Us, Today – Beneath The Floorboards (2012) & Interview

Hello again, dear friends! I’m sorry I was gone these past couple of weeks – I moved to another city, and it’s been hectic, but now ZaRecords is back for good! In honor of fresh beginnings, I figured it was about time to reboot the interview section of the site, and the wonderful people in Us, Today demonstrated as perfect a timing in their interaction with me as they do in their music.

Us TodayThey are a trio from Cincinnati, creating authentically challenging music, which is truly difficult to label. Oscillating somewhere between jazz, post-rock and film score music, their most recent LP, titled “Beneath the Floorboards”, feels both robustly experimental and thoroughly controlled and thought-out (which is a delightful paradox, I’m sure you’ll agree), and is one of the most intriguing records I’ve heard in quite a while. I’ll give you ample opportunity to hear it – and I mean really listen, it’s worth it – after the interview, and I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I have. But for now, let me introduce you to Kristin, Joel and Jeff!

ZaRecords: Thank you so much for taking the time to have this dialogue with me, I feel honored. First, I’d like to ask you about something which instantly attracted my attention to your music on “Beneath the Floorboards” – its fantastic cinematic nature. I say cinematic, but by that I also mean theatrical – in short, depending on the song, it sounds like ideal music for theatre or film. Is this something you actively pursue, or is it just a sort-of side effect? Have you guys considered scoring anything for the performance arts or film?

Kristin – That is something that we’ve talked about, but have not pursued at this point.  Hopefully in the future someone will hear our music and want to use it in a film, or possibly tv commercial even.  We’ve only been together for 3 years, and it took us a while to develop the sound that we have now.  For the moment, we are more involved with writing for our albums and touring around the Northeast and Midwestern United States. Scoring a film has been a personal dream of mine.

Jeff – I would definitely say it is a side effect but something that all of us would be interested in. I am happy that our music conjures up images for some listeners. I think that means we are doing something that connects with people and that is often hard for music with no lyrics. Hopefully someone will want to use our music in film! I would love that!

ZaR: “Beneath the Floorboards” has it all – there’s slowly building tension, there’s a delightful urban groove, there’s dissonance delivered with utmost control and inspiration… all of these make me think of Universe Zero’s ‘70s albums, Terje Rypdal’s jazz-with-a-bite – the list of names goes on and on in my head, but your musical brew goes above and beyond the sum of its parts, so much so that I must ask: What are your roots? How deep do they go?

Kristin – Wow, thank you for the compliment!  I started on drum set playing folk rock at a young age.  My parents are both musicians and I was performing with them by the age of 12.  I decided to pursue classical percussion in college, which brought me to the vibraphone.  I was very much into “modern”, avant-garde percussion literature in college, which I think still influences my writing style with Us, Today.

Jeff – I started on viola which did not go very far and then I went right to drums in the school music program. I definitely felt like a late bloomer musically but I went to school for music education which exposed me to a variety of music topics. I focused on classical percussion but then turned my focus to drums and jazz music. I had some great mentors and finished my master degree in jazz studies. Kristin and I actually met in college.

ZaR: According to some reviews I could sample online about your recent work, there seems to be quite a fusion jazz scene developing in Cincinnati, and while your music definitely feels like it fits comfortably in that niche, I “discovered” you guys on the Post-Rock Facebook page. Those two realms rarely mix, so I have to ask – where do you guys feel most comfortable performing live? What kind of crowds do you rely on for your audience?

Kristin – I find it’s hard to put ourselves in to only one genre.  I don’t feel comfortable with the label “jazz fusion” because that makes me think of music that was happening in the early 70s like Tower of Power, or Weather Report.  I don’t think we sound like that at all.  I much more prefer the label of post-rock.  I think that’s a newer genre that is still open to interpretation and comes with some flexibility.  We’ve purposely tried to perform for a wide variety of audiences, to try to find who will respond well to what we do, and it’s really mixed.  We’ve performed at indie rock shows, jam festivals, hip hop festivals, jazz clubs, coffee shops.  And in each of those situations, we find that some people absolutely love what we do and become die-hard fans, and other people don’t care for it.

ZaR: Here’s sort-of a follow-up to the previous question – has the (more or less) sudden democratization of the music industry helped your music reach a broader audience? What’s your relationship with the more “traditional” music industry – record labels, agents and so on? I ask because I’ve heard jazz legends (Mike Stern and Trilok Gurtu for example) vehemently oppose digital distribution and self-promotion, as an opening of a sort of Pandora’s box. What’s your stand on this issue?

Kristin – We’ve never had representation, we’ve done everything ourselves. I feel like digital distribution and self-promotion is the reality of the musical world we live in these days. I want as many people to hear my music as possible, and I just hope that some of them will enjoy listening to it as much as I enjoy making it. The internet and social media are a part of our culture, so it would be silly for me not to use them to share my music.  Pandora’s box has already been opened.

1149404_518051454932964_1533917092_oAccording to your Facebook page and Bandcamp profile, Kristin – you play Vibraphone, Keys/electronic sounds, Joel, you’re on Guitar, Theremin and Drones and Jeff, you’re on Drums. But I hear a lot more than that on “Beneath the Floorboards” – brass, for one thing, and quite a prominent bass – are my ears being deceived? What gives?

Kristin – That’s our good friend Sam Lauristen on trumpet. An amazing player, who was kind enough to join us for a few tracks on that album. At the time, we had done a few shows with him, and we really loved what he was adding to our sound. We will often invite other musicians we know to join us on stage at our shows, often improvising with them over our tunes. Sam doesn’t play with us anymore, but it is a nice representation of the sound we were making live around the release of that album. We still perform all of those songs without Sam’s contribution. As for the bass, you’re either hearing Joel’s guitar (being run through an octave pedal), or Kristin’s left hand on her keyboard. No bass. Ever.

ZaR: You guys sound like you have quite a bit of musical training – there’s refinement and subtlety in your music that rarely, if ever, emerges from an untrained mind. Tell me a little bit about your background in this respect.

Kristin – We value the musical mentors we’ve had over the years, some of them in the form of private teachers and professors, and some of them in the form of other artists we look up to and admire. We have all dedicated many years of our lives to studying our crafts.

Jeff – Indeed! Deep listening and great teachers are the hugest part! I am always trying to get better!

ZaR: Kristin, this one is for you: there’s sometimes a truly menacing tone to your vibraphone – beyond the ethereal timbre of the instrument, you find a way to make it sound enormous, overwhelming and almost aggressive! I’ve never heard it being used in such a way – is there a special technique you use? How do you accomplish this effect?

Kristin – Burton grip, and Vic Firth Terry Gibb mallets. I like a fast vibrato to my motor, and I use it all of the time. Other than that, it’s just how I like to play the instrument. I come from the background of a drummer, not a piano player. I think that’s where I get my aggressive tendencies.

ZaR: And speaking of slightly menacing – what inspired the title of your latest LP?

Kristin – Joel actually came up with the title. We wrote all of the songs in our practice studio which was in a basement, and then we recorded them in a studio that was 3 floors below ground level. We felt like that may have had something to do with the sound we were developing. 557890_467508646653912_582968817_n

ZaR: What are your plans for the future? Would you consider touring Europe for example? There are quite a number of fascinating jazz festivals – even in Romania, where I’m from – which I’m sure would be delighted to have you. Basically, what I’m asking is – what are the odds I’ll get to see you guys performing live?

Kristin – We have just started touring in the United States and venturing out of our home town of Cincinnati, Ohio. I hope to one day be in a position where we are able to book a successful European tour. If we do, I’ll make sure we hit Romania! :)

Jeff – I would love to come to Europe. That has always been a big dream of mine. Music has usually been the catalyst to me traveling to new places.

ZaR: Let’s end on a high note – tell me a funny story, an adventure, a mishap from the studio or from a live venue that stuck with you guys, something that makes you smile – something to tell the grand kids.

Kristin – I find that in most of the places we play, rock clubs and festivals, a lot of people don’t know what a vibraphone is. I often have people come up to me after shows and tell me that they liked my xylophone playing. I actually had one guy ask me if it “gets any other sounds” once, as if it was a synthesizer or electric keyboard. I love the instrument, it’s such a beautiful sound, I’m glad a few more people know what it is after watching one of our shows.

Jeff – honestly it is hard to think of all the crazy stuff. I think one of the funniest moments was playing in a small coffee house in Madison WI. We were practically on top of each other. We made it work but it was hilarious!

Us, Today - Thanks for finding our music intriguing enough to get to know the people behind it! You’re the best!

ZaRecords - Thank you for giving me your time, and making this wonderful music!

There you have it! Listening to these guys and talking with them has been one of my highlights of 2014 so far, and I really hope they’ll give you the same thrill. I’ll leave you in the company of their music… enjoy!

The White Stripes – Icky Thump (2007)

The White Stripes found strength in simplicity like very few before them, and even fewer after, although it can hardly be denied that their duo formula was a catalyst for the success, if not the formation, of a myriad bands in the last decade or so. The insane dynamo that is Jack White broke through with this band and has never ceased to gain momentum ever since, be it with The Ranconteurs, The Dead Weather and even with his two-band solo effort (yeah, that makes sense in his head), issuing the amazing Blunderbuss album, last year. Today, however, I’m going to write about The White Stripes’ last album together, called “Icky Thump” – it’s one of their best records, although I wouldn’t go so far as to call it “THE best”, and I feel it’s probably the most relevant, when writing about the band two years after their official breakup which had been coming for a good five years at that point.

The White StripesThere’s a jaw-dropping documentary called “It Might Get Loud”, where Jack White does a few parlor tricks with a piece of wood, an electric pick-up and a guitar string, and where he spills the beans on some of the workings of his internal creative laboratory. These bits of information shed a lot of light on The White Stripes and their trademark aesthetic. I’m sure you’re all familiar with at least some of their songs, most likely “Seven Nation Army”, or something else from “Elephant” – their mainstream boom album. That record, along with the ones which came before it, established The White Stripes as one of the most inspired bands of the times, drawing tremendous amounts of juice from old time blues records and shaping it into some truly stark and powerful songs.

In “It Might Get Loud”, Jack Explains that he found the ability to make that happen when discovering Meg White’s extremely simple, raw drumming. The decision to try to build songs on that backbone led to The White Stripes’ “de stijl” aesthetic – simple, straight lines, unsophisticated, primal stretches of sound, always aspiring towards perfect proportions – eminently uncluttered but imminently dangerous, impossible to pass by.

A few years later, by the time “Icky Thump” came out, this aesthetic was groaning at the joints – Jack White was squeezing the living daylights out of it, pushing harder and further with each song, cramming so much energy into the riffs that they could hardly contain it. Seriously, it’s a question of volume, listen to them, they’re bursting at the seams – his skills as a musician had developed to a point where he was having trouble containing all of the things he wanted and could to within the rigid framework Meg was providing. But “Icky Thump” was still The White Stripes all the way, it was by far the most dense of their records, and I think it’s great that it turned out to be the last, because it’s as far as they could take it without changing completely. I’m reminded of Piet Mondrian’s evolution as a painter and I’ll illustrate it right here – from “De Stijl”

Mondrian_Composition_II_in_Red,_Blue,_and_Yellowto “Icky Thump”.

Broadway Boogie WoogieThere really isn’t very much I’ve got left to say about “Icky Thump”. The lyrics are full of that special humor Jack White knows how to sneak into his mostly serious musings – this is especially evident on the title track. The sound of the record is a bit more meaty than ever before – many times The White Stripes were accused of having a flat sound, devoid of sufficient bass, but this record can easily shrug off this accusation. It’s thick, aggressive, growling and pounding its way through the songs with unsurpassed intensity. Jack had begun branching out from his Dust-bowl era blues muse and had incorporated more folk sounding instruments and compositions on this album, which became a more visible trend for him later on, on his various other projects. If there’s one word which comes to mind to sum up “Icky Thump”, it’s “wealthy”. I highly recommend it as the perfect manifestation of a pivotal point in a remarkable artist’s career. Also, it has my favorite White Stripes song on it – “300 M.P.H. Outpour Blues” – to this day unsurpassed Jack White guitar and songwriting badassery. Enjoy!

Walking Papers – Walking Papers (2012)

Here’s one of the most impressive bands I’ve heard in a while, even though I can’t shake a slight feeling of deja-vu when I hear them. It might just have to do with the fact that Walking Papers is basically a supergroup, formed by members of The Screaming Trees, The Missionary Position, Guns’n’Roses, with contributions from Mike McCready (the guitarist from Pearl Jam). The blending of styles and backgrounds is so seamless, pleasant and so familiar, I suppose it’s no surprise it made me feel like “good old rock’n’roll” found a new avatar in these guys.

Walking Papers

I was a big fan of Guns’n’Roses when I was a kid, they were my entry into “rock music” (which meant anything from glam to grunge to metal for the ten-year-old me), and Slash’s subsequent projects produced some of my favorite tracks and albums ever, so I was delighted to learn that former Guns bass player, Duff McKagan joined this band. There seems to be a bit of a trend going around with these old icons joining new outfits – Black Country Communion, Them Crooked Vultures and now Walking Papers are all great examples. Out of the above-mentioned bands though, I believe Walking Papers take the cake – there’s a wonderful cohesion in the band, a well-tempered maturity, and the groove just breaks out at the seams of every song.

There really isn’t very much critiquing I wanna do for Walking Papers – this kind of music is really supposed to be visceral, absorbed through the muscles as well as the ears, and there really isn’t very much words can to do make that process happen for someone who isn’t feeling it. There’s gritty blues, fat keyboards, meaty rhythms, fierce and unsophisticated guitars and one hell of a voice to bring it all together. There’s a hefty bit of political commentary in some of the lyrics, but not so much that it becomes annoying. Here’s a list of things that aren’t new about Walking Papers: themes, song structure, sound, lyrics, group dynamic. You know what? It doesn’t matter – the band is tremendous and the songs will get stuck in your head for days. You’ll want to drive to this music, run, train at the gym, you’ll want to start a band of your own and make it sound just like this, because there is absolutely nothing more that can be demanded from rock’n’roll.

They don’t have videos, and most of the performances I found on YouTube are live, so I’ll limit the selection to one long video from KEXP, because it’s a very good live show, and the sound quality is perfect. Enjoy!

Steven Wilson – The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories) (2013)

It’s been a while, true, but the thing is, I’m in more of an “input” than “output” musical phase, I’ve been discovering all sorts of new sounds and vibes and I’m trying to sort through all of them. Until I get my bearings again, I’ll probably be updating more scarcely, but that doesn’t meant ZaRecords is dead. Far from it, especially when I am graced with albums such as the one I’m writing about today. I’ve probably already made this abundantly clear in previous posts, but I am a prog-rock nut, so when Steven Wilson puts out a new album, I listen. But this time, more than ever before, I am left electrified and stunned by Steven Wilson’s vision.

Steven WilsonFirst, a bit of trivia about the man himself – Steven Wilson is the founder of Porcupine Tree, one of the most well-known and rightfully appreciated outfits in music, at least for anyone who has any interest in progressive rock. He’s also behind Blackfield, arguably a more radio-friendly band, less prone to confuse DJs as to the actual genre they’re listening to. Also, he’s a tremendous producer, famous, amongst many other things, for having worked with Opeth on two of their very best albums, as well as undertaking the titanic task of remastering the entire King Crimson discography (and he did it formidably well, it’s as if he switched brains with Robert Fripp or something…). “The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories)” is his third solo album, and it seems that Steven Wilson has become some sort of avatar of progressive rock, with the consciousness of monsters such as King Crimson, Genesis and Yes flowing, molten, through his veins.

I have never before heard music which shares such kinship with the defining sound of the early seventies, without feeling merely tributary. From the very first play of the record (and there have probably been over a hundred plays since), I felt as if I had discovered an album made right alongside “Selling England By The Pound” and “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic”. My bones grew to the sound of these albums, twenty years after their release, true, but so it happened nonetheless. I define my musical preferences, one way or the other, through the prog-rock prism. This music represents so much of my identity, and I’ve been so used to confining it to that narrow time-span between the late sixties and late seventies, that “The Raven That Refused To Sing” simply caught me unprepared. Sure, Steven Wilson is well known for integrating prog-rock influences in his music, much more than most, but it’s always felt like a welcome addition, a warm handshake, a knowing nod. What he accomplishes here is, unbelievably, heartbreakingly, perfectly the genuine article.

The music is remarkably textured – the unexpected, entrancing flue, the unmistakeable, cascading sound of the mellotron, the fluid, overwhelming eloquence of the guitar, with tones molded to that elusive edge between smoothness and ferocity, the jagged groove of the bass on some of these songs, expertly counterbalanced by the often forlorn, painfully hollow mood lurking just beneath… this is a musical version of Francis Bacon’s paintings – an unsettling blend of childlike simplicity somehow privy to unfathomable, terrifying depth. I’m sure the record benefited greatly from having Alan Parsons as a producer, however, Steven Wilson’s songwriting genius seems to have reached a level of clarity like never before, capturing that distinctive layering of harmony and structure, that perfect balance of influences and styles which only progressive rock can meld into this glistening, brittle, priceless alloy.

The skin hears this just as much as the ears, and I’m going to have real trouble selecting just two tracks to illustrate this point. As will all prog-rock, this album benefits greatly from a patient, attentive listener, and I feel it can only unfurl its arabesque wings when listened to in full. Of course, I am acutely aware of my considerable bias – I feel like I’ve grown my ears to listen to this kind of music, pure and simple – but I hope I’ve been persuasive enough, for now. Enjoy!