More than one raver or beat-hippie idly surfing network TV on the evening of Jan. 30 knew a brute shock of the all-too-familiar. NBC's "Dateline," in another installment of its sordid and successful "To Catch a Predator" series, rolled tape on the latest batch of vermin lured to an obscure Long Beach residence with online promises of sex with (fictitious) young teens.
Caught in "Dateline's" on-camera haul was musician Matty Nash, the percussionist-founder of L.A. techno-funk-rock circus the Mutaytor, and one of the few actual celebrities to emerge from the Burning Man subculture. Looking wan and paranoid, Nash bolted the house after host Chris Hanson strode into view with a hammy, "Did you bring your drums, Matty?" only to meet police officers waiting outside.
In the days since the broadcast, Nash has departed the act he founded, and has pleaded not guilty to the pending felony charge of an attempted lewd or lascivious act with a minor arising from last September's sting. This leaves the remaining 35 members of the Mutaytor collective to build another meaning out of the group's motto, "Plot, Scheme, Toil, Smash, Repeat."
The Mutaytor was born when Nash set up his drums at the 1998 Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert to pound out polyrhythms for dusty revelers. Eventually came belly dancers, fire-eaters, trapeze artists and spinners of flaming poi, with the whole meshugas taking high-concept shape as a Mad Max compound of Cirque du Soleil and "Soul Train." The act received favorable notice, soon breaking out of the Burner underground into Hollywood venues such as the Key Club and similar high-profile bookings on the outdoor-festival circuit.
With an album and concert DVD in the pipeline, what next for the Mutaytor? The act's democratic structure plugs the group into the Burner underground that's still its principal fan base. Judging from postings on Burn-dominated Tribe.net, the Mutaytor faithful appear torn between loyalty and outrage, with a generous dose of the personal rancor for which online communities are famous. The dominant mood seems to be an anxious suspension of judgment.
Remarkably, most of the group didn't hear about Matty's woes until after the broadcast, which led to a furious debate among members that was still going on as the curtain went up on its gig Wednesday night at the Knitting Factory. Backstage, several Mutaytor cast members discussed the incident before the show.
Of Nash, dreadlocked Buck Down (co-writer with Atom Smith of most of the group's music and one of the act's longest-tenured members) was blunt: "At this point, he has no connection with us. He has nothing more than a historical link to this project. Whatever it does from now on will be without Matty." Nash's wife of 13 years, who goes by the single name Crunchy, is staying on as stage manager/den mom.
"Everybody's seen the clip at this point," Down conceded. "Even if he goes to court and more than wins, the damage is already done. He did quite a job of containing this from us. Nobody saw it coming. This worst of surprises is costing us enormously." Specifically, he said the group has lost its manager and booking agency.
"What we've got left," Down said, "is a great band, a great show and a lot of supporters. If you look at the support we've received on Tribe.net, we made it out with about an 85% approval rating and there is no worse publicity than this. We've survived a Category 5 PR [disaster]. Professionally, you don't get worse."
"If we have to go back to playing in the dirt, I'm fine with that," he said with a shrug. "As a house band for Burning Man, we've taken a microcosm of how it works and looked for ways to sustain that. The most gratifying shows we ever did weren't on any stage. Just put the drums in the dust and let 'er rip. As long as we're doing that, we can survive this."
What gigs are left as the Mutaytor? "This one and two in Tahoe," he replied. "The rest are canceled or pending."
Roo, fire performer and roustabout, added, "There's talk of changing our name, but we don't want to give up everything that we as a collective have been working for for a quarter of my life. We're playing tonight as the Mutaytor; after that, I don't know. Musically, Matty wrote part of two drum songs. The main songwriting is from Atom and Buck and all the other decisions are made collectively by us, the performers. None of us are ready to give this up. No way."
Bassist Jon Avila, formerly of Oingo Boingo, said, "The Mutaytor is a family and we're going to get through this." Hoop dancer KJ added, "It hasn't been about any one of us in a very long time. We all came out of the audience and the band has actually regained some performers due to this. Many acts would buckle, but we won't. What we do is mutate."
Diehards displayed their support by bulging the Knitting Factory to near-capacity on Wednesday, with scores of festival vets slicked into the usual wildly extroverted display of desert bling and battery-powered wardrobe.
"Boy, are we glad to see you!" Buck bellowed as fans unloaded vociferous love on the ragged and motley act. Onstage was mad hustle and eyes shining in a vindication perhaps terminally late for a dozen hungry ambitions as the troupe slid without visible effort into joyous renditions of an incendiary catalog. The desert disco of "On Fire Like This" and "Drop the Laundry" uncoiled like dusty whirlwinds as cast and crowd shook it down mightily.
Neither a funeral nor a wake, this show was a reunion for a hardscrabble musical family.