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The unholy three: (l-r) Roediger, Webber, Smith.. Photo by John Whipple.

Let Your Freak Flag Fly
By Shawn Stone

Art-rock trio Bible Study like their music bent—and so do their growing legion of admirers

Bible Study aren’t like other bands.

They look different. In one of his three-piece suits or beaver hats, guitarist Alex Roediger suggests an eccentric entomologist or professorial serial killer. Keyboardist Carrie Webber often glams up in a sparkly party dress, and then alters the effect with a bizarre accessory—like the odd quill—that calls into question the whole notion of glamour. Next to the other two, drummer Steve Smith can seem too normal; you may find yourself looking for some hidden weirdness beneath his clean-cut exterior.

They sound different. While what they write and play is recognizably pop music, it isn’t like anything anyone else is doing. If the melody’s sweet, the lyrics are strange; if the music is strange, there may be no lyrics at all. Part of it is attitude, and part of it is a kind of artistic sincerity. (More about that later.) Their songs aren’t just weird for weirdness’ sake: There’s a method behind their collective madness. Local music aficionados are beginning to take notice, even if they can’t quite pin down what they’re hearing and seeing.

Asked about the difficulty people have in describing what they do, the band members laugh. “There’s a growing list of bands people compare us to,” explains Webber. Roediger adds, “When we put up our Web site, we’ll post the list—and invite people to add to it.”

You don’t have to wait for the Web site. According to Smith, people have come up to the group after gigs and said that they sound like: They Might Be Giants, Frank Zappa, Joy Division, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Tori Amos, Belly, Dream Syndicate, Captain Beefheart, Helium, Lone Justice and/or Maria McKee, the Melvins, Portishead, Flash to Bang Time—“Flash to Bang Time?” Smith laughs out loud—Talking Heads, the Modettes, and the Drongos.

See what I mean?

The genesis of the band dates back to 1995, when Smith and Roediger were in high school in the Burnt Hills-Balston Lake school district. “Alex had been playing guitar for months, and had a really small practice amp and a 17- or 20-key Casio keyboard,” remembers Smith.

Smith, who didn’t play any instrument at the time—though now he’s also bassist for the 1234’s—started fooling with the guitar. Roediger plunked out a melodic fragment on the Casio. Smith says, “Before I could recognize anything, he said ‘Great! We need lyrics.’ The bookshelf’s right behind me—I’m sitting on the floor trying to figure out what the strings are for, Alex reaches over me and grabs blindly on the shelf. He pulls out the Bible and cracks it open and starts reading: ‘. . . and then Job said to Sarah. . . .’ I said great, what’s the name of the band? He said ‘Bible Study.’ We laughed heartily, and now we’re stuck with it.”

The two experimented for a few years, making tapes for their own edification and developing their unique creative process. To them, any sound—“even a fart,” notes Roediger—can be the starting point for a song. A fragment of melody, a bit of noise, a note from a Ted Nugent song, an accidental note on the guitar . . . it’s all fair game.

When Roediger went off to art school in Brooklyn, he met Webber—who, ironically, turned out to hail from Clifton Park. Webber was very impressed with the Bible Study experiments. When the duo returned to the area, Bible Study became a trio. They continued to write and record music, but did not even consider playing out.

“Then,” as Roediger says, “about a year ago we wondered, what if we really learned to play our instruments? What if we made this inside joke a bigger inside joke? We decided to become a real band.”

“We set out to fool the world, or at least Albany,” says Smith. “The joke’s on me, though. I didn’t think it would work. I didn’t think people would want to get the joke. I guess I underestimated the effect of They Might Be Giants and Frank Zappa on the American consciousness.”

“There’s a saying that the expert is very narrow-minded, while the beginner is very open-minded,” explains Roediger. “The idea is to have the most creative songs imaginable, so it’s really important for us to mix it up, change, keep challenging ourselves.”

This is what Bible Study strive to do. They still take the same idiosyncratic approach to songwriting, even though their finished songs are now more accessible than their earlier, more purely experimental efforts. They also do something that everyone who has seen them immediately comments on—they switch instruments every few songs, with each member taking at least one turn on every instrument. They even have a name for the maneuver: the Bible Study Shuffle.

“It’s not something you see every day,” Smith acknowledges. “People have said, ‘Well, why don’t you get a bass player or a drummer?’” he adds, wondering, “Who the hell could stand us?”

Roediger explains that adding another person would alter the essential creative dynamic of the band: “Steve and Carrie are genuinely weird. They don’t try to be, they just simply are genuinely creative. You can’t teach that.”

Asked if serious musicians are offended by their do-it-yourself, teach-yourself approach to playing music, Smith laughs: “I hope so!”

“The people who are good musicians,” Smith explains, “are the ones that really like us.” Remembering a recent gig opening for Mary Prankster at Valentine’s, Smith notes that “the drummer for Mary Prankster (Terry Klawth, ex-Jodie Foster’s Army) teaches tabla classes and advanced drumming. In the middle of the show, he said, ‘You guys are awesome.’ In the middle of a song, he gave me a small tambourine thing to put on the high-hat, and said, ‘This is great.’ Afterwards, he said, ‘You remind me of Captain Beefheart’s drummer.’ ”

“The next day we heard him interviewed on RPI [WRPI-FM],” says Webber, adding, “He said he really liked the drumming.” Laughing, Smith provides the punchline: “The DJ said, ‘I saw those guys. They suck!’ ”

What’s next for Bible Study? New product. And they have a CD-release party scheduled for Jan. 4 at the Larkin in Albany.

What are their ultimate goals?

“I said I’d quit when we get compared to AC/DC,” Smith says, tongue firmly in cheek. “I’ll quit when we get the cover of Metroland,” says Roediger. I think he was kidding.

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