"When you're doing pop and jazz, ugly sounds are encouraged," says cellist Franklin Keel. Not the case in classical group Opal String Quartet or as first cello in the Asheville Symphony — two of Keel's musical engagements. But, as the newest member of self-described "absurdist gypsy folk funk punk" sextet Sirius.B, Keel is making nice with the ugly sounds.
"I have been doing this kind of thing for a little while," says Keel of the transition from classical to the many nonstructured styles that make up Sirius.B. But the first time the cellist embarked on a rock project, "It was like the difference between reading something on a piece of paper and holding a conversation. When you're improvising, you have to speak through your instrument and that takes a while. As classical players, we're taught to read before we can speak, so we can have a hard time finding our voice."
Sirius.B violinist Amy Lovinger is in the same situation. She and Keel met while attending the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y. Keel returned to Asheville (his hometown) in 2004, and about a year later Lovinger followed. She is also in the Opal String Quartet and is principal second violin in the local symphony. "It's great playing with Franklin because, since we play in a classical string quartet together, we know each other is thinking almost," she explains. "It's been really easy to incorporate into the group, for me."
Currently, Sirius.B is without a bassist (though the band is in talks with a former bassist to return — "We're going to be a huge band," accordionist Bryshen Brothwell muses). Doesn't matter: The layering of various strings — the mandolin-like South American charango, violin, guitar and cello; no two in the same register — creates a full sound. But the instrumentation and accompanying lineup shift is only the beginning of what guitarist (and founding member) Pancho Romero Bond calls "a personal band-wise revolution."
So far, the revolution has led the collective away from an electric rock-band format and back to its gypsy roots. Traditional Hebrew folk song "Hava Nagila" begins with sleepy chords from Brothwell's accordion, followed by a slow build of strings and voices, and finally the insistent pulse of bass drum.
Drummer Imhotep was an original member of Sirius.B at the band's 2006 inception. He was later replaced by a kit drummer, but recently returned to Sirius.B. "Bringing Tep back was part of the change," says founding member and guitarist Xavier Ferdón.
"We had big issues we were figuring out," Bond says. "We never left the field of the unique, but exploring the realm of the electric stuff was almost limiting to us."
Now, with electric/acoustic instruments the band is, according to Ferdón, "more adaptable" to various stages. Rhythm comes from the sometimes frantic pace set by the strings players, the hurdy-gurdy feel of the accordion, and what Ferdón calls "Tep-driven dancability."
Part of that chemistry is explosively spontaneous; much of it comes from practice, practice, practice. On a chilly night, crowded into a small living room, the band evokes a Bohemian mood. Though they must carefully position themselves so that no one gets hit by a flying bow, the music they create is anything but cautious. "Charango," featuring Ferdón on the 10-string Andean instrument, is an organic and fiery cacophony around the plaintive refrain, "Don't let me down." The musicians are constantly communicating through eye contact and nods as they navigate turn-on-a-dime time signature changes that play like moods throughout the song.
"Monkey Robot Soldier," on the other hand, shows off the band's avant-garde sensibilities. The cello is elegant in contrast to chucking guitars; Bond's lyrics rise to a fevered pitch while the other musicians add playful sound affects.
"Something that's been in my mind was that, as an acoustic band, it could have this raucous pirate tavern feel," Bond says. With the addition of musicians who also lend background vocals, Sirius.B is touching on shanty territory.
With all of the changes in place, the band is eager to record a new EP. "We want to get something out there to reflect this new sound. Young as these songs may be, we want to get them down," says Bond. The forthcoming album will likely be called "Monkey Robot Soldier," a tribute to the band's original number, and will also include Sirius.B staple "Bella Ciao." That song, made popular during the anti-fascist resistance movement in Italy, has been embraced by artists across the world over the decades. It's loved by punk bands and has been recorded by the likes of Chumbawamba. For Sirius.B, a new recording will show fans — a listening base that has evolved as much as the absurdist gypsy folk funk punk outfit has — exactly how far the band has come.
Alli Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
what: Absurdist gypsy folk funk punk collective returns with a new sound
where: Asheville Vaudeville at Bebe Theatre on Thursday, Feb. 4 (7:30 & 10 p.m., $12 advance/$15 doors) and Jack of the Wood on Friday, Feb. 5 (9:30 p.m. jackofthewood.com)
when: Jack of the Wood on Friday, Feb. 5 (9:30 p.m. jackofthewood.com)