This Rhode Island/Massachusetts power-groove trio brings the punk rock star-power with Peter Prescott, but Minibeast is a collaborative band through and through
First things first: don’t call Minibeast Peter Prescott’s new band.
Sure, the trademark gruff-throated singer, buzzsaw guitarist and pummeling drummer played a titanic role in putting American post-punk on the map in three monumental bands: Volcano Suns, Kustomized and Mission of Burma, the latter earning a much-deserved chapter in Michael Azerrad’s indie rock bible, Our Band Could Be Your Life.
But Minibeast is, ahem, a completely different…beast.
The grizzled punk Prescott, on guitar, vocals, loops, weirdo sounds and whatever skronk he can spew out, is 1/3 of this trio, on equal footing with drummer Keith Seidel and bassist Niels LaWhite. Together, this threesome is laser-focused on brain-sticking grooves, or as Prescott jokingly says, “goofy white guys entranced by rhythm,” in the Talking Heads vein but way more scratchy and abrasive. After all, Prescott handles the guitar duties and he’s still shelling out a noisy maelstrom but of the weird and gnarly funk variety, complete with dizzying loops, synth damage and effects-laden fuckery.
After a few different iterations of Minibeast (first as a Prescott one-man home-recorded project then various members coming and going), the lineup was shored up when LaWhite entered as a permanent addition.
On Ice, the trio’s newest record released this past April and third long-player overall, officially signals the start of the Prescott/Seidel/LaWhite era where their epically dialed-in Motorik rhythmic chooglin’ hits on all cylinders from beginning to end.
It’s as if the Funhouse rhythm section of Dave Alexander and Scott Asheton went on a Krautrock kick, holding down repetitious and cosmic grooves that are next-level heady. Meanwhile, Prescott’s guttural wail remains as instantly recognizable as ever but in Minibeast his arena-sized bawling takes a back seat to more of a speak-sing delivery and, of course, the addictive trance-like jammage that these three latch onto with seemingly relative ease. On Ice has my vote as one of 2022’s best records.
The Globe caught up with Prescott and Seidel on Zoom to talk all things Minibeast.
I wanted to kick off with the origins of Minibeast. Peter, it began as a one-man home-recorded solo project that later morphed into a full-on band thing?
Peter Prescott: That’s fair to call it. I think it was toward the end of the last few years of the Burma reunion that I moved down with my girlfriend to Providence where we actually have a really nice house instead of a cramped apartment and that allowed me to…I bought some stuff to sample with. I didn’t envision it as a full rock band kind of situation. But I also didn’t envision it as just the bedroom thing and that was going to be it. I enjoyed making a record that way then I went through a few different live versions of it and I don’t think any of them quite kicked in until Keith got involved.
We had a really good drummer before that, but I don’t think we were translating what I was doing in the bedroom to the band; I don’t think that had really happened yet. Keith was so down with the influences I threw at him, especially Fela Kuti and Public Image Ltd. Those things were sort of twin peaks that we were aiming at and when he heard that, he said, “Yeah, let me come down.” And that started an association that (to Keith) what’s it been, six years, buddy?
Keith Seidel: Yup. Six years.
How did you two actually meet? Did you know each already before joining forces in Minibeast?
Prescott: No. I put out feelers to people like pretty much assuming I would never find anybody that wanted to do this (laughing), especially anywhere near my age or mentality. A person that I asked was friends with Keith—that’s what it was. And he said, “I can’t do it but I know this guy that is probably going to fit the bill.” And he did, in spades.
That’s pretty unlikely to happen, to find other musicians that you click with out of the blue.
Prescott: I’d go with borderline impossible! You’d think the Internet would make that a lot easier but I tend to feel like we’re all lonely individuals when it comes to the Internet. It’s not really more likely to hook up with people that have similar mindsets. This was karma, that’s all I could say.
And you bonded over like-minded musical influences, like those bands you mentioned before.
Prescott: Mostly that. I think it was also the idea of translating the stuff I had done on some of those records into a…I want to say rock band. I guess we are a rock band, Keith? I guess we are. I never know.
Seidel: Even the first time I showed up at Pete’s house, he said to me, “We always try to start every jam, every practice with the improv jam.” And I was just like, “Oh. my god. I’ve been doing that in whatever bands I was in before for fifteen, twenty years. That’s an unwritten rule.” So, even then, it was another big check. I was like, “Alright, this is going to be great.” Yeah. I don’t think in six years we’ve started a practice without doing that.
Prescott: I think so. I would agree.
Keith, were you familiar with Peter’s history before you joined Minibeast? I would imagine it may have been intimidating for you to take over the drum kit knowing Peter held down the beat in Mission of Burma, Volcano Suns and Kustomized?
Seidel: It was a little bit. I wasn’t super-crazy familiar but I got a message like, “Pete from Burma is looking for a drummer for his psych band. It’s kind of like Fela Kuti, James Brown and Stooges” and I was like, “Oh my God, this sounds right up my alley what I would love to do.” So, we shared a few emails and even by the time I met him in person, which is maybe like less than a week after that initial communication. I was super-comfortable and I couldn’t wait to get down there. It was very welcoming and it felt right, right away, pretty much.
Prescott: There’s another aspect to it. Obviously, we’re both drummers and you can probably hear that figures into the band. Bass and drums are the tugboat. Whatever I do actually sits in back of them and I think, one, it was a really good thing that I’ve got a drummer’s mind so he could relate to that but it was also good because keeping my mouth shut and let him play the drums (laughing). It’s not like I was behind him going, “Oh, do this and do that.” I give suggestions sometimes but I think a really important thing is, and it’s really big in this band, is allowing people to play their instrument. Don’t go, “Oh, do this but don’t do that. You can’t trust people up, you can’t tie them up and then say, “Oh, be really good.” My belief is you have to let them go. So, there’s three guys in this band that no one is censoring. That’s a big deal because that’s a hard thing to find, too.
You’re not micromanaging in Minibeast, in other words.
Prescott: I wasn’t but I was closer to micromanaging in those other groups. In this one, I said, “Keep your mouth shut. Let these people do what they do.”
The bass and drums are really locked-in on On Ice. How did Niels LaWhite get in on the action?
Seidel: Our other bass player left. This is three years ago, early 2019 and we were like, “Bass was such an integral role in this. How are we going to get a bass player?” Again, Pete put some feelers out and I think it was through Julie, right, Pete?
Prescott: A friend of a friend….
Seidel: …and she’s like, “Oh, this guy is perfect. He lives in Somerville, he’s looking for a band and I think he’d be really interested.” So, before we even like, spoke to him or met him, he showed up and had learned maybe four or five of our songs. From there, the wheels just kept turning and we asked him, maybe after a month, “Hey, do you want to permanently join the band?” We knew it was going to be maybe difficult because he lives so far, living in Somerville it a bit of a commute but he was like, “Yes, whenever I can come down, I’ll come down.” Ever since then, it’s been great. He’s fantastic. We love him.
You guys have a couple of other previous full-lengths but do you look at On Ice as a new start with this particular solid lineup in place?
Prescott: Yes, I do. I feel like this record is what we sound like, warts and all (laughing). This is the record I’ve always wanted to make with this band and I didn’t know it because I hadn’t made it yet. Once the chemistry was here, we actually had a pandemic vacation where we couldn’t play that much but whenever we played, we recorded stuff down in my basement—that’s where we did this record. I’ve always gone in, paid for studio time, done tracks mixed in, overdub, whatever and did that all in a fairly compact space of time. This, basically, took a year. The fact that we were forced into the pandemic vacation where we could only do things like that and we could do’em downstairs influenced the way this ended up sounding. I think it’s probably the most organic record I’ve ever been involved in because it was done just steadily in a relaxed fashion. There wasn’t like, “No, we don’t have to be done by this time or anything.” It might be indulgent but it’s also the way we wanted to sound. I’m not thankful for the pandemic in any way, shape or form but I’m thankful that we’ve got to make it the way we got to make it.
On Ice can be called a “pandemic record,” for lack of a better term?
Prescott: Yeah, very much so.
Peter, you have a whole studio setup in your basement where you can jam and record for hours on end without worry about the clock.
Prescott: What we what we do is record every jam that we start a practice with. But for this particular project, Keith had a board, a sixteen-track. Is it sixteen, Keith?
Seidel: It’s thirty-two but it does sixteen simultaneously so we put a lot of mikes on things so we cover all our bases live. We did do overdubs but live it was we got everything we wanted to get in there for at least the foundation. It took us a month or two to tinker because we have a control room. I would bring the board back home and listen and adjust things, come back and adjust them. But once we get the sounds we like, then it was all about just getting the performances we like and trying to capture that magic and be comfortable and take our time and not feel pressured, not do ten takes of one song in a row until we got the perfect one. We just do one or two, live with it for a little while and then I might take a couple of months. It was relaxed but it was still a lot of intensity and energy. It was a pleasure, it was fun. It felt like our practices, which is what we wanted to capture.
Prescott: The other interesting thing is, as long as these songs tend to be, a lot of them headed off much longer. There were some that were twenty or thirty minutes long that we actually cut down and edited. This was sort of a sculpting process.
The vibe I get from listening to On Ice is the Minibeast songwriting process comes out of epic jam sessions instead of you guys coming in with riff ideas.
Prescott: It’s sort of a combination of two of both of those things, because occasionally, I come in with a repetitive riff, which is in the same vein as the jams. Some of them do have origins where they’re slightly more like songs but at least half of them come out of what you just said: Like, playing until we finally go, “Hey, that’s actually pretty inspired. That’s a good spot. Let’s save it.”
Are you operating way differently songwriting-wise in Minibeast as opposed to Burma, Volcano Suns and Kustomized?
Prescott: It’s like night and day. Basically, I’m a different person than I was in those bands. I think my mindset is still there but I never wrote songs really like this—I always wanted to. I think, especially, I came from a punk rock mentality, which was sort of untrained, short, sweet, never go on too long. You know, brevity. And I threw all that stuff away. I’ve done that, that was fun, now let’s try something that is more open and also interactive with the other musicians, rather than saying, “Oh, here’s a song, let’s play it.” I would say Minibeast destroyed whatever I was part of before (laughing).
Keith, what about your other bands? Where are you coming from musically and influence-wise?
Seidel: I was in a band in the 90’s and into the 2000’s that played out quite a bit in Providence. It was weird and there was some improvvy stuff but it was more like hard rock, some prog and math-rocky, not super-slick and polished, still kind of rough around the edges. It would have a punk approach. The band I was in right when I hooked up with Pete, was a duo but it was the same kind of thing. We had a studio in a basement and we never really played out. We just recorded and wrote. It was great and a lot of fun but this (Minibeast) was something totally different. Especially with Pete’s sounds and his loops and his keyboards, it just sounded like unlike anything I’ve ever played, played with or really heard and we just chose subconsciously and collectively, and even talked about a little bit, just to make music we hadn’t heard that we want to hear, fill a void. And I think we’re doing that.
Yes, Pete, I think you’re doing some weird stuff that you didn’t really experiment with in your other bands?
Prescott: I would say yes, there were elements in some of these things. There’s a Volcano Suns record that came out on Touch & Go called Career in Rock. It has some samples and kind of spoken stuff that goes in between the songs so I think I was thinking about these kind of things but then in the 90’s, I actually got into a lot of international music, techno, I remember I bought some hip-hop records where they took the rap out and there was just an instrumental version of something. For some reason that really grabbed me a lot. I like music as like an aquarium that you’re sort of swimming around in as opposed to, like, “Oh, I want to hum that tune.” I think as time was going along, I was much more attracted to instrumental music: sometimes shorter, sometimes like Fela Kuti stuff that takes up a side of an LP. I never found that boring. I always found it, like, “Wow, you get some room to stretch out and listen to something instead of it all being based around a catchy melody, per se.” But I like those, too, you know? I did come from a background where punk rock songs are supposed to be short and sharp, get in there, do it and get out. But this was new, to me, and the more I heard stuff like that, and including jazz—I didn’t pay that much attention to jazz until probably twelve, fifteen years ago. So, a lot of these things started sort of swirling around in front of me, and I was like, “This is what I like now. This is what I want to play.”
Speaking of jazz, you have two saxophonists guest on On Ice: Morphine and Vapors of Morphine saxophonist Dana Colley and Either/Orchestra founder Russ Gershon. I assume you go way back with those guys from your Boston days.
Prescott: Yes! We always liked what they did. We actually played with a band Dana was in called A.K.A.C.O.D. and his sax was through lots of pedals and hardly ever sounded like a sax but it had his playing style there. Russ used to have a loft where he’d put on shows and we played a show there where he actually played along with us on organ. It was much more, again, like likeminded warriors in the same vein. When this (Minibeast) stuff started to come together, we said, “Let’s find something that maybe we can pull these guys into” and they were so nice. We sent them the tracks within a few weeks then they put amazing stuff, way too much amazing stuff, to put all of it in—we actually had to take some of it out. But both incredible players and I’m so happy they got involved.
Besides the jazz element, I hear a Talking Heads groove component to Minibeast, too.
Prescott: Yeah, Remain In Light, and of course, My Life In The Bush of Ghosts. Actually, the Brian Eno record is, in my mind, a notable influence on this. I love Remain In Light. It’s like “goofy white guys completely entranced by rhythm” (laughing), which doesn’t always sounds good! I think it can sound.
Well, you guys pull that off pretty well. Live in concert, do you guys stretch out on the recorded songs? I saw a quote where you said you never play the same song twice.
Sometimes they’re longer, sometimes they’re shorter. I think we’ve been leaning on the new material the past several months when we’ve been playing. But there’s never any particular set list. I would say just about every song can be played different ways. That’s accurate to me. I think it always resembles us; it’s not like we’re starting from scratch, but, yeah, there’s a lot of leeway.
Seidel: Some songs have more structure and a few of them we will play the same way but still never exactly. Then some it’s like point A, point B: we know the rhythm, the riff, the vibe and it’s almost different every time. It could be eight minutes, could be five minutes or thirteen minutes.
It seems like the grooves are built to jam endlessly on, the bass and drums can do their thing, like a jazz band.
Prescott: Potentially, yeah. You know what I would say: I remember when we started playing, I wanted to get the idea across to people that it’s not this dry experience. As a live band. I like to think we’re kind of funny, it’s always supposed to be entertaining. A lot of my friends said, “Oh, Prescott is just like going up and fartin’ around basically with his friends” (laughing). And there might be some truth to that.
But in general, I think we’re as much as any band does, a pop band, a jazz band, any kind of band, we had a presentation and we’re trying to get something across in an entertaining way; it’s not supposed to be pure indulgence. There is some way we’re trying to be entertaining.
It sounds like you are having a lot of fun with this band compared to your experiences with your prior bands.
Prescott: Maybe it’s at this time in my life, I don’t know. But I would say yes (laughing)!
Speaking of, so Burma is officially done and Peter, Minibeast is your main gig right now?
Prescott: It is. I think it’s Keith, too. It’s also funny how people have like late in life rock music? I did a (Burma) reunion and it was totally enjoyable and I was really happy to be able to do it. But I’ve got to admit, I’m really glad that I’m heading out with something that just fits like a glove. And it’s not just my glove. It’s the other two guys in the band and I’m really happy about that, that it’s a three-piece that everybody is throwing stuff into.
Minibeast sounds like a total group effort…
Prescott: Very much.
…as opposed to being called Peter Prescott’s band.
Prescott: People might call it that. But then then they see us play and they go, “Wow, he’s okay but look at the other guys!” And, believe me, that happens (laughing).
And Keith you don’t feel you’re playing sideman-type role?
Seidel: No, it feels like a true democracy and the longer we play with Niels, It’s become more of a collaboration. Everybody puts their own personal stamp on something, even if it’s something Pete has brought in like a rhythm or a riff and he’s like, “This is how it’s going to go.” It still changes. I bring in something. It changes and it becomes something we never could have imagined without everybody else’s input and that’s just very satisfying.
Prescott: I’ll say, especially since Keith has been in the band, we’ve played with so many cool players that are on the same level we all are: as underground as I’ve ever been. But that’s where you’re allowed to do the things you like to do. We’ve run into solo people, I forget what they were called, but there was a band, maybe two or three years ago they opened on this bill that we played in Providence. I never heard of this band and they were great. They were actually great and I think in this little nether world underground place that we happen to be in in 2022, there’s some deep stuff going on in there that I think a lot of people my age don’t know about and if I can drag them out to see us, maybe they’ll see something else cool.
VIDEO: Minibeast “On Ice”
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