While many a band has claimed to defy labels and buck trends, Charlotte-based quartet The New Familiars does its eschewing with a grain of salt.
“It’s indicative of the iPod Generation,” muses founding member Justin Fedor. “You probably listen to mostly one type of music. Maybe you listen to bluegrass, but you also like a couple hip-hop tracks. Maybe Jay-Z really does it for you.” Apparently, The New Familiars have a similarly eclectic play list—all of which they funnel into the band’s unique take on American roots music. But Fedor isn’t afraid to name that tune.
“We’re really just a rock ‘n’ roll band playing on folk instruments,” he says.
Like the group’s name suggests, its hard-to-peg style contains an instantly recognizable quality, simultaneously newfangled and proverbial. Which might have a lot to do with the band’s rapidly increasing fan base and touring schedule. (The band’s previous incarnation was the duo Fedor and ***Guthrie with fellow multi-instrumentalist Eric-Scott Guthrie.) SOME MISPLACED WORDS?***
Recently, the band smartly parlayed its particular brand of déjà vu into a haunting, down-tempo cover of The Temptations’ “My Girl.”
“We’d never made it a point to learn a song for someone: It’s a tremendous amount of pressure,” Fedor relates. But early into The New Familiar’s tenure, a fan requested “My Girl” as a birthday song, and the group obligingly worked up their own arrangement. (At the time, the band was a trio with guitarist Josh Daniel.)
“We tried to do Smokey [Robinson] justice, but we realized we weren’t a doo-wop band,” Fedor jokes. Still—rather like Alison Krauss and Union Station’s revamping of The Foundations’ “Now That I’ve Found You”—the song took on a life of its own, garnering frequent requests at shows and landing the B-side on The New Familiar’s recently-released seven-inch. (The group’s current lineup includes bassist Pat Maholland and drummer Daniel Flynn.)
Though The New Familiars get the importance of the occasional and tasteful cover (“It’s a way for fans to relate to the band,” Fedor explains); the group also trusts its audience’s penchant for the challenge of original material. To that end, they pen addictively edgy rockers like the harmonica- and hand-clap-driven “Got This Disease” and the roadhouse-worthy, grunge-grass-flavored “The Storm.”
The band’s ability to push their acoustic instruments to frenzied screams and shudders is well matched by their prowess with lush vocal harmonies—a style seeming to return to indie rock and alt country via bands like The Everybodyfields and The Avett Brothers. “It’s really about great songwriting,” Fedor acquiesces. But, as much as he chalks up The New Familiars’ achingly lovely blending of voices to showcasing lyrics, he also offers up another explanation: “I feel happier when there are more voices.”
The musician continues, “I’m not a solo kind of guy. When you open yourself up to listen to other people’s ideas, you can go miles out of your own box.”
Apparently, that willingness to collaborate, improvise and go with the flow has taken band members well out of their respective boxes and on to the open road. This year saw about 185 show dates, a promotional deal with Asheville’s Highland Brewing Co. and plenty of miles logged despite this fall’s fuel shortage. “We were dead smack in the middle of a tour during the gas crisis,” Fedor relates. “We all do odd jobs here and there so we can stay fully invested in the band.”
They’ve gone so far as to adopt a stage-savvy and cost-effective approach to wardrobe as well: vintage suits sourced from Salvation Army shops. “It’s a look that came out of necessity,” Fedor explains. With the band’s increasing profile evolved a desire to “look kind of nice”—jeans, boots and T-shirts weren’t cutting it. When The New Familiars debuted their retro slacks and jackets, fans responded approvingly. Like the band’s name and sound, it’s a look that hearkens both backward and forward in time.
And—sluggish economy be damned—“The outfit I’m wearing only cost me nine bucks,” Fedor says proudly.
who: The New Familiars
what: Toothsome folk rock
where: The Emerald Lounge
when: Sunday, Dec. 14. 8 p.m. (232-4372.)