Making Tracks

Making Tracks

A n oriental rug splays out on a concrete floor. A lampshade with strange symbols hangs between wooden crossbeams above a gear-filled production rig. On the far end of the room is a sparkle-silver Fibes drum kit with Dream cymbals, flanked by stacks of additional drums. Cases for transporting it all are piled to one side under a sagging string of Christmas lights. At the edge of the pile is a spiffy new Roland keyboard with a Shure microphone perched above it.

This is a basement on Derby Avenue, and it’s ground zero for the hard-working and hard-to-classify two-member band Mission Zero. Several days a week, multi-instrumentalist siren Chenot (“shuh-noh”) Keith is pouring music into that mic and pushing it out of those keys, and her brother David Keith is pounding it out of those drums and programming it into that rig, and the act of making music together is pulling gargantuan smiles from somewhere deep in their souls.

The music they make is unusually wide-ranging. The title track on recent release Sky Candy EP is vibey and sexy, with a bass line, performed on the record by David, that wants to grab your hips and make them roll. “Humans” is also vibey, but in a different way; trance-inducing and heart-swelling, Chenot sounds like a more melodically interesting and disciplined version of Björk guesting on a Massive Attack song. (Chenot, a humble and swooning fan of Björk’s, will surely deny this characterization.) On the other end is the upbeat buildup track “12345678!,” which David drives forward via an insatiable and catchy drum beat, with a neat vocal arrangement that both of them get to chew on.

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Specialty Food Market at Broadway Island on July 13, 2014 sponsored by The shops at Yale

Asked what their formative influences are, the answers come rapid-fire. Chenot starts: “Duran Duran. Prince. Peter Gabriel. Thomas Dolby.” David chimes in: “I’m just gonna go ahead and say Led Zeppelin.” Chenot agrees: “Led Zeppelin! The Everly Brothers. Jane’s Addiction. Steely Dan.” David picks up: “Cocktail Twins. The Cure. Earth, Wind & Fire. Michael Jackson’s album Off the Wall.” Chenot: “Louis Prima. Manhattan Transfer.” David: “Portishead. Massive Attack.” Chenot: “Björk.” David: “Björk, oh my god. We got to see her at the old Palace Theater in New Haven. That was amazing… Sneaker Pimps. Zero 7. Cardigans. Tricky. Radiohead.” Chenot: “Radiohead!” When one is speaking, the other is smiling and nodding and supporting, eyes occasionally taking on that far-off look most people get when remembering their first kisses or the births of their children.

Music means something on the order of everything to them. You might wonder, then, what the name “Mission Zero” means. Maybe it’s an environmentalist’s call to go carbon-neutral? A Buddhist’s affirmation of her detachment from earthly desires? A modern discontent’s goal of having nothing left on his Sisyphean to-do list? Any of these is plausible: Sky Candy EP was made using solar power; a few pieces of Eastern, spiritualistic-looking flotsam hang about the practice space; and both Chenot and David have a way of wringing humor out of the mundane in casual conversation.

In fact, Mission Zero the name means zero. Nothing. But Mission Zero the project means a great deal to the two of them. They have a deep friendship and musical bond, having sung and played together from an early age (Mom is a musical and theatrical professional herself). Each has an impressive CV that makes sense of their prodigious skill and unflappable stage presence, witnessed recently at a gig at The Outer Space in Hamden. Chenot studied music and theater in college, then took a years-long singing gig with the nationally and internationally touring jazz/R&B band Eight to the Bar (“playing over 200 dates a year”), eventually shifting more into theater directing between gigs at Hall High School (Hartford), Cheshire Academy and the New Haven Theater Company. David also worked with Eight to the Bar for years. Before that he drummed for the breakout local act Mighty Purple; now he tours with the eccentric but demanding Renaissance-inspired project Blackmore’s Night, which is led by Richie Blackmore, the legendary guitarist of Deep Purple.

Mission Zero has a tour of its own coming up, with the first show in Simsbury this weekend followed by dates between Maine and Washington D.C. The platinum-haired siblings say they don’t need platinum records to be happy. Making a living through producing and performing their original music would be enough.

Back in David’s basement, brother and sister are sitting in front of a production rig, sifting through scratch tracks—in this case, recordings of musical ideas that may or may not become actual songs—to see if there’s something they can develop in time for their forthcoming tour. They come across some dirty, growling layers of percussion David once recorded, and Chenot loves it, bouncing and tapping along on her thighs. David’s neck and head are engaged, moving to the rhythm, a beaming smile across his mug.

Would commercial success make them any happier than they are in this moment? It’s hard to imagine that anything could, but it’d be interesting to find out.

Mission Zero
Chenot Keith (vocals, keys, guitar) and David Keith (drums, beats, vocals)
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Written and photographed by Dan Mims.

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Turning down a dream editing job right out of college, Dan instead went into marketing and media sales to better cover the rent. Stints at Spin Magazine and Yahoo! followed. But he kept scratching that writing-and-editing itch—first on the side, then at a couple of startups. Dan is now scratching it as Daily Nutmeg's editor.

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