Dennis Palmer is a man whose love of music goes well beyond music itself. He just loves sounds—any kind of sound. As a child, he would order animal calls from his father’s hunting magazines. Duck calls, crow calls, predator calls, even squirrel calls, and they are still used in his performances to this day. When he was young, the Chattanooga native began to tinker with his aunt’s piano as well. This love of sound, sound effects and music eventually led him to purchase a Moog synthesizer and put a band together with a friend he had known since the first grade, percussionist Bob Stagner. That partnership eventually led to the Shaking Ray Levi Society, a collective-run nonprofit that supports, produces and presents diverse genres of music, film and performance art through festivals, recordings and the Internet, still going strong after 25 years. But be warned, Palmers says: “If you do not like listening to bird songs, you will probably not like our music.”
One reviewer described the Shaking Rays as “Accomplished masters of the warp speed sound bite.” Their avant-garde, improvisational style has a following as far away a New York City and even London and their music has led them to play with a diverse array of artists. One such upcoming performance will be on Friday, April 27, in Detroit at the Museum of Contemporary Art, where the Shaking Rays will provide the soundtrack to the life of Chattanooga-born artist Wayne White. White, best known for his work on “Pee Wee’s Playhouse,” will be playing banjo and telling the story of his life. That show will also be coming to Chattanooga later this summer in conjunction with a screening of the new documentary on White’s life and career, “Beauty is Embarrassing.”
But before embarking on their latest musical journey, the duo sat down to talk about their own lives, careers and the Shaking Ray Levi Society. Palmer began, speaking of his early years as a fledgling musician.
“My father’s side of the family was very musical and I picked up a lot from them,” he said. “And being Southern, I was always looking for bands and music that were from somewhere else. Jimi Hendrix, ELO, Pink Floyd, Yes and King Crimson were bands that I was really attracted to as well as the Art Ensemble of Chicago, who used a variety of percussion and whistles and other sound effects.”
This musical foundation led Palmer to form his first band, Bend Sinister. “We were an all original band that was a derivative of art rock,” he said. “It was the early 1980s when we formed and synthesizers were unusual in the South. Even in the universities that had them, most people had very little idea about how to play them.”
Along the way, Palmer and Stagner marveled at the eclectic variety of musical styles performed in other cities around the country and the duo wanted to share their discoveries with Chattanooga. In 1986, the Shaking Ray Levi Society was born as an ongoing collaborative project that breaks all the rules, performing all of the world and bringing unique musical performances to their hometown.
Since its inception, the SRLS has presented such diverse acts as England’s improvisational guitar pioneer Derek Bailey, West African kora player Foday Musa Suso, classical Indian violinist L. Shankar, National Public Radio correspondents Andrei Codrescu and David Sedaris, New York jazz violinist Leroy Jenkins, multi-wind instrumentalist J. D. Parran, saxophone legend Anthony Braxton, the last traveling minstrel performer Abner Jay, and the late folk artist Howard Finster.
So far this year, SRLS has hosted Trevor Dunn’s acoustic jazz fusion band, Endangered Bood, at the Barking Legs Theatre; the 4th Ward Afro Klezmer Orchestra at the Faux Bridges Festival; and rock legend Col. Bruce Hampton, also at Barking Legs.