Pedal Punching with The Stargazer Lilies

The Stargazer Lilies wrapped up their East Coast tour with a banging show at Mr. Small’s on Saturday, and were nice enough to stop by on their way back to the Poconos. In exchange for some hummus and tofu wraps, the band shared their dreamy trance-like sounds and opinions on the recent resurgence of Shoegaze; what guitarist John Cep calls the future of rock. With Pittsburgh’s own Tobacco, the Stargazer Lilies will take their talents back to the road this fall. Check out their tour dates here, and our live session below.

Tantrums’ Jeremy Ruzumna in Charge of Smells, Colors

It’s a Wednesday in 2010, which means I’ve just thrown on a Bill Cosby sweater and dragged myself across snowy Hilldale’s campus. Sub-zero temperatures be damned, I rarely missed Dr. Gary Wolfram’s Political Economy class on Wednesdays, since that’s when he gave us his Band Pick of the Week, often scratched wordlessly on the chalkboard. The man was ahead of his time, bringing Foster the People, The Antlers, and Yeasayer to our attention. Who would have thought I’d be talking to Fitz and the Tantrums’ Jeremy Ruzumna, four years after I scribbled his band inside the cover of my notebook? We caught up with the synth jedi for Pittsburgh City Paper, but his interview was just too good not to post.

Jeremy on keys

I was going to say, I felt really lucky getting you since everyone else talks to Noelle [Scaggs] or Fitz.

Aww, no, I feel lucky to be talking to you.

You are the keyboardist in the band, which is obviously a really important role–

Doubly more important, than even the vocalists. [laughs] I’m joking.

So what do you think you’ve contributed to the band thus far?

Well, a few things. There’s musical, and there’s otherwise. In the otherwise category: I’m the one who brings the delicious scented sprays for the bus so that it doesn’t smell bad. You think it’s funky onstage, it’s even funkier offstage. I think I bring what everyone else brings. The reason we all came together for this was, we’ve all been around the block a few times, had different experience playing on different albums, with different artists, touring a lot. All of us have been touring since our twenties. We were all brought together to make the music sound as good as possible.

Do you think your role has changed at all? The first album sounded a lot more funky soul pop–

Yeah, I think so. The sound of both albums comes from the keyboards. I play the keyboards and Fitz plays the keyboards, and actually the guy Tony Chopra, who produced the second record. I think the biggest change between the two, the aesthetic was generated by what keyboards we used. On the first album, it was all about Fitz’s massive old organ and his old, out of tune piano. It was very lo-fi, and of course the wall of saxophone from James King. On this new record, we wanted to take our sound somewhere different. We wanted to do what sounded good to us, and hopefully other people would be into it. So one of the things that happened with this new record was, we completely opened up the arsenal of keyboards–I have a pretty formidable collection of vintage synthesizers at my house– so I was able to take the songs home at night and just lace them with tons of different weird and obscure keyboards. We used everything on this album, from old vintage synthesizers to modern laptop synthesizers. Just mixed them all together to taste. On this record, I got to really use a lot more instruments and a lot more colors in the palette.

So how many keyboards did you use in total?

I used at least 15 or 20 different old vintage synthesizers. Laptop synthesizers, there were at least four or five of those that made the rounds. It’s in the thirties, at least.

Fitz said in an interview with Billboard that the next single is between “Fools Gold” and “6AM.” What’s your pick for that?

It’s hard to pick between the two, because I really love both of those songs. We’ve been playing “6am” for a long time and a lot of people really, really, really love that song. It’s very soulful and very funky. But “Fool’s Gold” is a completely different flavor. It’s a very memorable catchy melody.

You see a lot of bands these days using heavy instrumentals, with a bunch of really charismatic musicians onstage. What do you think separates Fitz and the Tantrums from other bands that aren’t just using guitars, like Arcade Fire, San Fermin, or Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes?

The lack of guitar in our band is one of our calling cards. There’s one song where we broke our own rule, and our saxophone player, James, learned guitar just so he could play this one song, ‘Spark.’ But I think the fact that there’s literally no guitarist in the band is one thing that sets us apart. And also, it’s funny, it’s going to sound obvious, but Fitz and Noelle work really hard every show to connect with everyone in the audience. They have that extra job of having to connect with the audience and bring them in. I’ve been spoiled; I go to see other bands now, where people aren’t quite as charismatic as them, or don’t make quite the effort that Fitz and Noelle are making. And I realize, I think that’s one of our secret weapons, too. Every night Fitz thanks the audience from stage, on behalf of the whole band, and truly means it. It’s not like it’s just some wrote speech, it’s truly from the heart. And we all feel that way. There’s just a true sincerity there.

You played the Summer Music Festival with Jukebox the Ghost in Pittsburgh a few years ago, do you have any memories from that experience?

First time we played Pittsburgh, I had a massive case of strep throat, and I was quarantined for the whole day. And when we did the show, I was basically quarantined to my corner of the stage. And then immediately quarantined afterwards. But it’s funny, because even that time, I remember loving the crowd, and loving the energy. I feel like we were playing on all cylinders, and the audience was just firing back.

When I listen to More Than Just A Dream, I feel like it’s half about your success, and everything that comes with it, and half about a failed relationship. I’m wondering if you think these go hand-in-hand.

The first album was definitely a really angry breakup record. In this record, it’s true. There was some stuff about success. There’s a song ‘Merry Go Round,’ which I think ties it all together. It’s about the drudgery– the Merry Go Round aspect– of being on the road all the time. Being on the road all the time does put a strain on your relationships. People in the band are married, people in the band have kids, girlfriends, to me ‘Merry Go Round’ bridged the gap between the two albums, sonically and in terms of the subject matter. It’s about being on the road all the time and it’s about relationships. Fitz and Noelle have to take on the lyrics, because they have to sing them, and that’s where they were at when this record was being written.

I was talking to The Colourist, and Adam said Fitz gave him some advice. It was, “never say no, just go for it.” Was there a moment where you, or Fitz, or the band, realized you were able to give advice to other bands?

I don’t know if there was a moment. I’ve had a couple moments like that in my life, where I assumed I don’t know anything. But when you talk to people who are younger, and just coming up, you realize you know more than you think you do. Several years ago, one of my old production partners and I were asked to speak at a college music class. And I was like, ‘I don’t even read music, what am I gonna say?’ The person who asked us to do it said, ‘just go there, it’ll be fine,’ and turns out it was totally fine. You realize there’s always something you can teach people. I have noticed that it happens. I don’t know if that makes sense.

It makes sense. Did you guys receive any advice when you were starting out that stuck with you?

The first time I ever went on tour, it was with this Irish band called the Devlins. And my first instinct was to party my ass off. So for the first three days, I was like ‘come on, guys! we’re gonna get wasted every night, it’s gonna be great, we’re on a bus!’ And I remember very forebodingly, they told me, you can’t really do that. You have to take care of yourself. You can’t just go home the next day and feel sick. As much as people think it’s this 24 hour party lifestyle, it’s really not. It takes more discipline than you think it does. You can always tell young bands, ‘cause they’re wasted all the time, and paying for it the next day. It just makes more sense to get offstage, take a shower, and read a book in the bus.

This is kind of a personal question. Who is Mr. President?

Fitz always describes it as ‘a love letter to Obama.’ It was written when he was still early on, in office. He had a few pointers, if you will. When you’re writing something, you don’t always know what you’re writing about. Who knows what’s going through Fitz’s unconscious mind when he’s writing, but the more we performed it, the more he started to look at it as that, as a love letter to Obama.

So what’s your favorite song to perform?

Any time you’re in a band, and you look at the set list, certain ones are the moments when you’re like ‘I can’t wait until we get to that song!’ For me, I love “6AM,” I love playing “Spark,” I love playing “The Walker,” I love playing “Fools Gold,” I love playing “Moneygrabber, I love playing “Break the Walls,” I love playing “Breakin’ the Chains of Love,” I love playing “House on Fire”–

Sounds like you like to break out!

[laughs] Prettymuch I love playing every song.

You should be in musicals.

Exactly. I just wanna dance!

Do you do a lot of dancing onstage?

I do, but you would never know it because I’m behind two big keyboards and all you can see is my shoulders and my head. But inside, I’m dancing my ass off. Fitz and Noelle are all over the place, and James King, or sax player-slash-multi-instrumentalist is all over the place. John [Wicks], the drummer and I are trapped behind our instruments, but we still give it the old college try.

That’s all you can do, really.

Yeah, or, you know, grad school.

Bang bang here we go, you can see Fitz and the Tantrums blow the speakers at Stage AE this Saturday, June 5th.

Reasons and Liberty Spikes: Quincy Mumford

Quincy Mumford and the Reason Why kicks off its “Keep it Lifted” tour in Buffalo tonight, with appropriately lofty ambitions. The five piece from New Jersey has 40 shows to tout their summer-appropriate chill rock, but frontman Mumford is anything but relaxed about the whole thing. Educated in New York, the singer songwriter has a soul wattage ready to shock his audiences. Harder than The Dirty Heads but softer than Sublime, Quincy Mumford and the Reason Why is the perfect summer jam.

What’s behind the name?

There’s a reason for everything. The reason why we play music, the reason why people show up to see us, the reason why there’s good vibes, the list goes on. Everything happens for a reason.

So what’s your reason for playing music?

It’s the only thing I know how to do. I just grew up always listening to music, I grew up playing guitar and singing. It’s the only thing that I can remember ever wanting to do.

Were your parents pretty supportive of that?

They’re huge supporters. Actually, I grew up listening to music and being so involved because of them. They also listen to and encourage me, to go to concerts with them, so I just grew up engulfed in music. So when it came time, I said I wanted to record an album, they were super supportive. My Dad actually part-time manages me, so he’s pretty involved.

What was your first concert?

First concert was Blink-182 and Green Day. I was like, 11 or 12 or something.

Was there a life-changing song they played?

I don’t know it was so much that, I was super into the pop-punk scene then, the dye-your-hair-blue, put-in-liberty-spikes thing. My parents were totally cool with it. I’d just show up, this little 12 year old with blue liberty spikes.

What made you change from a punk kid to the soul, Americana vibes you’re putting out now?

Jack Johnson. Actually, my Mom started playing it in the car. She told me it was Jack Johnson, I listened to all the records. It was the album In Between Dreams, and that basically changed my life. As soon as I had that one record, I was like “Wow, I want to do that. I want to write my own songs, I want to take this serious-er.” I started listening to a lot more funk and soul music, just feel-good music. And the whole vibe changed.

So, what is that change that you’re talking about on It’s Only Change?

The whole album is based around that concept that change is never an easy thing to go through. Whether it’s good or bad, we go through change every day, with so many different things.

Was there a change that inspired you to write a concept album?

Mostly, I met a girl from Sweden, and we had this crazy, distant relationship. Traveling back and forth for years, and it became very difficult, a lot of ‘where’s’ involved and money. That became a big focus of my life. While I was writing the record, that was all happening. And right before I went to record the album, [the girl] who is my wife now, finally moved over here, and moved in with me. And we finally got to put all that crap behind us, and start living our lives.

What made you realize it was worth it to pursue something that obviously interrupted your career?

The day I met her. I met her two months before she was going home, and I was just like, “I can never see you again, or we can spend a lot of money going back and forth and never have a life. Or we can get married, and actually enjoy it.” At that point, I just decided, I’m going to make it work. And it was tough, I’d be touring, and she’d be in Sweden. It’s really hard to talk all at the same time, but we bit the bullet until she finally got here. Things really settled down, and it was worth it.

How old were you when you guys met?

I was 18 when I met her. She was a little older, she was 20. We’ve been together for four years. We got married a year and a half ago.

You must have had a lot of naysayers.

Yeah, of course. There’s always going to be those. Part of them were band members, who have now since left and– not because of that reason– but you know, some people that wanna be negative can be negative. I’ve always thought being positive all around is the right way to go.

quincy mumford

Tell me about your bandmates, how did you meet them?

Karlee is the keyboard player, she’s been in it since the very beginning, since I was 16 years old. I met her at a concert I went to, I was opening for some band, and we were looking for a keyboard player at the time, and she came in to play. She’s always been involved in the process, even before I released records with the band itself. Nick is our bass player, and he is the newest addition. It was a great addition, because he’s got this incredible voice, this awesome voice that can back up me. It’s become really interesting. Let’s see, Mike, he’s our guitar player, and he kind of filled in for years, whenever our guitar player couldn’t do it. So eventually, Mike became a full-time member, which was perfect, because he has this really good sense of musical background. He’s kind of like my musical adviser, and a big part of our songwriter. Plus, he’s an insane slide guitar player. It sounds like Derek Trucks, which is a huge plus for me [laughs], cause I love the Allman Brothers. Who’s left? Our drummer, Sister Dave. We call him Sister Dave.

Why?

I really don’t know, we just kept calling each other brother and sister, as a joke, all the time. Probably because we had too many drinks one night. At the time, he had a giant afro, and we’d call him a diva. Sister kind of came into play. He’s from Italy too, he went to school in New York and met another band member of mine, at the Collective Music School in New York City.

So what are you hoping to get out of this tour?

Some real national recognition. We’ve been on the road, but there’s been sort of minimal traveling on the east coast. And we really wanted to take our music elsewhere, and expand some markets that, we felt, would really appreciate our music. Colorado being one of ‘em. And not trying to stay close into our little circle, but expand. My hope is to really build our fanbase, and see the country, and really just play music. We barely have any days off, and the days we have off, we’re gonna go find open mics, we’re gonna find places to play on the street. That’s our deal, we just want to play all the time, and find people that are going to be part of the journey with us.

Do you guys listen to music in the van?

Oh yeah. It’s all different because everyone has such a different taste. Dave loves his disco music, Nick loves 80’s Michael Jackson. And I listen to a lot of singer-songwriters, and old school funk. Our keyboard player listens to everything. Currently it’s been a lot of Michael Jackson.

Do you guys have any worries going into the tour?

Mostly a place to stay. We have a tendency to sometimes be homeless and camp. It’s easier in the summer, in the winter it’s kind of tough. We just bought a new van, so it’s not gonna break down on us.

 

Let’s hope it doesn’t. We’re looking forward to some swaying and head banging with Quincy Mumford and the Reason Why. Catch them tomorrow at 9pm, Thunderbird Cafe.

 

Momments #8: The Line Stays Put!

Two very different artists performed in Pittsburgh these past two weeks. On the final day of the Three Rivers Arts Festival (6/15) was Jake Bugg. The 20 year old Brit closed the ten day event with many songs from his freshman and sophomore albums (Jake Bugg/ShangriLa). Bugg manages to have a Nashville/New Orleans blues sound with the guitar work of Jimmy Hendrix. I know it sounds like a crazy combo but he makes it work, with a very young Johnny Cash swagger. His fluidity with his instruments is effortless and inspirational at the same time but his lack of expression made me think he doesn’t give a damn or is just stoned much of the time.

Jules and I talk a lot about passion, making magic, pulling rabbits out of the hat and essentially what it takes in the music business to succeed and despite some perfect songs (seen it all, me and you, lightning bolt) Bugg didn’t engage the crowd or appear to connect at all on a perfect Sunday when over 20,000 people turned out.

Having said that, it didn’t help when Joey Spehar from WYEP made the introduction and instructed the crowd ‘at the bands request’ to refrain from taking pictures after the third song… How do you enforce that ‘request’? And perhaps people have forgotten that the Grateful Dead made all their money by touring and sharing their music (doh!!). Plus who likes being told what to do by a 20 year old unless of course you’re younger and/or an ecstatic teenage fan. In any case, I enjoyed the show and have to thank Tucker at The Exchange downtown for encouraging me to see this very talented young singer/ song writer but his lack of joy for ‘living the dream’ really worried me. Being authentic alone cannot sustain you in an industry where self-promotion is a prerequisite.  I do recommend watching YouTube for the guitar moves, despite his lack of personality.

The second artist I got a chance to see on Sunday, June 22 at the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, was Megan Hilty of CMU and Smash fame. Steven Reineke conducted this performance of Luck be a Lady, Hilty singing Sinatra while fully five months pregnant (due in October)and looking ebullient; she did not miss a beat all afternoon. She began with the “Best is Yet to Come” and “They Just Keep Moving The Line,” her audition song for Smash. Both songs encompassed her breadth and ability plus gave you the intimacy of a jazz club. Hilty manages to capture the crowd and bring them along for the discovery of each and every piece she sings interspersed with her special comments. There was no doubt that her training at CMU plus the past ten years in New York and on the road have honed her musical skills.

I did wonder as she held her baby bump if she was developing a bigger sound or she just seemed so damn happy at this point in her life that the joy was just infectious. My favorites of the matinee was when she sang “Autumn Leaves,” which was the most perfect rendition of this Kosma, Mercer&Manilow classic (who knew that Johnny Mercer loved Barry Manilow and instructed his widow to send a box of lyrics  to Mr. Manilow when he died.)

Also the piano partnering with Hilty when she sang “Popular” from Wicked was just delightful in the musical theater and different intonations she grabbed.

Finally the orchestra did a great job lead by an energetic conducter, who was so delighted by the music that I thought he was going to jump into the audience and pick a partner to dance with during the Brazilian song “Tico Tico.”

Megan Hilty returned to the stage for the second half in a midnight blue evening gown and finished her four day series with “Come Rain or Come Shine,” the Judy Garland signature classic (aside from “Over the Rainbow”, one of my favorites). No doubt giving her ‘second home’ the ending we deserved from this very talented, passionate young lady. And yes, personality, joy and sheer magnetism can and will be the magic that most audiences want and will applaud.

Burgh Bands Roundup

The Pittsburgh Pour hasn’t put a damper on music this week, with the Three Rivers Arts Fest in full swing and local acts gearing up for summer tours and performances.  We started off our week with Mountain Top Music Festival, hopefully the first of many.  Check our gallery below:

Adam Valen, Max Kovalchuk and co. developed their rain plans that morning, but fans stuck around through sprinkles and downpours, even venturing out of the snack tent for a moving set from Keith Garrett.  Another standout was Zach Bronder of Bat Zuppel, who went from almost swallowing the mic a la Cage the Elephant or Wavves to some upbeat seventies riffs for powerpop band Partly Sunny. Nevada Color has also made a pretty exciting announcement this week…

You can find tickets for the Altar Bar show here. We were also treated to a tight, passionate set from our friends Wicked Chief, who recently released their entire album on bandcamp.  They opened for Kaiser Chiefs on Tuesday at the Three Rivers Arts Fest, injecting some youth into the admittedly-geriatric lineup.  We got a snippet of the performance below:

And of course, a snapshot of the Burgh band’s littlest fan…

Devin Miles has also been busy in the studio, and goes on tour in two weeks.  His album Pixburgh will be finished soon, and the rapper heads out in two weeks for his Fly High tour.  Check out his newest music here. Want to track our Burgh Bands?  We’ve got an Events page coming soon!

Horns and Hand Grenades: Pitchblak Brass Band

If you haven’t stalked Tim Wolfson on Facebook yet, you’re doing it wrong.  The music connoisseur of Allison Park who brought us Great Caesar and Machete Kitsumontao has eighteen shows booked at Pittsburgh Winery and Brillobox this summer, “too much for just a hobby,” the 9-5 lawyer says.  This Thursday his collective, Live on Jupiter, brings Grand Ole Opry alums The Black Lillies to the Winery stage.  A website is in the works, so stay tuned to our affiliates page.

Last Saturday we convened at Tim’s outdoor stage, complete with mason jar lights and grassy-knoll-seating, for an interview and live session with Brooklyn 10-piece Pitchblak Brass Band, which we hope you’ll watch below.  Here are some highlights:

00:00– “###” (song) by Chanell Crichlow (MC Brian Lotze)

03:02– Interview: the struggle behind “The Light,” Chanell and Chris Johnson

4:00– Interview: composing for Pitchblak, Ben Brody, Bryan Walters

5:48– Interview: strategies in sampling, Chanell Crichlow, Alison Shearer, Chris Johnson, Bryan Walters, Brian Lotze

8:05– Interview: Alaina Alster on hand grenades and twerking

9:47–Interview: Ashley Baier talks tracks and scheduling

10:51–”Coup De Tat” (song) by Bryan Walters (MCs Bryan Walters and Chris Johnson)

As for their show at Brillobox, Pitchblak pulled it out with original favorites “Anticipation” and “Coup De Tat,” from an album currently in the works.  Guitarist Ben Brody had the performance feeling very Lawrenceville with his quick riffs, and bandleader Chanell was impossible to photograph for the insta-saps like me.  It’s a problem we also has with St. Paul and the Broken Bones, and that’s always a good sign.  Alison Shearer stole the show with her sunglassed, meanmugging alto sax solos– she may not rap but the girl has flow.  Pitchblak also rocked a cover of “Dark Horse”– the difference being that their rap verses actually made good on the promise to rage.  And rage we did–So much so Brillobox felt like Nashville or New Orleans.  The band is back on their home turf this Saturday, at the Knitting Factory, but took a second to cheese with me…

See their full list of dates here if you’re looking for a cross between Atmosphere and Alabama Shakes (who isn’t?) and see the video below if you’re looking for a great freestyle from Chris and a really embarrassing one from yours truly.