DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - Nothing about Timur and the Dime Museum sounds ordinary. Not the name, which they conjured after a random Google search. Not the genre, which its members describe as “post-punk glam opera.” And certainly not the lead singer’s laugh, a protracted series of hearty, decibel-building bursts. It sounds, one imagines, like an otter trapped in a net.
Even the upcoming performance, Collapse, is off the beaten sonic and visual path. Part concert, part video and part opera, it is built around a five-member ensemble fronted by Kazakhstan-born Timur Bekbosunov’s haunting voice. The alternative indie sounds comprise an operatic requiem and are peppered with video projections that highlight global struggles. The show runs Thursday-Saturday, March 27-29, at REDCAT.
Composed by the band’s music director Daniel Corral, Collapse is a dark, satirical look at environmental problems that have haunted Corral into creative action. The Alaska native said he was largely inspired by the impacts of climate change he’s seen in his home state, where he believes the equilibrium between progress and conservation is more apparent than in a city like Los Angeles.
“It can be difficult to talk about global warming in an impressive and profound way without it becoming cheesy or spent,” Bekbosunov said. “But Daniel has found a way of speaking about these human and global catastrophes in a clean, interesting and sardonic way.”
The band met in 2007 while its members were students at Cal Arts in Valencia. The group formally began playing in 2010 and has appeared in some unexpected locations. In addition to touring around the country and opening for acts such as the Tiger Lilies and Prince Poppycock, the group has played the Central Library as part of the Aloud series and appeared on “America’s Got Talent.”
REDCAT Executive Director Mark Murphy has been following Bekbosunov’s artistic progress since he was a student at Cal Arts. Several years ago, he tapped the band to perform one of Corral’s pieces at REDCAT’s New Original Works Festival. Zoophilic Follies is a puppet opera about a mythological Greek inventor.
After Murphy asked the band to play the venue’s fundraising gala last March, he started to discuss a project Bekbosunov and company had been working on — Collapse. He felt it offered an opportunity to merge disciplines, which is central to REDCAT’s mission.
“I’m really so impressed with Daniel’s vision as a composer and songwriter, and Timur’s imagination and theatrical talents,” he said. “Collapse has all the elements of high opera with elements of a twisted cabaret and rock and roll.”
Searching for a Name
As unlikely as it sounds, Timur and the Dime Museum’s moniker really did come from Google. Bekbosunov recalls that the band members typed words into the search engine that they felt described them: vaudevillian, punk, goth and fantasy. Eventually the combination produced “dime museum” in the results field.
From there, Bekbosunov figured with a laugh, “Maybe I should put my name in front.”
Bekbosunov describes the ensemble’s sound as “indie rock meets post punk with a bit of opera” and points to Björk and David Bowie as musical influences. In addition to the oddity of performing an operatic requiem, Collapse is unorthodox in that its classical composer is not as rigid as many of his contemporaries. Bekbosunov, 29, said Corral is very forgiving with his songs, and allows the tenor to sing them in a way the writer had not intended.
“He can be stubborn at times, but Daniel allows me to interpret them in my own way. That’s where the magic is really born,” he said.
Bekbosunov was born in Kazakhstan, a part of the former Soviet Union that Moscow used as a testing ground for nuclear weapons in the 20th century. This led to serious environmental problems in the country, and a heightened awareness by Bekbosunov on the importance of protecting the planet.
“I definitely think of those tests and terrible moments when I sing about the radiation,” he said. “I also very often contemplate about Kazakhstan protecting its vast land and resources from too much exploration. It has a lot of beautiful national parks, protected natural zones, and of course, many interests wishing to exploit them. So, performing and interpreting songs of requiem certainly has that particular tint.”
Despite the ecological atrocities his country has undergone, that wasn’t what brought him to the United States as a 16-year old. It was capitalism, via his father.
Bekbosunov’s dad, back in the 1960s, wanted so fervently to visit the U.S. that he wrote Nikita Khrushchev a letter asking to be sent to America “so he could see what all this capitalism is about and straighten them all out,” the tenor said, guffawing.
Of course, Khrushchev didn’t reply, but when a young Timur showed an interest in learning English, his dad sent him to Kansas as part of a foreign exchange program. Bekbosunov studied journalism at Wichita State University (he had dabbled in reporting for a radio station back in Kazakhstan). He liked writing and singing, and was later accepted to the New England Conservancy of Music.
From there, Bekbosunov relocated to Los Angeles and attended Cal Arts, where he graduated with an MFA in voice performance and, perhaps more importantly, a friendship with the budding Dime Museum.
Still, his parents worried about his musical path.
“They always told me this is not the right career. They said I should go into something more stable, like journalism.”
The line sparked Bekbosunov’s loudest bout of laughter yet, one so riotous it begged to be explained.
“It’s a Kazak laugh,’ he said. Then he added, “It’s an opera laugh.”
Collapse plays March 27-29 at REDCAT, 631 W. Second St., (213) 237-2800 or redcat.org. Shows start at 8:30 p.m.
© Los Angeles Downtown News 2014