Sloan, who wasn’t about to miss out on this seemingly unusual combination of musicians.
Landragin’s a metalhead, while Knox (of Naked Gods) has an electrified Americana- folk bent; Evans is a jazz-bred art rock guy (Voterfrog, Whatever Brains), while Sloan has played in a slew of garage-rock-leaning bands (Big Air, Dwight Howard Johnson, The Ha-RANG!, DEN and currently, Sweet Tooth). “It doesn’t even seem like it should work,” Sloan says. But it does.
The result is pretty psychedelic, combining familiar sounds from the whole rock spectrum, plus folk, jazz, blues, electronic and pop, all in a constant state of flux. The sound is free to go where it will—because the music doesn’t adhere to the typical rock song structure. There are no melodies, no choruses, no verses; there’s no song at all.
But don’t mistake Free Idea, a band that jams, for a jam band. Bands like Phish and the Grateful Dead compose verses, choruses and bridges that they expand on the fly in anticipated spots. Free Idea is entirely improvised,…but it’s not like jazz where musicians riff on a melody or root structure that they move away from and return to.
“That’s the beauty of Free Idea: It’s all new simultaneously,” says Landragin. The music is created in the moment.
Ask them to recreate something they played 20 minutes ago, or even 30 seconds ago, and it’s a no-go. “We couldn’t even if we tried,” says Evans.
There are a few parameters, though: The band plays straight through whatever set length a venue gives it (17 minutes, 35 minutes), usually with a Knox-created visual abstraction projected on a screen behind the group and timed to the set length. When it ends, it’s time to wrap up and say goodbye.
A lot of cool things happen in this vulnerable artistic space where musicians cast off insecurity and hesitation in service of moving music forward in time and space via the act of listening closely to one another, says Landragin, adding that “if you play with someone long enough, you start to read each other, feel each other.”
Guitarists Knox and Landragin sometimes arrive at the same note at the same time, from two seemingly different sonic places. Other times, Knox will play a note that really sticks out, a note Landragin wouldn’t have dared to play. But when Knox plays it, she considers what he’s hearing and why; usually, Landragin will begin to hear Knox’s angle and comes around to it herself, maybe for 30 seconds, maybe for two minutes, before they float off on separate trajectories once again.
And, yes, certain things have happened more than once: Sloan has ad-libbed some of the same lyrics in two performances, and Evans has a “Wooly Bully”/”Louie Louie”-esque bass progression he defaults to on the rare occasion when it seems like the band is out of ideas.
If you think that Free Idea plays cacophonous weirdo music that’s hard to listen to if you’re not dropping acid or tripping on shrooms, you’re wrong. The music manages to sound composed (and approachable and interesting) without being composed at all—that’s difficult to achieve and it doesn’t work with every combination of musicians, says Landragin.
But when it works, it’s sublime, and “kind of addictive in a way,” says Landragin of how Free Idea fills the blank canvases of her mind’s eye. “It’s a really beautiful state to be in.”