May 18th, 2018. Ryley Walker, indie guitar maven and Twitter jokester, was celebrating the release of a new record at the Hungry Brain, and a mysterious two-piece band had just taken the stage to warm him up. As soon as they started playing, this writer — who had just played a short set before them — found himself mystified and entranced, poking his head up near the musicians' instruments to see what they were doing and feeling his jaw drop.
The band in question: Mute Duo, whose new record, Lapse in Passage, releases March 20 on local label American Dreams. It features Sam Wagster on pedal steel guitar and Skyler Rowe on drums and auxiliary percussion — an unconventional combination — and in the few years they’ve played live in the city and Midwest, they’ve stolen the show from several bands. Their approach is inquisitive, pushing past melody into texture and busting through audiences’ expectations of what kinds of sounds two musicians can make.
“One person was like, ‘When I first read pedal steel and drums, I [thought], What are you gonna do with that?’ So I'm like, ‘Let us show you,’” Rowe says. “Neither of us woke up and said, ‘Oh, we should do this.’”
As the history of guitars goes, pedal steel is a late addition. Its predecessor, the lap steel guitar, became a familiar sound in musicals, jazz, country, and nascent rock ’n’ roll after the instrument’s invention in Hawaii at the turn of the century. But for each key that a song required, lap steels required a new neck placed on a table, making them heavy and expensive. Pedal steels consolidated strings into one neck and added pedals and knee levers, allowing players to change the pitch of individual strings. The innovation vastly expanded players’ harmonic capabilities, but it comes with a steep learning curve: By dividing note production between hands, feet, and knees, the steel pedal requires a level of coordination unique among guitars.
Like the instrument itself, Wagster's interest in pedal steel grew outwards from lap steel, which he used to accompany songwriters and score plays and films. Gradually, he started incorporating additional pedals and live mixing into his arsenal. Now, for the better part of a decade, he's pursued ambient music which, in his words, “slips in and out of your attention and alters the ordinary experience of time passing,” and quietly released two records: The Glossary of Surfing in 2016 and The Astronaut’s Laundry in 2018.
Rowe, who had mainly played in punk bands, is a more recent fixture in Chicago’s improvised music scene. A spontaneous invite to see a solo concert by drummer Tim Daisy at The Owl converted him on the spot.
“I was like, ‘What's this dude gonna do, just do a drum solo or something?’ And he did all of these incredible, singular, minute things around the drum like I've never seen before,” he says.
Before long, Rowe was soaking in improvised concerts at bars and loft spaces around the North Side. The scene's inclusivity made it stand out.
“You don't see super heavily tattooed guys going to those gigs, so I'm kind of sitting there, covering up my arms. But then I learned that it's all walks of life in that kind of music. That's what keeps it experimental.”
Wagster and Rowe became friends while talking music at the Rainbo Club, famously immortalized on the cover of Liz Phair's record Exile in Guyville. Wagster floated the idea of playing in an “experimental drone thing” to Rowe; soon after, in October 2015, they gave their first concert at Myopic Books' long-running Monday night series of improvised music. The series has welcomed local jazz and indie luminaries — Jeff Parker, Joshua Abrams, Ryley Walker — and encouraged musicians who have never performed together to play for the first time.
Since then, Mute Duo has performed in ramshackle art spaces, glassy penthouses, and, as an eight-piece ensemble with strings and winds, at the Bohemian National Cemetery. During concerts, each man pauses periodically — Rowe might grip a stick between his teeth, Wagster adjusts a knob on his mixing console — as if wondering how or what to play next, which isn't far from the truth.
“How do we take these things that we're playing, deconstruct that, and make interesting new ways to play them?” Rowe says.
Lapse in Passage features the band's most distinct compositions to date, but the record is as rooted in experimentation as ever. The lead single “Canopy Bells” opens with steel swells and percussive wind-chime clanks. A stripped-back tune shared by Wagster and Rowe eventually speeds up to reprise the progression with thrumming bass and heavy, rumbling fills. They even trade roles: One can hear Wagster's fingerpicks click percussively against the strings, and Rowe's drums occasionally double the melody.
Elsewhere, the pair has included drum machines, spontaneously adding touches of piano and Wurlitzer during recording sessions. At times, Wagster's steel sounds like a train whistle or organ, suggesting ghost notes or the human voice, coils of distortion piling atop his melodies. Rowe, whose kit integrates additional found percussion implements — sleigh bells, shakers, castanets — adds waves of sound, thick tom pummels, and cymbal rides, driving the beat from the back of the mix.
Mute Duo looked to celebrate Lapse in Passage with a record release at Constellation on March 19, which has since been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. (According to an Instagram post, they'll stream the concert in the near future instead.) For that Constellation concert, Wagster and Rowe had constructed a living room–like set to perform in, inspired by Steppenwolf's 2019 revival of the Sam Shepard play True West.
Audiences may never see that set now, but it still offers a fine metaphor for Mute Duo's dreamlike, non-narrative output.
“It's part of the instrumental equivalent to theater: You can imagine certain things happening on these set pieces, but nothing's being dictated in terms of a story,” Wagster says. “This is more like a backdrop for your own ideas.”