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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