A certain amount of audacity is expected from all musicians. Everyone anticipates arrogance, childishness and delusions of grandeur out of even the most talentless and obscure performers. There's a running joke (or observation) that most musicians are good at only one thing, and most of the time they're not even very good at that.
The natural reaction to this is found in much of the indie world. Musicians with serious artistic aspirations respond in an equally laughable (and arrogant) way--they militantly eschew the spotlight in favor of "allowing the music to speak for itself", avoid interviews, have no tolerance for traditional fandom and generally elevate themselves above, well, everybody.
When Of Montreal sold its song "Wraith Pinned to the Mist (And Other Games)" to Outback Steakhouse, you could hear fans screaming "Sellout!" from Portland to Athens, Georgia. Nevermind that frontman Kevin Barnes had to move to Norway in order to be able to afford healthcare for his daughter. The old "I gotta feed my kids" excuse doesn't cut it anymore.
Between these two worlds (for the sake of argument we'll reduce them to commercially viable radio rock and starving artist indie rock) lies a chasm, a niche that is rarely occupied. That niche belongs to the artist capable of making music that attains both artistic respect and commercial success. Call it arena art-rock.
It'd be beyond audacious for me to deem a local band of no renown as the future of this so-called "arena art-rock", so I won't. But it's tempting. Dead Sea Choir as a concept is nothing short of a sonic miracle, and it's taking place here in Tulsa. There's no other band in Oklahoma that's attempting anything this ambitious. The closest competitor would be Other Lives (formerly Kunek), but even they feel intimate and low-key when placed next to DSC.
The current (and permanent) lineup of Dead Sea Choir is Costa Stasinopoulos (on keys and vocals), guitarist Daniel Gimlin, guitarist Philip Phillips, bassist Geordan Taylor and drummer Patrick Ryan. This roster was solidified last year when Phillips joined the band, and after years of experimenting with different band dynamics, it seems that that they've found a balance of talents and personalities that should serve them well in the future.
Tulsa's an unlikely place to produce an album as epic, forward-thinking and modern as Thin One the Red One. Dead Sea Choir's debut, produced and recorded here by local musicians who grew up in south Tulsa, is a geographical oddity when you examine the past and present musical landscape of Oklahoma. It's an album of contradictions, of colliding ideas, of reckless ambition.
Sonically, it's ten kitchen sinks worth of production concepts mashed together into one unwieldy whole. It's a cyborg of an album--equal parts organic and synthetic, with a huge beating heart holding the disparate elements together. That's a hokey analogy, but it's fitting.
There's a strong emotional undercurrent that threads the entire album together; Stasinopoulos's voice is shamelessly, classically emotive, and although he's already garnering comparisons (both favorable and not) to Radiohead's Thom Yorke, no one short of Jeff Buckley emotes in such a hugely operatic, shamelessly romantic fashion.
His vocals are complemented by equally sweeping, reverb-drenched instrumentation. Huge piano arpeggios, ambient, at times dissonant guitar work, occasional strings and a plethora of unconventional electronica (blips and beeps, fuzzy static, disjointed percussion, dreamy emo-esque soundscapes) join a ferocious rhythm section that, taken as a whole, resolutely defies easy description.
Songs evoke comparisons to everything from post-rock bands like Mogwai to virtuoso composers like Philip Glass and Jon Brion. It's a testament to modern technology that much of this was recorded in the confines of a bedroom studio (though parts were recorded in a fully stocked though still modest studio space), but it's even more amazing to discover that most of it was produced by the 24-year-old Stasinopoulos himself. It's staggeringly mature work for such a young, self-taught musician.
Live, the band is a different animal, and one with much room for growth. While the album is all fine-tuned precision, the live performance is raw and unbridled. It's an aggressive rock show that feels off-the-cuff, and while it's impressive and inviting, it can be, at times, erratic. Part of this has to do with the fact that the album was recorded scattershot over three years, much of it by a studio-isolated Stasinopoulos. The band as a studio entity has fully bloomed; as a live concept, they're still growing, although more rapidly all of a sudden.
"There are definitely sounds that are hard to replicate live," Gimlin said. "But that's another fun and inspiring part of the creative process, translating the studio album into a live show. And I'm not worried about that translation."
"We're not trying to completely replicate the album," Phillips continued. "It's more intense, more raw. I hate going to see a band whose album I know front to back, and then the live show is them playing their album, front to back."
"There needs to be a focus on having a visceral live show that you can experience," Gimlin agreed.
The band started as Straight Lines. They played their first show almost five years ago at the now-defunct 1974 Bar and Grill. The set was a combination of original songs, along with some Coldplay and Radiohead covers. At the time, the band was much more influenced by Brit-pop, and the music was very straightforward. The band lineup was completely different, and the only surviving members of that era are the founders, Stasinopoulos and Gimlin. The blueprints mapping the band's evolution leading to its current incarnation are found in Stasinopoulos's and Gimlin's evolving friendship.
"It was all about excitement...Basically Daniel's excitement in a song," Stasinopoulos explained. "I would show something to him, and just on the level of how much he freaked out or was passive determined how much time we were going to spend on that song to develop it into this very special thing."
Stasinopoulos described Gimlin as the intuitive barometer of the band--the one that keeps Stasinopoulos's wilder tendencies in check by continually questioning and analyzing creative ideas. He's Stasinopoulos's wingman, and the two together comprise the core of Dead Sea Choir.
"It's a series of checks and balances," Gimlin said. "We're trying to keep each other in check, and part of the process is questioning each other's artistic decisions. The final product ends up becoming better for it, it's more indicative of a collective effort."
"It comes down to how emphatic the fit that is being thrown is," Stasinopoulos said. "Both of us sort of take advantage of those things sometimes and cheat a little bit. But more times than not, the compromise works itself out because we can do both things, which just lends to more movements in a song or in a structure, which makes everyone happy."
This approach seems to have worked; everybody does seem happy. Even Phillips, who's only been in the band for a year and a half, felt a fairly immediate creative gratification upon joining.
"Creatively, I'm very happy," Phillips said. "I want to be way more involved, but I'm the new person in the band. I came in over halfway through the recording process, and still got to write and record parts on the album... Recording was a completely different process than I've ever worked with, because it was piece by piece, writing a story and going back to add all the details of the story after it's already been written. I think on the next album its going to be a completely different story for every band member. More complete ideas for every separate individual, rather than a mostly two-person idea."
"A lot of this album, the bass parts were written before I was a member," Taylor, who joined the band shortly after studio recording began three years ago, said. "I feel like playing with Dead Sea Choir is a lot more challenging than anything else I've ever done, and that's what really drives me and what I get out of playing with them."
As the concept developed, members came and went. Straight Lines played handfuls of shows in random pockets of time at venues that are no more--the Venue, Boston's, the Brick House. All the while, they were writing and rewriting songs and forming a loose plan of attack to eventually record its first album.
The first leg of recording (not counting early demos) began three years ago, when Chad Copelin (of the Hero Factor and Black Watch Studios in Norman) allowed Stasinopoulos to record at his Tulsa studio. There, the early outlines of what would eventually be fully developed songs were laid down, and Stasinopoulos began to quickly learn a skill that would help him tremendously in the future: producing.
After Copelin made his permanent studio space in Norman, the band put recording on pause. Stasinopoulos continued to write obsessively. He'd play piano and tweak songs for hours on end, losing sleep and jobs in the process. Songs would be written and discarded only to pop back up months later. Part of the reason that the album feels so fully-developed is that Stasinopoulos and the band wrote and developed albums worth of songs that would eventually be thrown out, effectively writing several records that never saw the light of day.
"We have like three albums worth of shit," Stasinopoulos said. "We have so many songs, 40, 50, 60 songs, that at one point were worth a shit. They just didn't stand the test of time. Its just part of me writing I guess, getting in the good habit of looping something, listening to something for four hours straight in the house, falling asleep to it on the couch, waking up and seeing do I like it still? Am I still moving around? Is there an energy exuding from it, or does the feeling take on a new life?"
This obsessive methodology is no doubt one of the main reasons the album took three years to record. Stasinopoulos is nothing if not tenacious, and his unwavering artistic conviction and commitment can sometimes be mistaken for blind arrogance.
"I think the arrogant vibe that I gave out that I was so well-known for, or maybe still am, wasn't really a personality thing," he said. "It was just what would happen when I would talk about what I was doing. And the only thing I was doing for the last three years was working on this album."
The pace of recording picked up when Stasinopoulos teamed with engineer Jon Schroeder to form Ergopop Studios. In the bedroom of a midtown house and later in a studio proper, Stasinopoulos and Schroeder recorded the bulk of Thin One the Red One. At the time, the album was entitled Technology and the Sad Robot, and was meant as a conceptual piece that told the story of God (technology) and Lucifer (the sad robot) colliding. Though compelling, Stasinopoulos's lyric-writing eventually evolved past the confining concept and became something more emotionally universal. Each song is built with multiple metaphors and layered meaning that works on various levels.
"It's always an all-encompassing, multi-angle approach where the lyrics fit everything that I want to say about everything that I want to talk about into one schematic," Stasinopoulos said. "Lyrically, things are sometimes a lot more specific in sculpture, in product in ambience and feeling of emotion. When that happens, it's a lot more specific in a character-plot sense and the overlaying idea is where you find the complexity."
In conversation, Stasinopoulos can be verbose-bordering-on-grandiloquent, but in song he's spare and direct, and the lyrics are among the more impressive elements of the album.
While recording his own album, Stasinopoulos took up the role of producer, and along with Schroeder, quickly became a sought-after commodity for local bands. They recorded Cecada's EP, and in the process coached the young band through early stages of growth and development. They produced a handful of tracks for the now-Portland-based Black Swan, and, perhaps most successfully, produced Vandevander's first two EPs, The Great State of Emotion and The Great State of Denial. The unlikely pairing of Stasinopoulos with ex-Hero Factor guitarist Matt Fisher's labor of love (along with HF drummer Nathan Price and bassist Eric Arndt) has resulted in two outstanding collections of psychedelic blues rock reminiscent of AC/DC, Zeppelin and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. The EPs act as a showcase not only for Fisher's, Price's and Arndt's considerable talents, but for Stasinopoulos's versatility as a producer.
As Dead Sea Choir put the finishing touches on its album, an opportunity presented itself in the form of an investor. As a result, the band now has a van ready for touring, a mastered and packaged album ready to release, and a new local record label ready to distribute it. That label, Brass Limited, will be modestly distributing the album as the band feels its way through the myriad of options of release methods in the coming months.
During the fall, the band hit a small hiccup during legal preparations for the album release, when it was brought to their attention that Epic records owned the copyright on the name "Straight Lines."
"It's a jazz-fusion group from the '80s," Stasinopoulos explained. "They had a couple of songs on the Billboard charts, and the cost of buying the name from Epic was just not feasible."
They had no choice but to change their moniker, a disappointment for a band whose name had been decided for the last four years. They arrived at Dead Sea Choir, an evocative and fitting name for a band of such epic and serious intentions.
Don't mistake the generous praise in this story as any indicator of guaranteed future success. It's not all sunshine and roses for the band; the at-times difficult music is sure to polarize listeners.
"I think the conceit is that this album can speak for itself without plugging it too hard and selling it," Stasinopoulos said. "The more people that hear it, the better for us."
This optimism doesn't eclipse the frontman's awareness of the music's potentially negative reception, but as always, he's as self-assured as ever.
"There's going to be a lot of people who hate it, a lot of people who don't get it," he continued. "A lot of people that dismiss it, misrepresent it, render it unchaste, misinterpret it, ignore it completely, whatever... I think we're going to have some pretty diligent fans, and some that are just curious."
Ryan is also well aware of the potential pitfalls.
"Just having the balls to put out a record like this as our first record, it's just epic, gigantic," he said. "Probably a lot of people won't get it. It's just kind of rude, it's arrogant of us. But hopefully it'll pay off."
"It's a great record," Taylor continued. "And there's no reason to not be pretentious about it, because a lot of fucking work went into it."
Though they've already developed an adamantly loyal local fanbase, skeptical listeners are bound to notice the strong influence of one particularly successful British band.
"We have never heard of nor have we ever listened to any band called Radiohead," Gimlin joked.
"Radiohead? Who's that?" Phillips retorted.
"I think we're more pretentious than Radiohead," added Ryan.
During the course of interviewing, every time the subject of Radiohead was brought up, a palpable tension filled the air, and was quickly countered by self-effacing jokes and unapologetic justification. It's a touchy subject for a band that has infinitely more to offer than what a confining and largely unfair comparison to the biggest band in the world would indicate. The instrumentation itself is far-removed from any literal comparison to Radiohead; the contentious element is Stasinopoulos's voice, which, by his own admission, sounds like the voice of Thom Yorke's second cousin.
Now, as the band prepares for its CD release on December 13th (a triple release party with Cecada, the Doldrums and Dead Sea Choir at the Blank Slate. $5, doors at 8pm, 18+), they're focused on honing their live show and looking to the future. Artistic success has been achieved; Dead Sea Choir is now focused, to a certain extent, on commercial and financial progression.
"In my eyes, success is just the fact that people outside my hometown are hearing our music," Phillips, a native of Cleveland, Okla. said. "But we're all trying to make a career for our lives right now."
"I don't think anybody in the band will be content with marginal, regional success," Gimlin continued. "I think everybody's shooting for the skies... I think we'll all be disappointed if it doesn't take off."
"I think the confidence carries us," Ryan said. "If we fall flat on our face and everybody just hates it, we had that confidence, ya know? Like 'fuck you, I like it.' Personally for me, I like it, and at this point it's childish to think we'll be huge from it. You can't put your eggs in that basket, but hopefully we'll get some kind of success from it."
Stasinopoulos is a little more specific about what he wants to achieve with the band.
"I don't expect the world or anything," he said. "I think we're definitely going to have our time in the spotlight, and it's going to depend how we handle that time in the spotlight that sort of delegates how much more time we get after that. Whether we come back sophomore album to really seal the deal or we just kinda fuck up."
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