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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More Q&As

Smoke From All The Friction

Scott Jones

XOXOK

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 Ultimate-Guitar.com 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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Q&A: In Conversation with Zephyranthes

I caught up with Zephyranthes on their recording process, their birth in the Raleigh underground, and their favorite conspiracy theories.

Nomenclature and musical genre fusion share a similar problem. You can shove a handful of syllables together, but that won’t make your new word pronounceable. Likewise, you can blend influences from a wide variety of genres into a band’s oeuvre, but that won’t make for a coherent sound.

Raleigh band Zephyranthes, who pull from jazz, psychedelia, math rock, and prog rock, could’ve easily gone one of two ways. By stitching together disparate elements, the listening experience could’ve become a scavenger hunt of name-that-influence, without ever coalescing into a distinct whole. They also could’ve tipped too far the other way, melting elements together into a wall of reverb, full of sound and fury, signaling nothing.

The great joy, then, of Zephyranthes, is the seemingly effortless synthesis of favorite genres into something that sounds utterly fresh. Michael Lamardo’s jazz-driven drumming creates the strong spine of a two-handed, tightly-coiled beast: namely, Elijah Melanson on guitar, and Logan Maxwell’s bass, vocals, and saxophone. Every genre component- the complex rhythms, the distorted vocals, the psychedelic guitar- remain distinct and recognizable, even as they serve the group’s greater sound. And each member of the trio gets a chance to display their (prodigious) chops without sacrificing a moment of musical synchronicity.

Over beer at Foundation, Melanson, Maxwell, and Lomardo play off one another in conversation just as well as they do in their music, scooping in and out of stories, laughter, and explanation just as they dip in and out of musical genres.

I caught up with Zephyranthes on the recording process of their latest EP, their birth in the Raleigh underground, and their favorite conspiracy theories.

TTG: For Zephyranthes III, you guys recorded at Fidelitorium out in Kernersville, and Missy Thangs produced. What made that studio the right choice for the new EP?

Elijah: It was the right choice. I think we’ve heard her work, as well as just bands around who’ve recorded at Fidelitorium. Everybody’s tracking out there and getting awesome results, so we asked around.

Logan: I had previously recorded with another group I was in.

Michael: I keep forgetting you recorded there before!

TTG: With Vacant Company, right?

Logan: Yes! I really enjoyed that experience. That whole place is like- there’s no- well, there’s a computer for the monitor, but there’s no computers or screens, and it’s all, like, old ‘70s furniture.

Elijah: They have a blue naugahyde couch, which is beautiful.

Logan: And you spend the night there. It’s usually like, you come in, you shoot it out, you go. And then you come back the next day, or whatever. But with this, there’s a guesthouse and you stay, and you cook dinner together, and you’re a team, and so it’s more immersive. And I was like…if we could repeat that with this group, we’re going to come out with something good.

TTG: I want to talk to you guys about your experiences with math rock as a genre. What led to you embracing math rock right out of the gate?

Elijah: That’s a really tricky question because I think it’s such a wide label, and I think we’re trying to embrace that aspect of it. Because it’s just outsider music, in a way.

It’s interesting that the psychedelic scene has so much to do with progressive rock, which as a lot to do with math rock…they’re all sort of intertwined, and I think we’re somewhere in the confluence of all three of those things.

TTG: Michael, tell me about your training. Did you study classic jazz, or was it more jazz-infused rock from the beginning?

Michael: So, the thing is, I didn’t go to school for music. I went to school at a very unrefined music business program at a small school in upstate New York.

I played through high school and college, but I didn’t really- I took lessons through a guy in Syracuse in New York, where I’m from, but like, mostly, I’m pretty much self-taught in a lot of ways. But yeah, I admit I was kind of an insufferable jazz purist for like, about five, six years.

Logan: He knows all the standards.

Michael: Mostly in high school. And then I guess I went to college, and I guess it’s the typical freshman in college, who like, smokes pot once and gets introduced to crazy stuff.

But then, I don’t know, my palette started to expand and I still love jazz, I still take it very seriously. If you talked to me ten years ago, I would’ve never imagined playing in a project like this. Ever. Not for any bad reason. My drumsticks back then were essentially toothpicks, but I never played with 5A rock sticks until now. It’s kind of funny how it evolved.

I think it’s interesting to approach what we’re doing with jazz…I don’t want to say chops, that’s a very tense word. I don’t know, I’ve kind of always wanted to experiment with those elements. Drummers like Jack DeJohnette and Brian Blade and people like that. And if I can mix that into a prog and math rock environment…and it has its ups and downs, sometimes it doesn’t always fit, but that’s the point of it.

Elijah: Yeah, Logan and I were both saxophone players. He plays saxophone- I’m not nearly the saxophone player he is. So we both did the jazz thing too. I was actually a jazz fusion performance major at school. Which I never say that anymore ‘cause I don’t want to get roped into playing jazz.

Logan: When I grew up, I was listening to Stan Getz. Because I was playing saxophone, so I’d be listening to that type of music. So it formulated early for all of us.

Elijah: Where I think it comes together is where we improvise so much together. Where every time we get together we’re improvising.

Logan: That’s usually how we start rehearsal.

Elijah: We always jam. And I think that’s fundamental to, like, the jazz experience. It’s just…wanting to improvise with structure.

Logan: Make something new!

Elijah: Continually. We have a track that we play live, too, “Nigredo,” which is like our weird, misshapen jazz ballad. It’s guitar and saxophone and then we just get really crazy every time. It’s like a little performance art piece.

TTG: Tell me more about jamming at the beginning of rehearsal. Does that loosen…the…I’m trying to think of a good phrase. I was going to say “loosen the juice” but that’s maybe the worst thing that’s ever come out of anybody’s mouth.

Elijah: Loosen the juice!

Logan: That’s actually the first track of our next EP! No, that just kind of happened naturally, like, none of us were like, “Hey! Every time we step in we should definitely improvise together.” We all love to make stuff up and like…it’s honestly hard to reign us in sometimes during rehearsals.

Elijah: It’s a big tension releaser, and it really helps reset the tone. It’s fundamental to our process of developing new material.

Logan: It’s communicative. In a good week, we’ll practice once a week. And we haven’t seen each other in a while, and we just like, walk in, and somebody will be noodling and then we’ll all be like-

Michael: Cool!

Logan: Yeah, let’s just noodle. Y’know what I mean? I really like it.

Michael: Fifty percent of it, let’s be real, is just procrastination. When we actually have to do some work.

TTG: In terms of your songwriting process, you guys have mentioned in previous interviews that it’s pretty democratic. How do you keep that process democratic?

Logan: The democratic process is tough. And I don’t even know that it’s democratic, because we’re not voting. It’s just like, “Yo, play that. Oh, that sounds pretty good. Eh, let’s try something else. ” And it’s almost like- I think what helps is that we all have similar and dissimilar influences, but are trying to create something that sounds really good and is cohesive. And if you as a unit have a similar end goal in mind, the nuances work themselves out

Elijah: We all have dissimilar influences but we all agree that it can’t be certain things.

Logan: It has to be new. At the end, we’ll play sections and we’ll be like, “That would be good if we were a funk band. But we’re not.” So we’ve got to figure out a way to make it us.

Michael: Lots of tweaking!

Logan: I have to say, yeah, there totally is. Elijah is very good in particular at being able to take a section, and even though it’s a verse, we’re trying not to stray too far- there are like, verses and choruses at least. But if you tweak the verse, you can make it interesting every rotation, by slightly adding something as you go. It’s really nice to be in a group where everybody is contributing as much as they can.

Elijah: Definitely, yeah. I think there are a lot of like, compositional things that we try and incorporate to set us apart a little bit. And thinking about, like, influences from different brands of composition, y’know?

Logan: We’re all really big fans of the Romantic period of classical music.

Elijah: Like Chopin and stuff.

Logan: Which you might be able to hear.

Elijah: We’re just trying to be punk rock Phillip Glass. I don’t know.

Logan: That’s the next sticker, dude.

TTG: I wanted to ask you guys about your origins. You formed in late 2015.

Logan: Oh my god, it’s been that long?

Michael: That’s right. If I remember right, I met you [Elijah] at the end of 2014 on Craigslist and I was kinda new to Raleigh at the time, and I didn’t really know any musicians, and I put out this desperate Craigslist ad, like “Hi, I’m a drummer, I want to play with people, I just want to play drums.” Pretty much.

I went and joined another project for about six to seven months, I can’t totally remember. It didn’t really work out. But then I was like, Elijah…what were you doing again? Let’s start that up.

Elijah: We finalized arrangements.

Michael: And that’s what’s important about the first EP, actually. Most of that music was already written by you [Elijah]. It was already done. And you didn’t have the musicians to do it.

Logan: Except for “Suck It.”

Elijah: Yeah, “Suck It,” was really, like, Logan’s. And “China.” And I was also on Craigslist furiously looking for people. And a mutual friend from college…

Logan: …knew the guitarist from Vacant Company. And I knew him through Tommy as well, from Vacant Company. And he was like, yeah, my friend just moved to North Carolina and he’s looking for people to jam with. And we were like, alright we’ll go jam with him. It’s me, Tommy, the guitarist from Vacant Company, and Elijah. We did a really crazy-ass storage unit jam.

Elijah: It was in the middle of one of the big snows of late 2015.

Logan: It was cold as all- and we were in the storage unit playing crazy stuff and at the end of that, Elijah’s like, hey man, I’m making a new band. It’s gonna be- and then listed, I kid you not- like twelve genres in a row. That none of them made sense together. And I was like, that’s gonna be a hard no. Like, I’m not gonna be in your band, that’s like, funk-metal-prog-jazz-soul-indie-orchestra.

And three months later, we bumped into each other, same mutual friends, and…you either gave me a flash drive or you gave me your computer. And you were like, “Listen to the demos, please, I need a bassist.” Because they had been trying out bassists at this time. And I listened to the first minute and I was like, “Oh, shit.”

And of course, I was in totally trash indie and prog bands and so I showed up to the first rehearsal, and I hadn’t practiced at all. And they were like, “Oh, you definitely should’ve learned all the charts before we got here.” And I was like, oh man, these dudes are pro. I’m digging this!

Michael: Even before that…I didn’t know who you were at the time. You came up to me at Slim’s and you were like, “You and I are going to be in a band together.” And I was like, who are you? I had no idea who this cat was at the time. No idea.

Logan: He thought I was like some stalker. This weird mustachioed man is like, “Yeah, we’re gonna be in a band together.”

Michael: Is like, another alternative life colliding with my current one right now?

TTG: It’s closed now, but you refined your sound at The Kosher Hut. What about The Kosher Hut and that environment allowed you to distill who Zephyranthes was going to become?

Elijah: Naked painting during rehearsals.

Logan: That was wild, dude.

Elijah: That was one of the crucial things.

Logan: It was a great spot. I was living there, at the time. And, y’know, it made for an incredibly convenient rehearsal space, but the vibe in general was just creativity. It was me, with, like, five other people there, I think one of us was living in a blanket fort at the time, one of us was in the living room. It was a wild place.

We would rehearse and we hadn’t written anything. It was brand new, and we were just learning some of the tunes Elijah had come in with, which I believe was “Edelweiss,” the beginning part of “China King”, and “Nigredo.” So we were learning those songs, and Joe Wright lived there and painted my bass.

Elijah: Naked painting.

Michael: It was naked painting.

Logan: He would come in and he’d set up sheets and he’d strip down and he’d paint naked. Huge canvases, eight foot canvases while we were playing. And I felt empowered in a way, like, wow, we can inspire someone to create. We started to write and hone that. And we didn’t want to play there too often. I think we only ended up playing there twice.

Michael: Once. It was only once.

Elijah: So, The Kosher Hut, to put it in perspective, was a house and a ballet studio in the back. So the ballet studio, they would host house shows in. It was a two hundred cap room. It was a really big spot, and it sounded wonderful.

Logan: We started to get some good touring acts in there too, at the end of it. In the last years, before they bulldozed it. Now, it’s literally just a grassy knoll. Totally done. Which is kinda cool. It ended!

Elijah: We can reveal the location, now.

Logan: Yeah, 620 Price Street. It ended. It was like, the house is getting bulldozed guys, you’re out.

Michael: The mailbox is still there.

Logan: We had some really good times there.

Michael: I feel like I didn’t appreciate it at the time.

Elijah: It was kind of like a combinator of bands. ‘Cause Vacant Company came up in there, y’know, we came up in there.

Logan: Yeah, Lonnie Walker practiced in there a little bit. When they reformed. Drag Sounds had a few practices in there. Every band practiced there. It was like eighteen, twenty local bands practiced there. And everybody scattered like roaches.

Elijah: And for a lot of scene mainstays, it was one of their first places that they played in Raleigh. Like Zack Mexico, from the Outer Banks where I grew up, that was one of their big breaks, was playing The Kosher Hut.

Logan: You got in front of over one hundred local people right away. Sure, we weren’t pulling in a ton of cash, it was donation-based. But that wasn’t the point. You got to play for people who enthusiastically enjoyed your stuff. I’m glad we got Blanko Basnet in there, Canine Heart Sounds got in there. It was good.

Elijah: The Bronzed Chorus, Night Idea, Arc Iris.

Logan: Yeah, we pulled Arc Iris somehow. But we locked down those invites hard. We never shared the address. You have to park in the right places, you turn your lights off, you come in, you keep it chill. We kept all the lights off on the outside of the house. We had police drive by, and they didn’t know what was going on.

Michael: It was systematic.

Logan: You couldn’t hear anything from the street.

Michael: You really couldn’t.

Logan: And so they’d just see a ton of cars, but there’s nobody out boozing it up on the lawn or the street. And they couldn’t hear anyone. So we kept it locked down, man.

Michael: I do remember the first time I went, it was like, look for the house that looks like McDonald’s. ‘Cause it was red and yellow.

Elijah: It was pretty unsightly. It’s definitely a contrast to some venues that you see nowadays which have social media presences in the Raleigh area.

Michael: They’re branding themselves now.

Elijah: Yeah. Which I think is cool, I mean, we love those venues. Oh, and I would have to say that Kosher Fest was, like, a seminal Raleigh show.

Logan: I don’t know how we threw that together, man. Mad credit to Jason Warnoff of Vacant Company for booking a lot of that. He booked probably sixty percent of those acts, Tommy Quinn booked another twenty, I probably booked another twenty percent. And we had two stages, simultaneous, for the whole day. Marc Russell- who finally has a brick and mortar store for his food truck, Longleaf Swine- had his food truck there. He sold out.

Elijah: He had an eighteen foot trailer.

Logan: Yeah, he brought an eighteen foot trailer there into the yard. And we had to park it the day before. He sold out of plates by like, 5:30.

Michael: I bought two plates.

Elijah: It was amazing. All the bands. So many bands!

Logan: Everybody played. That was crazy. The only person that didn’t get to play was Oak City Slums, because when somebody said that the police drove by, he split.

Elijah: Understandable.

Logan: Understandable. But everybody else played. It was great.

TTG: No question the Raleigh underground scene has changed a lot. Where do you hope it goes in the future?

Logan: It is tough for a house, even if you garner the attention and the crowds and the vibe, to have the right architecture. It sounds stupid, but you have to have a big enough space in your place to host the show. And if it’s an old home, split into these smaller rooms, back when they were building wood supports, like- you can’t have it.

And what I hope to see- and I think Nick Neptune is onto it- there’s areas where people bought up warehouses, expecting to sell it to the soccer stadium that’s not going to get built. And they are doing nothing with those spaces. So eventually, somebody with money who loves the scene enough is going to start doing it. ‘Cause it’s gotta be private property. But the prices are so expensive that somebody in our income bracket isn’t going to be able to buy a warehouse and just start throwing shows. It’s tough.

Michael: Also, I think, Raleigh, since I’ve been here- I think Raleigh is still developing its identity in a lot of ways, if you go to New York City, or Memphis, or Nashville, their identity coincides with the music scene. And I think Raleigh is still working on that. There’s really no centralized point of like, this is what Raleigh’s about. But I think it’s coming up. You know, the city’s still growing. Diversity is good. There’s so many different scenes. But there’s really no centralized Raleigh sound. And that’s fine. It takes a long time.

TTG: What’s your favorite conspiracy theory?

Michael: Oh man, I’m not starting this one off.

Logan: Are we talking like, government-based, music-based?

Elijah: Yeah, if we get into music-based, there’s some really good ones. Like, the whole Canyon Valley conspiracy? So y’know the Laurel Canyon conspiracy, where all the Laurel Canyon folk rockers- all of their parents are like, CIA and government intelligence.

Which, like, Jim Morrison’s dad, I think- I don’t know, Crosby, from Crosby, Stills, and Nash, and Zappa, guys like that- they’re all in this little zone. It’s like, an MKUltra Project, to get super musicians to influence American public opinion. It’s great. Read that one! That’s cool!

Logan: Y’know, flat earth obviously, is a go-to. I mean, they had the convention in Raleigh, and the new documentary came out, I’m big into that, that’s a good one. Behind the Curve, you should check it out.

Beyond that, Alex Jones slowly unraveling. I don’t know if you’ve heard any of his recent exclamations that the upper elites of society are draining themselves of blood and taking a large amount of DNT to commune with the machine elves. That are telling them how to shape society to move in a progressive fashion.

Elijah: You also have the quote, recently, where he’s like, “Yeah, they’re wizards with palantirs, and they’re smoking marijuana, and looking into crystal palantirs with psychedelics…”

Logan: And it’s like, I hate him as a person, he’s a scumbag, terrible person-

Elijah: Trash.

Logan: But the fact that- draining themselves of blood, taking large amounts of DNT to commune with the machine elves- I was like- whoa. That is a- even just machine elves! What is it? It opens so many doors in terms of just, me being able to, like- whoa, what am I even imagining right now? Like…I’m communing with the machine elves.

Elijah: That’s a whole theory unto itself.

Logan: That is a whole theory unto itself. Like. What is that? Now obviously, flat earth is the go-to, but the machine elves…that tripped me recently. Last week’s favorite conspiracy theory.

Michael: My favorite was from an Uber driver I had last month. When I was coming back from Salt Lake City. He said that he was working on his latest book. And he was transposing it for YouTube. And it was all about how there was an intergalactic cooperation at the middle star of Orion’s belt where they’re protecting the galaxy. It involves NASA. He sounded so convinced, he was like, “Yeah, man, you’ve got to look it up. There’s an intergalactic meeting happening at Orion’s belt. The meeting is happening right now.” That was the longest Uber ride of my life.

Logan: That’s a good question. It probably, secretly, tells you a lot about somebody’s personality, their favorite conspiracy theory. I think that’s every conspiracy theorist’s worst fear, is that they will actually be proven right. They get to the two hundred foot ice wall, and they’re just like…it’s here!

Elijah: It’s here! I’m at the edge of Earth! It’s a flat disc!

Logan: Think about flat earth. What’s on the other side?

Elijah: Is it just endless space? It’s a Cartesian plane.

Logan: It just opens up so many doors. What’s on the other side of the ice wall? Is it another Earth with just a different…it’s all the same experimental conditions and we’re just a petri dish? And then it’s the same exact Earth with the same exact…

Michael: If you don’t stop him now…

Elijah: We’re going down a hole.

TTG: I wanted to ask about sonic distortion in your records, because you guys have really leaned into that kind of production since the beginning of your recording career. In terms of how it affects vocals, the lyrics are not necessarily intelligible-it’s more about emotion, it’s about the stretching of sound. Talk me through that.

Logan: So…it all began when I was a child. [Laughs.] No, for real though, this does start with that. So when I was fifteen, I heard a record by Sigor Ros- and he wrote everything in a fake language. It was just syllable singing. It was called Hopelandic. Totally unintelligible. It meant nothing. But it meant everything. Because you interpreted it how you needed to interpret it. It blew me away as a fifteen year old.

And so as we moved into the lyrical phase for this group in particular, it became more about the space we’re filling, and less about the lyrics.

What we started to do was experiment with pedals. So we started to do delay pedals, I started running my vocals through delay pedals, and then I started running my vocals through a chorus pedal, and in particular a really cheap, crappy chorus pedal.

Elijah: Yeah, it’s like a twenty dollar chorus pedal.

Logan: It’s like, at best, a twenty dollar chorus pedal. It really compresses and kind of treble-izes the vocals in a weird way. And so when we brought that same pedal in to Missy, in Fidelitorium, I said, well, I sing through this live, it’s a big part of our live sound, me singing through this chorus pedal. When we put it through and like, gained out, it had this really sparkly, kind of beautiful quality to it, in a weird way. And so we were like, we’ve got to keep that.

TTG: A lot of the guitar sounds coming out of pure math rock are very clean. And you guys definitely diverge from that. Elijah, tell me more about how that affects your guitar playing and how you incorporate technology into that.

Elijah: Totally! I came from this perspective of being this really huge gearhead for many years. And then got to this point where I didn’t really care about it so much, and just cared about what the end result was. So, you know, if you have to smack your guitar, you have to hit it against the ceiling, whatever. It’s all valid.

Logan: It’s not like math rock is easy listening, but the harmonic content of math rock seems to be relatively- it doesn’t change a lot. It’s very technical and angular, but a lot of times it’s like they’re sticking either with a very dissonant tone, or it’s easy listening, almost.

Elijah: Yeah, like you’re saying, it all pulls from very simple harmonic material or very complex material.

Logan: Too dissonant.

Elijah: So trying to work in some of that jazz influence. And really loving harmonies. That’s one of my big things. I just love chords and stuff.

Logan: But you get to fuzz out- he uses a really gated fuzz a lot of times. A very in-your-face, aggressive…and again, it’s the space you fill, as a trio, you have to fill space and be interesting. You don’t have the luxury of having a rhythm guitarist, so I have a thick pedal on my bass a lot of times.

Like, I either have an octave pedal, or I have a harmonizer on, like in some other form, or I’m picking really hard to get a thick tone, and then he’s got like- the sonic palette to fill as much of that treble area as he wants, right? Because my singing range is really high already, and it’s kind of thinned out and distorted. So it’s filling its space, but like he gets to like- and the distortion helps you be more in-your-face about it.

Elijah: Definitely. That style came from listening to Annie Clark and St. Vincent. And John Frusciante, Cedric and Omar. People like that. It’s almost more about the timbre impact of the part-writing rather than necessarily the number of notes you’re playing or how it’s going. So stepping back and viewing guitar in more of a soundscape-type area.

TTG: Before we wrap up here, is there anything you’d like to say to the kids at home? I don’t know what kids would be reading this blog.

Logan: Yeah, the kids at home. Um…think about what’s on the other side of the ice wall.

Elijah: On the flat earth. That’s important. Maybe we’re there. That’s where our next show is.

Michael: Live at the ice wall.

TTG: If you played at the ice wall, you’d have to do a live album.

Elijah: I mean, people have been trying to recreate Woodstock for years.

Michael: Next show is live at the ice wall.


All photos by Olivia Huntley. Photos courtesy of Zephyranthes.

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Q&A: Rapper and Producer Steezie on Effortless Artistry

The Raleigh artist sounds off on the genesis of his flow and how he operates in the studio.

Whether he’s buoying a crowd behind the mic, or orchestrating chest-rattling bass in the studio, rapper, producer, and engineer Steezie maintains his tranquility.

The name “Steezie” is an amalgamation of the words “style” and “ease;” words that the Raleigh-based artist has built his persona around.

For a look at that internal placidity in action, check out the music video for his 2017 single, “MI AMOR.” Steezie jumps, spins, and grooves around The Raleigh Rose Garden. His dancing could easily motivate a crowd and anchor a party, but his easygoing smile and economy of movement all feel utterly effortless.

Steezie rarely strays from an unblemished vocal delivery and low-pitched placement. His flow is the star; he’ll spit rapid-fire for several bars before stretching out syllables like taffy.

Steezie’s lyrics compliment the image of effortless mastery he’s cultivated. Generally featuring his skills as a lover and his ability to foresee snakes in the grass, he positions himself as a man in command, always a little slyer than his enemies.

Originally from Harare, Zimbabwe, Steezie’s move to the States coincided with his decision to make music. He spent the following ten years learning his craft, and cut his teeth performing in Raleigh.

When I met Steezie over Hangouts, I found that his particular brand of passionate equilibrium carried over from his public persona to his personal life. He’s happy to share, enthusiastic about his projects and the development of the Raleigh rap scene, but he sustains an unruffled air at all times.

I spoke with Steezie about the sounds coming out of the Raleigh rap scene, how he navigates his time in the studio, and how his roots have shaped his style.

What are your favorite places in Raleigh?

Oh, I love Kings Barcade. I definitely love…The Pour House is a nice spot. Except that they don’t accept people under twenty-one, which is a killer because people in that age range listen to our music a lot. I like The Ritz. That was definitely the best place I’ve performed at. The Wicked Witch is another spot that I’ve been to. That’s really good. Those are some of my favorite spots, definitely, in downtown Raleigh.

What are a few of your favorite shows you’ve performed in, and what made them your favorite?

I performed one time in Boone at a college event. It was a frat party and that was one of my favorites. The energy inside this frat house was really crazy. They rooted for us from the start to the end, and they were just on point the whole time. The energy didn’t stop from start to finish. It was not a big venue or anything crazy. When you’re in something that everyone is participating in, and involved, and everyone is cheering for you, it’s something special.

Is crowd energy what makes a show for you?

Generally, yes, crowd energy is definitely the biggest factor. I would also say this; the Ritz was a great place that I performed at, even though it was a different crowd from…basically from young to old. It wasn’t a targeted group of people. So it was hard to capture the crowd with that different sound. It was a weird experience, but it was great. It was the biggest stage I’ve performed at.

In addition to being a rapper and an artist, you’re also a producer and an engineer.

Yes, I do engineer for myself. When I started out as an artist, and I had friends that I saw were creating and making beats and engineering, I used to sit back and I felt left out, so I was like, “Yo, I’m going to see what that’s about.”

So I got into the studio and started making beats and producing, and while I was producing I got connected with different artists from around the city. And they were trying to hop on my beats, and sometimes I didn’t get to record them because I didn’t know anybody that recorded people. So I started learning how to engineer. It’s all connected together: producing, engineering, and artistry. It’s all connected together, it all helped out.

And it’s created something special, not only for myself but for the upcoming scene here in North Carolina. I get to see so much talent come through and being able to get on a verse, or make the beat, or engineer the song is…I want to be involved in any type of way, you know? So that’s why I love it.

If you had to typify the sound coming out of the Raleigh rap scene right now, how would you describe it in a few words?

Well, right now it’s evolving because we have so many different sides and parts of Raleigh. I don’t even know if you can even give us a stamp on a sound, because we have an old school sound from Rapsody, she’s got that boom bap. So we’ve got that type of sound, we have artists that make trap music, we have R&B…we got so much to offer. Like I can’t even put it all in one box. So it’s really everywhere, that’s the interesting part. It’s just gonna take the right years to come and listen and find this area and hear what we have going on. It’s something special.

It’s terrific. What would you say are the greatest challenges facing the scene as it develops?

The greatest challenges right now…I just feel like people…I feel like people should connect more and not so much have an expectation towards situations that have other people involved. Like shows, or going into a studio, or collaborating with an artist. I think people’s first impressions towards artists are not really good. I think people should go out there and really get to understand the artist and get to creating. It doesn’t matter if you’re a musical artist, or photographer, or a video person. I think we should open up to each other a lot more, because we have so much to offer for each other.

Everybody wants to get that coastline, from Atlanta and New York and L.A. and stuff…but the people are here, within us, like the producers are here around us, the video people are here around us, so everybody should just reach out more. Go to events. Go to the studio. Go link up with a video person, talk to them, you know, be friends with them. Besides just music, just connect with them so things can move forward.

That makes sense to me. Let’s talk genre for a sec. You have a really interesting old school hip hop approach to genre, in that you pull from a wide palette of sounds. There’s a real R&B feel in “Sublime,” and you’ve got an alt-rock feel with “Evaporate.”

Yeah.

You also definitely use sounds that are associated with hip hop. What inspires you to use that old school approach and pull from a variety of genres?

I’m so eager to make different types of sounds, and show people what I’m capable of making. Because I don’t want to be boxed into one type of genre.

I want to break that boundary, because right now, what being an artist is about…people have a certain sound. Like when you hear a certain sound, you’re automatically associated with one artist. Oh, that’s- that’s him. My whole like thing is like, I want to do songs that people don’t realize it’s me. They’ll be, like, “Yo, who is this?” And then they’re like, “Oh, he doesn’t even make that type of stuff,” you know? I feel like being a producer too helps out a lot, because I have so much to pick from, sounds to pick from, that I can just go to. I have old school sounds, and I can’t take out that old school root for me. I love it. I feel like it will always stay alive.

Absolutely. One of the hallmarks of your flow that I wanted to draw attention to is how effortless it seems. Even if you’re doing something that’s technically difficult, it always feels natural, like you’re not breaking a sweat. You pair that with a really organic sampling style. How did that approach evolve?

That approach is just…it’s just me. It’s Steez! My whole name is “style and ease,” that’s how the root came together. That just who I am. And I’m very introverted. I’m quiet. You know, I have…most of the time I’m just quiet. And I take things with a lighter approach. So that’s how I approach my music. Like I don’t need to prove anything. I’m making the art from from my heart, not to prove the point that I’m the hottest out or anything like that.

That makes sense.

Yeah. But I definitely have songs where I am not quiet. Like, it’s that party vibe, I still have that party side in me a lot. So it’s going to come. Right now I’m in a slow type of music, my music is slow-tempoed, but I’m bringing that fast energy very soon, so I’m excited for that.

Because you have these aspects of you as a producer, as an engineer, and then you frequently generate your own beats to rap over, what in your mind makes for an iconic beat- a great beat to rap to?

Right now, what makes a great beat is something really raw and organic. Something that just flows within you. Like, if you were to sit there and make a beat for ten, fifteen minutes, twenty minutes. I know that sounds like a rush, but if you’re just trusting your gut, you just trust your gut will place things where they are supposed to be. It’s about trusting yourself. The producer that trusts themselves, and believes they can make something in a small amount of time just by going with the flow and the energy in that time, are the greatest producers right now. Because it’s simple, it has to be open for the artist to throw different different types of cadences to it. So that’s what makes a great beat. Something open and vibey for the artist to get on and do that thing.

So it’s all about instinct.

Yes. This is really about instinct. You got to be raw at it. Because when you’re in the studio, the process is you have an artist behind you. And they don’t want to sit and wait for you to make a beat in like, a whole hour. By that time, most of the time artists are already like…the ideas have really flown out their head. So if you’re making it right on the spot, you’re done with it in ten minutes, and you know the artist gets on it and that way the energy is captured right there. Everybody’s just passing around this energy. It’s crazy. It’s magic.

It’s like catching lightning in a bottle.

Seriously. So that’s how you create something great right there.

Very cool. I wanted to touch on that you’re originally from Harare, Zimbabwe.

Yes.

And you moved here in 2008. What was that transition like?

It was really different. Because it wasn’t like I was not aware of the culture here. I knew the culture here. Like, you know, I was watching music videos. I was listening to Lil Wayne, I was listening to a lot of artists from here. And I knew a lot- I thought I knew a lot, but when I got here it was way different. I got to know what’s going on. It took me some time to get to understand how people are. You know, everybody’s different. So it took me some time to kind of adjust to the people here. And I got used to it, and I just grew into it. So it was great. It was awesome.

How do you integrate American influences with Zimbabwean influences? You’ve mentioned in the past that it affects your cadence. Tell me more about that.

“In Atlanta, their accent and flow and cadence is there and like- it’s just straightforward. Like for me, I had my accent. I can kind of blend in, so people could understand me. You know what I’m sayin’? I feel like that was one thing that I had to spend some time working. I had to find a certain place where I can fit my voice. And that soft cadence, it’s something that I had started out with and it was great. But I know I have so much more inside. So it’s been really great finding that.”


Photo courtesy of Steezie.

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NC New Releases 🎵

In February and early March of 2019, NC artists greeted the end of winter with a spate of phenomenal new tunes from many genres.

This edition of NC New Releases is brought to you by February and early March of 2019. NC artists greeted the end of winter with a spate of phenomenal new tunes from many genres.

North Carolina did not come to play this month; from math rock fresh off the DIY scene in Greensboro, to old-time music with modern sensibilities out of Durham, to innovative beats from Greenville.

Whoever you are, whatever tunes you like to groove to, NC has a new release for everyone. Let’s go.

Allison de Groot & Tatiana Hargreaves

Powerhouses Allison de Groot and Tatiana Hargreaves debut their musical partnership with a fresh take on an old favorite, “Eighth of January.”

Considered among the finest of a new generation of old-time and bluegrass musicians, banjoist de Groot and fiddler Hargreaves are in top form on this much-recorded, much-beloved classic.

While Hargreaves and de Groot pay homage to the song’s long recording history, their interpretation of “Eighth of January” has a modern verve. Crisp production and sparkling technique honor the storied Southern traditional without getting bogged down in sentimentality. This recording is a tantalizing taste of the album to come.

You can follow Allison de Groot on her website, Facebook, and Instagram, and Tatiana Hargreaves on her website, Instagram andFacebook. You can stream “Eighth of January” and preorder the album on Bandcamp here.

Mo. Three

In one minute and twenty-five seconds, Mo. Three makes beat magic. The Greenville artist’s most recent release, Short ‘n Fancy, is, well- just that.

The playful mix of genre and orchestration paired with distinctive beats make for eight witty, memorable tracks to bump. “Fancy a Dance, m’lady?” is a great display of Mo. Three’s musical humor, while ROSES is as smooth as grooves get.

You can follow Mo. Three on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, and hear his appearance on episode four of Treee City’s Rainforest Café here. You can listen on Bandcamp here.

Terms x Conditions

On their thrashing first release, Excuse My Colours, products of the Greensboro DIY scene Terms x Conditions romp through jazz-infused math rock.

Everything beloved about math rock as a genre is present in Excuse My Colours. The classic atypical time signatures and technical precision are all brought to a fever pitch of scientific raucousness. Plus, every musician is excellent; though the wailing euphonium, saxophone, and trumpet are especially impressive.

Terms x Conditions are a commanding addition to the Greensboro DIY scene- and this release cements them as a band to watch.

You can follow Terms x Conditions on Facebook and Instagram, and stream the album on Bandcamp here.

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