Yamantaka//Sonic Titan: Behind the Scenes of 33

You might know Yamantaka//Sonic Titan’s much-hyped eponymous 2011 YT//ST. But if you haven’t seen them onstage, you don’t know shit. Lucky for you, Pop’s presenting a their new rock opera 33 at the Rialto tomorrow night. Here’s a preview.

TRASH AESTHETIC: Handmade costumes made from industrial materials for 33
Photo by Alaska B

Initially an art collective formed by Ruby Kato Attwood and Alaska B when both were Concordia undergrads, Yamantaka // Sonic Titan has since expanded and evolved, producing everything from art installations to video games to their blog-hyped and Polaris short-listed 2011 album, YT//ST.

Recently signed to Paper Bag records, the group is staging a new rock opera, 33, in the lovely Rialto Theatre tonight, as part of Pop Montreal. Cult MTL visited Yamantaka // Sonic Titan during their final preparations.

Tomorrow’s event is divided into two parts: 33, a rock opera, followed by Uzu, a noh-wave rock spectacular.

33 is very much a theatre piece, involving dancers, a short text and actors lip-syncing to Attwood, singing offstage, while the band is set back in an orchestra pit. The opera follows aging drag queen SisterBrother, den mother of the fictional Club 27, as she tries to extricate herself from the club scene to seek spiritual enlightenment. Instead, she is subject to a series of murderous plots by her treasonous protégée Diva Data.

“We kind of imagined it like a really cheap, contemporary gay rock opera, but Wagnerian,” says Alaska B. “It’s kind of an entropic work, moving back and forth between chaos and order.”

Conceived as both a tribute to the trans community and a meditation on club life and aging, the 33-minute piece is performed in three parts, each with its own drag queen lip-synched feature song.

B, the chief architect of the piece’s musical elements, describes 33’s soundtrack as “surrealist, bizzaro club music. The entire show is set at 120 bpm, which is traditional house speed. Every song just goes right to the next and there’s a constant beat.”

“It’s really nice, because the music doesn’t stop, ever,” says director Ange Loft. “So even though it’s a play, there is only three minutes of text in the whole show, and three minutes of dancing in the whole show, and the rest is kind of mathematical choreography.”

SONIC TITANS: Ruby Kato Attwood and Alaska B.
Photo by Derrick Belcham.
After the intermission, Uzu begins, and the band pulls their instruments forward for a straight-up rock show. While they warn fans not to expect much material from YT//ST, the set will preview the group’s hotly anticipated next album amidst a swarm of video projections and other surprises.

Yamantaka // Sonic Titan’s performances are famously elaborate, involving handcrafted props, ornate sets, video projections, kabuki make-up and flamboyant headdresses and costumes, some constructed to perform tricks or illusions.

But mounting such a large-scale production takes an army, and YT//ST, like many performers, are chronically underfunded. Alaska B says that, in the art world, “People don’t believe that we’re managing, at the bottom with no funding or support, to do these things.”

The collective includes numerous friends and collaborators of YT//ST’s core members, all occupying numerous and overlapping roles within the production. As we talked, I counted no fewer than 17 people involved with the show.

Props for 33.
Photo by Alaska B
It helps that, as Loft describes it, the group’s “aesthetic is really low—not low quality, but could be considered low-brow, like we make things out of cardboard and crap we found in the streets and garbage bags and stuff.”

The costumes for the show, hung on the laundry line behind Attwood’s Mile Ex apartment, include complexly tailored kimonos, trick-performing pants and other oddities, many of them made out of industrial materials and found objects.

This, the patient and careful handiwork applied to create something fantastical out of rubbish, is central to Yamantaka // Sonic Titan’s creative practices. If anything, it pushes the group to be more original, more audacious and more ambitious.

As Alaska B puts it, they are “a group that’s falling in the middle. I think what’s most interesting for us is that we’ve always kind of been underdogs. We’ve always been not the top of our class at school, the ones who would take the weird route instead of the easy route.

“We spent our whole career, right from the very beginning, always being doubted. And every time we’ve been rejected for a grant, we got it done anyways for even less than we thought, and upped our profile.” ■

33 is being staged after opener RAMZI, tonight Sept. 21, at the Rialto Theatre (5723 Parc), 10 p.m., $15

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