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Photo: Courtesy of Knox Hamilton
Photo: Courtesy of Knox Hamilton

Knox Hamilton Breezes Through DC

Knox Hamilton’s vibe isn’t what you’d immediately expect from a band out of Little Rock, Arkansas. But the three bandmates aren’t claiming to play traditional Southern music. Instead, they’re drawing from all of their influences to make something modern and new.

“I think just like any band, our sound comes from combining the taste and styles of all the individual personalities in the band,” said lead singer Boots Copeland. “We grew up on 70s, 80s and 90s pop, and some of our biggest influences are The Killers, The Beatles, Michael Jackson [and] Mew.”

The band’s current tour, which brings them to Gypsy Sally’s on July 19, is called “The Beach Boy Tour.” In their photos, the musicians are decked out in brightly patterned Hawaiian shirts. There’s also a palm tree in their band logo, and their music is often referred to as “breezy.”

Knox Hamilton exploded onto the national scene in 2014 with their single “Work It Out” from their EP How’s Your Mind. The earwormy song climbed the charts, spread all over the radio and has now been streamed on Spotify almost 8 million times. When the tune became a hit, the band members were still working day jobs in Little Rock.

“We’d been writing for fun, just for friends and family to hear, but never tried to release anything like that,” Copeland said. “‘Work It Out’ felt like the one that could get some traction though. It’s still surreal to know that so many people have heard it all over the world. Crazy.”

Part of what makes Knox Hamilton work is the fact that there’s another Copeland in the band: Boots’ brother Cobo on drums. The two share an unspoken connection that helps to guide and shape the band’s unique sound and rhythms. Their dad was a Pentecostal preacher, and the boys played music in his church growing up. Their mom was also a singer, so music came naturally.

“We’ve been making our own music together since we could pick up drumsticks and guitars.”

The band has a new EP coming out this month, full of new songs with the signature Knox Hamilton sound. The first two singles, “Trade My Trips” and “Video Sunshine,” are already making waves. Their songwriting process is a collaborative one, Copeland said, also involving guitarist Drew Buffington.

“Typically, one of us will bring an idea for a song to the table and the band will put our collective Knox Hamilton sheen on it.”

The band’s live show has evolved since the early days, Copeland said, confessing that watching early footage of the band’s live performances is “cringeworthy.”

“We’ve gotten a lot more comfortable onstage.”

For the band members, who are now husbands and fathers, the touring life still takes some getting used to. When asked how they were prepping for the upcoming tour, Copeland joked that they were doing “a lot of push-ups.”

“It definitely takes our old man band about a week to get our sea legs,” he said.

The life of this indie band may not be as “glamorous” as that of other rockers, but their relatability makes them even more likable. And Copeland doesn’t let the band’s humble vibe keep him from joking about the band’s fortunes as Knox Hamilton prepared to venture out once again on the road.

“After this tour, we will probably have made enough money to vacation in Fiji,” he said, “or at least Branson [Missouri] for an extended weekend.”

Catch Knox Hamilton at Gypsy Sally’s on Thursday, July 19. Doors at 7 p.m., show at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $13-$15. Learn more about the band at www.knoxhamilton.com.

Gypsy Sally’s: 3401 K St. NW, DC; 202-333-7700; www.gypsysallys.com

Photo: Brandon Shields
Photo: Brandon Shields

What’s NUEX?

Let’s be honest, has anyone with even the slightest desire for rock star status not responded to a Craigslist ad at least once? I definitely ended up in someone’s basement once trying to do vocals over shoegaze while wondering if I’d make it home alive to feed my dog. Okay, that incident aside, I’ve heard many Craigslist musician meetup stories that were way more successful than mine.

Take hometown DC duo NUEX, for example. Something told singer-songwriter Camille Michelle Gray to respond to an ad seeking a vocalist posted by drummer-producer Teddy Aitkins. Fortunately for them both (and for us), neither was an axe murderer and it was pretty evident from day one that there was musical chemistry between them.

NUEX (pronounced “new”) is a play on the French word “nue”, which means naked. It’s a fitting name for the sonic duo that emerged from that fated Craigslist meetup more than four years ago. Working hard to pull tight, original tracks from their small in-house operation, NUEX’s sound is often both new and raw, emotion stripped bare and laid out for us to hear.

“Something that I want people listening to this music – or any music – to know is that when you’re listening to a song, especially the ones that are as emotional as ours, they’re like listening to someone’s soul or their diary,” Gray said. “So while you are jamming, don’t forget that each song has a little throbbing piece of our soul.”

And Gray does certainly have some soul vibes, but she also brings something fresh to the table. Her vocals are reminiscent of an old-school lounge singer with all the deep sadness, but she’s also got a hell of a lot more spunk. She isn’t going to lay on a piano and cry; she’s going to light up like a laser beam and tell you what’s up.

Aitkins, who is responsible for the otherworldly beats that drop below Gray’s smoky vocals, suggests the laser effect is intentional.

“We both have a big influence in space and stars and things being ethereal,” he said.

The two concur that the biggest influence on their work is recognizing and attempting to channel “the interconnectedness of everything.” The resulting sound is sultry (and sometimes sassy) robotica.

NUEX has hit all of the stops for “up-and-comers” in DC. Since 2014, they have played with Sofar Sounds and Luce Unplugged at the National Portrait Gallery, and were selected by Brightest Young Things to represent the city at SXSW 2017’s DC soundstage.

In May, the duo released their long-anticipated, five-track EP Affectus. The record has given them the boost they said was needed to keep moving forward, but now they’ve got the bug and are impatient for more. Indeed, Gray and Aitkins are refreshingly honest about not just the magic, but also the frustrations that come along with trying to “make it” musically – and trying to touch people creatively.

Balancing careers, families and gigs, it was difficult, they said, to play shows for three years and not have a physical body of work to point people to. It also made taking themselves seriously a challenge. They describe the EP release as a “relief.”

“For me, I feel like there’s always more room to grow,” Aitkins said. “I always feel like I could do better. Our sound is always evolving. So yeah, I think we’ve grown, but overall there’s still a lot of stuff that people have not heard that we’ve created.”

Gray adds that the EP was “definitely a catapult,” making the pair more driven and ready to get some of their newer work out for the public to experience.

“And that’s just selfishly,” Gray said. “I really want people to see what else we’re made of. The five songs on the EP are great, and we chose them on purpose because of what they meant to us and they’re strong. But as Teddy has already said, we’re so excited to have the door open and you guys walk through our little [world].”

And we should soon get a chance to peek a bit further into that world. During our interview, Gray and Aitkins teased two new videos for the singles “Eyes” and “Billie”. Working with cinematographers and producers Abe Vilchez-Moran and Kunitaro Ohi, Gray and Aitkins have been “floored” by how two other artists’ visions could make their own work come alive in a way they hadn’t conceived.

For “Eyes” especially, they said, having “everything to do with [the song], but not being physically a part of the video” was an awakening experience.

“The video made it so much more emotional than it ever was,” Aitkins said. “Watching it gave me a whole new respect for the song.”

Learn more about NUEX at www.wearenuex.com and keep your eyes peeled for new video releases. And in the meantime, catch the duo doing that sultry thing they do at Jammin Java on Monday, July 16 when they open for Mobley. Doors at 6:30 p.m., show at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $10-$20.

Jammin Java: 227 Maple Ave. E, Vienna, VA; 703-255-1566; www.jamminjava.com

Photo: Danny North via www.u2.com
Photo: Danny North via www.u2.com

U2 Larger than Life Second Time Around

I remember seeing U2 live for the first time back in the original The Joshua Tree days circa 1987, and the concert was all about the music—the artistry of Bono, the brilliance of Edge on guitar, the percussion mastery of Larry Mullen Jr. and the superb resounding bass of Adam Clayton. It was a simple stage setup,  and as a fan, you could easily concentrate from one song to the next.

Entering the Capital One Arena on Monday, June 18—more than three decades since my first show—I immediately knew seeing the legendary band from Dublin, Ireland was going to be a whole new ballgame. For starters, a large augmented reality screen occupied the center of the arena and people were using their cell phones to see a cascading waterfall through the power of a special concert app you could download.

Once it was time for the concert to begin, the images of the U2 quartet were flashed on a giant, rectangular screen floating in the middle of the arena, and then it turned transparent, allowing the audience to see the band suspended in mid-air over the crowd. Through thunderous applause, they started with “It’s a Beautiful World” and “Rain.”

The same screen would serve as an important part of the show, projecting different images, graphic-art-like cartoons and even special augmented live shots of Bono distorting his face into a sort of demon during a song introduction. This was only a taste of the theatrics involved. Throughout the almost-three-hour concert, there was a sensory overload of sights and sounds coming at you—some more effective than others.

In an effort to ensure everyone in the sold-out arena got their money’s worth, the stage mapping for the concert positioned brilliantly. There was a large traditional stage on one side of the arena, and a smaller circle stage on the other. In between, an elevated walkway acted as a third area, with Bono particularly spending a lot of time in the middle ground. This walkway also allowed the band members to be stationed behind the giant screen at times and have their images integrated with the video display, which made it appear as if they were inside the images during some songs.

The four U2 members stood there on “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” utilizing the entire platform, which was easily a highlight of the night. It was raw U2 and it was much more enjoyable than some of the out there things going on during some others.

Early on, the band relied more their latest two releases, Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, which was fitting given the eXPERIENCE + iNNOCENCE tour title. After jamming through “Love is All We Have Left,” “The Blackout” and “Lights of Home,” Bono made it appear as if another newbie was following the trio, proclaiming “We are out of Dublin and here is our new song,” but it was actually a nod to their beginnings in 1980, with the song “I Will Follow” off their debut album Boy; the fans ate it up.

U2 continued with some old-school hits, playing “All Because of You,” “Beautiful Day” and “The Ocean” on the main stage, letting the music overtake the sometimes circus-like atmosphere. This is where the foursome is at their best, and prove why they are among the top bands of all-time.

For “Iris,” Bono again traveled mid-stage and began telling a story of his mom and then the powerful lyrics of the song were expressed through images on the screen, further influencing the scene.

After a few other tunes—including “Cedarwood Road” and “Until the End of the World,” and a short break with a somewhat surreal graphic novel-like story set to “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me” displayed on the projection screen, the band headed for the smaller stage on the opposite side of the arena, with Bono asking if people were “ready to elevate?”

That naturally led to “Elevation” and more up-tempo songs such as “Vertigo,” fan-favorite “Desire” and “Acrobat.”

In another highlight, Bono and The Edge did an acoustic version of “Staring at the Sun,” which hearkened memories of U2 at its early-’90s peak. The full band was back in swing for “Pride (In the Name of Love” and the song still hit home with the crowd as if it was 1984.

An encore consisted of “Women of the World,” “One,” “Love Is Bigger Than Anything in Its Way” and “13 (There Is a Light),” though surprisingly left out faves such as “Where the Streets Have No Name,” With or Without You” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”

Not that anyone was complaining. With close to three hours of music and a great mix of old and new material, the show was one to remember. Obviously, I’m more from an old-school frame of mind and didn’t need so much happening around me, but it didn’t ruin the enjoyment of the overall experience and it’s one I’m glad to have been a part of.

For more information about U2, click here.

illustration: Haley McKey
illustration: Haley McKey

Under Their Own Power: Women Make Some of 2018’s Most Relevant Music

I kicked off my summer by seeing two shows in rapid succession: Alice Glass at U Street Music Hall on May 12, and Fever Ray (given name Karin Dreijer) at the 9:30 Club on May 14. Both of their extraordinary sets drove home the fact that women are making some of the world’s best, most interesting and of-the-moment music right now – and they’re doing it with complete creative control.

Dreijer and Glass have a few things in common. They both rose to fame as one half of a male-female duo – The Knife and Crystal Castles, respectively. They both make brutal, synth-based songs that crackle, scream, pulse and practically demand a physical response. And they are both embarking on the next stage of their careers in a drastically different world than the one we lived in when we first heard their music more than a decade ago.

Glass’ set was the first time we’ve seen her in DC since she left Crystal Castles in 2014. Glass was silent about her reasons for leaving former collaborator Ethan Kath (born Claudio Palmieri) until the fall of 2017. Glass released a statement that began with citing the courage of women who came forward with their stories of sexual harassment and assault by powerful men during the #MeToo movement. Then she told her own story, asserting in no uncertain terms that she endured years of emotional, physical and sexual abuse by Palmieri since she was a teenager.

Thus, seeing Glass perform wasn’t just watching an artist headline on her own for the first time. We had the privilege of seeing an artist learning to harness her creative power entirely on her own terms. Her performance was, as it has always been, incredibly kinetic and wholehearted: she cannonballs across the stage, invites the crowd to come closer, pulls from their energy and gives it right back. Her fans are devoted: in the silence between songs, I heard a woman murmur, maybe a little tipsily, “I’m just happy she’s happy.” It was clear everyone who came to see her was firmly in her corner.

Dreijer’s show was also full of energy. Her stage persona is flirtatious, aggressively bizarre and without a shred of self-doubt. She released her first album, Plunge, in October 2017, nearly eight years after her solo debut as Fever Ray.

Dreijer was formerly married to a man and has a daughter, but since her divorce has described herself as “definitely a queer person, but very gender-fluid” in a Guardian interview. The ebullient, NSFW music video for her new single “To the Moon and Back” features Dreijer serving as a table for the world’s oddest tea party. In the Guardian, she describes the song’s theme as “being brave and being open to do that. It’s about taking back what’s me.” Onstage, she inhabits her video persona, albeit with a little more agency: her all-women backing band is strong and competent, but she’s clearly in charge and loving every minute.

These two shows, aside from being the perfect start to summer music season here in DC, helped remind me that female solo performers are some of the most exciting musicians. Kesha’s blistering single, “Praying,” called out her own former producer and alleged abuser Dr. Luke; her August 2017 album Warrior burns down the throwaway party-anthem framework he created for past songs like “Blah Blah Blah” and “We R Who We R” for good. Instead, it’s a mix of rock, soul, country and a variety of genres Dr. Luke allegedly blocked her from exploring when they worked together. Whatever you think of Kesha, she’s finally in creative control of her own music (and branding – I’ve never wanted a Nudie suit more).

Janelle Monáe, no stranger to having complete control of her image and art, released her stunning new album, Dirty Computer, on May 1. Newly out as pansexual, Monáe’s album explores queerness, blackness and survival in a world often hostile to both. Her “emotion picture” which accompanies the album depicts a surveillance state where people who don’t comply with cultural mores are watched, hunted down and punished. It’s uncomfortably easy to imagine how a culture could get from here to there. An extra-bright spot in the album is her new single “Pynk,” accompanied by a music video that features a pink desert, some truly memorable pants and an all-lady dance party.

These aren’t the only examples of women refashioning their image and sound into one of joyous power. Artists across genres are busting the absurd myth that women can’t get ahead without a male producer, costar or record executive (do those even exist anymore?) doing the heavy lifting. As I watched Alice Glass close out her set back in May with the searing song “Cease and Desist,” she screamed, “honestly, you’re never the victim/honestly, you have to fight.” It felt like an indictment of her former antagonist, a manifesto and a call to arms. It’s almost certain that many other talented women artists will answer it in the months to come – each in their own unique way.

Photo: Shervin Lainez
Photo: Shervin Lainez

Sylvan Esso brings Emotional Electronic Pop to The Anthem

Have you ever heard of Sword & Sorcery?

No, probably not. At least I hadn’t until (squints at calendar) May 15. Even still, I somehow already knew the name of Sword & Sorcery characters integral to what Wikipedia describes as an “indie adventure video game.” The name of said characters are Sylvan Sprites, and the reason the name is familiar is because of the band Sylvan Esso.

“I just restarted [playing the game],” Nick Sanborn says, finally on the phone with me after multiple sliding doors caused a slight delay.

“I’m actually learning how to be a dungeon master for Dungeons & Dragons,” Amelia Meath chimes in. “It’s great to think about on tour. It helps you think about a bunch of scenarios.”

Sylvan Esso is the formation of this very power couple – Meath and Sanborn – based in Durham, North Carolina. After one listen through their music catalog, the reason they bestowed a reference to a fantasy video game upon their band name becomes immediately apparent.

The sound is electronic at its base because of Sanborn’s background. His studio tinkering pulsates and radiates waves of energy, sometimes in the form of distorted beeps and boops, and also in ambient noises like a collage of what you’ll hear on a busy street. All of this builds to when Meath whispers, then bellows, and then whispers again, at once reminding you of the flesh and bones behind these intimate collections.

“I think the best part about it is [fantasy] can be anything you want it to be,” Sanborn says. “Really, it’s about storytelling and improvisation with a group of people. It’s really a specific skillset that is deeply creative.”

This approach is also an accurate description of how Sylvan Esso tackles music, as the creatives have enjoyed a lifetime of molding sounds. Meath grew up in a “singing family” in New England who did a ton of driving around, vocalizing whatever was on the radio. She also enjoyed singing in a sea shanty group titled The Rebels, who would perform music based on “whatever culture the director picked that year.”

For Sanborn, his love of all things electronic didn’t get kicking until he was just exiting high school. The Midwesterner was introduced to a range of works from England to Detroit, and simply put, they all resonated with the teenager.

“I didn’t want to go to college for performance, I wanted to go for composition,” Sanborn says. “This is a way that I could express my interest in composition, and it started slowly but never stopped growing.

Meath and Sanborn met in Milwaukee in 2013, and their musical chemistry was palpable and essentially immediate. This like-mindedness was something each wanted to capitalize on. The two are also married, which lends itself to an extremely seamless dynamic.

“I think with anybody, there’s no way to extricate the two things,” Sanborn says. “I think the way you make music with each other is honest, because that’s the way you connect with those people. Bands are a reflection of the dynamic of those people. We’re always shooting for something that feels accurate.”

Because of the constant communication between the two, every moment has the opportunity to be a songwriting moment – whether on the road in a bus roaming from state to state or in their home in Durham.

“There’s not really a formula,” Meath says. “Sometimes it’s me coming up with an idea, and sometimes I write a whole song. Our jobs are slowly becoming one job, because we’re always communicating. It’s not like I have a stack of lyrics.”

The duo is currently on tour for their 2017 release, What Now, which according to Pitchfork “offers a biting, withering take on pop music, full of crisp humor while still finding real moments of tenderness.”

The two also released a recent post-apocalyptic summer single, “PARA(w/m)E,” which is accompanied by an oxymoronic upbeat video, featuring Meath and other dancers wandering the scorched earth in an offputtingly cheery manner.

“We wanted it to feel really happy, but for the lyrics to be really devastating at the same time,” Sanborn says. “It’s the hit song for the willfully ignorant. There’s already that sort of conflict and tone. These people are having a super joyous dance party through this torn up world.”

As for what now after What Now, the band is in a creative space, even bringing a studio rig with them on the road. Despite the yearning both have to create music, Meath says there’s no pressure to hurry another project out the door.

“We’re just starting to think about the next record, and it’s really fun to be in a creative space again,” Meath says.

Sanborn adds, “We don’t have prerecorded notions. The process itself is rewarding and cathartic, even if it’s nothing.”

Check out Sylvan Esso when they headline The Anthem on July 27. Tickets start at $40. For more information about the band, visit their website at www.sylvanesso.com and follow them on Twitter @SylvanEsso.

The Anthem: 901 Wharf St. SW, DC; 202-888-0020; www.theanthemdc.com

Photo: Gus Black
Photo: Gus Black

Eels’ Mark Oliver Returns From Hiatus

After a four-year hiatus from the record business, Eels frontman Mark Oliver Everett – known simply as “E” to fans – is ready to road test the tunes from his richly textured new album, The Deconstruction.

But while the eclectic indie pop singer-songwriter feels good about the fresh songs, he wasn’t exactly brimming with bravado in an interview with On Tap in advance of his band’s June 12 date at Lincoln Theatre.

“Make no mistake, I never feel fully confident about anything,” Everett admitted.

After releasing 12 albums and touring consistently over the past two decades, the introspective multi-instrumentalist suddenly pushed pause on his career in 2014. The undefined break turned into a four-year respite punctuated with occasional flourishes of songwriting and recording.

“I didn’t even know I was making an album for most of those four years,” Everett said. “My goal was just not to work at all. Once in awhile, if I was really inspired to write and record a song, I would. Then it might be six months before the next one.”

The result of that long, drawn-out creative process is the most well-curated, cohesive – and yes, confident – collection of songs that Oliver has ever assembled. “Bone Dry,” a hip-shaking but haunting rock tune about a difficult ex-lover serves as the record’s first single, while the title track finds Eels in swirling orchestral territory.

A loose collection of L.A. musicians known as The Deconstruction Orchestra and Choir weave gorgeous strings and harmonies throughout the electrified rock album. The overall effort is dedicated to Everett’s late dog, Bobby Jr., referred to as “our fallen brother” on the band’s website.

“From people I’ve been talking to, the response has been very positive,” Everett allowed of the new album. “I feel good so far.”

A Fairfax County native, Everett proclaimed DC among his favorite cities to play live shows – but not for the reasons you might think.

“I don’t have a lot of fond memories of [DC] because of all the tragedies and stuff that happened,” the longtime Los Angeles resident said. “But I love playing DC. It’s the only time I ever go back there. It’s always a good experience. I judge every city by the audience, and you always have nice audiences in DC.”

The tragedies Everett referred to include the deaths of his emotionally remote father, a famous quantum physicist who worked at the Pentagon and died of heart failure when Everett was just 19; his beloved sister, who was troubled with mental illness and committed suicide in 1996; and his mother, who contracted lung cancer and died in the house he grew up in in 1998. Everett’s close cousin, a flight attendant, was on the plane that slammed into the Pentagon on 9/11, adding yet another layer of grief to his hometown memories.

Everett recounts these sad chapters in his life – as well as happier episodes – in his highly personal and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny memoir, Things the Grandchildren Should Know, released in 2009. Often sporting a dark beard and sunglasses, the musician has a reputation for sometimes being inscrutable in interviews. But he leaned into a question about how he keeps his music buoyant and life-affirming despite the emotional wreckage he’s had to deal with in his life.

“There was this big moment when all of these tragedies were happening, and I was back in my mom’s house in Virginia and was getting overwhelmed by it all,” Everett recalled. “I was just lying on my bed, and I saw a blue sky in my imagination. That crystallized it for me. I was like, ‘Wait, there has to be a bright side to all of this, too. There has to be something healthy.’ And that was the birth of making the Electro-Shock Blues album 20 years ago.”

He added that he was lucky to have had that epiphany and has a very positive memory of making the 1998 album.

“It was the one great thing that was happening to me at the time because I was being super creative and making this new music that felt hopeful in the face of all these tragedies. It was like this warm blanket I wrapped myself in.”

That’s not to say life is all rainbows and unicorns for Everett now. He announced the release of The Deconstruction on the Eels’ website in April by proclaiming, “The world is a mess. This is just music.”

While the world is indeed a mess – and U.S. affairs seem to be in a state of permanent upheaval under President Donald Trump – don’t expect Eels to go getting all political, not even for the politically savvy Washington audience he enjoys so much. As Everett sees it, politics is a minefield for musicians.

“I’ve always actively avoided [politics] as much as possible,” he explained. “John Lennon was a lot better at singing about his mother than empowering the people. There are exceptions and it can be very subtle and great like with Ray Davies (of the Kinks) doing ‘Shangri La’. It’s beautiful when it happens, but it is so rare.”

Eels’ live shows have earned a reputation as freewheeling, even exuberant affairs that can involve audience interaction and onstage antics. But Everett has also been known to strip the live show down, allowing the music to take sole possession of the spotlight as he did on The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett, the band’s last release and tour in 2014. He declined to give clues as to what fans can expect on the new tour.

“I wouldn’t want to say because that would take a lot of fun out of it,” Everett said, while acknowledging that “anything approaching a fervor” would be a welcome reaction.

“I’ve never had this long of a break between tours, so it’s simultaneously daunting and exciting,” he added. “I do feel very fortunate that I’ve been doing it as long as I have and that I have an audience. That’s just a very lucky thing.”

Catch Everett and Eels at Lincoln Theatre on Tuesday, June 12. Tickets are $40. Learn more about the band at www.eelstheband.com.

Lincoln Theatre: 1215 U St. NW, DC; 202-888-0050; www.thelincolndc.com

Photo: www.brokeroyals.com
Photo: www.brokeroyals.com

Rock Music with a Brain: Broke Royals

“He was building a studio and knew I was performing at coffee shops on campus, and he asked me to come in and work on some songs.”

Philip Basnight tells me this on a three-way call with the “he” he’s referring to: Colin Cross. The William & Mary alums came together to form the band Broke Royals during their collegiate years. The Virginia outfit has nothing to do with May’s British royal wedding, and no, we’re not writing a story about them to capitalize on the likely spiking SEO results from folks searching the term “royal” either.

We’re writing about these two fellas because, like a marriage between two overwhelmingly famous people, their union is working. Only instead of producing Instagrammable photos and fashion hot takes, they’re creating local pop music.

“We have a lot of respect for each other,” Cross says. “We come at it from different angles. I come at it with experience and technical knowledge, and he has a nuanced musical knowledge. We’re always willing to try different things.”

Basnight got his start in music on the piano because his dad was the de facto music teacher for his neighborhood. The Broke Royals vocalist tells me he was easily the worst piano student his father had. A love of guitar came shortly after, and so did a reputation as the “music guy” at his high school.

“I didn’t know how to talk about sports or anything like that,” Basnight says. “Anytime I met new people, I would try to shift the conversation toward music. Even if people don’t consider themselves music lovers, there’s always something under the surface, whether it’s nostalgia or just a fleeting feeling.”

Basnight discovered a kindred spirit in Cross. Before the two met, Cross had already lived the life of a touring musician, traversing the Midwest in a pop punk band. Though he enjoyed performing, he wanted to switch his focus to production.

“I settled down and moved out here to finish school,” Cross says. “I learned a lot about studio work and had seen the workflow from a musician’s perspective, and I leaned toward that process. That’s when we started working together on technical stuff.”

By 2014, Cross had set up a studio and figured he’d need some demos to tout his production talents, so he enlisted fellow student Basnight. After recording a few songs, their chemistry and similar musical sensibilities were undeniable. The latter revolved around an adoration for pop and rock music, including stalwarts like David Bowie, Prince, Spoon and Wilco.

Over the past four years, Cross and Basnight have continued to concoct songs while establishing a consistent aesthetic.
In photos, you’ll find the bandmates both dressed in white dress shirts tucked in neatly under black vests. Their music is sultry and smooth, sonically gathering from a multitude of influences and instrumentations.

“I think it’s really natural,” Basnight says. “We use Apple Music so we can see what the other is listening to. We want to use all the sounds that are exciting to us. We’re not trying to find weird things. These are the sonic influences we have in our day-to-day lives, and that’s what is exciting for us. It’s a fun guessing game to see where certain aspects come from. I think everything we do is an amalgamation of what we love.”

Because of their shared palates, they give each other the freedom to throw in any and everything they want to try before they strip away what doesn’t work. Last year, the duo released their first full-length LP, a self-titled work that seamlessly incorporated Basnight’s easygoing vocals and Cross’s production know-how. The two recorded the album in one short burst, tucked away in an upstate New York cabin.

“I wouldn’t call it closure, because when you get your album out is when the work starts,” Basnight says.

With music videos, singles and shows galore, the album only served to spark a chaotic season for Broke Royals, and the two seem to relish in this busy space.

“In the interim, we’re writing a ton of music,” Basnight says. “We are definitely in a recording period again.”

But don’t fret, they’re still playing live. Catch the band at AdMo’s Songbyrd Record Cafe and Music House on June 28 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $10-$12. For more information on Broke Royals, visit www.brokeroyals.com.

Songbyrd Record Cafe and Music House: 2475 18th St. NW, DC; 202-450-2917; www.songbyrddc.com

Photo: Mark Raker
Photo: Mark Raker

Celebrating the Past, Preserving the Future at the Kingman Island Bluegrass Festival

The Kingman Island Bluegrass Festival is returning to DC on June 9. In its 9th year, the festival has grown in popularity annually, and features a wide variety of bluegrass, folk and Americana artist spread across several stages. However, this isn’t your usual for-profit celebration. The Kingman Island Bluegrass Festival helps fund outdoor educational programs that enrich the lives of thousands of kids in the DC area, and puts a premium on environmental sustainability and protecting the island’s rich habitat.

The Kingman Island Bluegrass Festival represents both a celebration of American music and a commitment to protecting our natural lands and wildlife.

Kingman Island (and its counterpart, Heritage Island) were created in 1916 from material dredged out of the Anacostia River. Now just over a century old, you’d never guess they were man-made; the islands are covered in lush green native plants and is home to various wildlife, including foxes, possum and even wild turkey.

Since their creation, the islands have had a long and complex history, and today they remain protected.

While they are owned by the city, Kingman and Heritage Islands are managed by Living Classrooms of the National Capital Region, an organization dedicated to helping kids connect with the natural world.

“We do lessons geared toward orienteering, teambuilding and habitat restoration, including in the Anacostia river,” says Lee Cain, Director of Kingman Island with Living Classrooms. “Between 2,000 to 3,000 kids come to Kingman ever year. We’re trying to make an effort to get kids to make a connection to their local park.”

Cain says another major focus for Living Classrooms is workforce development and helping young people in the neighborhood advance their careers by working on the island. Those enrolled in their summer youth employment program learn native plant identification, habitat restoration and trail work. It’s not just kids who get involved at Kingman.

“Fifteen-hundred volunteers, a year, do trail maintenance, habitat restoration and other things to improve the park,” Cain says.

The bluegrass festival helps Living Classrooms continue its work in Southeast DC and beyond. But it went through some growing pains: “there used to be a ton of trash left after the festival,” Cain says. Organizers put a zero-waste initiative in place, which resonates with many of the festival’s performers.

“They’re trying to be very sustainable,” says musician Crys Matthews, who lives in Herndon, Virginia. “A lot of that stuff is really important to me – I use zero-carbon footprint packaging with all my cd’s, so it’s great to be sharing and creating with like-minded folks.”

Silver Spring musician Dom Flemons agrees.

“It’s something that, on top of being an excellent experience for a musician, is also a very worthwhile cause that they are trying to accomplish with the festival,” he says. “It’s twofold: You have lovely nature, and a reteaching of people in the DC area of how to reconnect with nature and how to really learn sustainability.”

Both Flemons and Matthews are performing at the festival for the second time and taking new steps with their shows.

Matthews is an accomplished musician and songwriter from North Carolina who infuses folk, bluegrass, jazz and other genres into her work. She played last year’s festival solo. This year, she’s bringing her band.

“I’m looking forward to getting to play with them on that stage,” she says. “The space itself is a neat area, nestled and hidden away in the craziness of DC.”

Having been in the area for eight years, “the music scene is pretty incredible,” she says. “It’s very different from back where I lived in the mountains of North Carolina.”

Flemons is a co-founder of the Grammy award-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, and has traveled around the nation and the world presenting traditional folk and roots music to diverse audiences. He’ll be presenting a new performance at this year’s festival.

“I had this idea for quite a while to present the American Songster review  a multi-act program that would feature several different songsters from different parts of the world and the country to be able to present their music,” he says. “It will feature songs they have in their repertoire, as well as one song I will curate and ask them to perform.”

The festival features more than 30 bands playing on five stages this year, as well as an artist market and food trucks. While festivals by their very nature bring high foot traffic and disturbance to the island, Cain says the sustainability measures in place help protect its habitat. Festivalgoers get their own reusable cups, and “80 percent of the waste from the festival is either composted or recycled, and we’d like to get to 90 percent,” he says.

Location is also important: the festival will take place in the island’s most resilient meadows, protecting species like the Virginia mallow, a Maryland endangered plant that can be found on the southern portion the island. Holding the festival at this time of year also gives the plant life the benefit of a full growing season, and thus faster recovery and regrowth afterwards.

The festival, Living Classrooms’ educational programs and the volunteer programs on the island all help raise awareness about this unique oasis in the Anacostia River.

“If we don’t expose people to these resources, they quietly disappear,” Cain says.

The Kingman Island Bluegrass Festival beings June 9. For more information on the festival, islands or tickets, visit here.

Kingman Island Bluegrass Festival: 575 Oklahoma Ave. NE, DC; 202-799-9189; www.kingmanislandbluegrass.info

Carlotta Cosials, Ana Perrote, Ade Martin and Amber Grimbergen // Photo: Alberto von Stokkum
Carlotta Cosials, Ana Perrote, Ade Martin and Amber Grimbergen // Photo: Alberto von Stokkum

The Secret World of Hinds, Spain’s Indie Stars

On the morning I was scheduled to interview Ana Perrote – singer, guitarist and one-fourth of ramshackle Spanish indie rock group Hinds – she messaged me “Hola” before I had even headed into work. I was a few minutes late to hop on the call due to technical difficulties, and when we finally connected (after my profuse apologies) a relaxed Perrote popped up on my screen, perched at a desk on a computer and surrounded by clothes on hangers and drying racks in her room. I commented on her framed Picasso painting, and she proceeded to pan around the room to show all the laundry she was prepared to take on tour, talking to me as if I was an old friend from school and not a total stranger.

This openness and energy Perrote possesses is also so evident in her music as one of Hinds’ primary songwriters, setting them apart in a sea of beach rock revivalists that have popped in and out of the worldwide scene in the past decade. A way with words in conversation and in song, Perrote chatted up Hinds’ new album and tour, working with band idol Gordon Raphael and why no one can truly understand what life is like as a member of Hinds – and that’s a good thing.  

On Tap: You’re influenced by Mac DeMarco, Ty Segall and The Strokes – all bands that are contemporaries of yours and still currently put out music. But your overall sound is very cool and retro, so do you consider any older bands to be influences or are you just inspired by these bands who are also reimagining older sounds?
Ana Perrote: We have two faces, almost two different moments in the writing process. When we first started playing together, even when we played covers, we used to play things like Bob Dylan and Creedence Clearwater Revival – older stuff by bands who don’t release music anymore. Then suddenly we discovered Mac DeMarco and The Growlers, and we totally freaked out. It was like, “Oh my God, you can actually write good stuff and be alive!” That’s why we say our influences are those kinds of bands, because it’s actually what you can now be influenced by more, but there’s always the older stuff.

OT: Is there a garage rock scene in Spain, or are you on your own in pioneering your sound there?
AP: It’s not a big scene, but there’s definitely a scene. It’s a really tiny scene, actually. Mainly around six bands, but we’re all friends with each other. Like, “The guy who takes the pictures is dating the bass player of this band.” You know what I mean? So the first time we went to rehearse songs, it was with Diego from The Parrots, who also produced our first record and is from a band from Madrid. It’s not big, but it’s really, really strong.

OT: You and Carlotta Coisals (vocals and guitar) got your start as a band playing covers, and quit playing after a particularly bad show in your hometown. What made you want to not only try again but start playing your own songs?
AP: First of all, we gave two gigs playing covers. One was good and the second was a horrible – really horrible – one. And then there was maybe a year-and-a-half between that and going back to rehearsing. We didn’t play at all after that show, not even a rehearsal. We totally stopped playing because of how bad it felt to give a bad show. During that summer before we started writing, we went to this festival in Spain called Benicassim, which is our favorite festival ever – it’s really really good. Our friends from the scene, Los Nastys, were playing that festival. It was crazy because we were music lovers for so many years and suddenly we have friends in the lineup of a festival that we love. It was the biggest deal, the biggest thing ever in our community. When we came back from that, we were totally drunk off music and emotions. Carlotta used to have a blog, and she was rereading some of the posts she made when we were in the cover band. Then she just texted me, “Hey, are you free tonight? Do you want to play again?” So I drove to her house and we covered a song by Los Nastys, and two weeks later wrote our first song.

OT: What is your songwriting process like? You and Carlotta are the principal songwriters, but how involved is the other half of the band – Ade Martin (bass and backing vocals) and Amber Grimbergen (drums) – in writing? 
AP: There’s always two sides to a song. One is the four of us in the rehearsal room, and the other is Carlotta and I trying to find melodies, chords and the rest of the structure. We really prioritize the melodies in our songs, because we’ve had situations where we had great chords and a great drum solo and everything sounded really good but suddenly we can’t find a good melody. Without a melody, you don’t have a song. We would fight because we would bring it home and be like, “Guys, we changed it because we really couldn’t find a good one” and then someone says, “But I love this bass line!” It can get tricky with four people writing, but at the same time it’s more fun and more interesting. I think you can tell with this album that most of the songs started in the rehearsal room, but at the same time, we always say that the good songs are the songs you can actually play with just one guitar while you sing along, so we really want to keep that in mind even when all four of us are writing.

OT: Tell me about working with Gordon Raphael. That must have been surreal since he’s worked with The Strokes in the past and you have cited them as a huge inspiration. How did Hinds’ collaboration with him come about? Did he have any influence on the more polished direction you moved in on this new album?
AP: We chose him because he was a fan of ours back when we had just released two songs. It was only Carlotta and I, and he sent us a Facebook message – this is back when we only had around 100 followers and said, “Hey guys, I really really like your songs, and I’m going to Primavera Sound. If you guys are going, I would love to meet you there.” We were going just to see bands so we met up with him really quickly. He was really nice and sweet. When we were thinking about this record, we knew that we wanted to make a step by not working with a friend, but with someone who has a [production] background. We thought of him because he would tweet at us and had been keeping track of where Hinds was. We brought him to Madrid and he totally just let us do whatever we wanted. With the way Hinds started, everything is really private and in a close circle. It felt frightening to have someone with a name that we respected getting inside our process. But we write all the songs before we get in the studio, and he was totally cool with us coproducing the album, which was really fun for us.

OT: As a group, you’ve commented that you feel like people don’t give you a lot of credit since you’re an all-girl band. You had such a successful run on your first album and tour, and now have done the same with your second album. Do people continue to treat you that way while recording and touring with the new album, or has it gotten any better?
AP:
I think it’s gotten a little bit better, which kind of sucks because it means you have room for so many years [like this]. If you didn’t like Hinds last year, you don’t get Hinds this year. It’s not fair, but I do feel like it’s getting better, because before there was this whole belief that it was bad because we were a new [band]. Maybe now on the second one, it’s just because my hair isn’t longer   there’s always some stupid excuse. We have to fight a 100 percent more that anyone else, and all the time be proving certain things: the way we dress, talk, pose, play, sing and dance. Everything is under watch. It’s way easier to judge us than any other band.

OT: Does that get exhausting after awhile? Do you ever get to a point where you decide to just not think of people judging you, or is it always in the back of your mind? How do you get to a point where you’re all thinking, “Screw them, we’re going to do whatever we want?”
AP: We don’t usually read reviews and things every day. Those specific people’s opinions are not in our day-to-day because we’re just touring and being with our fans, who totally respect us and are the best fans in the world. The worst thing that can happen is that it can actually convince you. It gets to the point where constantly people are telling you things, and you think, “Well, maybe I’m just here because I have boobs!” In the weakest moments, the worst thing that can happen is when those things can actually convince you because of the constant pressure of it, but we’re getting better at [not listening]. It’s really lucky, being a group of four and all experiencing the same problems. It’s really easy for us to talk about it. When I’m feeling down, I have Carlotta telling me the things that I would tell her when she’s down.

OT: Tell me more about this bond that you have with your bandmates. I know you and Carlotta are old friends and you found Ade and Amber through Facebook. What’s it like making music and touring the world as a group of four women?
AP: It has gone from being friends to being sisters, which has its good things because now there’s nothing that can break that, but at the same time, you lose a lot of things because all the time we’re sharing everything. Even when we get to Madrid, the first thing we do is have a beer with each other and our other friends. We love the same things, same people and same places so it gets really exhausting. At the same time, we have something indescribable. The life we have, our whole experience, it’s such a crazy thing for four girls from Madrid. Everything we do is so specific that I think no one in the world would really understand it. You can try to explain it, but not my mom, my best friend, my manager these people who are still close to it – no one f—ing knows what it is to be in Hinds, the good things and the bad things. And suddenly you share this experience with three different people – it’s just really a sisterhood.

Hinds play U Street Music Hall on Friday, May 11 with Made Violent. Doors and show at 7 p.m. Tickets are $20. All ages.

U Street Music Hall: 1115 U St. NW DC; 202-588-1889; www.ustreetmusichall.com

Photo: Courtesy of Bottled Up
Photo: Courtesy of Bottled Up

Bottled Up’s Niko Rao Removes the Lid

The members of Bottled Up didn’t exactly know what their band name meant when they first considered it.

Instead of asking 29-year-old singer-songwriter Niko Rao why he suggested it, they instead floated out numerous explanations – emotions being held back only to be revealed in songs or music that starts off slow thus bottling up energy released in an explosive conclusion, among others. Rao simply nodded along as his band members each tossed worthy theories at him, all different than the real reason he suggested the phrase.

“It comes from a Devo song called ‘Bottled Up,’” Rao says, laughing. “I didn’t tell the band why I wanted to name it that and they came up with all these elaborate other meanings, which were interesting.”

Yes, the name – like so many others – started as an homage to his favorite band, but the California native has since ceded that the name has evolved past a simple reference, transforming into an apt description for what Bottled Up is as a unit.

“I’ve grown to like the name more than just as a reference,” Rao says. “I think it embodies our songwriting, and I definitely write things I keep bottled up.”

A DMV Collective

It didn’t take Rao long to find people to jam with after moving to the District in 2016. Like an elaborate domino effect, the musician went to a studio so he could bang on some drums to relieve frustration. Afterward, he badgered the guy at the front desk, Alex Dahms, to join him for a jam session. Alex (drums) brought eventual bassist Colin Kelly to the jam sesh, and during this meetup, lead guitarist Mikey Mastrangelo overheard the trio and asked to join in on the next one.

“I kind of pressured [Alex] into jamming with me, because I had a bunch of riffs I wanted to toy around with from [my time in] L.A.,” Rao says. “We really had great chemistry. I didn’t interact with other people very well. Actually, I mostly played all of the stuff myself. I was very controlling over my music. With this band, I’m just happy to play with others who bring things out of our songs.”

The group instantly formed a bond and has spent the past two years constantly jamming, writing music and evolving. Their self-titled record contains seven songs of new wave and garage-style surf rock delivered in speedy, two- or three-minute doses. If you’re thinking to yourself, “Wow, that’s a lot of genres in one sentence describing seven songs,” it’s probably because these guys define their genre as “¯\_(ツ)_/¯.”

“Well, I would definitely….oh man,” Rao says as he begins to try and describe their sounds for people who may not have heard them yet. “We’re totally new wave. Talking Heads, Devo, B-52s – that stuff is woven into my muscles at this point. I have a very angular, new wave guitar-playing style.”

The Constant of Music

One thing about the LP is that Rao’s up-and-down history is the emotional through line present in every track. Growing up on the West Coast, he dipped his toe in music after hearing the score of “Final Fantasy VII.” This prompted him to pick up a violin and study classical music, which he kept up with until his grandmother purchased him an electric guitar.

“Until that point, I was going to study classical music and play tennis,” he says. “Once I got a guitar and skateboard, all I wanted to do was play rock music, skate and smoke weed. I was 14, and that was a big year for me because I got into all this rock, indie and punk music – all of the stuff you hear in the background of skate videos.”

From then on, music was Rao’s life. After high school, he went to college for sound design, where he would formulate music for TV and video games. He also developed numerous drug addictions there, eventually leading to rehab and various group meetings. He ultimately decided to move to the DC area so he could be closer to family, and all the while he continued penning music.

“I definitely channeled that in my songwriting. It’s weird when you move to a city because no one really knows your past, and you’re this new, fresh person. You can choose all the colors you want to present. It wasn’t tough for me in the beginning, even now, because I feel like it’s nice to get out. My music deals with the aftermath of that – the emotions in dealing with those overwhelming topics, the things I was locking out. I use music to process this stuff.”

A Repackaged Bottle

“We don’t play anything off the old LP anymore,” Rao says of the band’s current shows.

Since the release of Bottled Up last year, the group has morphed, changing up how they write songs and even the pacing of their tracks. Rao says while the first release featured fast, compact narratives, the follow-up allows for a little more breathing room and is a tad less aggressive, though still energetic.

“I was just conditioned to play and think that way,” Rao says. “I don’t like bands that go on too long, and there’s always a point where a song will go on for too long. I think I can sense and feel when a song loses meaning, and I want to stop there.”

Rao no longer formulates the chorus, bridge and structure before bringing it to his bandmates; sometimes, he even approaches them with just an inkling of an idea.

“I was so stuck in my head with controlling everything. Now working with these guys, I bring something small and they take it to a place I didn’t know was possible.”

Before their May 11 show at DC9, the group plans to release two new songs digitally. But even if you miss those or are weary you won’t be able to sing along, Rao made a tongue-in-cheek pun to get you pumped for the concert.

“We have a lot bottled up, and we’re ready to explode and show everyone what we’re about,” Rao says, laughing. “We’re going to be theatrical, and we always try to change it up.”

Rao and his bandmates are set to take the stage at DC9 on Friday, May 11, opening for Olden Yolk. Doors open at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $12 and available at www.dc9.club. Learn more about Bottled Up at www.bottledup.bandcamp.com.

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