XPoNential Artist Spotlight: Meet Commonwealth Choir, Fishtown’s new kids on the block

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Commonwealth Choir | photo by Mike Bucher
Commonwealth Choir | photo by Mike Bucher

We’ve got a lot of great new local talent to look forward to this weekend, and Saturday will start off with one of the newer bands on the block.  Commonwealth Choir is closing out a year of “XPoNential” growth – even before the release of its debut Shirtless EP last fall, the band’s single “Rest” was placed in XPN’s rotation.  Since then, they’ve sold out shows at MilkBoy multiple times (including New Year’s Eve), opened for New Sweden’s record release show and recorded an incredibly popular Key Studio Session.  I spoke with Commonwealth Choir’s lead vocalist / guitarist Davis Jameson Howley to find out how the band got its start, what this past year has been like and what it means to them to be playing the XPoNential Music Festival.

The on-stage chemistry and energy between Howley, guitarist Nick Cislak, multi-instrumentalist Wil Chamuris, drummer Jim Keifer and bassist Maurizio Mazza is not an act.  Hailing from an hour north of Philadelphia in Doylestown, the majority of the band has been making music together for almost a decade and followed similar music trajectories before founding Commonwealth Choir in Fishtown in 2012.

“Wil and I met in 4th grade – we played way too much Banjo Kazooie together,” says Howley.  ”We started jamming in middle school and eventually met Nick in high school. We all played in bands together throughout high school, which is where we met Jim as well. Jim played drums for a bunch of hardcore bands in town, thus his nickname Punk Rock Jim, although we call him Hong Kong Keifer.”

Jim “Hong Kong” Keifer is Commonwealth Choir’s original drummer who has since split with the band, but he’ll be back in his old spot come Saturday afternoon.

Hardcore and punk roots might not be the first influences that jump to mind when listening to Commonwealth Choir’s jangling power pop / rock, but Howley made it clear that’s where the band members’ early musical interests lay.

“Hardcore and punk shows were a huge part of the Doylestown music scene until everyone started moving away to Philly…. When we arrange songs, we don’t really think about genres necessarily, but I think a lot of our punk and hardcore roots sneak their way into whatever we do naturally, which I think can be surprising at first for some people to hear but definitely evident when they people see us play.”

Pacers by Commonwealth Choir from James Powers on Vimeo.

Though Howley has been the primary songwriter up to now, the whole songwriting process has been getting more collaborative from start to finish as the band moves forward.

“As time goes on, more and more of our songs are starting from group writing, which we’re really pumped about.”

And we might get to hear some of those new songs this weekend.

“We have a ton of new material.  We’ve been busy cutting a single with our friend Dan Pawlovich (currently the drummer for Panic! At the Disco) that will be released in the next few months and then we’ll be back in the studio with Bill Moriarty at the end of the summer.”

You would think that releasing a debut EP would be the biggest milestone for a band still in its first year.  But the guys in Commonwealth Choir aren’t the sort to sit on one wave too long.  After completing the Shirtless EP last fall, they opened 2014 with a major project: Philly Tapes Philly.

“We just want to do our best to be part of the Philly community as much as humanly possible – to make friends, learn from everyone we meet, and to give back.  And Philly Tapes Philly, as a non-profit label, has been the core of that.”

So far, the label has curated five local collaborations between bands that might not otherwise get in the same room at the same time.  For PTP, its about breaking down the barriers between all of the musical niches in the city and getting people excited about all kinds of music.

To close out such a stand-out year, playing XPN Fest might just be the perfect ending.

“XPN has been amazing to us and we couldn’t be more grateful. We went to the festival last year and at the same time we all turned to each other and said ‘We’re playing this next year.’ It was a goal that we felt was slightly lofty but definitely something we could achieve if we stayed focused.”

So what’s on the agenda for the next twelve months?

“We have some big goals for this year, we’ll see if we can’t make those happen too.  We just love making music and having fun – any excuse to make those two things come together, we’ll find a way to make it happen.”

Commonwealth Choir open the River Stage at 12:30pm on Saturday, July 26th.  More details can be found here.

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