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Photos: Courtesy of Heavy Seas Brewing
Photos: Courtesy of Heavy Seas Brewing

Ale the Heavy Seas with Founder Hugh Sisson

How does an aspiring actor dreaming of big lights in New York City choose the life of a brewer over a career on Broadway? For Heavy Seas founder Hugh Sisson, two things come to mind: success and passion.

In 1980, Sisson took the keys to the family pub rather than leave for an acting career. But instead of stashing cash for a few years and then heading to the city like he’d planned, the young man delayed and delayed until he realized he was already doing what he was meant to.

“I had hesitations,” Sisson says. “It’s one of those things where you’re finishing grad school and have no money, and you’re heading into a field that doesn’t lend itself to cash flow…. my first inclination for this was temporary, it would allow me to save a few dollars and pay off some debt, and then hit New York with a few bucks in my pocket.”

He never left Baltimore for New York. Instead, he ran the family tavern simply called Sisson’s until 1995, when he founded Heavy Seas Beer, a place where his brewing interests could flourish and grow.

“The process of brewing is fascinating,” Sisson says. “When I started in the brewpub it was me and a bunch of books, I was psyched about it. I’d wake up at 3 a.m., go into the office and brew a batch of beer. In those days, it was continuously fascinating and at the end of the day, you’d have a full tank of beer.”

He brewed at Sisson’s for about five years, following a successful campaign to get brewpubs legalized in Maryland.
“Now people pick up the phone and order a brewery,” Sisson says with a laugh. “We had to figure all that crap out. By 1989, the family pub had became the first brewpub in Maryland, and that was an interesting transition.”

Operating at a small scale allowed him to get his hands dirty and be creative with his recipes, but after tasting success at nearly every level, he was ready to move on to a larger operation and Heavy Seas was launched.

Sisson took what he learned, found some other like-minded individuals crazy about brewing and began pumping out more beers. This included annual options like the American IPA Loose Cannon, Pounder Pils, Gold Ale and others. Now The brewery is one of Baltimore’s most notable and has produced several popular beers since its inception.

“It changed and adapted, because as you get larger it becomes more of a business,” Sisson says. “You have to make a product for which there’s a market. You look at the market and figure out where there are holes. Since we don’t live in a world where you make one product and that’s all you do, especially in the craft segment, you’re going to have a portfolio of products.”

Though Sisson and Heavy Seas are into producing classic concoctions that will stand the test of time, they do dabble in seasonal releases that make sense. For instance, the brewery recently installed a 15-barrel pilot system which will allow them to test recipes in the tasting room without getting ahead of themselves with mass production.

“It’s not going to represent a ton of volume, but it serves purposes,” Sisson says. “It gives us a new platform and it allows us to do something crazy at a small enough format to where we’re not betting the ranch. To the extent we can produce one-offs, it helps drive business in the taproom.”

Apart from that, Sisson and his team at Heavy Seas is set to release their new Schnee Boot, a bourbon barrel-aged Eisbock. The brewery is also going to release new spring and winter beers in 2019, as well as some broader visual changes to the brand’s iconography.

“We’re working on a logo change,” Sisson says. “It both excites me and terrifies me. We’ve had the current one for eight years, and we’re changing it because we have to. In small business and beer business, you have to be willing to reinvent yourself from time to time.”

Despite the change in look, you can bet on Heavy Seas to deliver world-class beers in 2019 and beyond.

For more information about Heavy Seas Brewing, brewery tours, taproom tastings or where to find Heavy Seas beer near you, visit www.hsbeer.com.

Heavy Seas Brewing: 4615 Hollins Ferry Rd. Baltimore, MD; 410-247-7822; www.hsbeer.com

Photo: Rey Lopez
Photo: Rey Lopez

Sarah Rosner Brings Her DC Bartending Experience to Bourbon Steak

Sarah Rosner has launched some impressive cocktail programs over her 17 years of bartending in DC, including menus at Breadsoda and Radiator inside Logan Circle’s Mason & Rook Hotel. Her latest gig, though, has arguably the highest profile yet.

Back in August, Rosner took the reins as the head bartender at Bourbon Steak, the posh bar inside the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown. She’s the first woman to lead the bar in its 10-year history, and says she’s excited to put her spin on what’s become a drinking destination for creative libations that go far beyond steakhouse clichés like martinis or Manhattans.

While some may see hotel life as hectic, Rosner, who lives in Dupont Circle, says she gets a jolt out of interacting with the diverse and often inquisitive flow of regulars and tourists in the neighborhood.

“You’ll have guests that you won’t see for six months, and then they’ll come back and you’re like home to them,” she says. “People have the time to learn, too. They have the time to sit there and nerd out with you. It’s fun.”

Rosner says so far, change has mostly been gradual and geared toward elevating the little details – like new tools and good ice that she says can set great cocktail programs apart.

She’s also been working with and learning from the restaurant’s sommelier, Winn Roberton, and Executive Chef Drew Adams, on how to incorporate elements from the rest of the restaurant into the bar.

Her biggest fingerprint comes this month with the launch of her first seasonal cocktail menu, which will fuse fall flavors with tropical touches that give a nod to her Hawaiian upbringing. One example is the Tiki in the Mountains (a.k.a. A Hula Skirt and a Kilt Have a Baby). The cocktail is made with a private cask selected in partnership with Virginia Distillery Co. and uses the classic tiki pairing of whiskey, cinnamon and grapefruit.

“This pairing and spirit seemed like the perfect way to put my spin on something uniquely Bourbon Steak.”

Another option will be a play on an Old Fashioned using macadamia nut-infused whiskey, something she says she’s always wanted to serve to guests. The fall menu will also include a few cocktail favorites from years past as part of the spot’s 10-year anniversary.

When she’s not mixing drinks at the Four Seasons, Rosner continues to be an active supporter of the DC bartending industry through participation in organizations like the DC Craft Bartenders Guild. She feels grateful to be able to contribute to the men and women in the community who have helped her throughout her time in the city and allowed each other to be successful.

“We have a great community here. People are finally recognizing us, and we’re finally stepping up to that. We all set the bar high.”

A big part of that national recognition is the rising tide of variety and quality of drinks in the city, whether it’s a dive bar or a steakhouse inside a five-star hotel. The other part though – arguably the more important part – is hospitality and service. That’s something Rosner always keeps at the forefront of her mind, wherever she’s working.

“I hope I can rub off on people,” she says of her new gig. “I feel like people have been getting excited, and guests can really see that when you care, they care. It’s infectious.”

Follow Bourbon Steak on social media at @bourbonsteakdc and learn more about Rosner’s brand-new cocktail menu at www.fourseasons.com/washington/dining/restaurants/bourbon_steak.

Bourbon Steak, Four Seasons Hotel: 2800 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, DC; 202-944-2026; www.fourseasons.com/washington/dining/restaurants/bourbon_steak

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Rosner developed menus for Jack Rose and Marvin. 

Photos: Trent Johnson
Photos: Trent Johnson

From Freshman Foodie to Instagram Influencer: @dcfoodporn’s Justin Schuble

It definitely feels a little meta to watch On Tap’s assistant editor Trent Johnson take photos of @dcfoodporn’s Justin Schuble taking photos of Brothers and Sisters Pastry Chef Pichet Ong’s ornate The London cake at the LINE Hotel. This feeling is only intensified by the fact that our subject is on the stairs by the LINE’s iconic, off-kilter mirror – perhaps one of DC’s most Instaworthy spots to date – so there’s two camera-wielding Schubles and two mouthwatering, crepe-stacked cakes in every photo.

All self-referential insights aside, we decided to meet up with DC’s most successful food Instagrammer – with 246,000 followers and counting – at his location of choice so we could see him in action. The LINE has been high on his wish list for some time, so we pop down to the impossibly trendy AdMo hotel one afternoon in August to pick the 23-year-old’s brain about how he turned his college hobby into a booming millennial business.

The Instagram influencer is soft-spoken and thoughtful, an adept multitasker who is constantly searching the room for the best angles while still giving us his full attention. He approaches food photography – and his entire @dcfoodporn brand – as a curated experience, bringing an artistic element to every shoot. A steady stream of decadent desserts keeps coming from Erik Bruner-Yang’s kitchen, the final one in the hands of the pastry chef himself, who chats with us for a few about photography on the LINE’s front steps.

Schuble moves deliberately during the shoot, selecting a new location in the hotel’s lobby for each dessert and experimenting with countless angles. When he is sure he has enough options, we sink into two oversized armchairs and begin to talk shop – from his creative process for keeping his content engaging to how he grew his account from 100 followers as a Georgetown freshman to hundreds of thousands of followers as the owner of a profitable business.

BEFORE THERE WAS @DCFOODPORN, there was @freshman_foodie. After growing up in a Potomac, Maryland household that rarely ate at home – save for takeout – and with zero interest in subsisting solely off of Georgetown’s dining hall options, it made perfect sense to Schuble to eat out a lot. And as millennials often do, he began snapping photos of his food and posting them to his personal Instagram account.

Countless food posts later, he created the @freshman_foodie handle and a food-only account. By the end of the year, he had 100 followers and decided to rebrand with his current handle, which has now been used as a hashtag on Instagram in almost 272,000 posts.

The business school student bought a camera that summer and taught himself some photography basics, like how to manipulate lighting. He remains a self-taught photographer even now, crediting his natural eye for knowing what elements need to come together in a successful post.

Schuble has experienced steady growth since launching @dcfoodporn, reaching the 10,000-follower mark within a year. As his account became more popular, his plans to pursue a career in finance or marketing – real estate and working on Wall Street were among his considered paths – began to dwindle until he decided to try the Instagram influencer lifestyle out for one year. Fast forward to a little over a year later, and he’s running a successful media company through the @dcfoodporn brand.

“It is crazy,” he says of his rapid rise to local fame. “I think I got really lucky with timing. I was lucky that I got to experiment with this in college. That really allowed me to let the passion drive the account and its growth. I was set up for success because I had the flexibility to do things that maybe weren’t going to work, and there was no financial pressure because I was in school.”

But now that he’s in the real world – Bethesda, to be exact – he defines success by a new set of metrics that includes being able to answer questions like, “Can I pay my rent?” in the affirmative.

It wasn’t until brands began courting Schuble that he realized @dcfoodporn was a potentially viable business. Sweetgreen was one of the first to reach out soon after the 10,000-follower benchmark, a geek out moment for him since the chain was started by three Georgetown business students. As more brands hired him for projects, he became more selective and set a standard rate for his services.

“A lot of what I’m doing recently is paid work with brands. They’ll send me a product, and I’ll have to shoot it and do all of the creative and figure out the style and what I want to pair it with, which I love. I think that’s more fun than going to a restaurant where the chef does all the creative work and I just have to do my best to make it look good.”

A National Tequila Day-themed post with a bottle of Jose Cuervo nestled among fresh avocado halves and tortilla chips, a Potbelly Free Shake Friday promo filled with neatly stacked Oreos surrounding an Oreo milkshake, and a drool-worthy picnic shot for Voss water are among his recent brand projects.

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WHILE SCHUBLE LOVES TRYING his hand at art direction for brands, a huge percentage of his feed is still devoted to the local food scene.

“It’s always different. Everything about what I do is different. There’s no typical day and no typical photo shoot, which keeps it fun. I love that.”

Whether the visit is planned or impromptu, he says he always asks to be seated by a window with natural lighting. He inquires about the best items on the menu – although he usually researches options in advance – and proceeds to order both what he wants to photograph and what he wants to actually eat. This of course begs the question: how much of what he photographs does he consume?

“I’m actually very healthy, so I don’t necessarily eat every single cake or whatever it is that I post,” he says. “I do prioritize my health. If I can bring someone along with me to help eat the food and be an extra set of hands, that’s always great. I’ll usually take a couple hundred photos at each restaurant. Then I’ll eat a little bit, pack up a ton of leftovers and bring them with me.”

When he’s not saving a ton of money on groceries and eating like a king from his couch, Schuble strikes a balance between promoting hip spots he likes and maintaining a visual aesthetic. He often has to make a Sophie’s Choice between a dish that photographs beautifully but is lackluster in comparison to an unphotogenic plate of nosh that piques his palate. Another crossroads he frequently encounters is whether or not to post about an amazing spot where the food is off the charts but doesn’t have Instaworthy presentation, or the interior is void of any decent lighting options.

It’s evident he takes the role of accurately representing DC’s food scene very seriously, and as a fellow local who has watched the District transform into a burgeoning foodie city, I truly appreciate that. He makes an excellent point that while the DMV has long been home to a myriad of authentic ethnic cuisines, the ambiance was often less than optimal for foodies back in the day. But with a trendier, more millennial-driven food scene on the rise, ethnic flavors are becoming more approachable as they’re being presented in hipper locales.

“I think it’s a lot easier now for people to be exposed to so many different things while still staying in their comfort zone. I also think it’s great that people in other cities actually see DC as a real food scene. It’s been cool to grow @dcfoodporn during that same time that DC has grown. When I started, my list of places to check out was not nearly as long as it is now just because every day, something new is popping up.”

ULTIMATELY, Schuble wants locals to recognize his brand. He’s proud of his DC following, and even notes that someone recognized him in the LINE’s lobby while he was waiting for our interview and asked if he was “that

@dcfoodporn guy.” On the flipside, he says he never takes advantage of that recognition when stumbling upon a new spot; instead, he prefers to fly under the radar as a paying customer.

When we start chatting about the road ahead, he says he’d love to reach a million followers.

“I think it’s nice to have huge goals that you can strive for. And if you don’t get there, don’t beat yourself up.”

In the meantime, he’s been expanding his brand to include more lifestyle and travel content.

“I posted a photo at the airport the other day and it got more likes than any of my food photos this week. I think people are hungry for different types of content and for me, it’s about playing around with that and figuring out what people want to see, what I want to post and how it relates to @dcfoodporn. How can I elevate the brand?”

As for how long he wants to stay on the influencer career track, that’s TBD. While he loves having a profitable outlet for his creative side and enjoys the perks of frequent travel and friendships formed with other media personalities, he’s also realistic about the burnout rate of this type of gig and says that at some point, it’d be nice to settle down and keep a normal schedule. He’s even toying with the idea of starting another media company – something related to food, but the next step.

“I do love the food scene, but for me it’s more about full experiences and being creative. I think food lends itself to that, but there are other areas I’d be interested in.”

For now, Schuble is committed to growing the @dcfoodporn brand, even leading social media workshops around the DC area to teach local Instagrammers how to tell their stories in a more engaging way. Don’t miss his next class at Rosslyn-based pop-up The Alcove (19th and N. Moore Streets) on Wednesday, September 11 from 5:30-7:30 p.m. Tickets are $25. Learn more at www.rosslynva.org/pop-up.

If you aren’t already following @dcfoodporn on Instagram, you should be. Learn more about Schuble and his media company at www.dcfoodporn.com.

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Photo: Trent Johnson
Photo: Trent Johnson

A Day in the Life: Master Mixologist Paul Gonzalez

The concept of a passionate person is often talked about at parties and in cover letters, but it’s rare to meet someone in the flesh who truly embodies the phrase. For me, the sense of confidence and wonder that local mixologist Paul Gonzalez holds for the drink industry is uniquely infectious and authentic, and one of a litany of reasons we decided to pick his brain about his role in the local mixology scene.

On Tap: How did you get into the drink industry, and mixology specifically?
Paul Gonzalez: I’ve always been in the food and beverage industry. I’m the oldest of the four kids in my family so when I was younger, that made me my grandmother’s sous chef and that’s kind of where my flavor sensibilities started growing.  I worked in the industry through college, from server to bartender, and it was one of those things where you need the experience to get hired but can’t get experience unless you work. I would work for free until you gave me a job.

OT: Was there an “a-ha” moment when you knew this is what you are meant to do?
PG: When I got out of college, I was doing tons of stuff. I was cutting down trees, doing construction and working some office jobs because I was still trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I landed on this because I always loved what I was doing in this industry, and I always kept it in my back pocket. Even after long weeks, I wanted to get behind the bar and see my friends. If everyone is there, why be anywhere else?


Mixology Must-Haves
A strong team
A positive outlook
Good liquor
Jiggers


OT: At what point did you know moving from Norfolk to a bigger market like DC was the right move for you?
PG: I knew I needed to move and continue growing. One of my good friends moved to DC and I would go back and forth to help with his catering company. By luck, one of his roommates happened to be running the bar program at Zaytinya. I started talking to him at one of the events we used to do, and when he found out I was driving up from Norfolk, he told me if I wanted to come up to DC full-time, he’d hire me there. So I literally came up on a Thursday, interviewed, got hired and then moved my stuff up that weekend.

OT: What was your first experience in a bigger market like?
PG: I worked for ThinkFoodGroup for about three years, and I learned a ton from them. A lot of it was their philosophy on hospitality. On the drink side, they focused heavily on flavors, so it wasn’t just, “Make me an Old Fashioned or a sazerac,” but they’d give us this flavor and that flavor, and challenge us to make something with it. That process makes you hone in on what each spirit tastes like and why.

OT: After that, you landed a gig with the wildly popular Drink Company’s pop-ups. How did that move come about?
PG: I bounced around for awhile and basically interned at a few places in the area I really wanted to work for. Columbia Room was one of those places, as I had friends there. I was pretty annoying about wanting a job with them, so I worked there for free, and it kind of burnt me out. [Laughs] But as soon as they had an opening at Southern Efficiency, they let me know I was in the running. At the time, whiskey was my weakest subject, but I leaned into it and told them directly, “I came to DC to get better, this is my weakest area and that’s why I want to work here,” and the rest is history.

OT: You recently worked at The Gibson, which was described as a “dream team” of mixologists by the Washington City Paper. Was this as fun as it sounds?
PG: It was really, really cool. I’ve had a blast working with The Gibson crew. It was one of those things that just kind of snowballed. My good friend Ed Lainez took over the bar program and after running into him, he told me who he was bringing on and I immediately was like, “Can I join?” Everyone there was super talented – we just checked our egos at the door and had in-depth conversations about drinks. We just wanted to get them right.


Can’t Live Without
My girlfriend
My puppy, Puppy the Vampire Slayer
Passion for anything you do
Good food
Good drinks


OT: Your next project is back with Drink Company at Eaton Hotel’s new bar. How far along is that?
PG: The whole hotel concept is super guest interactive. The bar will be a speakeasy-esque cocktail bar. We like the boozy drinks, but there will also be light, easy sipping beverages. I believe in the three-drink philosophy, where there’s three varietals of every type of cocktail. We want people to have a good time, but the goal is to make a memory and make it last. We’re shooting for a mid-August or September opening.

OT: In the meantime, you’ve been bouncing around and freelancing at different places. Is this just to learn and pick up new skills?
PG: I took this time to work with people who inspire me and who I want to learn from. I see all these awesome people running awesome programs, and I want to go work with them and pick their brains. There aren’t many industries where you can do this. One example is Hank’s Cocktail Bar up in Petworth. Jessica Weinstein is the beverage director for all of the Hank’s [locations], and she’s someone I’ve known for a long time now. You can see that she has her own style and [has made her own] footprint on elevated cocktails, but she’s taken all of the pretension out of it.

OT: What is your process for working on drinks? Do you have a concept and then work on it alone, or do you take ideas to others?
PG: It’s a little bit of both. The team works on ideas at least once a season. For instance, I’ll tell Jackson Crowder, co-manager at the Eaton Hotel’s bar, and then on the next day we both have off, we’ll hammer out variations of whatever concept. Then we’ll take those to the big meeting, and maybe one or two – or none – make it. Drink Company’s system is one of the best I’ve seen because they’re very open to ideas and collaboration

OT: Now that you’re moving into a managerial role and you’re the one giving tips and advice to younger people in the industry, what’s your long-term plan?
PG: It’s the same thing it’s been since I did my first interview in DC: I want to have my own bar in five years. I think I said that three years ago, so I have to start making moves. [Laughs] This is such a great city for it, and I would love to do something like that here.

For updates on Eaton Hotel, visit www.eatonworkshop.com/hotel.

Follow Gonzalez on Instagram at @paullyygee.

Eaton Hotel: 1201 K St. NW, DC; 202-289-7600; www.eatonworkshop.com/hotel

Photo: Elijah Jamal Balbed
Photo: Elijah Jamal Balbed

A Day in the Life: DC Drummer Isabelle De Leon

Encouraged by family, Isabelle De Leon has been playing music since she was four and the drums since she was seven. But hers is not a story of a child prodigy forced into a life of performance at any cost. De Leon has talent in spades, and she marches to the beat of her own drums. As an early teen, De Leon found a deep connection in writing music. She has since made it her mission to use the power of music to inspire and heal, and she does it in hundreds of different ways. On any given day, you can find her jetting from one gig to another, running jam sessions, teaching music lessons, serving as an ambassador to the DC music community and being the kickass lady drummer in a rock band.

At 27, De Leon has already played major venues including the Kennedy Center and DAR Constitution Hall, is the recipient of countless music scholarships and recognitions – including a stint as a Strathmore Artist in Residence – and still finds time to rock out with local synth-pop bands Prinze George and Paperwhite, and funk/soul band Lionize. Even with her many accomplishments, the local musician remains humble. On Tap caught up with De Leon to learn more about her  “constant learning journey” and how the musician incorporates her life experiences into the music she plays.

On Tap: You’ve played all over the country. What keeps you in DC?
Isabelle De Leon: I’m from Montgomery County, so not far. I’ve always loved the city, and it was always a dream of mine to move here and be more immersed in the scene. It’s great because the music scene is very active so there are a lot of opportunities to perform and meet other musicians. What’s cool about being here is that DC is a much smaller city but there’s still a lot happening, and I feel like I can be part of creating something here versus where it’s already oversaturated.

OT: You started out playing music at a young age with your family. How did your relationship with music develop as a child?  
IDL: It was always a family thing. My whole family played music. My dad was the one who taught us music when we were really young. He was teaching us all piano, guitar and bass. When I was seven, he brought home a drum set and taught me some basic things. At that point, he started asking each of us which instrument we wanted to take lessons for. I think he had a vision for what to steer us each toward. Our whole family played at church every weekend, and that was where we really learned about music theory, chord structures, arrangements and how to play in an ensemble – the nuances of improvising, taking cues and listening to each other. Those things are really valuable and hard to teach in a classroom.

OT: What drew you to the drums?
IDL: One of our favorite movies [growing up] was Selena, and it’s even more precious now because their story was very similar to ours. Their dad loved music and started them young, playing in this family band. I just remember that scene where he’s trying to get Suzette to play the drums and she’s adamantly protesting and she’s like, “Girls don’t play the drums.” And for some reason, I took that as, “Oh, I’m going to play the drums now and prove everybody wrong and show people that girls can play the drums.” So that was one of the reasons why I wanted to pursue it.

OT: It can be hard to make a career out of your passion. How did you make music both for you?
IDL: When I was really young, I didn’t know any other female drummers except [Santana’s] Cindy Blackman, who I idolized and still do. I realized that I was in a very unique position being a woman on a male-dominated instrument, and also being a woman minority in the music industry. I realized there was a power in that, in being able to inspire young girls to go out for things that people were telling them they couldn’t do. In a way, that’s really what my mission is. It’s one of the reasons why I feel like I can’t ever quit, necessarily. I yearn for that kind of figure I can look up to myself, and if I can be that for someone else who needs a role model, I would love to be that person for them.

OT: How does being a Filipino woman in this space affect what you do within the creative industry in DC?
IDL: Being a female drummer already sets me as a minority, and that’s something I’ve experienced my whole life. But one thing that I didn’t realize until I was much older was what my identity was and who I was. We grew up primarily around white people and because of that, I felt in a way more connected to American culture even though I know I don’t look “American.” But in Filipino circles, I didn’t feel like I fit in, in a way. That same kind of conflict came out when I started studying jazz music and participating in the DC music scene.

OT: What challenges have you faced breaking into the local jazz scene? 
IDL: Right now, I’m trying to get better at and play jazz, funk and soul music that’s oriented around really groovy drumming. There was an instance recently where it came to my attention that some people either roll their eyes at me when I come and play or they kind of judge me because according to them, I didn’t grow up in the “church” so I don’t really have a gospel background. That was hurtful because first of all, it’s not true. Also, music is supposed to be about camaraderie, sharing and connection. People who get hateful like that, or just bitter, defeat the purpose of what we do.

OT: You recently started a regular jam session at Pearl Street Warehouse. Is that a jazz series?
IDL: It’s called Southwest Soul Sessions. It’s not specifically jazz per se. I actually started the jam session with Elijah Jamal Balbed, who’s also an accomplished musician here, and our goal with the session was to bridge all of our music communities in DC. I’ve done a lot of work in the rock and pop scenes, and he’s very heavy in the jazz, R&B and go-go scenes. We realized that together, we would have a vast network of people and we really wanted to bring all of them together. The great thing about jam sessions is that you’re playing with people you may have never played with before and may never again. But in that moment, you’re just trying to create something that’s different and bring all of your influences to the table. We really wanted it to be like a dance party too, and Pearl Street Warehouse is perfect for that.

OT: You are very accomplished and constantly working on different projects. What keeps you focused and awake?
IDL: I’ve always known what my goals are. They’re pretty big, but I also have some that are more tangible like to be Beyoncé’s drummer. [Laughs] One thing that my mom taught me early on was to write down your priorities and goals and make lists of steps that you can take to get there. I make sure I check in with myself pretty regularly. My overall goals have been the same since I started to really pursue music, and I always keep that in the back of my mind. It’s really important to always remember your “Why?” It’s also important to take a break every once in awhile. There are days where I don’t do anything music-related.

OT: What do you enjoy doing on those days away from the music scene?
IDL: I really enjoy movies. I love being adventurous and trying new things, whether it’s an activity I’ve never done or something like bowling or just going on a walk in a park. I love cooking and catching up with friends. Relationships are really important to me, so I try to make sure I stay in touch with the people who are important and make time for them. I also really love shopping. I don’t mind spending money to beautify my room, because I’m creating music there and it needs to be a place of inspiration and a beautiful place that I can relax in and enjoy. My room is pretty decked out and full of plants.

Follow De Leon on Instagram at @isabelledeleon_ and on Facebook at @IsabelleDeLeonMusic. Learn more about her Southwest Soul Sessions with Balbed at www.pearlstreetwarehouse.com and sign up for drum lessons with her at www.7drumcity.com.

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: Colin Medley
Photo: Colin Medley

Dynamic Duo Partner Rocks DC

Lucy Niles and Josée Caron, better known as Partner, a Canadian rock duo with hilariously relatable lyrics and guitar chops for days, graced the DC9 stage Wednesday after making waves on the SXSW circuit in March. Ahead of their show, I sat down with the duo to talk inspiration behind their debut album, In Search of Lost Time, what it’s like working alongside a close friend, and how others can draw from their example to trust in their creative work.

Niles and Caron’s subject matter has an undeniable everyday appeal. With songs about making the most of weekdays off from a hectic work schedule on “Personal Weekend,” the paranoia that comes from being high in public on “Everybody Knows,” and the excitement of a new crush on “Play the Field,” listeners will find at least one relatable song on their first full-length album. The band says their inspiration for these songs comes from common threads amongst their lives.

 

Both on and off the stage, Niles and Caron have a palpable and cohesive energy that many duos spend entire careers honing. In addition to the two on guitar, an equally talented three-piece band joins them for live performances. While they were in college, Niles and Caron spent time in and out of different projects before they formed Partner in their post grad years.

“Everyone in the other bands moved away and it was kind of just me and Lucy. We were living together and it kind of was just exactly the right circumstances,” Caron says of the band’s eventual creation. “One day we were hanging out and there was this guitar beside me and I just started yelling words.”

“It was around when she was getting into weed, so we would just smoke and talk about childhood memories and stuff like that,” Niles adds.

Forming the band led to an eventual permutation of old friends, and with each tour and recording session, their relationship becomes deeper.

“It’s a really fast way to grow as people. I think our bond is stronger now,” Niles says.

Caron is quick to agree.

“We’ve been playing together pretty much since we met, casually at first, then we started touring together but not as seriously,” she says. “It just sort of built up, but we also live together so we’re together all the time anyway.”

While their sound is distinct and decidedly self-assured, Caron and Niles say they find their inspiration from a host of artists.

“It’s all over the place,” Niles says. “Sound wise, we’re influenced by Ween, obviously, because they’re pan-genre. We’re kind of more influenced by attitudes and energies or whatever.”

“[We’re even influenced by] people that aren’t known really at all,” Caron adds. “We love to discover.”

“Pretty much anybody that seems like they know exactly what they’re trying to say and… they sound like they’re free, that’s what inspires us,” Niles says.

The duo also draws inspiration from many non-musical places.

“We’re really obsessed with the Enneagram personality test,” Niles says.

“It’s kind of spiritual, so it’s like we’re on some kind of path,” Caron muses.

Niles agrees, adding, “We’re trying to improve ourselves and shit.”

Caron emphasizes that recently, reality TV is “for sure” a huge inspiration.

This attitude translated beautifully into Wednesday’s live show, where Caron impressively belted Lady Gaga’s “A Million Reasons” after telling the audience the recent Netflix documentary on Gaga’s life “changed everything” for her. They also covered Melissa Etheridge’s “I’m The Only One” and sang a new song that was inspired by a poem written by Caron’s boss. Both band mates smiled through the entirety of the song, as if no one in the world was ever going to have as much fun as they were in that momentexcept maybe for their audience.

One of the most refreshingly unexpected aspects of their album are the skits—seven in total—scattered throughout. Consisting mostly of recorded phone calls, the skits make perfect sense in a world of songs about the band’s everyday life. Perhaps the most hilarious are the ones including Caron’s supportive and funny dad. I asked her how she managed to get such great soundbites of her dad, and she tells me the band played a bit of a trick to get them.

“We knew we had to get him when he didn’t know he was being interviewed, and then we asked for his consent later,” she explains. “But it’s also my dad, and obviously from the record you can tell he really wants me to do this kind of thing.”

Niles adds that “We definitely would not have gone forward with it if he hadn’t been okay with it.”

The band knew they wanted skits to be a big part of the album, but the better parts of it came together later.

“We knew we wanted to have skits from the universe and stuff of our album,” Niles says. “We wanted people to feel like they were having a whole experience. We didn’t really have any ideas for a skit, and then we just smoked a bunch of hash.” 

Caron says the band “wanted to show our life and everyone who was involved in the record and everything getting made.”

Niles adds, “We definitely didn’t realize how the skits would be received. But then we came out with the skits, and a lot of people said that they loved them and a lot of people are like ‘we love your album, but we hate the skits’ so it’s like completely 50/50.”

While their subject matter and energy is carefree and playful, the powerful and positive example they set as talented women telling the stories of their everyday lives is not lost on the duo. I asked them for advice they would give to any young creatives who are afraid to put themselves out there.

“I don’t wanna say there’s nothing to be afraid of, but you deserve to be allowed to take up space if you want to. In that way, you don’t have to feel like you’re not allowed,” Niles says.

“I think that when you make something that you love, you can feel safe in your creation, and can look for that feeling of being supported by your art,” Caron says. “That will give you the strength and the momentum to  put yourself out there in whatever place makes sense for you. It’s really about finding your voice.”

For more information about Partner, click here