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.
They 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.
According 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.
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!