On their debut album, Tuskwhale, Te-squeille, Missoula band Mekungfu performs a rousing rendition of a traditional Russian folk ballad and renames it “The Russian.” It’s far different from the original, more subdued choral version that bassist Duane Raider first sang in the Washington all-state men’s choir more than six years ago. Raider can’t remember the name of the original song, but he recalls the lyrics word-for-word.
“It’s really just about young men and women getting it on down by the river,” Raider explains. “We kept the lyrics but we definitely took some liberties on the music. I learned it when I was 17 and it’s been with me since. I have a terribly weird memory…”
True to Mekung-fu’s eccentric style, their arrangement of “The Russian”—named after the band’s favorite card game—is wildly dramatic. It features Raider’s and frontwoman/guitarist Genine Packert’s operatic vocals, and is punctuated by David Johnson’s timpani-like style of drumming. Ed Wreszien, who plays keyboard and electric glockenspiel, fires things up with a sparkling intro, coming across like the “Theme from the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” with a little more gravitas. The chaotic, catchall track is the perfect introduction to this unconventional local quartet.
Mekungfu has been together only a couple of months, but the quick release of Tuskwhale, Te-squeille can be attributed to the fact that the quartet’s played together for 10 years in various forms. Most recently, everyone but Raider played in local rock band Wu Zhen; Raider, meanwhile, played with Penny Dreadfuls. But Mekungfu, according to the band, is by far the most dramatic project the members have worked on so far.
“It’s really different, actually, a lot more playful,” says Packert. “It’s kind of ridiculous, just like how ‘The Russian’ is ridiculous.”
Packert laughs and shakes her head, at a loss to characterize their sound. “It’s just ridiculous.”
The band’s still-evolving, experimental sound comes through best in a live setting—as do their personalities. At a recent all-ages Higgins Hall show, Packert performed despite harboring a cold; she held her hand against her throat through most of the set, as if a little pained, but her hoarse vocals still boomed—soulful and fierce—throughout the small room. Wreszien hopped between lounge-y piano and rock ’n’ roll solos, and Johnson often added a disco cadence. And between songs the band spoke directly to the crowd with friendly, self-deprecating banter. For instance, Raider, after scanning a sparse crowd at the start of their set, said genuinely, “I think I have enough money to take everyone here out for ice cream after the show.”
But by the end of the show, as the crowd thickened and the band closed with “The Russian,” the audience was treated to Mekungfu being as serious and focused as they ever get. The song was more triumphant than on the album, punctuated by Packert and Raider gallivanting across the room with theatrical gestures.
Mekungfu maintains their loose approach in songwriting. The band says most of the new album came about through improvisation, using creative imagery to push the sound in new directions. In addition to “The Russian,” songs like “All Night Dance Party” and “Along the Mekong Delta” come across as sweeping examples of the process. They sound like Queen, but darker and more tribal.
“I usually say something that doesn’t make any sense,” Packert says, describing the band’s creative process. “Like I’ll say, ‘Picture a wave and now we’re ninjas, now you’re in a lounge, now you’re a spy.’”
When asked about future plans for the band, there’s a hailstorm of sarcastic responses—going to ninjitsu school, buying an island, building robots for rock ’n’ roll crime fighting—but they eventually fess up to another album in the works. They expect the follow-up, already titled Kappa Cowboy, to be released soon.
The band also talks seriously about their upcoming Northwest tour, and someday going to Japan. For a group that’s only been together in its current formation for a few months, there’s a fearlessness and brashness to everything Mekungfu is doing.
“There’s no reason not to go do things that are wonderful,” says Packert. “I think it’s about time to just, you know, conquer the world.”
Mekungfu plays its CD-release and tour kick-off show Friday, June 29, at 7 PM at Higgins Hall, 617 S. Higgins Ave. The Bees and The Birds and Danny’s Dilemma open. $5.