Short for Miscellaneous: The Band Misc. Releases a New EP

Stream The Band Misc.’s new EP.

It’s a gloriously sunny day in Carrboro and the Pfizer vaccine is pumping through my veins (in theory — I don’t know how vaccines work). Post-inoculation, I’m ready for color, variety and a laugh. Lucky for me, I’m meeting Damian Lopez, Ross Stephens, Ashesh Chatterjee and Brendan Macie.

Four members of the now five piece The Band Misc. have piled into a picnic table with me at the front of Open Eye Cafe (details on how to meet all five — Jeffrey Walker included, though I had to miss him this time — to follow.) My conversation with the band on their EP follows below.

And you can stream that EP exclusively here at The Triangle Guide until the official release in September. Scroll down to listen, and click through to pre-order and follow them on Bandcamp.

If this pandemic ground you into a gray pulp of your former musical self, you’re looking for dexterous musicianship and playful genre-mixing with a bright splash of unexpected instrumentation. The Band Misc. are just what the doctor ordered. I prescribe putting on your headphones and turning the volume way, way up.

The Band Misc. will be playing a preview show at The Cave with Ravary and Safari Room on August 11, 2021. Make sure to say hello and pick up a homemade copy of the EP. They’ll rock The Station with their album release show on September 17 with Baats and the Afterglow.

On Carrboro and Chapel Hill’s Influence on the EP

DL: “I like being in Carrboro. The environment is very indie, and it leaves a lot of room for you to fuck up and create and go the distance —

BM: “Without judgement.”

DL: “Yes. And we really want to reflect that in our music and in the content we put out on YouTube and TikTok. We want people who tune in to feel like they’re part of the town, right out on Franklin Street with us. They could be in Japan for all I care. But when they’re tuning in, we want them to feel that sense of connection.”

RS: “I think it definitely influenced a lot of the EP. The sense of community, our love for each other, the love for your neighbor, and embracing our creativity. It really does take a village.”

AC: “It’s so important to us as Chapel Hill and Carrboro reopen to get back the sense of community we lost over the last year.”

DL: “This question made me realize, too…it’s been so hard to keep in touch with the music scene because we haven’t been having shows. I’ve only been able to go to two shows since I moved back here. I’m so excited to see who’s going to be playing, and getting back in touch with everyone.

BM: Everyone’s going to come back from it more fully realized. I think we’re going to see a lot of cool, colorful shit.

RS: It’ll be a rebirth for sure.

On Their Favorite Song from the EP

BM: “I like ‘Reflections’ because it showcases each of our individual talents as far as our musicianship is concerned.”

DL: “I’m actually kind of torn between ‘Reflections’ and ‘Priorities.’

BM: “‘Reflections’ is a lot moodier than we’re used to writing.” 

DL: “I kind of wish I had written ‘Reflections’ because it feels very much in the realm of progressive rock. ‘Priorities’ is a song I pitched to the band, and it’s much more left field for me in terms of mood and inspiration. Much more vulnerable. And it’s a song I’m still excited to play.”

AC: “I would say ‘Reflections’. Apart from the fact that I got to really let loose on the guitar parts. I’ve always liked the song since it was written back in 2014, at three in the morning…It’s an airtight song. It hits all the high points at the best times. Nothing drags, nothing’s rushed.”

On Recording the EP

AC: “I don’t think half the ideas we had we could’ve manifested without our producer, Dylan Turner.”

DL: “For sure. He challenged me on a few points of my own playing that were tough to hear, but I knew he knew what he was doing, and it came out solid.”

AC: “During the recording process, if Dylan went in the room to talk to Ross, for example, I’d take my headphones off. We didn’t need to eavesdrop. We let the man do his job.”

On The Band Misc. Elevator Pitch

BM: “This is where you get to see all the extreme sides of us in a user-friendly package. It’s the sashimi sampler.”

AJ: “This is the deli tray with cheese and crackers.

BM: “Man, I’m just hungry. Let’s go get pizza.”

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Zephyranthes – Alive in the Shed is a Psychedelic Escape to the Before Times

“Alive in the Shed” preserves the magic of the Raleigh math rockers’ live shows.

What’s the stupidest question I could ask you?

Right now, “Do you miss live music?” is a top contender, at least for anyone reading this blog. Who doesn’t miss rippling guitar solos, sticky tabletops, watching drummers shower the stage with sweat? What wouldn’t I give to run into an old friend at The Wicked Witch, to headbang with strangers, our collective BO mingling in a noxious, gloriously communal cloud?

Back in the Before Times, some of the best showmen in Raleigh included the band Zephyranthes. They’re known for putting on great performances. And for those of us who miss rocking out, they’ve committed a concert to video.

Photo by Olivia Huntley. Courtesy of Zephyranthes.

Now you can enjoy Zephyranthes’s hellaciously ambitious math rock and committed hairography in the privacy of your own home. Recorded in November of Last Year, Zephyranthes – Alive in the Shed pairs psychedelic visuals with richly-reverbed riffs.

I headbanged in my bedroom for the first time in months. My neck? Sore. My heart? Happy. It wasn’t quite as good as a night at Motorco, but this broadcast from the band’s practice space is a perfect capture of the Zephyranthes magic. 10/10, highly recommend.

At the moment, the biggest homebodies I know would enjoy some squealing mic feedback. Most every Triangle music fan longs for the colored lights at Cat’s Cradle, or to lose a friend to a bathroom makeout at one bar and find them again at The Pinhook.

Hell, I’m the only lesbian in this town that doesn’t like beer, and I’d sell my soul for the chance to choke down a warm pilsner on a sticky Carolina night.

But until we can see Zephyranthes live, this set recording feels like a little slice of grungy heaven during one hell of a year.

See “Alive in the Shed”



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Q&A: The Band Misc is Back. This Time, It’s Heavy.

Q&A: In Conversation with Zephyranthes

Q&A: The Band Misc Is Back. This Time, It’s Heavy.

After nine years apart, The Band Misc are making music again. Carrboro, get ready. You haven’t heard the banjo like this.

Back in November, an email from Brendan Macie popped up in my inbox, breaking through my pandemic daze. I’m always happy to hear from Brendan. He’s a fantastic banjo player and a staple of the Carrboro music scene. Here’s what I didn’t mention in our last interview: Brendan is a friend from high school. I’ve had the pleasure of heckling him at several gigs after we reconnected a few years back.

In the email, Brendan described what he called, “Simultaneously my latest and oldest project: The Band Misc.” Did he mean what I thought he meant?

He did. The band Brendan started in high school with our classmates Ashesh Chatterjee and Damian Lopez — a project that ended with Ashesh and Brendan not speaking for nearly nine years — had reunited. And they’d added drummer Ross Stephens to the mix. 

The Band Misc is “A banjo based prog rock band with Latin undertones and metallic edges.” I opened the demo track Brendan sent. Y’all, I was not prepared.

All four are excellent musicians, and they’re going hard and heavy in ways I didn’t know music involving a banjo could. Genres are mixed together and spat back out. It’s very, very cool. Obviously, I wanted to interview them.

Over Zoom, I caught up with Ashesh and Damian, who I hadn’t seen since our high school graduation — see what they’ve been up to chronicled below. I learned how Brendan connected with Ross, who moved to the Triangle in January and dove into the Carrboro music scene headfirst. I heard several stories of band mischief and mayhem I’m forbidden from printing…and one story I am allowed to share.

Want to hear them for yourself? Tune into WCHL on Jan 27th at 6:15 pm for what’s sure to be a tasty musical appetizer of The Band Misc’s new work. On February 5th, they’ll be live streaming from The Cave‘s Facebook page. Misc is also in the process of recording their first release to tide us over until live shows are back.

I promised the guys that when the world opens back up and they start playing shows, I’ll be there. Their first round is on me. And I’ll only heckle them a little.

A Banjo Can Do This?

Ashesh: I think what people are really going to be surprised about is, like, how heavy the music can be with the damn banjo.

Damian: We can make people raise their eyebrows. Wait, a banjo can do that?

Ashesh: I feel like we’re really pushing the envelope as to the limitations of what our instruments can do together. Brendan and Damian used to be scared about going too heavy. And now that’s really something we embrace.

Damian: Hey, we’re better musicians now. We can live up to the ideas we have.

On Carrboro

Damian: Carrboro’s the place I feel the most myself. Brendan always jokes that Carrboro is like diet Asheville. I’ll take it.

Ross: Exactly! I was pleasantly surprised when I moved here, I thought it was going to be terrible, that I wouldn’t know anybody. But it’s a really nice place, a really welcoming community. I was living in Baton Rouge, LA, and I just moved to Chapel Hill in January. The music scene is a lot better here. It’s musician’s music. In Baton Rouge, it’s really hard to find somebody who takes music seriously. Here, it’s like…you throw a stone and you hit somebody. 

On Triangle Mentors and Whiplash

TTG: Once you left high school, what was your musical training like?

Brendan: I went to college at ETSU and was formally trained in bluegrass banjo. And then my friend, Jens Kruger, who lives out in Wilkesboro — he’s been a mentor of mine for many, many years now. And pretty much anything I know about universal truths in regards to music, I know because of him.

Ashesh: I studied jazz at NCCU, graduated with a degree in Jazz Studies in 2018. Branford Marsalis was one of my teachers. And I learned a lot just by going to different jam sessions and getting my ass kicked.

Brendan: He wasn’t particularly nice to you, I would say.

Damian: Have you ever seen the movie Whiplash?

TTG: I have seen Whiplash. Oh no!

Damian: That was Ashesh’s education.

Ashesh: But I needed it! I was wildly undisciplined.

Damian: In college, I focused on composition. I always was most interested in how my favorite musicians were writing, how they make the parts fit together. After college it gets kind of fuzzy, being in Minnesota and away from everyone I knew. It created a period of isolation, and I didn’t know where to apply myself, musically or otherwise. I just studied music on my own time to keep sane. When I came back to North Carolina, I got back with Brendan and I thought, “He’s part of a cool scene in Carrboro, I want to be a part of that.” 

On Ross Joining the Band

Ross: The audition was really nerve-racking, I’d never auditioned on drums before.

Brendan: You faked that one really good, buddy.

Ross: So I took this job at Starbucks, and I started asking everyone about music, and whether anybody played or knew someone who did. And everybody told me I needed to talk to Brendan. And I thought, who is this Brendan character, and when am I gonna meet him? And finally, there’s this white dude chilling at the Starbucks counter. I walked up to him and we started talking about music. I told him I was looking for a band who needed a drummer. And he was just like —

Brendan: It was literally that stupid. It was so beautiful.

Damian: Somewhere in the background, there was an angelic choir.

Brendan: If I remember correctly that photo was the first rehearsal with Ross after his audition and he started playing a song he had written and we saw probably as that photo was being taken how well he’d end up gelling with the rest of the group. Ever since then it sorta felt like he’d been there the whole time. Pretty significant moment, I thought.

On What We Can Expect from the New Demo

Damian: Nothing. Don’t expect anything.

Brendan: There should be no expectations whatsoever. We’re just going to throw any and every idea that we can at…anything. It’s about the chaos that is.

Ross: The idea is that you can listen to the album, and you have no idea what the next song is going to be like. We could literally play anything.

TTG: So expect the unexpected.

Damian: That is the Misc motto!

On a Dream First Show

TTG: Let’s pretend it’s your first show post-pandemic. I need to hang onto that. Where are you playing, who’s the opening act?

Damian: Cat’s Cradle.

Ashesh: It’s either the Cradle or The Station for me.

Brendan: And dreamRoot, but we’d be the ones opening for them.

Ashesh: Oh, yeah. Or maybe we could play with Keenan Jenkins. You know, XOXOK.

Brendan: Yeah, I was thinking about Keenan, too.

Damian: He’s way too cool.

Brendan: He’d be very professional, because that’s what he does! 

Their Dumbest Night Out…On the Record

TTG: I need to give the people a sense of who you are. What was your dumbest night out, on the record?

Ashesh: We can’t give away our identity on this one!

Damian: No, no, we can talk about it, we can talk about it.

Brendan: Let’s do it.

Ashesh: As you know, unfortunately, there are some places that are being completely irresponsible when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic. One day I was expressing my disapproval of this, you know, like, places that host karaoke nights and open mic nights during a pandemic. I was expressing my disapproval. And I was just f-ing around. I’m like, man, we should just go up there in hazmat suits, f-ing put condoms on the microphone, yell at people to wear their masks.

Brendan: We came, we saw, we conquered. We got to the mic and yelled, “Wear your mask!” and then ran. It was like, 100 people dancing without masks, the song was “Tequila.”

Ashesh: Plus, that first night, during band practice, before Ross joined. We had just got back together. We were getting as wasted as possible trying to write songs. It was the night recording “Drifting” at my house.

Brendan: His brother had this moonshine –

Ashesh: Don’t get me started on the moonshine! We had a single glass of this and we were gone.

Damian: Can confirm.

Ashesh: You were on your ass. I was like, dude, is Damian gonna be okay?

Damian: It’s not my fault your brother is the Walter White of moonshine in this area!

On Post-Pandemic Live Shows

Brendan: I see live shows as sit-down events, I don’t think it’s going to all come back at once. It might have to grow over time, depending on how the curve plays out.

Ashesh: Yeah, and I think we can easily adapt to that. It’ll give us a chance to grow onstage and figure out our style. We’re drastically different as people, you know, Brendan and Damian and Ross are a little more introverted, where I’m very —

Brendan: Not that.

Ashesh: Very in your face! Back in the day, our old live shows, I’m jumping around like a f-ing maniac. I think we’re going to jump around and interact with the audience.

Ross: We have so many inside jokes, there’s this energy in the room, and I think people are going to gravitate towards it.

Damian: Like Ross said, we always generate new inside jokes to use with each other, and we want to invite the audience into that circle.

The guys I remember, circa 2011. Left to right: Damian, Brendan, Ashesh.

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Q&A: Steez on the Power of Persona on His Self-Titled Album

The Raleigh rapper opens up about perfecting his sound and the power of vulnerability.

When I ask Raleigh rapper Steez how COVID-19 has impacted his creative process, I don’t receive the answer I expect.

“This time is one of the best to create,” he tells me, Zoom video feed flickering, a constant reminder of pandemic constraints on our conversation. “I feel like a lot of people have had time to create and make new sounds, and find themselves as a person.”

And Steez (with an optional “ie”) would know. Since our last interview in March 2019, his star has continued to rise as an engineer for the Triangle hip hop set and an artist in his own right. But since he’s sequestered away from Raleigh’s music venues and the bulk of his social scene, Steez has blossomed as a recording artist. Self-isolation has resulted in his first self-titled album, Steez.

Steez feels like a self-portrait of the artist, and most of the album is devoted to exploring his ultra cool, unflappable alter-ego fighting an upward battle to the top. But on “Feel the Same” and “Insomniac” Steezie gets candid with listeners – a first in his recording career. As if he’s closed the bathroom door on a rollicking house party for a moment to himself, he pauses to reflect.

Both “Feel the Same” and “Insomniac” reference a bad breakup, and hint at a persistent loneliness under Steezie’s 24/7 grind. Perhaps it’s not easy being Steez, but the new spectrum of emotion he reveals to listeners goes down a treat.

I caught up with Steez on his admiration for Lil Wayne, the unexpected setbacks that arose while recording Steez, and the vulnerable side he wants you to get to know.

How has COVID-19 affected the writing process for you?

[The pandemic] definitely has an effect, because live shows help. When you make a new song, and you want to test it out and hear how people feel about it, seeing people feel good about it will inspire you to go back and make more songs that people like. I’m not able to go out and get inspired, to see how people react and the energy.

But I also feel like I’ve been able to really lock in and find myself and get inspired by myself. Because that’s the first place you need to find inspiration.

Steez is your first self-titled album, and it feels so much like a self-portrait. Can you tell me more about that?

I can see why you say that. I feel like for a while, I wasn’t able to control how I wanted everything to sound. But being able to produce and mix my own record really gave me control when I made the final product. As for me, I can make four or five versions of one song because every small detail is so fun to work with. 

I make my beats for myself to begin with. When I make a beat, I’m thinking about rapping on it. And when it doesn’t work or feel like me, I like to pass it on. I’m not trying to force myself into doing something that’s not really me.

What kind of beats did you find resonated with you while you were making this album?

I feel like the more…the melody type songs. As I’m growing as an artist, I feel like melodies are the best way to deliver a message, or to catch listeners better. That’s the new sound I’m breaking into, doing more melodies and experimenting with my voice. Fast, melodic sounds are my favorite right now.

Your vocal delivery when you’re rapping always sounds effortless, and it’s interesting to hear that carry over into your singing voice.

What works in my production is more opened out vocals. My production stands out, so I don’t need to rap every second. I can always space my beats out and deliver the feeling I’m trying to convey. 

Did you have a song on this album that you really thought embodied the new Steez?

Oh yeah, it’s called “Wesley.” I like to call myself Steez, and I’m Wesley too. And people know me as the stage name Steezie, and I wanted to bring more of myself into the picture. Like, who I really am. 

How does Wesley differ from Steez?

Wesley is really just chill. He likes being by himself. He likes reading. He’s a family man, and I like going out in nature. Things people wouldn‘t find cool. People know Steezie, he has ego. But I want them to know Wesley. Wesley is humble.

This is the first time in your recording career that you’ve shown us more of who you are outside of your stage persona, especially on “Insomniac” and “Feel the Same.” Those songs feel like cousins, very similar in terms of production.

The beats were very fun. I love repeating melodies and beats, because they’re so fun and colorful. I see why you say they’re like cousins, because they’re kind of poppy, but they still have the hip-hop style drums. It’s a fun sound.

I like “colorful” as an adjective. If this album were a color, what would it be?

That’s a hard question. I feel like the first half was a really bright color, and the second half was a teal color. I would combine those two into blue.

I can see that.  You really do mix it up a lot on this album. You transition from dancey to introspective halfway through. Can you talk me through the pacing on Steez?

I wanted people to have something fun to sit back and reflect to, to smoke to. Life has its ups and downs. Some days I feel like some party music, and some days, I want to talk about the things that are in my heart, so I really like the balance, and I tried to put that on the project. Even on the songs that are introspective, I didn’t try to make them too sad. I want people to feel good, and feel like they can take on anything.

Do you find there’s any songs that are resonating with people since the release that surprised you?

“California” gave me such a hard time. I was mixing it, and my computer crashed. This album probably would’ve been done way earlier, but my computer crashed. As an artist, I didn’t want that to drain my motivation. I was like, yo, it’s a fresh start. So I got a new computer, transferred as much stuff as possible. Any setback inspires me. I’m not just gonna quit because now I make beats every day, whenever I want to. I knew I could make new songs.

“California” surprises me, because I had to redo it, but I got to a point where I was happy with it. And I’m so happy that people love it.

How do you pace out your creative process?

I work every day on my own stuff. I feel like I’m good at making beats, and I’m getting close to polishing up how I mix and write my music. I’m really inspired by Lil Wayne. He said that “When I’m not in the studio, I’m in the studio.” I’m inspired by him, because he’s still going, even when people say “Oh, I don’t like him anymore.” That shows how much he loves making music, because a lot of people burn out at that point.

What’s next for you?

I’m just going to keep feeding people music. I have so much to give, so many colors, so many sounds that I know I can do. I can make Afro beats. I want to make songs in my language, from Zimbabwe. I got to keep giving people all these flavors. There’s no reason for me to hold back my music.

Image courtesy of Steez. By Tommy Coyote. (@tommy_coyote)

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Q&A: The Yardarm Hit Chapel Hill with Twangy Rock ‘n Roll

The Yardarm create a powerful sense of place with rollicking Americana.

In my professional opinion, there are not too many bands in this town. Heck, having lots of bands is good for business when your business is chronicling the local arts and culture scene.

Jason Bales and JJ Westfield of The Yardarm don’t think there are too many bands in the Triangle, either, despite the title of The Yardarm’s latest single, “Too Many Bands.”

In fact, “Too Many Bands” is a tongue in cheek Americana romp that chronicles the struggles of coming up in the local music scene. It’s charming storytelling to a rollicking rhythm, with Bales and Westfield’s knack for setting a scene on full display.

Bales and Westfield’s gift for creating a powerful sense of place takes over again on the tender ballad “Camp Song,” in which Westfield croons about fireflies over rippling guitar.

With Bales and Westfield on guitar and vox, Palmer Smith on bass, and John Cowan on drums, The Yardarm are bringing their dynamic mix of rock and Americana to eager Chapel Hill ears. With a new EP, “Camp Songs,” coming out Saturday, October 12, 2019, there’s never been a better time to embrace The Yardarm.

I sat down with Jason Bales and JJ Westfield to discuss band dynamics, MTV, and “Camp Songs.”

You can catch The Yardarm celebrating the release of “Camp Songs” with The Gone Ghosts and Owen Fitzgerald at The Cave on October 12, 2019. Info here.

TTG: What is The Yardarm’s origin story?

Jason: So JJ’s wife and my wife messaged each other on this Facebook group that was for moms in the South Durham area, and I think Bri had posted, y’know, “My husband plays music, I do knitting and art stuff,” and my wife was like, “Hey, same.” And so they organized a get-together. So it was a blind date for us, organized by our wives.

TTG: Was the chemistry there right away?

JJ: I think we walked away from that first time together thinking, “Hey, that went surprisingly well.” It’s so easy to walk away from a first time playing with somebody going “Never again!”

Jason: It worked out well. Everyone in the band does their homework, we’re all very Type A. We had some pretty good versions of songs early on. 

JJ: If there’s any competitiveness, it’s totally friendly. It’s us trying to push each other to another level.

TTG: That sounds disgustingly healthy.

JJ: I know! We should be throwing things at each other, Oasis style.

Jason: Yeah, the whole band dynamic is really just disgusting. We’d have a very boring “Behind the Music” so far.

TTG: You’ve got a great single called “Too Many Bands.” Tell me about that one. 

Jason: “Too Many Bands” was a bit of an origin story song for me. So when I was in college I was in a band with my brother, and when I moved down here, I didn’t know anybody, had no connections at all. I started trying to do solo shows, and I wasn’t super resilient about it. And this is a town where there are millions of bands! And as somebody who isn’t part of the music scene, how do you become part of it? Just because everybody else is doing it, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. Because I felt like what we were doing was too good not to just be, like, an attic band nobody hears.

TTG: Setting comes up a lot in your lyrics, especially in “Camp Song.” You guys are great at creating a sense of place in your music. Where does that come from?

JJ: “Camp Song” is about a camp I used to go to. I was actually a counselor, so it’s a love song to the camp. Sense of place and location – it comes pretty naturally to me. I think that’s how I dream, I dream in very vivid locations and places, and maybe that comes out in songwriting.

Jason: I really like when books have maps, I’m a big geography nerd, and I think that comes in when writing about place.

TTG: You guys have lived on every side of the Mason-Dixon line. How has living in different parts of the country affected your music?

Jason: There’s a group called The Ingham County Regulars that never really played outside of Lansing, Michigan, but it was this great, like, honky-tonk thing, but the guy who played lead guitar could shred like Pete Anderson from Dwight Yoakam. Those guys, and that gritty vibe you get from post-industrial towns in Michigan.

JJ: I grew up mostly in Florida, I grew up in Vero Beach, which is where Alison Mosshart from Dead Weather and The Kills was from. Honestly, I feel like I’m more a product of MTV than anything else.

Jason: We’ve talked a lot about our MTV in the early 90s, and how alternative radio had everything.

JJ: Ska, to industrial, to swing, that was a great education, I think, growing up when everything was mashed together.

Jason: I can definitely see that eclecticism in our music.

TTG: The Yardarm names Tom Petty as a big influence, and the anniversary of his passing is coming up. In his honor, could you name a favorite Tom Petty song?

Jason: “Wildflowers.” He’s such a singles artist, Damn the Torpedoes is absurd, the amount of hit singles off it. But “Wildflowers,” I try to emulate a lot. That sort of acoustic wave — but rockin’!

JJ: For a deeper cut, “All the Wrong Reasons.” Sad songs. I just want to depress the audience. 

Jason: I think we’ve got a fair amount of sad songs between us. I mean, some of them have a beat.

JJ: It’s hard. An audience wants to escape for a night, and you want to write something with some weight to it, and it’s hard to strike that balance. 

TTG: Tell me about recording the new EP. What kind of production were you going for in “Camp Songs?” 

JJ: We decided to bring in Jeff Crawford, to get his take on it, to see what his vision of it was. We recorded at Arbor Ridge.

Jason: On the first EP, you’ve got “Lucy,” more distorted guitars, and it’s pretty heavy. And I think Jeff did a good job of evening everything out. We’ve got a straightforward rock song, an ethereal, sort of pastoral song, one that we really rip up live. And Jeff stripped things down and shaped the instrumental sections in ways we hadn’t done live, but we thought it sounded really cool that way. He tempered the heavier elements, made it sound very organic and cohesive.

All images courtesy of The Yardarm.

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Q&A: Carrboro Duo Hank & Brendan Push the Envelope with Americana

Hank & Brendan on their respective punk and bluegrass backgrounds, songwriting secrets, and what listeners can expect from their new EP.

A punk/classical guitarist, and a formally trained bluegrass banjoist? On paper, it makes no sense.

But let Carrboro duo Hank & Brendan put your doubts to rest. Their rollicking fusion of bluegrass and rock laced with acerbic wit goes down far more smoothly than any moonshine you’ve tasted.

Sitting across from Hank and Brendan under the string lights of Caffé Driade, there’s no doubt that the two are collaborators. They share a span of musical and cultural references, and a mutual, congenially salty sense of humor.

“You’re a cigar-chomping fat cat now,” laughs Hank. Brendan grins back, and puffs a little more vigorously in Hank’s direction.

It was their first meetings at Chapel Hill open mics in 2015 that convinced the two they needed to work together.

“His songs were a level of weird I appreciated and understood,” Brendan recalls. “It was a bit of a hard sell, at first.”

“There’s a kind of stigma around banjo for some people,” adds Hank. “I confess I had it for a little bit, there. But I was smart enough by that point to be like, “‘Don’t be that guy, just see if it works.’ And of course it did.”

Together, Hank & Brendan — their formal billing — have released two albums and appeared live all over the Triangle and beyond. In July 2019, their latest release, Cutting Capers, finds the duo pushing the lyrical envelope even further, and branching into psychedelic influences.

In this Q&A, Hank & Brendan talk their musical backgrounds, songwriting secrets, and what listeners can expect from the new EP.

Katherine Whalen will join Hank & Brendan for the Cutting Capers release show at The Station on July 19th, 2019. You can find event details here. Cutting Capers also features drummer Ryan Masecar and bassist Chris Bullock.

TTG: I wanted to ask you guys about your separate genre backgrounds. Hank, you grew up in the New York punk scene.

Hank: Well…Westchester. I was part of the very limited Westchester punk scene and I was more or less the kid who followed the older punks around.

Brendan: You knew a guy who knew Lou Reed, didn’t you?

Hank: Oh, yeah, that’s how I got into that kind of music. A guy who would drive me to guitar lessons when my mom and dad couldn’t had been a veteran of the original New York punk scene. He would go to CBGB, and he hung around the Warhol crowd before that. And he saw Ramones, he saw Television, he saw Talking Heads, Blondie, all while they were just local bands. He would tell me about this stuff before I went into my guitar lessons. And at that moment I just felt like I knew that this was what I was going to do. It was pretty much just right off the bat.

TTG: What was his best story?

Hank: His best story — he was in his apartment, and a friend of his showed up unannounced. He was just in his room doing whatever, and she just walked in and scared him half to death. And she was like, “I brought a new friend of mine with me,” and he walked into his kitchen, and Sid Vicious was there.

TTG: That’s a good surprise! Brendan, you studied at East Tennessee.

Brendan: Yes, that’s correct. I was formally trained in bluegrass banjo after hearing Steve Martin and Bela Fleck perform a banjo duet — a triplet, actually, with another guy, on Letterman. It was this very beautiful, all-American sound, and I got engrossed in it from there.

TTG: What stood out to you about it as all-American?

Brendan: I honestly couldn’t say. There was just a twang about it that I enjoyed. And part of it was high school contrariness. “Well, you know, everybody plays guitar, so I guess I should do something different.”

TTG: You guys have an EP coming out called Cutting Capers, which you describe as — let me see if I can remember this — “rougher edges of Americana with psychedelic…”

Brendan: Excursions!

Hank: And some rather brash lyrics on my part.

TTG: Tell me about the brash lyrics.

Hank: Both of my songs I wrote are actually about Chapel Hill. Specifically Franklin Street.

Brendan: Street gawkers and mouthbreathers. All the people that clog up the streets.

Hank: One song was about when I first moved there, and I was not in a great place. I had a lot of social disappointment in the places I’d lived in before, and I was worried about that happening again. I wrote this song about looking at the people on Franklin Street with contempt. But somehow, at the end of it, it goes from “I” to “we,” and I feel like that demonstrated me blending in and finding my place in that scene.

TTG: In Cutting Capers, you’re exploring the “rougher edges of Americana.” Where do the rougher edges of Americana take this release?

Brendan: Definitely there were some brash lyrics and whatnot, but we started with electric guitar work this time around.

TTG: You guys are usually pretty acoustic, aren’t you?

Brendan: Yeah. Until we get into the studio and start playing with all the backwards guitar effects and stuff. It goes off the rails from there.

Hank: This was the most satisfying studio experiment I’ve ever had, this EP. It took six months, the last album. Started in June, ended in December.

Brendan: Yeah, it was a long process. This time, we wanted a few songs with a different feel from what was on the last album, and we decided on something more lofi and obnoxious. From there, we knocked it out in one day.

Hank: At the same time, what came out ended up being much more fully realized than the last album.

TTG: It sounds like it’s a departure from your previous recording efforts.

Brendan: Yeah, more of my songs are involved this time than usual. I spent a lot of time building confidence in my own writing.

TTG: What built up your songwriting confidence?

Brendan: Y’know, honestly, just writing more of ‘em. And not being afraid to write a bad song. 

Hank: I still have that fear and I’ve written plenty!

Brendan: It never goes away. 

Hank: I’ve never gotten — songwriters talk about when they write something bad, they throw it away. I’ve never gotten into that practice.

Brendan: I’ve got a whole binder full of bad songs I’ve written out on a typewriter and everything.

Hank: I’ve got all the songs I wrote in high school. Those are pretty dismal.

TTG: Do you archive your old songs for historical purposes, or do they make reappearances later?

Brendan: A little bit of both. I think at some point you can bring your friends over and be like, “Aw, this sucked!” But I’ve found a lot of pleasure in re-writing stuff that was bad.

Hank: I think revisiting songs that you weren’t so sure about a while ago is often a good way to start writing new songs.

TTG: I was listening to your interview on WHUP, and you guys mentioned that you would bring songs to each other — sometimes from different genres — and then reinterpret them to include a banjo. Can you talk about that process?

Brendan: Yeah, I think the song “Catheter” is the best example of that. Initially, it was this dark, brooding piano piece, and we turned it into a bluegrass song, which took the edge off.

Hank: “Catheter” was originally this D minor piano dirge. Then I recorded it, and I put a drum loop and some grindy electric guitar and an organ sound on it. And it sounded very Halloween, very spooky. But then I kind of flipped the script, switched it to guitar and turned it into an acoustic song, and I thought that the song might get through to more people like that.

TTG: Your lyrics are often very sardonic, with a specific brand of humor. Tell me about that.

Brendan: That’s all on you, man.

Hank: It just kind of happens.

Brendan: Everyone has these misanthropic thoughts throughout the day. You get cut off in the coffee line, you need to buy gas and the guy in front of you keeps buying lottery tickets, and you think things you obviously don’t mean, but —

Hank: I think particularly in the more effective songs, I write something that just makes me sick, that I would never say to anyone, but I end up sticking with it.

Brendan: People oddly relate to it.

TTG: You can sing it, but you can’t say it.

Brendan: Right!

TTG: Are there any works of art that inspired this project?

Brendan: Spaghetti westerns, for this release.

Hank: More sonically than lyrically, I would say. For the month of March, when we did a lot of this recording, I dropped all chemicals except for caffeine. I stopped drinking, and a lot of how I deal with that situation is I go back and watch classic movies that I’ve seen. I went back to spaghetti westerns and really fell in love with the music in them. Particularly Morricone’s work, and of course he’s influenced a lot of albums. Weirdly, by the time we finished this record, the whole thing smacked of desert sounds.

TTG: What kind of production were you going for on this album? Is it true to what you’ve done in the past, or did you experiment with new methodology?

Hank: Our first record, it was just us on acoustic and a lot of compression.

Brendan: We had a lot of reverb behind it, too. Which fills the space a lot more, when you’re just two people.

Hank: It had a certain charm to it. But it was something we decided not to do going forward. 

Brendan: We kind of wanted this record to sound like a Velvet Underground record. Not known for great recording quality per se, but I think it was fitting for this release.

TTG: I heard you guys did the non-verbal tracking for this record in five and a half hours, which is impressive. Recording your last record was a much longer process. What changed?

Hank: We deliberately went in and out of the studio as fast as we could.

Brendan: Usually in the studio, there’s one song you get hung up on, but for some reason that just didn’t happen. We had all this extra time at the end of the session, so we just threw a bunch of resources at the song, and we had Chris [Bullock] play bad piano, and had excess tambourine parts.

Hank: I feel like the last album was much more calculated in our approach, but we came out of this EP with a much fuller sound. 

TTG: I’ve seen you guys live a couple of times, but I haven’t seen you jam yet. Is that going to be incorporated into the new live shows?

Brendan: It will be. There’s a lot of bad connotations with bands that jam, and we want to keep it succinct.

Hank: If we’re going to be up there with a bunch of random dudes, we’re going to play one or two chords and leave. It’s the punk rock attitude towards jamming.

All images courtesy of Hank & Brendan.

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Smoke From All The Friction

Scott Jones


Why You Should Go “Way Out West” with Ackland Art Museum

I got a preview of Ackland Art Museum’s latest exhibition, which explores artistic responses to the American West.

I think it’s important to realize how special our environment is, and the lens through which we view it. How do we play into this? I think that’s a great thrust throughout the show. How people are incorporated into the landscape, and how it’s beautiful, and worth saving.

Dana Cowen, Ackland Art Museum Curator on
Way Out West: Celebrating the Gift of the Hugh A. McAllister Jr. Collection

If you want to get a dose of the beauty and culture of the American West without the five hour flight from RDU, stop by Ackland Art Museum’s latest exhibition, “Way Out West: Celebrating the Gift of the Hugh A. McAllister Jr. Collection.”

The red rock and broad horizons of the American West have long inspired the Eastern imagination. Those landscapes certainly had a hold on Hugh A. McAllister Jr., the famous cardiologist and UNC alum who, in his recent passing, donated over twenty artworks portraying the American West to Ackland Art Museum. “Way Out West” is a celebration of the McAllister gift, and marks curator Dana Cowen’s first exhibition for Ackland Art Museum.

Incorporating donations from the McAllister collection and works from Ackland’s holdings, “Way Out West” is a tribute to inspiring Western landscape s- and a critique of artistic perspectives. The exhibition asks the audience to consider just who’s looking at the landscape. What do they see, and why do they see it that way?

With works from the late nineteenth century onwards, “Way Out West” is a gathering of a wide variety of media and a wide variety perspectives. There’s no arguing with the individual and collective beauty of the paintings, photography, sculpture, and other media, and a viewer could take that beauty at face value. But “Way Out West” asks more.

Brett Weston, American, 1911-1993
Garapata Beach, California, 1954, printed in 1978
10 9/16 x 13 1/4 in.
Ackland Fund, 80.53.3
Courtesy of Ackland Art Museum

With a keen eye for cultural interaction and its impact on the environment, curator Dana Cowen creates a reckoning with the inspiration and violence inherent in artistic representation of the American West.

19th century painters and photographers captured the romance of the West’s sweeping vistas. Painters Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran and photographers Carleton Watkins and Timothy O’Sullivan portrayed the West with an eye for luminosity and European aesthetics.

However, these artists did not acknowledge the Native Americans that inhabited the West, the violence being perpetrated against them at that time, or the industry that was rapidly transforming the land. These paintings and photographs portray a pristine landscape ripe for the picking by white settlers. “Way Out West” acknowledges the beauty of these artworks while asking the audience to consider their problematic nature.

An array of work from Native American artists featured in “Way Out West” ranges from the early 20th century to present day. Highlighted artists include Awa Tsireh, Romando Vigil, and Larry McNeil. Alongside depictions of Navajo and Pueblo culture, much of the featured art critiques how non-native artists portray Native Americans. These critiques land with particular power when juxtaposed with early twentieth art from white artists that romanticized and infantilized Native Americans.

“Way Out West” also pulls from Ackland’s vast photography collection, showing work by Edward Weston and Peter Goin, among others, that explores the transformation of the American West over the course of the twentieth century.

In an examination of the effects of industry and tourism on the environment, “Way Out West” concludes with a strong message of appreciation for the beauty of the American West, and the imperative to protect it.

Ackland Art Museum will host several events for “Way Out West,” including guided tours, 2nd Friday ArtWalk events, and opportunities to create artwork inspired by the exhibition.

Further details and event listings here.

Header Image:

Thomas Moran, American, born in England, 1837-1926, Virgin River, Utah, 1908, oil on canvas, 20 x 30 inches The Hugh A. McAllister, Jr., M.D. Collection, 2019.15.22 , Courtesy of Ackland Art Museum

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Q&A: Smoke From All The Friction

In conversation with Cam Gillette and Kenny Andrews of electropop duo Smoke From All The Friction.

Substance and style; Cam Gillette and Kenny Andrews of Smoke From All The Friction are determined to have it all. The electropop duo are all about creating meaningful electropop and playing it with panache.

The duo’s discography plunges into industrial barb and coasts over sparkling EDM by turns. Andrews and Gillette clearly relish the many moods of electropop, and pride themselves on their inventive execution.

As for style, you never know what to expect from the Raleigh band’s shows. Past appearances have included flashy visuals, an audience drum circle, and experimentation with livestreams that bring fans into the Smoke From All Friction fray.

Gillette and Andrews let me in on how they met, their ideas about spectacle in live shows, and just how they built Kenny’s impressive electronic drum setup.

Cam and Kenny, you two were introduced through a yoga meetup. When did you first begin talking about music? What were those early conversations between you like?

Kenny: Yeah! We met through the acro yoga community in Raleigh and became friends. I think most of our early music conversations were about bands we are into and our musical tastes. I felt like Cam commented on a Memphis May Fire tank I was wearing at one point. I pointed out the Tool sticker on the back of his car another time. From there, we started chatting more at house gatherings and bars. I would say it took a year or so before we thought of playing together in a band. At first I was asked if I could perform at a couple SFATF gigs. From there it kind of just progressed to what we are now. I don’t think there was an “aha” moment or anything, it was all very organic. 

Cam: A band is similar to most relationships; involving maturity, humility and chemistry. I had worked and gone though a decent number of other players, and asked him to play a few shows with me. He was reliable and easy to work with. Shortly after that we had a conversation where we basically both asked each other, “what do you want out of this” and “what do you have to offer?” I’ve found if you have that kind of conversation early in a relationship of any kind, it avoids a lot of the drama and missed expectations.

Kenny, you learned to drum on a classic kit, but for Smoke From All The Friction, you and Cam built a massive electronic drum setup yourselves. What materials did you use, and where did you source them from? How has that expanded palette of sound changed your playing?

Kenny: Ah! I take back what I just said. This was the “aha” moment for me, our first creation! So Cam and I were chatting one day on how to incorporate these four electronic drum pads he has. As you mentioned, I learned drums on a classic kit and have been playing classic kits since high school. I still play on my twenty-two piece kit at my house recreationally. So because of this I have a lot of drumming hardware and pieces I’ve “broken” over the years at my disposal.

The percussion pad thing we built is made up of a broken boom cymbal stand, a Latin Percussion mount, a piece of a cowbell kick-drum mount, and the four electronic drum pads along with electronic brain. It truly is a unique creation and is so fun to play. By the powers of Cam’s computer knowledge, the four different pads change their sound from song to song, and sometimes even in the same song. So I’ve gone from playing on a twenty-two piece kit to playing four seemingly infinite pads. Also, unlike the classic performing drum setup, I play the pads front stage while standing. Last, but certainly not least, it only takes me one trip from my car to the venue and about two minutes at most to set up the percussion pad we built when we perform. #blessed.

Cam, rather than writing “genre” songs, you like to work from what you call “outlines” or “blueprints” in your songwriting process. For instance, you might try to write a song that feels like a color. Tell me more about the outlines that have structured your music, and give me an example of how you’ve integrated that inspiration into a song.

Cam: One of the advantages of doing all the different roles of a songwriter, musician, engineer and performer is that you have a lot of control over the entire product. However, the problem is that it becomes a lot to deliver for one person. So to work around that, I try to very intentionally separate my behavior into different roles. Outlining concepts and goals are a large part of that. So the more time I can spend away from the mixing console and writing out my intentions, plans, and bigger vision, the easier it is to stay on target.

An example of this would be how I wrote the album Transience. For the album, I wrote a number of interludes to connect different songs into a more cohesive theme. So I wrote the themes and feelings of the “main” tracks in the album, and with that written I could far more easily create the vision for the interludes between the tracks because I knew where I would be coming from and where I needed to end up.

This question is for both of you. The band Nine Inch Nails has come up a lot as an influence for Smoke From All The Friction, and among their many endeavors, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have scored several films together, including The Social Network, Bird Box, and Gone Girl. Let’s say the two of you could score a film together. What film genre do you think your music would best lend itself to?

Kenny: The film would definitely have to be futuristic and electronic. I’d say something along the lines of The Matrix trilogy, Tron, Ready Player One, and/or Blade Runner.  

Cam: I agree, I’ve always enjoyed more “futuristic” or dystopian-sounding music. So something a bit more dark, focusing on the near infinite abilities of good or ill humans can and have achieved. I really enjoyed the soundtrack of the new Blade Runner as well. I heard a quote about the Terminator 2 soundtrack, where the soundtrack was almost indistinguishable from the sound effect track, and that would be an intriguing challenge.

As Smoke From All The Friction, you guys continue to push the envelope at your live shows. Previous shows have included projected visuals, strobe light breakdowns, even an electronic drum circle involving the crowd. What does the concept of spectacle in a live show mean to you? How will you raise the bar at future shows?

Cam: We live in a culture where there’s a fine line where pushing creative borders turns into an avante-garde experience. I try to shoot for a 70/30 ratio, where we can’t violate more than 30% of something uncommon or experimental, because we want to leave the audience with some familiar to hold onto so they can focus more on the unfamiliar things we’re also bringing. Some places we’re experimenting with is having crowd interaction with lights and other media. Or having a level of interaction with our livestreamed shows, where the crowd can functionally interact with us in specific ways through the net.

Kenny: We like to leave a memorable impression at our shows. We don’t want to look or sound like just another band at a bar. We constantly change instruments and perform our songs in a way that, I feel, people aren’t used to seeing. Our visuals and light shows are custom-made to our songs. Those visuals help convey a mood and aesthetic that enhances our sound. We like to challenge ourselves to see what all we can achieve live. That being said, there’s no telling what else we may try to implement in our future performances.    

Smoke From All The Friction has a new album in the works. If you had to name a few albums by other artists that have inspired your latest project, what would they be? It could be from a thematic standpoint, a production standpoint- anything.

Cam: SFATF has a goal of trying to bring more niche ideas and sounds to an audience that doesn’t get to hear them. Some current artists include synthwave artists: Perturbator and Daniel Deluxe, pop artists: The Band CAMINO, electronic : SOPHIE and HEALTH.

What’s an interview question you’ve never been asked that you’d like to answer?

Cam: What are the wrong ways to be an artist in 2019?

Kenny: What’s your favorite instrument to play and why?

All images courtesy of Smoke From All The Friction.

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Q&A: Scott Jones of The Upward Dogs

I spoke with Scott Jones, drummer and founder of the improvisational musical collective The Upward Dogs, about his unique approach to combining musicians.

Drummer Scott Jones approaches his role as the founder of the Chapel Hill-based musician’s collective, The Upward Dogs, with the passion of a chef. For each gig, he’ll pull from a list of ingredients: a roster of accomplished musicians, many of whom have not previously met. A pinch of this guitarist, a dash of that horn player- and off the musicians will go, improvising and interpreting, seeing what flavors the performance will yield. Jones refers to each gig’s assembly of players as “soups”. And the jazzy, funky, hip-hoppin’ results of Jones’s musical cookery are delicious. Bon appétit!

I spoke to Jones about the origins of The Upward Dogs, the genesis of his approach to assembling musicians, and how audience participation informs the group’s performances.

The Upward Dogs is a continuation of an approach you practiced previously in New York and LA of assembling “soups” of musicians, who often have not previously met, for sessions and gigs. Describe the genesis of that approach. How did the idea occur to you in the first place?

The “soups” concept came to me from my day job in technology.  I had been talking to a product leader at a tech company in RDU and we got onto the philosophical point that all engineering teams are different — what works for one team with respect to rituals, management practices, and so on, will not necessarily map to other teams.  He described it very effectively by describing how each team is a “soup,” comprised of the unique ingredients of each team member, resulting in unique ways of working, levels of productivity, chemistry, and so on.  That really stuck to me.

When I kicked off the Upward Dogs in early 2015 I had held onto that “soup” concept.  The quick backstory is that I had relocated from Los Angeles in the fall of 2012, got pregnant the following spring (ok, my wife did, ha!) and had identical twins born two months early in November of 2013. I kind of disappeared into a twin wormhole for many months and started to really emerge in early 2015.  As I started to ramp back up to playing music regularly, I realized that my improvisational itch was palpable and I wanted to get back to artistically express all of the wild changes I had gone through the past two years. I also realized that in my short time in RDU to that point I had already built up a rolodex of great players with “big ears” (meaning they can listen well and make appropriate musical choices) that would be great improvisational collaborators.

I realized that the “soup” philosophy in this context would give me great flexibility- rather than committing to a fixed personnel list, I framed The Upward Dogs as a collective of musicians and artists, and I could pull from the collective to put together “soups” for sessions and gigs. I was excited and humbled to find there was a lot of interest to participate, and that allowed me to put together really great groups and create many really fun moments over the past four years. And just like with the software engineering analogy, each configuration of players- each soup- is totally different, and it’s always exciting to see how the ingredients will add up.

How did your experiences in New York and LA inform your current approach with The Upward Dogs? 

NYC is a global hub of jazz where you will always find the best players in the world- sometimes playing in tiny and or empty rooms on off nights and very late at night- pushing forward on the fundamental jazz philosophy of improvisation. In that particular context it tends to be about interpreting texts, so to speak, such that you play through the form as written but when you solo you are channeling the intention of the original material and yet adding your own commentary, emotions, colors and so on. 

Since this has been going on in NYC since the beginning of jazz early in the 20th century, it feels like that energy has been baked into the musical fabric of the city. During my time there I connected with, listened to, and otherwise vibed with players who took that improvisational energy and would take it to the next level, so to speak, by improvising compositionally. So rather than starting with a jazz standard or an original composition, the group would create on the fly and in the moment.  One of the most inspiring outfits doing this- featuring one of my favorite bass players and drummers, and led by amazing MC named iLLspokinn- was a weekly residency called Free Style Mondays at a club called Sin Sin.  hey would improvise fully developed hip hop songs, including beats (instrumentation often being guitar, bass, keys and drums), verses from amazing MCs, and hooks sung by amazing vocalists.

This blew my mind and inspired me in my own direction.  I started off by leading a group called decoi, where the core of it was a self-taught upright bassist, phasing in and out a variety of players including keys, guitar and horns. I would book us for gigs and we would do recording sessions at the bassist’s home studio, and there would be absolutely nothing planned. We would simply set up and create, and see where the muse took us, and we’d often get quite “free” and experimental, sometimes more ambient than groovy. I led this group for about three years and landed on some great stages in front of great audiences while getting to learn and evolve myself as an artist. In LA I would host lots of improvisational sessions at my house with a variety of players. 

Occasionally I would take these groups out for gigs, but most often I was leading gigging groups that would play standard and original jazz/funk/fusion compositions but leave a lot of room for improvisation. 

Now with the Upward Dogs I have been using probably 75% full improvisation and 25% of the more LA approach of having tunes to interpret, and I decide on the approach depending on the opportunity and the players. 

What is the process behind selecting the musicians for each soup?

It’s pretty random, to be honest. I liken it to being improvisational as well, where the other “band member” in this case is the universe. I essentially just reach out to a variety of folks about a date and see who’s available and find out where I land.

Do you try for something different every time as you assemble soups of musicians? Creating new “flavors,” so to speak?

I will follow cues from the universe and generally “go with the flow.” If I just met an MC, for example, I will randomly think of them and then reach out to see if they want to participate. Same goes for horn players or really any other instrument. I just listen to the inner voice or otherwise wait for serendipities to tell me. Networking is often a driver of this.

You’ve described The Upward Dogs as being “groove-oriented,” and the collective generally plays jazz, funk, and hip hop. Why those genres, specifically?

Those three zones have been merging and melding for a decent amount of time now. Top of mind I would like of Robert Glasper as someone operating at the forefront of hip hop jazz, so to speak, where there are sophisticated compositions and harmonies, and the rhythms will often sound like produced beats but played by live instruments. There’s often also an influence of the ideas of the amazing producer J Dilla. All to say that the melding of jazz/funk/hip hop has been a personal focus area of mine because everything I’ve been hearing is so inspiring and it is very effective for personal development, especially as a drummer. The techniques and internal knowledge required to pull it off are amazing for education.

Additionally, when you combine these genres and add the notion of being “groove-oriented”, it tends to make for a great audience experience. The music might be heady, but at the same time it will make you want to shake your butt! It’s really just calling out the contrast from my past experiences in NYC where we had the latitude to get weird and- potentially- alienate an audience who might not have been expecting that.  Truth be told, I can’t and don’t enforce a jazz/funk/hip hop paradigm and instead keep open ears and an open heart to see where the muse takes us in the moment. 

How does audience connection shape an improvised/loose interpretation-heavy show?

This kind of requires level setting on what your personal belief system is, as that would inform whether what I’m about to say comes off as total B.S. To keep it high level and simple I might first point to quantum physics and the realization that surfaced earlier in the 20th century that the role of the observer- the consciousness, more particularly, and the associated expectations- actually informs the behavior of subatomic particles. We are all energy, including our consciousness, and when we are together in groups that energy blends together. 

When you are an artist and creating in the moment, you are tapping into and channeling the available energy of yourself and your group but also the audience, the location, and everything else around. Whether they realize it or not, they are actively participating and contributing simply by being present, but even moreso by listening and being actively engaged. The musicians will connect with and feed off of the energy, and that energy will manifest as ideas that the players will “hear” and essentially release through their instruments. 

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Q&A: Carrboro’s XOXOK on Recording Debut EP

Carrboro artist XOXOK talks his debut EP, Worthy, and his formative musical experiences.

What’s in a name? For atmospheric soul artist XOXOK, everything. The implied warmth of the kisses and hugs in his stage name, and the quip of the “ok” at the end embody the artist’s honeyed vocals and playful lyrics.

XOXOK- aka Carrboro musician Keenan Jenkins- has a crystalline singing voice he complements with wise storytelling that thrums with sincerity.

Take “Worthy”, the single off of his upcoming EP of the same title.

“I don’t need you to love me, I just want to be worthy,” he croons. That lyrical vulnerability is precise in its heartbreak. Meanwhile, the polished production builds into lush vocal harmonies and shimmering guitar. It’s an ambitious and lovely entrée into Jenkins’s recording career.

Keep your eyes peeled for XOXOK’s debut EP, Worthy, out on May 4th, 2019. You can stream the title track here. XOXOK will celebrate the release of Worthy with a free show on May 11th at The Station in Carrboro.

I caught up with XOXOK on his formative musical experiences and what he’s most looking forward to playing live from his new EP.

What was your musical training like? Were you formally trained in guitar and vocal performance, or are you self-taught?

My musical training is…ongoing. I suppose my informal training began around the time I was a toddler, when I would belt Whitney Houston songs from the backseat of the car.

My formal training started when Margie Jesse taught me to play the clarinet in middle school. 

I started to play guitar when I was fifteen; by that time, YouTube and were the most cost-efficient teachers, so I learned from the internet and from my guitar-playing roommate, Brian Koepnick. It wasn’t formal training, but I’m not sure if it counts as self-taught!

I went on to receive a minor in music from UNC-Chapel Hill; that’s where I immersed myself into the world of music theory.

You pull from a wide variety of rock and soul influences; what you describe as a “far-flung but cohesive” palette of sound. When were you first exposed to rock and soul? Did you grow up with those genres, or did they influence you later in life?

Music has been part of my life for so long, it’s difficult to recall the first moment that I was first exposed to rock and soul, broadly. Growing up, both of my parents listened to the R&B and classic soul radio station (Foxy 104.3 FM), so I was exposed to that at all times. I didn’t enjoy it as a kid, but I’ve grown to really love and appreciate that music.

As for rock music, I had to find that on my own. I was an only child and a latchkey kid, so MTV was my babysitter in the early 2000s, which exposed me to rock, rap, and of course, rock/rap (my mom did NOT want to buy me the Linkin Park CD). I eventually found my way to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and hearing John Frusciante’s guitar is what made me want to start playing – I had to figure out how to make those exact sounds.

When is the first time you remember being moved by a piece of music? What was the song, and what do you remember about the experience?

Wow, this is a good question! Again, it’s hard to remember particular moments. My earliest memory of being obsessed with a song is “Will You Be There” by Michael Jackson, which I knew from the Free Willy soundtrack. I listened to the cassette of the song and watched the VHS of that movie on repeat when I was a young child.

In your body of work, your guitar playing and your voice compliment and build upon one another to reach a wider emotional range. While your singing is generally mellifluous, your guitar playing can go sweet or rugged depending on the emotional scope of the song. Tell me about how you approach the relationship between your voice and your guitar.

I had to google “mellifluous” to make sure that wasn’t a sneak diss! Thanks for the compliments. I’m almost always trying to find a vocal melody or tone to fit with an existing guitar part, rather than the other way around. Up until four years ago, I rarely played with other musicians – it was usually just me and my guitar, playing and singing alone in my apartment. So I’ve had years to focus on the interplay between my guitar and my voice.

Something that I’m still learning is that I don’t have to make my voice sound like someone else’s – if I just sing like myself, it’ll eventually match some piece of music I’ve written.

I haven’t always been a good singer – I’ve really had to work on it. Even now, it’s the main thing I focus on when I’m performing live, because it doesn’t come easily or naturally to me. I’d be ashamed to let you listen to some of the demos I recorded back in college.

What did you learn from your first experience with recording your own material that you’ll bring into the studio next time?

I had a great experience recording this EP, and I learned so much! I’m already looking forward to going back to the studio. Next time, I think I’ll put a more strict timeline on the recording process – it’s fun to play with ideas for a year, but I’m interested in trying to make something beautiful in one month, for instance. That will take a lot of preparation on the front end – making sure that the songs are rehearsed, that the arrangements are settled, that the guitar tones are dialed in, and so on.

Upon the release of the EP, what song are you most excited to play live? How will it translate from recording to the stage?

The title track, “Worthy”, is my favorite song on the record – I always feel like I’m floating when I play that song well. I don’t know what it is about “Mitt”, but it seems to be a fan favorite. Honestly, I’m more excited to play some newer songs, ones that I’ve written since finishing this EP!

All images courtesy of XOXOK. Photos by Wyatt Kane.

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