Spiral Joy Band opens another vast chapter in its shifting lineup

The long-running drone institution plays June 17 at Mickey’s Tavern, along with Half-Scratches, Bob Piggins, and DJ Trin Tran.
The cover of Spiral joy Band's album "Elvehjem" is shown with a grey-blue border and a light-grey background.
Spiral Joy Band’s upcoming album, “Elvehjem,” features the core lineup of Patrick Best, Mikel Dimmick, and Troy Schafer, but a different configuration will be playing on June 17 at Mickey’s.

The long-running drone institution plays June 17 at Mickey’s Tavern, along with Half-Scratches, Bob Piggins, and DJ Trin Tran.

Spiral Joy Band initially branched off from the great trunk of Pelt, an outfit that weaves American folk music and avant-garde approaches into a droning, improvised expanse. Over nearly 20 years and a large discography, Spiral Joy Band has become a shifting experimental universe unto itself. Core members Patrick Best and Mikel Dimmick have picked up a range of long-term and one-off collaborators, creating long improvised pieces that range from ecstatic to solemn. (Best moved to the Madison area more than a decade ago, as did Dimmick, who has since moved on to Houston.) When the latest iteration of Spiral Joy plays on Saturday, June 17 at 10 p.m.* at Mickey’s Tavern with Half-Scratches, Bob Piggins, and DJ Trin Tran, its lineage will intersect with a few other strange tendrils that run through Madison’s music community. 

At the show, Spiral Joy Band will consist of Best (who typically plays harmonium, violin, and viola), Dan Woodman on synths and pedals, and Tony Ennis playing gongs and tape loops. Woodman and Ennis have spent years contributing to a vital—if willfully obscure, from most people’s vantage point—community of experimental artists with Madison ties. They comprise the long-running duo Drunjus, whose crackling electronics scrape the sky and claw into the mucky earth all at once. Ennis also runs the Earjerk Records label, which has put out dozens of releases, both from others and from his own projects under various names. Woodman’s other outlets have included the dub-influenced solo project Lens and the wide-ranging duo Woodman/Earhart (with Tone Madison contributor Emili Earhart). 

Ennis and Woodman’s backgrounds might seem a world away from Best’s upbringing in the DC punk scene and years of experimental collaborations in Richmond, Virginia. But all three share a flexibility, a devotion to improvisation, and a willingness to embrace the rich harmonic qualities of drone music alongside a wild mulch of textural sound. Currently there aren’t any recordings available of this iteration of the group. The forthcoming Spiral Joy Band album Elvehjem, on its way via Feeding Tube Records, captures Best, Dimmick, and multi-instrumentalist Troy Schafer (a former Madisonian himself, and really the band’s third core member) immersing themselves in eerie low-end rumbles, using an array of percussion and stringed instruments to coax glimmers from the void. That lineup of Spiral Joy also contributed a track called “Pub Bastard” to the recently released compilation 80 Years Of Sunshine

If Spiral Joy Band draws on a continuous and ever-shifting thrum that runs through the universe, the rest of this bill at Mickey’s channels the relentless itch of no-wave and post-punk. The other three acts at the show all descend, in a musical or familial sense (or both), from the delightfully bizarre mid-’90s Madison band Xerobot. That outfit’s vocalist, Greg Peters, now forms half of Bob Piggins. In that Chicago-based duo, Peters croons and growls cracked vocal melodies that veer between glee and menace over Tony Schwab’s spiky bass figures and drum machine programming. Another Xerobot member, Steve Coombs, went on to become the jaggedly catchy one-man band Trin Tran, but here he’ll be spinning records in between the bands. (Coombs also says that he has “slowly been rebuilding the TT machine,” so look out for more of that soon.) 

More recently, Coombs teamed up with his sons Josh Coombs-Broekema and Evan Coombs-Broekema to form Solid Freex. With Josh on guitar, Evan on bass, and Coombs on drums, Solid Freex have poured their mischief and invention into a deftly chaotic splatter of art-punk songs, releasing a third, self-titled album in March 2023. That band is on hiatus now, as the two younger Freex recently moved to Chicago. Evan and Josh recently teamed up with drummer Riana Elhallak to form Half-Scratches, making their first Madison appearance at this show. So far, I’ve only seen a brief clip of Half-Scratches playing a brisk cover of David Bowie’s “John, I’m Only Dancing,” so it’ll be interesting to see how Evan’s nimble bass playing and Josh’s taut, versatile guitar work and vocals play out in this new setting. One thing’s for sure: Those who come to this Mickey’s show early and stick around will truly take a journey, from cavernous patience to writhing unease.

*Listed start time; music at Mickey’s often starts a bit later.

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