NORTH ADAMS -- Sometimes it's a concept album, and sometimes it's a musical. But whatever it is, "Futurity" is an ambitious cycle of 17 songs penned by singer/guitarist César Alvarez and his band mates in the Brooklyn-based indie rock outfit The Lisps.
Its "in-betweenness," Alvarez said in a phone interview from home, has given the band a jolt of success in an area of the performing arts it has flirted with but not quite committed to.
"We were a band for so many years, and we had fans, but nobody really -- cared. We never really got anywhere," Alvarez said self-effacingly. "We were still playing for empty bars at the point at which we started getting very powerful institutions interested in what we were doing."
Those institutions, though, weren't record labels or bigger rock venues. They were theatercompanies, interested in The Lisps' dramatized story about a Civil War soldier who creates a sort of artificial intelligence. "Futurity" became a co-production of Cambridge's prestigious American Repertory Theatre and the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis last year, setting up for a several-week engagement at A.R.T. before heading west for additional performances.
The Lisps will present a stripped-down (but still boisterous) performance of the music from "Futurity" at Mass Moca's B-10 Club on Saturday.
"It was just totally by chance that the success we started getting was in the theatre world and not in the music world," Alvarez added. "It just kept growing and growing, and people got more and more interested, and it just became the focus of our work for a while. But when I look back at what we were doing as a band, I realized we were always trying to play a bigger stage. We were always playing with concepts and costumes and hijinks and theatricality in our concerts. We wanted The Lisps to be a conceptual, performative, interdisciplinary thing, and ‘Futurity' was a natural evolution of that."
"Futurity" tells the story of one Julian Munro, a Union soldier who aspires to be an inventor. His prospective romance with Augusta Ada, based on the real-life mathematician daughter of Lord Byron, coincides with his greatest idea: a "steam brain" that will help bring an end to all war. Alvarez plays Munro; band member Sammy Tunis plays Ada. The four members of The Lisps are onstage the whole time, playing the music; the roll of musicians swelled to 17 for the A.R.T. run, and will number nine for the Mass MoCa show.
As original as the concept is, its old-timey American folk music, attractive melodies, humor, and generally indie-friendly aesthetic mixes with its historical revisionism, proto-science fiction and a dash of steampunk to create something that is oddly on-trend.
The North Adams show will be more of a concert performance, with band members in character and dramatizing elements of the story, than a fully staged production. It'll also include two new songs that haven't yet been performed as part of the piece.
"It works as a fully staged theatrical piece, musical, whatever you want to call it," Tunis reflected in an email, referring to the piece's flexibility, "and I think it absolutely works as just a concert, or song-cycle, where we play all the songs, tell the story, maybe act out some bits, or not. [We can] have our friends onstage singing the chorus parts, or just our band."
It began as Alvarez's thesis project while completing a Master's of Fine Arts at Bard College. The Lisps had already been gigging for a few years, and recorded an EP and LP. "Futurity" was originally a parallel project that existed outside of the band's work.
"I was doing a lot of real avant-garde electronic composition and stuff. And my last summer there I came in and I said I wanted to write a musical. It was this hilarious sort of scandal. It was such a contradiction to the experimentalism of the program," Alvarez recalled, "but in a way it was the most experimental thing I had done there, because it was such a misfit thing to do."
He grew up in North Carolina and Georgia, and said the idea for the story came to him when he started daydreaming about the idea of a Civil War soldier who was interested in science fiction.
Tunis reflected on the different performance environment in Cambridge versus the usual rock club circuit.
"I think generally a theater crowd is going to be less raucous then a club crowd, no one's gonna take off their clothes and do backflips (which has actually happened at shows of ours -- once) but you never know."