On a rainy Thursday night in April, the stage at 18th Street NW’s Staccato is set for a backyard luau. Orange tiki lamps glow on top of a keyboard, the front of which is draped with a blue-green grass skirt complete with floral trim. An amp is likewise hula-decorated, and so are the musicians: Hawaiian shirt for him, sparkly red tropical sheath for her. Everything is just so, which is the Cigarbox Planetarium way.
Ensconced in their portable Trader Vic’s, husband-and-wife duo Deanna Pineda and Andy Charnecoshe behind the keys, he playing an aquamarine Fender Jazzmaster and, via foot switch, a drum machineperform tightly arranged, carefully crafted songs in a fashion they describe as “lounge-tiki-surf-bachelor-pad-spaghetti-western-instrumental-pop.”
Aside from some self-deprecating comments by Pineda, there’s very little banter as the pair perform precise renditions of tracks from their self-titled debut CD “Zombie, Please,” “Zombiessence,” “I Clone Me,” “Another Zombie, Please”plus some Mancini and Joe Meek faves, running them down in rapid tandem, heavy on the whammy bar.
This is a rare night out for the band, and the modest crowd drawn for headliner Candlestick Ashtray politely enjoys the Space Age sounds. Even so, Charneco admits later, Cigarbox has always been “a tough sell”: “If we wanted to make it, we’d dump the drum machine and get a singer. Surprisingly, it’s tougher than you think to sell people on the idea of going to listen to instrumental music.”
Sure enough, after Pineda and Charneco pack up and Candlestick Ashtray hits the stage with a vocalist and live drummer, the dance floor fills.
“We’re not exactly a jumping-up-and-down, ‘Hey, how ya doin’?’ type of band,” Charneco says, sitting in the living room of a tidy Populuxe-era Arlington ranch within whooshing distance of I-66. “But we also don’t want to be shoegazers, either. I think our sensibility is a lot more garage-rock than ‘Gotta be perfect.’ It’s just that we’re not doing garage rock. We’re doing something totally different, still hopefully retaining the attitude of loose and fun.”
Though he and Pineda insist that they’re still in the process of moving in, the house looks as methodically styled as the couple and their music: An original canvas by Pineda incorporating five-and-dime baby-doll heads hangs squarely over the fireplace. Music from the Crime Jazz TV-soundtrack anthology plays on the stereo. A baby grand piano sits before the picture window; next to it is a Wurlitzer Sideman, an early drum machine as big as an end table. Charneco opens it, gleefully revealing the belts and gears required to create early-’60s fake percussion.
Charneco and Pineda work together from home, running a graphic-design business called Muse Advertising Design, creating logos, posters, Web sites, and the like for political-action committees, film and record companies, and shopping centers. “She does the creative design,” says Charneco, “and I do mindless administrative stuff.”
The couple met in 1998, when their respective bands were booked together at the Velvet Lounge, she in Saturn Returns (“Loungey indie pop”) and he in Hidden Persuaders (“Lotta Dean Martin, Bobby Darin, Frank Sinatra kinda stuff”).
“We didn’t technically meet then,” offers Pineda. “Andy signed [Saturn Returns’] e-mail list, and we started corresponding. And he thought I was the other woman in the band for a while.”
“But it was kinda neat,” says Charneco, “because each of our bands was doing something that we thought no other band in D.C. was doing. So we thought we should stay in touch so we could get shows together.”
While they both continued to play in separate bands, Charneco and
Pineda began to noodle together musically at homewhich eventually led to a trip down the aisle this past August. “We got married to get a mortgage loan,” says Pineda, laughing.
Cigarbox Planetariumthe moniker is a combination of favorite words using a surname-appropriate C-P constructiondebuted in December 1999. “We started our relationship before we started this band,” Charneco says. “We were both in other bands and just started doing this as a lark. And it just grew to the point where it became more valued than the other bands. It seemed like an interesting thing to try and pushto see how far an all-instrumental band with a drum machine could go.”
A visit to the basement demonstrates the couple’s dedication to that goal: In the low-ceilinged room that holds the bulk of Cigarbox’s equipment, the walls are lined with CDs, vinyl, and half-a-dozen vintage guitar cases standing neatly on end. Other rooms hold more keyboards, out-of-date hard-disc recorders, more guitars, and a bonang barung, a room-sized gamelan instrument.
“One of the disadvantages of not having a singer,” says Charneco, “is a singer provides a visual focus. And we don’t really have that. We’re the backing band of nothing. So we go to an effort to have the lights, and Deanna puts that little skirt around the keyboards. The other reason she does that, too, is because keyboard equipment is infamously un-aesthetically appealing. I mean, look what you’ve got here….”
He lifts the grass skirt to reveal stark black tubing. “It’s very industrial-looking. Whereas guitar gear”Charneco’s voice takes on a slight dreamy edge as he gestures to the Fenders”tends to be a lot more neat-looking.”
Stashed in a corner, sitting atop an old clavinet, is a Vox Super Continental, a decidedly neat-looking electronic piano, now retired from the Cigarbox stage show. “This thing weighs 802 pounds, so it’s just ridiculous how heavy this is,” says Charneco. “We try to keep our gear as light and little as possible…. Because the lighter and less gear you have, the easier it is to fit it
into our Honda Accord and go to shows.”
That partly explains why the band has the drum machine rather than a drummer. And then there’s the question of aesthetics: Of course, Cigarbox doesn’t use a modern, programmable machine. Instead, there’s the antique Rhythm Ace, with buttons labeled “Fox Trot,” “Western,” “Beguine,” and “Rock 1” through “Rock 4.” There’s the Maestro Rhythm machine Pineda purchased on eBay for its “Teen Beat” buttona rhythm the group ended up using on its CD. And in a closet, tightly packed on wire shelving, there are many morespares, just in case.
Charneco explains the number code on the set list taped to the Rhythm Ace: “The…cool thing about this [machine] is that you can press more than one button at a time. So you can get rock. You can do bossa nova. You can do them together”Charneco pauses to demonstrate the seemingly impossible “rockanova” beat”and almost all of our songs have multiple settings. It’s very rare that one setting can capture exactly what we’re looking for.”
The band is not opposed to the idea of hiring a human drummer, “if the music calls for it,” Charneco insists. But for now, the machine’s job is safe: “On [old] drum machines, you’re stuck with what they give you. We gear our music to it. The drum machine doesn’t do dynamics, even though it does have a volume pedal attached to it, so it can get louder and quieter, but that’s not really dynamics.
“That’s kinda been one of the restrictions that we impose on ourselves: trying to make the music interesting without the aid of dynamic percussion.”
Admitted homebodies, Charneco and Pineda recorded their CD entirely in their old apartment. “We put together a selection of half covers and half originals and sent it out to labels,” says Charneco. “[Michigan-based indie] Oh!Tonito liked it but wanted an all-original album.”
“At first we complained,” says Pineda. “‘We don’t want to write anymore!’”
“At the time, it seemed like a chore,” adds Charneco, “but I’m glad it happened that way. We wrote a bunch of new originals and mixed the original originals so that it matched.” The result, released late last year, manages to be whimsical without being campy, a little bit Pee-wee’s Playhouse After Dark, a little bit Beyond the Planet of Ennio Morricone.
Response has been positive enough that the band is planning its first (“And maybe last”) tour for late August. “I’m calling it the Mini-Ne Tour,” says Pineda: “Verne Troyer through the Northeast.” Charneco and Pineda have also been thinking about their next record: Six tracks are in the works, three of which will probably be premiered at an upcoming Fort Reno show.
“We have to set a goal,” says Pineda. “Because music doesn’t come to me in my sleep. So you have to have an assignment.”
Though Charneco has written most of the songs so far, Pineda’s output is increasing. “On the first record we did, she doesn’t have nearly as much original material as I do on there,” says Charneco. “But I’m hoping that on the next one, that half of it will be hers. That’s the goalfor you to write half the record.”
Though Pineda had classical-music training, Charneco “came up more a rock ‘n’ roll kinda guy, getting things off of records and then writing my own material and stuff like that….Deanna, I think, came more from a [tradition where] performance and interpretation [were] more of a concern than composition, and I cannot read music at all. But Deanna can, obviously.”
“It hasn’t really helped me out,” she notes.
“I’ve kinda forced her to learn to memorize everything. It’s the rock ‘n’ roll way,” Charneco declares.
“It’s a little frustrating for me,” says Pineda, “because sometimes I think, If he could just write it down, I’d learn it a lot faster.”CP
Cigarbox Planetarium performs at 7:15 p.m. Monday, July 7, at Fort Reno Park, Chesapeake Street & Nebraska Avenue NW. For more information, call (202) 521-1494.