Home2017-2018Marching to the beat of their own drum: bands on campus

Marching to the beat of their own drum: bands on campus

By Sara Fullerton
Staff Writer

In my mind, bands have often existed as somewhat elusive, intimidating entities. I have always loved playing music, but sensed a fundamental divide between my own musical enthusiasm and the skill set needed to forge a name and sound of your own. My recent conversations with Willamette students in bands bridged that imagined gap, and helped me to better appreciate the sustained effort necessary to be in a band. This entails the creative processes of composition, the logistical work and time commitment for jam sessions, the labor intensive and detail-oriented work of recording and producing albums, the self-promotion, the seeking out venues and the playing shows. For all those I talked with, the drive to pull off all these components was clearly born of genuine passion and excitement for music, as well as an internal craving to be in conversation with the music world.

This past week, I sat down with members from “Percy Lounge,” “Chromatic Colors” and Willamette’s “Funk Band” to hear about their experiences. Our conversations often turned into reflections on each musician’s process and the labor involved in cultivating a style. Through study and experimentation, these musicians are carving out a space for themselves in the musical worlds they have access to. They take their own distinctive styles and bring them to collaborative efforts, working together to produce an astounding product.

A common sentiment among those I spoke with is that Willamette’s music department influenced their decision to come here because it offers a strong program without dominating campus life. The students are able to pursue music alongside other areas of interest. Senior Wil Bakula, senior, of “Chromatic Colors” has gleaned skills in Professor Nord’s music production classes to independently record and produce his own albums from start to finish. Simultaneouse to producing a full-length album for his music thesis, he is also pulling off a Philosophy major. His bandmate, Willamette graduate Katy Ohsiek, majored in Math while also participating in such ensembles as Willamette University Chamber Choir, the women’s choir Voce Femminile and the jazz collective Willamette Singers. She then worked in politics in Washington DC before returning to Salem.

Henry Coba, junior, told me that “Percy Lounge” had its beginnings in Doney Hall during his freshman year. Coba described, “We started writing some sketches. It turned into songs. It turned into some fun performances in the Bistro. We accumulated band members. Started playing around town. Sweaty basements. Wherever.” The band name comes from Coba’s cat Percy who “likes to lounge.”

Coba reflected that a musical outlet is “necessary for my health and my wellbeing.” He sees it primarily as a release, allowing his “unspoken thoughts” to be “transmitted through music.”

Percy Lounge’s most recent single, “State of the Union,” was written by Coba and gives voice to thoughts and feelings surrounding the current elected president. The song features Coba on lead vocals. It was released just weeks ago on March 16, unveiled to the public at a show at Taproot Café and Lounge. It delivers clever, thoughtful lyrics, a powerful beat channeled through the keys and drums, compelling electric guitar riffs and a seamlessly integrated instrumental break.

Today, “Percy Lounge” is Coba on keys and trombone, Luke Warren on lead vocals, Brenden Ramirez on lead guitar, Jasper Gill on drums and Nick Burton on bass. Their sound is funk rock with jazz influences. They are known for their exceptional stage presence, fueled by their high energy that draws an enthusiastic audience to match. Be sure to check them out at Wulapalooza this April 14.

I loved hearing Coba describe the band’s collaborative songwriting process. He said, “Someone might bring an inkling of an idea in. Everyone’s feeling it, everyone’s experiencing it, and they add their own personality to it.”

Vocalist Warren lets the music move on its own first, and then feels for a fitting melody and lyrics. Usually he just listens at first, then “Kind of starts experimenting with a melody line without words, develops it into a solid, concrete melody,” and then writes lyrics on his own time.

The balance between improvisation and established songs is something that “Percy Lounge” brings intentionality to. All the Willamette students and alumni involved in Percy Lounge have a jazz background. Improvisation is a key feature of their sound, but at the same time Coba noted that “our identity and the song itself” can sometimes get lost in too much improv. This said, the band has recently been moving towards more consistency with songs.

Seldom does “Percy Lounge” play a piece that one band member brought in composed and ready to go. Rather, their songs grow through jam sessions. As Coba described, “Here’s this little phrase, and we turn it into a story.”

Speaking with Bakula about “Chromatic Colors,” I learned that the multiplicity of styles, preferences and strengths among band members was embraced as one of their most important features. Their particular creative space is enabled by the different backgrounds of band members since “There’s not a lot of boundaries on the band.” The band members have an attitude of “Let’s just play music,” which they all recognize as more important and authentic than confining themselves to any particular shape or content.

This is not to say that the band lacks intentionality about the sound they create. Bakula’s process has always been about incorporating different musical traditions while tempering this with enough cohesion to make each song and each EP feel unified by a distinctive sound. However, it is impossible to reach any intriguing, nuanced sound of one’s own without first allowing abundant space for experimentation.

Bakula’s journey with “Chromatic Colors” began in fall of his sophomore year when he produced a solo EP that he said “I have since deleted because it was really embarrassing.” His pursuit of a solo sound was born from the feeling that “I was very much outside of the music program but still a music student.” Willamette’s music program offers training in either jazz or classical, and despite trying out both, Bakula felt “I never really fit into either of those groups.”

The solo EP was Bakula’s way of exploring elements of all the genres he admired. It was a “collage” of neosoul, experimental electronic, hip hop and rock, to name a few.

Bakula loves neosoul because it is true “jam music.” Once he was able to discover more about a style that suited his musical interests, Bakula found people to share in that musical creation process. The name “Chromatic Colors” is a celebration of the synthesis and inclusion of all the various stylistic influences mapped out in each song. Bakula explained, “Chromatic Colors is like all the colors in the color gradient and its also all of the notes in a 12-tone series.”

Bakula said that “Chromatic Colors’” sound is the product of a fusion of three distinctive styles. Where David Guzman, lead guitarist, brings a “blues rock background,” Bakula himself offers “more funk, experimental, neosoul vibes.” Of lead singer Ohsiek, he says, “She’s a jazz singer in terms of tone and skill, but her lyrics and her style are very much pop.” They bring all these elements to a sound that could be described as pop-fusion.

Channeled through the medium of pop music, Bakula finds an avenue to introduce many different grooves that are less familiar to most listeners. He explained, “We want to take the pop formula that people are comfortable with and then flip

it on its head.” Of their collaboration process, Bakula said it often happens that Ohsiek will come up with some intriguing pop tune, and then send it on the Bakula to “make a part B,” which Ba-kula describes as often “really weird.” In this way, their project becomes to “force [the audience] to go somewhere they haven’t been before.”

Bakula’s strongest musical influences right now are bands like “Hiatus Kaiyote” and “King Gizzard” and the “Lizard Wizard.” He loves “Hiatus Coyote’s” use of “odd meters,” and their ability to keep catchy melodies interesting and challenging by channeling them through obscure rhythms.

Listening to the music of “Chromatic Colors” music, it’s clear that they are inspired by experimentation with complex and evolving rhythms. I first heard “Chromatic Colors” last summer at a Friday night show at Taproot Café and Lounge. I was captivated by Ohsiek’s hauntingly beautiful vocals which are at once strong and delicate, cast against interesting tempos and synthesized grooves. Bakula celebrates the recent addition of drummer Gill, which came at long last after many months of making due with a drum track. Gill’s talents allow for even more experimentation with rhythms.

“Chromatic Colors” has a beat that feels like it breathes. Listening to their recent live recordings, you can hear the way one song or one phrase moves seamlessly into a fresh one through transitions of the drum beat. The beat seems to move with the vocals, which manages to sound easeful even as the musicians incorporate challenging rhythms that most listeners’ ears are not accustomed to.

Bakula said his favorite show to play was their most recent one, when they got to open at “The Gov Cup” for “Hot Sheets,” which happens to be a three-woman punk trio including Willamette Chemistry professor Karen Holman on the electric guitar. In case you missed it live,” Chromatic Colors” has since released a complete recorded album from the show on their band website and SoundCloud.

Bakula also loves playing at “The Space Concert Club” in West Salem, a venue that he described as created by and for musicians. He explained, “They understand the musicians’ needs and the audience’s needs. You’re well taken care of there.”

Keep an eye on the events section of “Chromatic Colors’” Facebook page or band website to find out where they can be found locally in the coming months. Come June 19, they’ll be taking off for a tour “up-down the west coast,” as Ba-kula described it, traveling from Oregon to Washington to California. Despite natural constraints that arise from all the band members working over the summer, “Chromatic Colors” is doing what they can to get their sound out there. One quality I admire about the bands I interviewed is that they don’t make a point of being competitors or separate groups. People like drummer Gill and bassist Burton have played for both “Chromatic Colors” and “Percy Lounge.”

The first piece that Bakula com-posed for a group was played by a mix that he said was about “half ‘Percy Lounge,’ half random people that I was grabbing.” That track, called “Boardwalk,” is still available on “Chromatic Colors’” SoundCloud. I am a huge fan, and can’t believe that it was the product of a mere two jam sessions. It starts out with a solid drum beat that supports a subtly evolving electric guitar phrase, coupled with bold electric violin accompaniment. The sound is jazzy and a little bluesy. It opens with a really comfortable, classic feel, and evolves into a new beat with a synthesized sound at its center. Tension builds through a high pitched violin part, and polyrhythms that cross each other and disorient the listener. The piece departs entirely from the opening phrase, and fades into a finish that is satisfying without feeling unifying or ordinary.

While Bakula’s formation of “Chromatic Colors” had everything to do with seeking musical fulfillment outside of the music program, others came to be in bands through their involvement in university ensembles. Willamette’s “Funk Band” is an example of the intersections of formal musical study and independent student bands. Eamon Gover, freshman, got started with the Funk Band through participation in the Willamette Jazz Collective. Since members of the funk band also play in this group, he got invited to play a gig with them last October, and has continued ever since.

The band is comprised of Derek Billey and Olivia Fields on alto saxophone, Gover on tenor sax, Brighton Sier on trombone, Ayana Bradley on keyboard, Dexter Williams on bass and Joey Grimmell on drums.

All classically trained in jazz, the funk band members are able take jazz tunes and translate them into a funk feel. Gover told me, “A lot of our songs are funk renditions of jazz tunes, and since jazz is a very collective and spontaneous type of music, a lot of that carries over to our material.”

He describes their sound as “boisterous,” and thinks this an apt description for their audience as well. They don’t compose many original songs, but their constant improvisation makes them active participants in the music they play, creating a sound of their own. Gover described, “Each song has potential to go in a unique direction, and more often than not we’ll be playing a particular song for a long time, changing up the beat or feel to keep it interesting. We also make up our own backgrounds on the spot during solos.”

Gover illuminated the intersections between creation and improvisation. On one occasion he recalled, “We just started to jam on a very simple riff before a show and it turned into one of our setpieces. No name yet, but may-be we’ll give it one someday.” The jazz framework establishes the spacious-ness to support improvisation which can morph a repeating phrase into some new manifestation with each performance.

Williams said that while he’s played in many jazz groups, “The Funk Band is probably the most improvisation-al group that I’ve been in. . . We’ve played some songs where we just agree on some chord progression and the rest is just improv, so it’s always really fun to see how it ends up.”

Student bands bring unique energy to campus, infusing it with a creative presence and offering students a source of inspiration. For me, their music retains that magical feeling of elusiveness, even as I now understand more realistically what effort goes into such accomplishments as albums and gigs. In any field, it takes remarkable determination, steadfastness, creativity and bravery to pursue a role that resides outside of the classroom.

 

sfullert@willamette.edu

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