Hardly a household name, Sacramento noise-rock outfit Tera Melos’s experimental brand of in-your-face punk and prog-rock/jazz technicality often confuses and alienates listeners. But those who like it, really like it. For about 10 years now, the group has been steadily releasing material, touring the country and building a solid following of devoted fans. Even though the music is unpredictable, Tera Melos shows are filled with fans who know every word and anticipate every wild turn.
The trio — comprised of Nick Reinhart on guitar and vocals, Nathan Latona on bass and John Clardy on drums — is currently on tour with Pinback promoting their 2013 release X’ed Out and supporting the latter on their 10-year anniversary tour. They will stop in Los Angeles to play at the El Rey on Oct. 3.
Though the band is often referred to as “math rock,” they generally balk at this classification.
“Math to me is not emotional … It’s lacking humanness. And I think we have a lot of emotion and try to convey something human,” Latona said.
They take a similar stance when asked about their influences. Though they are all big fans of musicians such as Mike Watt, Les Claypool and Trent Reznor, they shy away from emulation.
“We never set out to be any sort of band, or like, ‘Let’s try to sound like these guys,’” Latona said. “There wasn’t much planning or thinking that we would be doing this for the long-term. We just wanted to see what would happen if we put some interesting sounds together.”
Despite jarring stop-and-start song structures and un-danceable time signatures, the group is slowly building a connection and getting the attention that many would say is long overdue. A lot of this might have to do with their latest album, X’ed Out, the most stripped-down and arguably most accessible offering to date.
“I don’t [think taking a minimalist approach] was a reaction to being labeled too ‘out there’ or too cerebral or being called math rock. It’s just a natural progression and the same kind of stuff from our last albums is there, it’s just subtle and underneath. I think it’s cooler that way,” Latona said.
This gradual formation of a unique sonic identity has gone hand in hand with Tera Melos’s visual output. Their music videos all have a similar surrealist, satiric vibe and are directed by short filmmaker Behn Fannin. Their repeated collaborations have resulted in the band donning J-pop-inspired anime outfits, running around Los Angeles in morphsuits and pouring milk on themselves while upside-down. Fannin’s creative impact is noticeable throughout their videos.
“Behn is just a well of ideas,” Latona said. “A lot of the time, we just go along with the vision that he says, but sometimes we’ll give him an idea and see what his version of it would be. It’s always fun and playful. Like, he gets commissioned to do commercials and daytime TV shows, but we like think Tera Melos is where he gets to let loose any of his crazy ideas that wouldn’t fly in any of those other contexts.”
Videos for X’ed Out tracks like “Weird Circles,” “Sunburn” and “Bite” display this child-like absurdity by incorporating toy instruments, men in women’s clothing, hot dogs driving cars and ’80s Clip Art graphics.
X’ed Out has a poppier feel, but is not a drastic departure from past records; their distinctive penchant for hauntingly joyful harmonies over face-melting riffs is as much on display as ever. Perhaps, then, their newfound ability to book a tour with a big-name, somewhat mainstream band Pinback after years of playing basements and small venues is due to a changing musical landscape, not a changing sound. Groups like Death Grips, Boris and Swans all exist in the same noisy musical universe and are enjoying a recent spike in interest amongst fans and critics.
There is a recent boom in the popularity of their type of music, but Latona is skeptical of its effect on their success.
“I don’t know if our fates are necessarily tied to those bands,” he said. “Swans and Boris have been around for a while, and I think it’s just the coolness factor right now. It wasn’t cool to talk about Swans 10 years ago. But that doesn’t necessarily equate to commercial success. Like, McDonald’s isn’t hitting us up to use our song in a commercial.”
Still, there is obvious overlap between Tera Melos and these bands: Tera Melos frontman Nick Reinhart has a side project called Bygones with Death Grips drummer Zach Hill, and they have always been compared to Hill’s other band, Hella. Though Death Grips has disbanded, their song “You Might Think He Loves You For You Money But I Know What He Really Loves You For And It’s Your Brand New Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat,” was recently used for an Adidas commercial, signaling that experimental noise music may have a shot at breaking into the mainstream. Until Tera Melos has a similar breakthrough, though, L.A. fans will have to head to the El Rey Friday night to get a taste of the electrifying experience.