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Photo: Courtesy of Rosslyn Jazz Fest
Photo: Courtesy of Rosslyn Jazz Fest

AZTEC SUN Bring “Funk with Soul” to Rosslyn Jazz Fest

Though I  have a limited knowledge of cooking, my brief flirtation with Pinterest has taught me that recipes made of unlikely ingredients with proper preparation often turn out to be the most delicious. If AZTEC SUN were a recipe, the 10-piece crew would consist of two cups guitar, one cup of bass, one serving of equal parts keyboard and organ, and a heaping helping of horns and vocals – all served over a foundation of varied percussion.

Though the original band started off with four members and grew from there, each member of the band’s current lineup adds their own special flavor to the mix in an exciting blend of different genres and styles whose talents combine to form an original recipe they like to call “funk with soul.

This Saturday, the band is set to bring this blend of music to Rosslyn’s Jazz Festival, a 28-year tradition that fills Arlington’s Gateway Park with a full day of free musical performances. I sat down to talk to Lee Anderson (backing vocals) and Catch Banning (keyboard/organ) about AZTEC SUN’s new album Everyone, the fest and the strong sense of community their band has formed.

On Tap: How did you all come together and what are the origins of the group?
Catch Banning: AZTEC SUN had two iterations. The original iteration formed seven years ago when Stephane Detchou [the band’s leader, singer and songwriter] sent out a Craigslist post. The original AZTEC SUN was a lot more rock and funk heavy – more of a Red Hot Chili Peppers sound. About a year and a half into that project, band members went to grad school and moved out of state, and that kind of fell apart. Steph put out another Craigslist ad and that’s where I met him – in an audition. We met our original sax players there, and our bass player. We kept in touch after that audition and started to form our own project, and slowly put the pieces together to bring back the band.

OT: How else would you describe your music?
Lee Anderson: The sound is very reflective of the process Catch just talked about. It’s very full and energetic. You can sit at home and turn on the radio and hear some really nice music, but when you come to an AZTEC show, it’s an experience. It’s hard to personify a sound, but if you could hear community – like what the very essence of being communal is – it would sound like AZTEC SUN.
CB: [We use the phrase] “funk with soul” on the website, and I think a great part of our sound is that so much of it comes from [and is inspired by] different eras of music.

OT: How has the group evolved since it was first created?
CB: We are a live band. That has been a core pillar of AZTEC SUN, in that it is important to think of [us] as an entire experience. [That includes] everything from what we are wearing to how we’re performing and what our energy on stage is like. Steph’s done a great job of continuing to challenge us and push us to think about ways just to make this an experience, not just music.

OT: Up until this point, you all have been focusing your energy on live performances. Why did you all choose to start out that way rather than just releasing music and touring based on music you’ve already released?
CB: A word that we use often is “collective.” AZTEC SUN is bigger than the 10 of us. It’s bigger than our partners. We very much see this as a movement in DC and [for] the musicians in other communities we connect with when we play. There’s something that happens with this shared experience of live music; when we see musicians on stage; when we hear live music; when we hear improvisation; [and] when we hear a call to action. People come because they know that’s true. They know they’re gonna get passion, raw energy, joy, an excuse to jump and be around like-minded folks who are incredibly inclusive. I feel like the reason we put so much effort into playing live constantly is because it’s so much more than music. We’re doing this to connect with people. Recording is one way to do that, but we are so much more a live band than a polished studio band. We’re really proud of that.
LA: I think a lot of that also goes back to Steph, who always had a really specific vision for what he wanted this conglomerate to sound like. That tradition for him – that audio legacy – is rooted in the performances that emerged from the Motown Era. Berry Gordy had a very stringent test, the Ham Sandwich Test, that he would put records through before [they] hit the streets. If more people said they would rather buy a ham sandwich than the record, he would tell them to take that shit back to the studio. For us, before we are able to have something we can put online and impress our friends, [we need to make] sure the sound has a certain amount of integrity. We don’t want to just release a bunch of product without people being able to connect with [us]. Nothing makes people feel invested as much as [performing] live, face to face.

OT: Since you have already performed alongside acts like Shaun Martin of Snarky Puppywho has been your favorite artist to perform with live and why?
CB: I think the biggest show of our lives was opening up for Galactic at 9:30 Club. I speak for myself on this, but I know a lot of members really grew up listening to Galactic and Rebirth Brass Band, which is another band we’re about to go on tour with for four nights in the South. For us to get that opening slot in our home turf at 9:30 Club – to play for Galactic – it was an incredible honor to be able to warm up the crowd for a band that’s been incredibly influential in a lot of our lives.
LA: I’m with Catch on that one. That was a particularly amazing night. I’ll also give a shoutout to Alan Evans of Soulive, who we recorded with. Al is, and he doesn’t know this, but he’s kind of like my mentor in some ways.

OT: Speaking of recording your album with him, what was that like?
LA: It was definitely a different type of recording process. I was used to going in the studio and tracking everything out, [but] we definitely did this old school. We put the whole band in one big room and we started playing. We limited each song to three takes and decided we were going to take the best one. It was exciting to me because I had never recorded anything that way before, which is like a shout out to old school, golden era music like James Brown, Motown, that’s how they recorded.

OT: That’s amazing, especially since there are so many of you guys. Three takes in three days, that’s like your lucky number.
CB: There was definitely a lot of pressure going into the project for that very reason, because we were [only taking] a few cuts of each song and we weren’t going to go back and edit everyone’s solos or nitpick. You could feel that trust throughout the entire group – we all knew we were ready. We all knew we were capable of it because we put in the practice to get to this moment. We opened for a band called Everyone Orchestra that uses a shifting amalgamation of different artists around the country to put on live shows. [Al] met us there and that’s kind of where this connection started. 

OT: What can fans of your live performance expect to hear from this album? Do you think the live aspect translated over to the recording really well?
LA: I think if nothing else, they will hear 10 people who really care a lot about each other and trust each other, having fun, and it will be so infectious they’ll have no choice but to have fun with us. They’re going to want to play it everyday and jam out with us. Musically, it’s us – it’s a little bit of everything, but it comes together really nicely.
CB: We’re very proud of [our first] EP, but I think [compared to] when you see a live AZTEC SUN show, the EP is very clean and very studio polished. All of those songs sound drastically different when we play live. This album communicates more of the emotion of the song [and] takes shape in [the] way that we all play it live a lot more.

OT: How are you guys prepping for Rosslyn Jazz Fest and what are you most looking forward to about it?
CB: Cory Henry is a beast! I’m just beyond thrilled we’re on a bill with him. I’m glad we get to play a set warming up the crowd and then [get to] sit back, relax and listen to that man tear up the Hammond. I’m pumped to play an outdoor show, but to watch Cory Henry is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
LA: For me, it’s the fact that we’re going to have so many friends and family there. It’s always cool when I get to go on the road and go to a new place, but it’s even better when I have my people. When I can look out and see folks that I know and love, it’s just a special thing. Also just the energy that happens when you’re home. When you can say “Hey, we’re DC’s own,: even though it’s in Virginia.

AZTEC SUN’s new album Everyone is set to release this November. Join them for their album release show on Saturday, November 10 at Pearl Street Warehouse. For information about the Rosslyn Jazz Fest, visit the event page here

Gateway Park: 1300 Lee Hwy. Arlington, VA; www.rosslynva.org

Photo: Joe Dilworth
Photo: Joe Dilworth

Algiers Breaks Barriers

“How do we relate that sense of division that’s brought upon us from top down, from people in power who seek every day to divide us and categorize us as human beings and prevent us from collectively coming together?”

Algiers bassist Ryan Mahan poses this question to me over the phone from his home in the UK. Now more than ever, I surely don’t know the answer. But through their genre-smashing catalog, Algiers might be close to finding it.

The four-piece outfit was a sociopolitical force before they were ever a band. Atlanta natives Mahan, vocalist Franklin James Fisher and guitarist Lee Tesche formed in 2007, eventually adding drummer Matt Tong – formerly of Bloc Party – to the fold in 2016.

Over the course of their 11-year career, the band has never been interested in what others call them. They’re more interested in using music as a unifying force, especially at a time when division is more common than ever in so many creative spaces.

“We actually came up with the concept of Algiers before we ever had written a note of music,” Mahan says. “We were focused much more specifically on the social context of the music – how that relates to the actual sound that you’re trying to project and looking at music in spatial ways. That’s where the politics come from too, because there’s a politic to that in and of itself. We deal with issues like appropriation and colonialism within music itself, and exclusionary spaces where you maybe see a particular scene that has been built up.”

On any given Algiers song, you’ll hear hints of post-punk, gospel, new wave and more. There are a lot of bands who could have potentially influenced Algiers, but there are no other bands who sound – or think – like Algiers.

When Mahan dissects the conglomeration of sounds that make up his band’s music, he explains, “It might sound a little bit analytical as an approach. But it actually allows us to be quite free with our music and play with our music in very different ways.”

He continues, crediting the culture industry for creating this sense of genre “in its own twisted, distorted way.”

“It almost polices these boundaries and prevents the fluidity of music and us from grasping music in a much more holistic way. We’re obviously engaged with history and our own histories and the history of oppression. How do we relate that sonically?”

Mahan and company explore that question and more on the band’s most recent record, The Underside of Power, released last June. With members now living in the States and the UK, their sophomore effort was influenced by the disarray of politics in both places. Their songs directly deal with everything from police brutality to the 2016 election and the resurfacing of fascist ideals. They seamlessly reference and draw inspiration from the Black Panthers, Che Guevara and Albert Camus, to name a few.

The band does important work using music as their vehicle, and their voices to give rise to others’ voices in turn. Algiers appears on the bill for Black Cat’s 25th anniversary show this month, and the band is looking forward to performing in a city that remains an epicenter for creative resistance. Algiers’ strength lies in their ability to embody the energies of these spaces, no matter the location.

“It’s all about inserting yourself in these spaces, and that’s why playing this 25th anniversary show at the Black Cat is powerful for us,” Mahan says. “Dante [Ferrando, owner] and the people at the Black Cat see us within this scene. We’re playing alongside some of our heroes: Mary Timony in Ex Hex, Mike Watt, Gray Matter and Subhumans. This is all where we see ourselves, and maybe people from the outside – unless they’re fans – don’t really get that. I think that’s kind of a constant battle that we take on.”

And while the band will continue to tackle subjects that very much need light shed on them – Mahan says they’ve recently begun to work on new music – their final goal is to be a unifying force among likeminded people.

“As a band, we just want to connect with people. We really feel like there’s so many people who also feel that way. It’s not through a sense of naiveté. We’re very cynical in our approach, but through that cynicism there is – as we particularly try to reflect on our last album – a sense of light.”

Algiers plays the second night of the Black Cat’s 25th anniversary event on Saturday, September 15. Tickets are $25. Doors open at 7 p.m. For more information on Algiers, visit www.algierstheband.com.

Black Cat: 1811 14th St. NW, DC; 202-667-4490; www.blackcatdc.com

Photo: Emily Chow
Photo: Emily Chow

DC’s Bad Moves Talks Power Pop Ballads & Collaborative Process for New Record

By day, the foursome behind DC-based power pop band Bad Moves span career paths – from labor union organizer to NPR music editor. But by night, bassist Emma Cleveland, drummer Daoud Tyler-Ameen, and guitarists David Combs and Katie Park are focused on their budding music career.

Still beatific from their successful SXSW showcase this spring, the band has been keeping busy with their upcoming LP Tell No One. The record comes out on September 21 via Don Giovanni Records in conjunction with a release party at the Black Cat.

“A lot of the songs on the album deal with themes of having secrets that you keep inside, and the repercussions of either keeping secrets or coming out with them,” Cleveland says.

The band alludes to a few family secrets of their own on Tell No One while still maintaining a degree of mystery. Secrets of sexuality and criminality are woven into the limericks set to the band’s peppy, kinetic beats. Yet the truth is, the album is not about divulging secrets.

Instead, Tyler-Ameen says it’s about “exploring the things that are traditionally considered taboo [that you later realize] are markers of identity, yet you feel when you’re younger you’re not allowed to fully own.”

Tell No One is expected to resonate with all, as did their self-titled EP.

“I don’t know if we necessarily started the band thinking in particular about a demographic,” Combs says. “I don’t know if that’s a word we even used with each other.”

Instead, Bad Moves relies on chance when creating music that sits well with their broad audience – the chance that their personal experiences, or the feelings evoked from those experiences, will be commonly shared.

The bandmates have relied on each other to craft their sound over the past three years, drawing on 90s pop punk and rock sounds that resonate with most older millennials. Combs says he and Park were the main collaborators on Tell No One, and then brought in the rest of the band to “shape it more in our own collective image.” Bad Moves has no lead singer, so the four musicians each share equal vocal responsibility in the band.

“Our intention is to take the focus away from one particular identity as being the central face of the band,” Combs says.

Picking a band name – on a car ride to a recording session at American University – was one of the only items on their ever-growing to-do list that didn’t require too much thought.

“One name I remember pushing for – and now feel relief that we didn’t go with – was Bad Wiz,” Cleveland says. “That would have been bad.”

Combs chimes in, “We also had Wet Hands. It’s hard to know what kind of name will suit your needs early on.”

The process of forming their sound, on the other hand, was a different story. Cleveland says the band made a lengthy playlist of power pop – around 180 songs – that inspired their eclectic sound. The first track on the playlist, which coincidently had the most impact, is “Looking For Magic” by the Dwight Twilley Band.

“You can tell from the lyrics that there’s a sort of desperation,” Combs says of the 1977 classic. “There’s this thing that eludes to magic. There’s a sadness to that sentiment, but the energy of that song is really lifting, inspiring and powerful. It’s a song that’s not ignoring that the world is a hard place to be in, but it’s also something I can put on that will push me through – and that’s what we want our music to do.”

Don’t miss Bad Moves at Black Cat for their record release party on Friday, September 21. The Obsessives and Ultra Beauty will open. Doors are at 7:30, tickets are $10.

Learn more about the band at www.badmoves.bandcamp.com.

Black Cat: 1811 14th St. NW, DC; 202-667-4490; www.blackcatdc.com

Photo: Courtesy of Black Cat
Photo: Courtesy of Black Cat

The 25 Lives of Black Cat

Black Cat has sold out countless shows, with killer acts on regular rotation at the 14th Street music venue. Drawing big names like Radiohead, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Killers and more, the double-level DC mainstay hasn’t quit booking national tours and amplifying local bands since opening its doors in ’93.

But its biggest accomplishment since opening? Owner and founder Dante Ferrando laughs on a recent call with On Tap, offering a blunt reply.

“Managing to stay open for 25 years would be the first [accomplishment] to come to mind,” he says. “It is a tough business. There’s a lot of ups and downs. You have to constantly recreate little bits and pieces to make things work.”

Black Cat is celebrating its 25th anniversary this month with a two-night lineup on September 14 and 15 of some of the venue’s favorite bands to work with. Ferrando seems like he doesn’t want to favor any particular act, but mentions Mike Watt – who’s part of the Friday night lineup – as an example of a musician that means something to the Black Cat team.

“We had a ton of good [musicians] that we asked and a ton of good ones that we got,” Ferrando says of how he culled talent for the anniversary shows. “It’s very tough unless you really want to blow huge amounts of money to get people to change their plans. Everyone’s on tour and has different things that they’re doing.”

As the drummer for local post-hardcore band Gray Matter, opening a music venue might have seemed like an obvious interest for Ferrando – but he’s also a natural entrepreneur. He owned Dante’s, a 14th Street restaurant and emphatic supporter of DC’s music scene, before opening the Black Cat. He says 9:30 Club monopolized the punk and alt-rock scenes at the time, but Ferrando had his own vision.

In its original location on F Street from 1980 to 1996, 9:30 was a “good, tiny punk-rock dive” for a 200-person show, according to Ferrando. At the time, he saw a need for a DC venue that was more accommodating to both fans and bands performing there, like a dressing room and more space for the audience.

“We did something that was needed in the city at that point in time. It was something we needed to have.”

With some healthy competition, 9:30 Club has since moved and improved – and both venues were able to carve their own identities in the city.

“My route was definitely more of the smoky bar or traditional club, [and 9:30 Club has] more of a concert production vibe,” he says. “I think it ended up balancing nicely in the end.”

Ferrando describes their current spot as a Hail Mary; the Black Cat moved to the larger space, still on 14th Street, in 2001.

“If you came to the area now and tried to get a space this big, I would be terrified to know how much that would cost.”

In the 25 lives of Black Cat, Ferrando has witnessed some shifts in the music scene. He says their first five years were the height of indie rock, with a unified local and regional rise of independent record labels and bands feeding off each other’s energy and style.

“I like times like that. It’s great to just have a great band. But if you have four great bands that all know each other and are bouncing stuff back and forth because they’re seeing each other’s shows, those sort of environments are very exciting to me. I just haven’t seen that to quite the [same] degree recently. I always hoped for those little hotspots to pop up and there’s not much you can do to create them aside from waiting for when they start happening.”

He says the fan-musician dynamic has changed too.

“Something that I kind of miss: there used to be a time where if a band was pretty big, a member of that band [playing] with their new act would draw really well. Nowadays, nobody cares. They might like the band, but the direct relationship to the band isn’t as intense as it used to be.”

But the volume of bands and people coming out is still growing, because new listeners can learn about an up-and-coming band through a few Internet clicks. With more venues popping up, local bands play more often now than they did before – and the venues are doing really well, according to Ferrando.

His Friday night anniversary show lineup includes Des Demonas, Subhumans, Ocampo Ocampo & Watt, Ted Leo, Dagger Moon, Scanners, Honey, and Felix & Sam. Des   Demonas guitarist Mark Cisneros calls the Black Cat an oasis in a changing district with new luxuries drawing people with wealth.

“The Black Cat is a home for everyone who’s still here playing music left in the scene,” Cisneros says. “It’s still a stronghold for the DC punk rock scene. It’s one of the best clubs in the world and it’s a real privilege to play there. We’re all thankful that Dante is still going with it and making a home for us.”

Ferrando’s band is set to play a couple of songs on Saturday night.

“It has nothing to do with Black Cat particularly,” he says of Gray Matter’s mini-reunion. “It’s just an opportunity for me to fly old friends in and do a show, which we haven’t done since the 20th anniversary. I’m particularly psyched about that.”

On Saturday, Ex Hex, Hurry Up featuring Kathy Foster and Westin Glass of The Thermals, Algiers, Hammered Hulls, Wanted Man, and Foul Swoops will share the stage with Ferrando.

“You get to catch some of the best local bands we’ve got and some really cool out-of-town bands too,” he says. “There’s a lot of people who’ve been coming here for a lot of years. It’s good to have just a fun party sometimes.”

Don’t miss the Black Cat’s 25th anniversary shows on Friday, September 14 and Saturday, September 15 on the venue’s mainstage. Doors at 7 p.m. both nights. Tickets are $25 per night. Learn more at www.blackcatdc.com.

Black Cat: 1811 14th St. NW, DC; 202-667-4490; www.blackcatdc.com

Photo: www.dawestheband.com
Photo: www.dawestheband.com

Folk Rockers Dawes Come to Wolf Trap

Dawes has spent nine years perfecting the art of the soaring folk-rock singalong. With an impressive six albums in tow, the band is hitting the road this summer with a stop at Wolf Trap on August 24. We caught up with guitarist and songwriter Taylor Goldsmith on their new record, being compared to your heroes and what to expect from Dawes at their live show.

On Tap: Your sixth studio album Passwords was released on June 22. Can you tell me more about some of the themes and inspirations on this album?
Taylor Goldsmith: I think for anyone who works in any creative field – whether you’re a painter, writer or musician – the work that you do tends to reflect the however many years of your life have passed since you put out something else. Right now, we live in this interesting moment. Through politics, culture divides and technology, things are changing very fast and I think [those things] are constantly in the conversation and constantly on our minds. I felt like I needed to explore that in order for me to feel honest as a songwriter. If I’m trying to show people what’s been on my mind, I’ve got to talk about that stuff. Meanwhile, I was getting engaged and falling in love and so there’s a lot of that as well. But beyond that I feel like this album is the relationship between those two ideas: how my worldview and how my concerns for the future and more broad sense of fear are handled through the concept of falling in love.

OT: How did the process of writing and recording Passwords differ from your previous records?
TG:
We went back to working with our first producer who made our first two records, so that was really exciting. It required us to go into the studio a lot earlier than we planned, which meant some of us going in without knowing all the material. I feel like [that’s] true to a lot of music that we love. When we listen to certain Neil Young or Bob Dylan records, there’s always this sense of urgency – this sort of live attitude where you can tell that this group of musicians is learning the material as they’re going.

OT: Speaking of Neil Young and Bob Dylan, you are quite frequently compared to them and other similar artists. How do you feel about that?
TG:
We don’t mind them. It’s just an inevitability at this point. Anybody who is making music needs to be true to what is putting a smile on their own face or what is making them feel motivated or inspired. We’re not chasing down our heroes and trying to just do what they did, but we’re not trying to just shut our influences out. We’re going to do what comes naturally to us. With any artist, the work that they do is a hodgepodge of all of the stuff they’ve ever loved rather than us trying to like get a little heady and be like, “Well, how do we do something no one has ever done before?” I feel like that’s a pretty impossible way to approach representing yourself. I think you’ve just got to write what you write and make what you make, and hope that some sort of individuality shines through.

OT: Are you doing anything differently on this tour than you have in the past? How do you go about putting together your setlist?
TG:
With every new record, our show shifts significantly. We try to incorporate new instruments, like certain drums or keyboards. We try to bring in different ideas for certain songs so they vary from what you might hear on the record. We also try to incorporate certain productions and always try to make sure we’re showing off the new record we made. But I feel like we’re very lucky. Not all bands can say this, but we like all of our music and we like representing it – and we actually make a point to. Anybody who comes to our shows will hear songs from all six albums.

OT: I had the opportunity to see Dawes open for Bright Eyes back in 2011 at Wolf Trap. Do you have any great memories from your last visit? Are you excited to be playing the venue again?
TG:
I remember when Conor [Oberst] invited us to come onstage and sing “Road to Joy” with us. We were honored. It’s a very special place and we’re grateful to get to come back and do our own co-headlining show.

Dawes play The Filene Center at Wolf Trap on August 24 with Shovels & Rope and Joseph. Doors at 7:30 p.m. Tickets begin at $35.

The Filene Center at Wolf Trap: 1551 Trap Rd. Vienna, VA; 703-255-1800; www.wolftrap.org

Photo: Joseph Llanes
Photo: Joseph Llanes

Five Questions with Cowboy Junkies’ Michael Timmins

Canadian folk-rock legends Cowboy Junkies already have 15 albums under their belts, and triumphantly returned for their first effort in six years earlier this month with a new record titled All That Reckoning. Ahead of the band’s visit to The Birchmere this week, guitarist and songwriter Michael Timmins answered questions on inspirations, recording, and visiting the DC area throughout their 33 year career.

On Tap: How has your sound and your recording process evolved since you started out?
Michael Timmins: The one thing that has remained constant with our recording process is that we usually try and record the band “live” off the floor of the studio. When we are working on a song we try and keep the “tape” running and hopefully we catch the song at that moment when it still has the energy of something new. After we have captured that bedtrack, we approach the rest of the recording from a fairly conventional place, overdubbing instruments and ideas individually.

OT: What are some of the major themes and inspirations for your new album?
MT:
The main theme is reckoning, personal and social reckoning. The inspiration comes from personal experience and the world all around.

OT: Are there any artists or bands who you have felt particularly inspired by recently? How did they influence your new work, if at all?
MT: Alan [Anton] and I have always been big Nick Cave fans. I think his last couple of albums influenced the sound of this album: the quiet intensity and the use of unidentifiable keyboard and guitar generated sounds, sounds that supported the intensity of the lyric.

OT: As a band with an impressive career spanning 30 years, what advice would you give to bands and musicians who are just starting out in their careers?
MT:
Make sure that you have an alternate way of earning a living. Seriously.

OT: Have you played the Birchmere before? Do you have any specific memories or stories from playing the DC area?
MT:
We have played the Birchmere many times. DC has always been one of our favorite areas to play. We had lots of success here before most other areas. We played the old 9:30 Club back in the late 80s. That was quite a trip, with the dressing rooms leading to the tunnels under the old Ford Theatre. We’ve also had the pleasure of playing Wolf Trap a few times, which is one of the better venues in the entire country.

Cowboy Junkies play The Birchmere on Thursday, July 26. Show starts at 7:30 pm. For tickets, visit www.birchmere.com.

For more information on All That Reckoning, visit www.cowboyjunkies.com.

The Birchmere: 3701 Mount Vernon Avenue , Alexandria, VA; 703-549-7500; www.birchmere.com

Photo: www.shannonandtheclams.com
Photo: www.shannonandtheclams.com

Shannon and The Clams Triumph Over Tragedy on New Album

Shannon and the Clams were well into recording their sixth album, Onion, when tragedy struck their hometown of Oakland, California. A fire at the Ghost Ship warehouse claimed the lives of 36 concertgoers and musicians that night in 2016 – many of them friends of the Clams. The event shook the DIY community of Oakland, and its aftershock was felt in similar creative spaces throughout the country. While their album had already taken shape, bassist and vocalist Shannon Shaw tells me how the group ended up incorporating the fatal fire into their new release.

“I don’t know if [guitarist and vocalist] Cody [Blanchard] felt the same way as me, but I wasn’t sure if I should or not,” Shaw tells me earnestly. “It was one of those things that me and the other people in that world have experienced. It was just on everyone’s mind all the time, and it still is, really.”

I can hear in her voice that while this is something the greater DIY community may have moved on from, it’s now forever ingrained in the fabric of their hometown. Shaw confirms my silent guess.

“It continues to f–k people up.”

In an act of healing – not just for the Clams, but for all of Oakland – it was weaved into Onion, released earlier this year.

“It became this thing were it would be weird of us to not write about our feelings,” she continues. “To me, that’s what music is: a diary that is important to share because it brings people together and sometimes brings people relief. I felt like I would not be being myself if I didn’t express myself in regards to the fire. God, I’ve written a lot of sad songs in my time, but when I wrote these, they were more for other people.”

Shaw and Blanchard have had different feelings in the wake of the fire, but both felt their band could express the way in which it affected them through music.

“I wanted people to know it was okay to feel everything,” Shaw explains, “and to be open about it and to try and grasp and remember all the amazing ways they’ve influenced our scene, and to let people know they won’t be forgotten. Cody’s take was to explain the plight of the artist, and what it’s like to be forced into the shadows, and all the cool and amazing things that happen in the shadows that people miss. I think that ended up being this really unexpected part of the album. Obviously, we didn’t know that was going to happen and we had a lot of material. But when it happened, that event took over.”

Even though Onion’s subject matter is deeply personal and at times heavy, the album does not stray from the Clams’ trademark brand of 60s-inspired, R&B-tinged psychedelic pop. When I ask her about how moments on Onion manage to be musically fun even when lyrically sad, the idea of music being a mirror to everyday life resurfaces.

“The lyrical content is there, but maybe trying to mask the vibe, but also I kind of think that’s a metaphor for life. Nothing is completely black and white, and using art or music as a tool to reflect that – the big picture or the full scene – that comes naturally.”

Their signature sound was fortified further with the help of Dan Auerbach, frontman of The Black Keys, and a fan of the Clams. Before the band signed to Auerbach’s Easy Eye label, Shaw embarked on a solo journey to his Nashville studio as part of his Easy Eye Sound Revue and to record her solo album. An incredibly accomplished musician in her own right, Shaw notes that her newfound creative partnership with Auerbach kept her on her toes.

“The Dan stuff threw me for a loop, because it’s a totally different world. It’s the big time. I come from the DIY punk zone. I’m comfortable in those shadows. I think to be somewhere shiny and pro instead of recording in a bedroom was intimidating – it’s just as simple as that.”

Shannon later returned to Nashville, the Clams in tow, to mold Onion into the lush and layered gem it became with Auerbach by their side.

“Dan is so good at seeing the big picture, and he also has this huge mental catalog – and really good taste – of sounds and instruments. He could just listen to our songs – which were already pretty good – and have these ideas for things we’d never even thought of. He just knows how far you can take a song: how many layers of stuff [and] how many guitars can you get on there before it’s too much.”

The band’s roots, their “shadows,” were not forgotten in the sparkle of a new producer and album, though. Shaw explains what she’s most looking forward to on the tour they’re about to embark on, and it’s not the big cities that thrill her.

“There’s a tiki bar out in Wilmington, North Carolina, and they have a big dock. At the end of the dock they have bands play right over the ocean. They’ve been asking us to play for years and it’s just never worked out with our routing and our schedule to go all the way out to the beach and play, so we’re doing that this year and I’m so excited. I’ve never played over the water.”

It’s clear that the Clams are on to their next adventure, with hope in the face of tragedy and shimmering sounds in tow.

Catch Shannon and the Clams at U Street Music Hall on Thursday, July 26. Big Huge and Gauche open. Doors at 7 p.m. Tickets are $15. And don’t miss the after-party with DJ Baby Alcatraz and Rob Macy at Dodge City. Doors at 10 p.m. Free.

U Street Music Hall: 1115 U St.NW, DC; www.ustreetmusichall.com // Dodge City: 917 U St. NW, DC; www.dodgecitydc.com

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Brooklyn’s Bodega to Play at DC9

One man strips an basically no one could care less in the VR-shot live video for “How Did This Happen!?,” a song by Bodega, a Brooklyn-based post-punk band that’s coming to DC9 on June 29. I caught front persons of the band, Ben Hozie and Nikki Belfiglio, on the phone the other day and from what I gather, the video gives a good idea of what the live show is like, aside from the audience members that failed to strip.

When I brought up the video both Hozie and Belfiglio laugh.

“That’s actually a curated music video,” Belfiglio tells me. “We wanted to show the average Brooklyn show in 2018 and how ambivalent it was and kind of show where Bodega grew up in [this] bar called Alphaville.”

Hozie continues, “you know most music videos you would tell the audience to be as excited as possible. To dance, sing the lyrics, so we just told everyone ‘just look at your phones, look as bored as possible,’ but that one guy disobeyed and started stripping, and it was great.”

We spoke about a number of things, including Bodega’s use of social media and what success looks like to them. First, Hozie and Belfiglio helped me place Bodega in context, because before Bodega there was Bodega Bay, which is where Belfiglio says she discovered herself as a musician and Hozie discovered his voice as a songwriter.

The work of Bodega Bay helped land Bodega a European and UK tour, as well as a US tour with Franz Ferdinand earlier this year.

Belfiglio says it’s because they’re “very mysterious, [and] people want to know what’s going on,” though something in her tone tells me not to take that seriously.

Hozie refers to the two groups as completely different bands, though he kept the word Bodega, because he wants people to realize there’s some overlap, and also because he likes the word. Even though the two bands sound completely different. Hozie attributes this to a few things, but particularly the input of lead guitar player Madison Velding-VanDam.

When we get to talking about songwriting, Hozie tells me that it might take him three hours to write the lyrics and the chords to a song, but the moment he brings that skeleton to Velding-VanDam is when it becomes a Bodega song.

“Madison deconstructs the original to make it not so predictable and more textural,” he says.

And even then, Hozie’s not sure if the songs are completely written.

“Some of our songs are still not done yet,” he says. “We’re going to play a show tonight and a good part of our show is improvising, so those songs aren’t done yet.”

Belfiglio wrote a few songs on the record as well, including the single single “Gyrate,” on which she described on the band’s Tumblr:

“When I was a little girl I used to masturbate in public (once at a JC Penny perfume counter), not knowing that was wrong. My parents, not wishing to shame me, told me I shouldn’t ‘gyrate’ in front of other people. My song uses the language of Top 40 pop to celebrate self-sustainability and female pleasure. There’s no shame in getting off.”

Belfiglio has several roles in the band. She does the artwork, she sings, does percussion and now she writes. When she started she knew next to nothing about making music.

“I didn’t even know what the two and four was when I joined Bodega Bay,” she says. “The first show I ever did, I was just dancing on a barrel in front of the band, [but] then slowly I incorporated myself into the music making process.”

Tumblr seems to be the only social media that the band makes regular use of, though there is a Facebook page and an Instagram.

Hozie explains why he prefers Tumblr.

“I know there’s a lot of bands that I’ve been a fan of where if if you’re looking at their Facebook it’s very uninspiring and ugly, but if you go to their blog, it just feels more private like you’re looking at their journal or punk zine.”

The two are on their to pick up gear for the night’s gig, but before they go I ask them what success looks like.

“Well we quit our day jobs,” Belfiglio says. “That’s like the highest form of success. It doesn’t mean that we’re sustaining ourselves, but it means that our lives are full enough that we can’t work our day jobs.”

Hozie has two answers. First he quotes an Ian Mackaye-ism that you know you’re successful when you finish a song, are able to play it and actually like it.

“To me, the ultimate success is forming something like a community where your music is connecting with people,” he clarifies. 

Come connect with Bodega June 29 at DC9. Doors are at 7:30 p.m. Tickets start at $10. And be sure to check out Endless Scroll when it comes out July 6.

DC9: 1940 9th St. NW, DC; 202-483-5000; www.dc9.club

Photo: Anna Gaca
Photo: Anna Gaca

Japanese Breakfast Brings Her “Soft Sounds” to 9:30 Club

Michelle Zauner, better known as Japanese Breakfast, took the stage at the 9:30 Club in light-up sneakers that slightly resembled moon boots, jumped along to her song “Machinist” off her most recent release Soft Sounds from Another Planet, and told the sold-out crowd with an unwavering degree of cheer, “This is about being in love with a robot!”

Throughout the night, Zauner continues to tell the crowd what each song is about, letting her audience in on her creative world she’s now cultivated across two albums. Even on tracks from Psychopomp, her first record, which deals with the loss of her mother, you can feel the healing energy that comes from expressing those experiences through music.

Her band matches her energy and talent throughout the night. Adding to the unique onstage energy is her husband Peter Bradley on bass. When Zauner and company begin to play “Til Death,” she looks to Bradley and quips, “This song is about marriage.” She’s quick to add “Gross,” getting a good laugh out of the already smiling crowd.

Her conversational tone in both her comments and her lyrics adds to her relatability, something that has earned her well deserved critical acclaim. Coupled with her onstage enthusiasm and wildly good cover of The Cranberries’ “Dreams,” Japanese Breakfast is a live act not to be missed.

Learn more about Japanese Breakfast here.

Houndmouth

Music Picks: June 2018

TUESDAY, JUNE 5

Hop Along
Genre-bending Philadelphia outfit Hop Along is led by Frances Quinlan, an incredibly gifted songwriter. She used the band’s most recent release Bark Your Head Off, Dog to meditate on finding her voice as an individual, which in turn lead to the four-person group finding their voice as a band. The band’s most musically stunning release to date also deals with timely themes like abuse of power, made even more impactful by Quinlan’s impossible-to-pin-down vocal power. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets start at $20. 9:30 Club: 815 V St. NW, DC; www.930.com

WEDNESDAY, JUNE 6

Francis and the Lights
There are few better songs to wake up to than “Morning,” the album-opener off of Francis and the Lights’ 2017 record Just for Us. The piano that drives the song is so simple you imagine anyone in the house could play it, but there’s something about it that just makes you feel good. It’s like a lot of his other songs, they feel like they’re coming from an honest, if naive, place. It’s that quality, plus his production chops, that scored Francis so many collaboration credits, including with Chance The Rapper and Frank Ocean. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $25. 9:30 Club: 815 V St. NW, DC; www.930.com

Horse Feathers
I am thoroughly convinced there is no song better for staring at your ceiling and being sad to than “Curs in the Weeds.” Horse Feathers manages to be sparse and lush at the same time, mostly due to the silvery slick vocals of frontman Justin Ringles paired with subtle string arrangements. Their latest album Appreciation adds some soul arrangements in the mix, keeping this hidden gem folk band’s catalog ever fresh. Doors at 6:30 p.m. Tickets start at $17. Union Stage: 740 Water St. SW, DC: www.unionstage.com

Yung Heazy
Yung Heazy may not boast an extensive discography, (as of this writing, he has only three official tracks to his name, though his debut LP comes out June 1), but he does boast a good story. Yung Heazy got his start for love, not for love of music, but for love of a girl. He uploaded the single “Cuz You’re My Girl” to SoundCloud on Valentine’s Day 2017 and it blew up. More songs followed and now he’s on tour. Doors are at 7 p.m. Tickets start at $10. Songbyrd Music House and Record Cafe: 2475 18th St. NW, DC; www.songbyrddc.com

FRIDAY JUNE 8

Future Generations
Future Generations’ breakout single “Stars” boasts 10 million plays on Spotify, proof that the band’s brand of piano pop is certainly something you’ll want to hit repeat on. Friends for seven years, the band surely does sound like they’re having tons of fun together. Their second album is in the works, and will be produced by Justin Gerrish, who perhaps most famously worked with Vampire Weekend on their sophomore effort Contra. Be sure to see Future Generations before they’re similarly catapulted into second album stardom. Doors open at 9 p.m. Tickets start at $15. Jammin Java: 227 Maple Ave. E, Vienna, VA; www.jamminjava.com

Mykki Blanco
Where to start with Mykki Blanco? He’s fearless. He got his start in music as a “teenage drag rapper.” I’ve never seen or heard anything like his music. He’s
published a book of poetry, From the Silence of Duchamp to the Noise of Boys. He lived for two years as a woman, though he didn’t surgically transition. But that’s all categorical noise. Listen to his music, the production moves between lush and harsh, and lyrically he’s both heartfelt and outrageous. Listen for the strings on “High School Never Ends,” listen for the beat on “Wavvy.” You can find videos for each on YouTube. Doors are at 7 p.m. Tickets start at $25. Rock & Roll Hotel: 1353 H St. NE, DC; www.rockandrollhoteldc.com

SATURDAY JUNE 9

Belle and Sebastian
If you’re feeling sinister, catch Belle and Sebastian’s return to DC at The Anthem. For a band that has been releasing music for almost as long as I have been alive, the Scottish twee legends show no signs of stopping additions to their impressive discography or touring schedule any time soon. I caught them at Merriweather Post Pavilion last summer and can attest to the fact that while there will be some new tunes, (the band just released a series of three EPs back to back) Stuart Murdoch and company still play a plethora of their heartfelt hits. You’ll be better for hearing “Piazza, New York Catcher” in person. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Tickets start at $46. The Anthem: 901 Wharf St. SW, DC; www.theanthemdc.com

Kingman Island Bluegrass and Folk Festival
The annual showcase of the best in local and national folk and bluegrass scene is back this year with featured artists like Gangstagrass, Jonny Grave, Cris Jacobs and Letitia VanSant. In addition to a stacked lineup, Kingman Island offers plenty of food trucks, crafts for sale and no shortage of the best up and coming local acts of the genre. Gates open at 11:30 a.m. Tickets start at $35. Kingman Island: 575 Oklahoma Ave. NE, DC: www.kingmanislandbluegrass.info

SUNDAY, JUNE 10

Shamir
No one has a voice like Shamir, and once you hear it, you’ll be hooked. It’s angelic and light as a feather. The young artist has a number of releases to his name. After his 2017 record Revelations, he’s already released two singles in 2018: “Room” and “Caballero.” The songs exhibit a strong indie rock influence and remind you that Shamir is not just a vocalist but also a guitar player. The tracks though, like so many of his songs, still feels married to pop, even he’s lyrically unto himself. Doors are at 7 p.m. Tickets start at $25. Rock & Roll Hotel: 1353 H St. NE, DC; www.rockandrollhoteldc.com

MONDAY, JUNE 11

La Luz
Floating Features, the latest record from surf rock quartet La Luz, came out in mid-May. It’s their first since 2015’s Weirdo Shine. Their sound is similar; there’s still the chugging surf rock guitars and the doo wop harmonies, but you can tell there’s been a lot of development. The texture is richer and the progressions sweeter, but it’s in their lyrics that you can find the most development. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets start at $13. Songbyrd Music House and Record Cafe: 2475 18th St. NW, DC; www.songbyrddc.com

TUESDAY JUNE 12

The Horrors
Few bands can vacillate between the dark and brooding and the expansive and sparkling like this English outfit, and that’s what makes them so great. They released another perfect marriage of dark and light with V last fall and are now hitting the states to promote it with their signature black suits, buckled Chelsea boots and all. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets start at $25. Rock & Roll Hotel: 1353 H St. NE, DC; www.rockandrollhoteldc.com

Snail Mail
Eighteen-year-old Lindsey Jordan has a well-deserved amount of buzz around her band Snail Mail. The youngest to ever sign to iconic label Matador Records, Jordan’s guitar chops and lyrical prowess are well beyond her years. This record release show will serve as a kickoff for the band’s heavily anticipated album Lush, and most likely mark what will be a long and successful career for the wildly talented Jordan. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. Tickets start at $15. Black Cat: 1811 14th St. NW, DC;
www.blackcatdc.com

Vance Joy
No one could escape the permanence of Vance Joy’s earworm of a single “Riptide” upon its release in 2014. In fact, I heard it on the radio driving into work this morning. But as it turns out, the Australian singer-songwriter’s other songs are just as buzzworthy and his sophomore release Nation of Two was no exception. Be sure not to miss his joyous (pun absolutely intended) melodies and the opportunity to hear “Riptide” for the thousandth time. Tickets start at $55. The Anthem: 901 Wharf St. SW, DC; www.theanthemdc.com

WEDNESDAY, JUNE 13

Pianos Become the Teeth & The World Is a Beautiful Place and I Am No Longer Afraid to Die
I had to read this lineup twice to be sure I was in for seeing not one but two incredible post-punk outfits in one night. Pianos Become the Teeth found their footing with this year’s spectacular Wait For Love, and TWIABP (as fans lovingly call them) are something of an indie supergroup whose combination of orchestral sounds with emo lyrical sensibilities sets them apart in a league all their own. Don’t miss your chance to see them both in one place. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Tickets start at $17. Union Stage: 740 Water St. SW, DC: www.unionstage.com

FRIDAY, JUNE 15

Field Medic
Kevin Patrick has fully embraced the home recording process as an authentic way of recording, which pairs beautifully with his sparse and honest lyrical style. His 2017 release is a collection of songs he recorded in a sunroom in San Francisco. Patrick is expected to release a full-length record in 2018 after his recent signing to Run for Cover. Patrick’s lyrical explorations of love and longing will make for a beautiful singalong at his DC show this summer. Tickets start at $10. Songbyrd Music House and Record Cafe: 2475 18th St. NW, DC; www.songbyrddc.com

Middle Kids
Even if you’ve never heard of Middle Kids, you’ve probably heard Middle Kids. The Australia natives have been garnering a quiet but strong buzz throughout the festival circuit and blogosphere throughout the past several years with radio ready jams like “Edge of Town.” Their first full-length album solidified their place as indie rock strongholds in its heartfelt explorations of love, loss and life. Tickets are $15. Rock & Roll Hotel: 1353 H St. NE, DC; www.rockandrollhoteldc.com

SATURDAY, JUNE 16

Cold Cave
Get ready for a darkwave dream at Black Cat – while Cold Cave are respected in their own right, they’re joined by genre greats Black Marble and Choir Boy. Cold Cave’s last full-length album was released in 2014, but they treated listeners to 18 minutes of bliss with this spring’s release of the You & Me & Infinity EP – maybe they’ll even debut some newer digs at this show. Anyone who’s into dancing and crying, specifically at the same time, can’t miss this gloriously goth lineup. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets start at $15. Black Cat: 1811 14th St. NW, DC; www.blackcatdc.com

SUNDAY, JUNE 17

Houndmouth
If you’re looking for a raucous Saturday night that’s not just drinking at bars, look no further than a Houndmouth show. The band made a splash with karaoke-worthy songs like “Sedona” and “Say It,” combining the lyrical sensibilities of folk with the instrumental prowess of garage rockers for an outcome that is equal parts fun and cathartic. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $30. 9:30 Club: 815 V St. NW, DC; www.930.com

WEDNESDAY, JUNE 20

Alexis Taylor
Perhaps best known as the frontman of Hot Chip, Alexis Taylor’s most recent solo release was born of his love for playing to smaller audiences on his own. Hot Chip fans will recognize Taylor’s distinct voice, but everything else about his music is totally unique from his iconic band. Not to worry though, it’s still extremely groovy, so come prepared with your dancing shoes. Doors open at 7 p.m. U Street Music Hall: 1115 U St. NW, DC: www.ustreetmusichall.com

Ray LaMontagne & Neko Case
Both legends in their own right, Case and LaMontagne are teaming up for a night of flourishing folk at The Anthem. Not only do you get to see two iconic musicians in one night, this show will also serve as the official kickoff to the inaugural run of Halcyon’s By The People Festival, an arts and dialogue festival “bringing people together around the themes of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” It’s a win-win for all involved. Doors at 6:30 p.m. Tickets start at $55. The Anthem: 901 Wharf St. SW, DC; www.theanthemdc.com

THURSDAY, JUNE 21

Yeek
L.A. songwriter Yeek stands comfortably outside of any particular genre. His guitars smack of indie rock and Mac DeMarco slacker rock, but lyrically he’s closer to hip-hop. And his latest release, 2018’s Blackheart EP, does even more to somehow evoke both genres at once. Hampton, Virginia native Marco McKinnis will open for Yeek. McKinnis doesn’t have a ton of material, but what he has is gorgeous, beautifully produced and rich R&B. Doors are at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $12. DC9: 1940 9th St. NW, DC; www.dc9.club

MONDAY, JUNE 25

serpentwithfeet’
My first encounter with serpentwithfeet was actually in a Björk release called Blissing Me. The release contains two remixes of “Blissing Me,” a single off of the record Utopia. One version was a harp-only version of the track which, like much of album, was coproduced by Arca. The other remix was done by serpentwithfeet, who added lyrics and beats. It’s a collaboration which feels seamless. serpentwithfeet’s almost improvisational style approach to melody is of a piece with Björk’s, and his voice is no less effortless. And like with Arca, after getting the Björk stamp of approval, I think serpentwithfeet’s certainly onto big things. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. Tickets start at $12. DC9: 1940 9th St. NW, DC; www.dc9.club

TUESDAY, JUNE 26

Katie Von Schleicher
“100 percent quality assurance, I have a degree in songwriting,” reads the Twitter bio of Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Katie von Schleicher. Her career got started when her internship turned into a record deal for Ba Da Bing! Records. Von Schleicher’s tracks aren’t so light as label-mates Beirut, but they are deft. The sound hearkens back to the 70s, and the tone isn’t so dark as her record titles, Shitty Hits (2017) and Bleaksploitation (2015), might suggest. They’re more lo-fi pop than heart-heavy indie. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. Tickets start at $10. DC9: 1940 9th St. NW, DC; www.dc9.club

We Are Scientists
Synth pop heavy hitters We Are Scientists are back with a new album and tour, but I’m secretly hoping the show will read as more of a 10-year homage to 2008’s brilliant Brain Thrust Mastery. While I’m sure this isn’t the case, I can dream, and also dance along to certifiable bops like “Nobody Move, Nobody Get Hurt” and “After Hours.” Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $18. Rock & Roll Hotel: 1353 H St. NE, DC; www.rockandrollhoteldc.com

WEDNESDAY, JUNE 27

Sam Gellaitry
Musical prodigies often seem to be reserved for classical music. There was Mozart and then there’s the kid who played jazz at the age of six. But Sam Gellaitry is a prodigy in the electronic community. The Scottish producer started making music at 12, dropped out of school to make music at 16 and now, at 21, he travels the world making music. His music is eclectic electronic. Some samples evince a youth spent playing video games and other recall producers like Bonobo and Emancipator. It’s his use of vocal samples that makes his tracks stand out for me. Doors open at 9 p.m. Tickets are $15. Flash: 645 Florida Ave. NW, DC; www.flashdc.com

TV Girl
While TV Girl’s moniker is a little on the nose – I can’t help but think that most of their sound is so heavily drawn from 80s and 90s TV background music – their straightforward bordering on self-deprecating lyrics (see: “Hate Yourself”) keep them ever relatable. The band brands their music as “you can sing along to it, but I wouldn’t sing around your parents,” so it’s sure to be a good time. Tickets start at $15. Black Cat: 1811 14th St. NW, DC; www.blackcatdc.com

SUNDAY, JULY 1

Oso Oso
Oso Oso’s most recent release, The Yunahon Mixtape, is a beautiful, relatable callout to all the best aspects of early 2000s indie rock. Frontman Jade Lilitri borrows these sensibilities and makes them feel fresh for a new generation to rely on as an outlet for their feelings. The band brings their post-rock reinventions to Songbyrd early this July, fresh off of signing with Triple Crown Records after self-releasing The Yunahon Mixtape. There are big things in the future for this band – don’t miss out. Tickets start at $10. Songbyrd Music House and Record Cafe: 2475 18th St. NW, DC; www.songbyrddc.com