More than a decade ago, while still in college, sophomore Matt Harmon and freshman Kali Giaritta met at a party. That night, Giaritta asked Harmon if he wanted to be her “new best friend.” A little shocked by the question, Harmon said yes.
“No one had ever asked me that,” he says now, reflecting on their meeting. “We started hanging out, and we were super compatible and liked the same music. We both wrote music that the other person could easily jump in on.”
Today the two are married, and also play together in There Is No Mountain, a band from Portland that’s tough to describe genre-wise, but puts on a show full of joy and love, mixing seemingly incongruous styles of music, like math rock, world beat and psych-rock, all in supreme minimalistic form as a stripped-down two-piece.
It took the duo three years of hanging out and playing music together to even start dating. Eventually, they started a five-piece called the Ascetic Junkies, and played primarily folk-rock. In 2012, when Harmon and Giaritta wanted to hit the road full time, they decided to pare the group down to just the two of them.
“For ease and practicality, the duo is great, that’s why we originally started doing it, and now that we’ve been doing it for a while, I think it’s been really fun, Giaritta says. “You have to be creative. But also, some of the things that are best about our music, like the harmonies, show through a little bit more.”
The more they played as just a duo, the more the sound of the band shifted. They’d find ways to compensate for the lack of a full band, adding complicated parts and emphasizing quiet and loud contrasting sections.
They quickly realized that this was a very different band than the Ascetic Junkies, so they renamed the project There Is No Mountain. They continued to challenge themselves, writing tricky parts that were just outside of their abilities.
“We’re barreling our way through something that’s very difficult for us to play, technically. So then when we’re done with the song, we’re overjoyed that we made it,” Harmon says.
They realized that when they played to new audiences, they faced a certain prejudice as a guy/girl duo with an acoustic guitar. One of their strategies was to open with one of their weirdest songs. That way anyone in the audience with the assumption that they were about to watch a cute couple play whimsical folk songs would be suddenly jolted from that wrong-headed notion.
“It’s really fun to see people’s faces go from ‘oh, this is an acoustic duo’ to ‘what is this?’” Harmon says.
That song, “Gulls,” starts off with acoustic guitar, some percussion, and a pitch-shifted vocal loop. It jumps into a crazy off-kilter rhythm with weird delay effects, and Giaritta singing an unexpected melody.
It’s a good entry point into the strange blend of songs in the remainder of There Is No Mountain’s set. Harmon’s guitar playing is full of odd noodling licks, the backbeat is a wash of world beat and avant-garde, and it’s all stripped down to an oddly primal musical expression—sometimes unsettling, other times filled with overwhelming happiness.
Within all of the craziness, the two of them seem like they couldn’t be enjoying themselves any more, even going so far sometimes to stare at each other, rather than the audience.
“The goal is certainly not to exclude people from the experience. It’s a lot easier for us to watch each other and create the things that we create. I think it just depends on the mood of the people watching, and maybe how well we’re doing that night at portraying a festive inclusiveness,” Harmon says.
Some of the duo’s new songs are taking an oddly simple turn, at least for the kind of music they’re used to writing. Compared to other bands, it’s still offbeat. But for them, it’s kind of pop.
“I think we’re trying to take the pressure off the end product a little more, and just write something really from the heart,” Giaritta says. “It seems sometimes when you’re trying to write the perfect song, you just don’t do it, because you’re afraid of it not being perfect. I think we’ve been trying to let go of that fear and just bring something, and by nature that ends up being a little more simple.”
INFO: 9 p.m., July 7, Crepe Place, 1134 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. $10. 429-6994.