Harrison Murphy was jealous of his friend Randy Schwartz. As both of them were longtime drummers, he couldn’t help but feel envious that Schwartz got to study rhythms and techniques with UCSC’s George Marsh, a man who refers to his own cutting-edge style as “Tai Chi for the drum set.”
“He was a very far-out guy,” says Murphy. “A very unique teacher who presented musical improvisation in a very different way, and I think that’s a big reason why I wanted to know what it was, because it was so different from everything else that I’d studied.”
So they made a deal: Schwartz would teach Murphy everything he had learned from Marsh, and Murphy would teach Schwartz everything he knew about another instrument he played, keyboards. The arrangement started their partnership, but what came out of it turned out to be very different.
“That literally never happened,” says Murphy of their initial plan. “We just got together and started a band.”
That band is El Duo, and though the pair met in Santa Cruz, where they attended college, they now live in Oakland. Murphy still plays drums in the Santa Cruz band Harry and the Hitmen.
While Schwartz and Murphy may have not formally taught each other musical techniques, they share an unusual approach to rhythm that was a perfect foundation on which to build El Duo. There are a lot of global influences in the beats, including traditional African and Indian music, and American jazz. It’s mixed with old drum machines and modern electronic loops.
“We’ve both been really drawn to rhythmic music coming from places around the world,” Murphy says. “That desire for those types of sounds and grooves, we were both already interested in that.”
The resulting sound is pretty out there. There’s a seamless psychedelic blend of acoustic instruments and computers that is equal parts danceable and heady, and it inspires wildly varying audience reactions.
“Sometimes there’s five people and we still get them dancing, sometimes there’s more and everybody’s sitting down. It’s hard to know,” Murphy says. “We can do the background thing really well, where people are having dinner and we just kind of play quietly and have it be interesting weird music in the background. Then we also can throw an all-out dance party where we crank everything up.”
The live set is made that much more unique by their two-piece set up, which involves real instruments as well as triggers that kick off loops. The two of them improvise quite a bit, and give each set its own unique vibe.
“We have certain things that are programmed in the drum machine, and those things aren’t going to change, but the way that Randy uses them is going to change,” Murphy says. “The way we respond to each other and the crowd, it’s always a little bit different. Eighty to 90 percent of it is really loose and we have some things that build up and then we play the main melody and it breaks off with solos, and we see what happens.”
The group recorded its first EP, El Key, in 2016 with a recording studio class in Emeryville. They improvised a bit during the process, and then cut, edited and re-recorded more material on their own to create that record.
The band is releasing its new EP Mono Y Mono at this coming Crepe Place show. They will be selling vinyl records at the show, and sometime later will have it online.
“I think we feel a little bit better about it because we really did all of it ourselves,” Murphy says. “We didn’t go to a studio. We actually did figure out how the songs were going to go ahead of time, then piece it all together and then record a bunch of stuff over it once we got the framework going.”
El Duo performs on Thursday, May 17 at 9 p.m. at the Crepe Place, 1134 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. $7/adv, $10/door. 429-6994.