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Kings of the Jungle: Talking passion and relentless pursuits with Night Panther

Night Panther
Night Panther

There are many words that come to mind the first time you hear Night Panther. One of those words is almost certainly “sexy.” There’s something so sultry about their particular blend of elements—the smooth, almost lackadaisical beats, the falsetto vocals dripping with honey—that immediately transports you to another time and place: somewhere with cabarets and crushed velvet and massively indulgent fur coats. Night Panther don’t just make sex-pop; they seem to effortlessly embody its form.

2013 was a big year for the band. They placed second in The Deli Philly’s annual poll of top emerging local bands, and their single “Fever” was named best local tune of 2013 by yours truly. This April, they’ll be residents at new NoLibs venue Bourbon & Branch, playing every Friday with a slew of awesome supporting acts. The buzz behind their name alone should be enough to put the new spot on the map.

Indeed, it seems like success comes easy to these fur-clad crooners…and in some ways, it does. But in another sense, it’s been a long time coming. The tune “Fever,” I soon find out, was written about 8 years ago when front man Farzad Houshiarnejad was playing in another band, but was shelved because it didn’t fit their sound at the time. Since then, it’s gone through years of revisions (and one previous release under the little-known “Captain Dum Dum” moniker) before being recorded for their self-titled LP in 2011. It was released in 2013.

“We’ve been working on these songs for years,” says drummer Mike Cammarata over drinks at Doylestown staple Maxwell’s on Main. “Even when we were involved with past projects, this was always something we had on the back burner.”

hanging with Night Panther outside Maxwell's on Main (photo via Instagram)
hanging with Night Panther outside Maxwell’s on Main (photo via Instagram)

Actually, the whole band’s been together for years. Houshiarnejad and Cammarata have roots in Doylestown act Drink Up Buttercup, a zany, oompah-inspired garage-punk project whose thrilling bashing and Man Man-esque melodies won them props in the mid 2000’s. Keyboardist/guitarist Chris Radwanski was the manager for Drink Up, and they all lived together in a big, sprawling house in downtown D-town, with a recording studio in the basement.

So when that band dissolved, they naturally continued tinkering, and formed Night Panther soon after. (Their live line-up also includes singer-keyboardist Kelly Kurteson and bassist Jon Anderson, who is not the guy from Yes).

“When we first started out, everything was about being sexy,” says Houshiarnejad. “I’m very anal about our image. I care a lot about how things look.” Continue reading →

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Source Tags and Codes: How Trail of Dead created the blueprint for hard rock grandiosity

...And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead | Photo by Courtney Chavanell
…And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead | Photo by Courtney Chavanell

When …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead take the stage at Underground Arts on Wednesday, it will be to commemorate the kind of rock music moment that is now all but impossible. This performance inaugurates a small tour around the country celebrating the 12th anniversary of their landmark major label debut full-length, 2002’s Source Tags and Codes.

Already, this is a sort of bizarre event – who does 12th anniversaries? Is this some uniquely significant moment that an already cryptic and idiosyncratic act (all of their albums share a near-anthropological fascination with Asian, Indian, and pre-Columbian philosophical traditions) would be more likely to celebrate? Are they making some self-referential commentary on the process of bands from their era doing reunion tours around supposedly-landmark records by going outside of the normative time frame?

According to singer/guitarist/drummer Jason Reece, the explanation’s a bit more innocuous. “We meant to do it two years ago, but we couldn’t get it together [laughs]. Better late than never, right?” he explains over a crackling cell phone line. He’s caught up in what he describes as some “South-by s***”, his nonchalance apparent when he laughs off the missed opportunity of a ten-year anniversary. His is an indifference that most bands can’t even pretend to afford – dropping opportunities like this means missing out on tremendous press retrospectives, renewed interest in the music, picking up new fans, and all the trappings that come with these near-obligatory “where are they now?” kinds of tours.

Maybe the 42-year-old Reece is a little bit cavalier about what his band has accomplished. From the get-go, they have been very irreverent about the kinds of heights they hit – heights they could only dream of reaching at the strange moment in music history from which Source Tags and Codes was born. This band was otherwise not meant to hit it big. Everything they did, from their incendiary live shows (complete with equipment desecration) to the rotating frontmen to the impossibly long name, seemed like a challenge to the rock establishment. Before the current era of supermassive pop acts putting out intentionally limit-pushing music (what up Yeezus), bands like Trail of Dead (the most common abbreviation of their full name) were the best bet for listeners looking for an intellectually-based sonic assault on the pop mainstream; they were utilizing every resource they had to stick something in people’s faces. Just check out this absurd interview and performance from the short-lived Farmclub television show – the incongruity of the band’s conscious unravelling and the calculated sleaziness of the show’s cool-factor posturing is laughable today, but few bands could have hoped to be so outright confrontational at that time.

Fortunately for Trail of Dead, Source Tags and Codes is an unparalleled masterpiece of its time, an unbloated orchestral record during a time when punk bands weren’t supposed to be so worldly or indulgent. The sound that they developed on their first two indie-released full-length albums, 1998’s self-titled album and 1999’s Madonna, was opened up into something grandiose, cathartic, and incendiary. From the opening static hum and ear-blasting drop of “It Was There That I Saw You” to the string quartet refrain at the end of the album’s closing title track  (structured around the refrain from “How Near How Far”), Source Tags and Codes was designed to push all boundaries. Trail of Dead established the template for punk to go prog and baroque in the service (not disservice) of righteous bombast; without Source Tags and Codes, bands as varied as Arcade Fire and My Chemical Romance might not been as popular as they are. Critics in the know were certainly paying attention, with Trail of Dead gaining one of early-era Pitchfork’s precious few perfect 10s and rave reviews from The Village Voice, Billboard, and the NME.

Perhaps characteristically, Reece acknowledges the impact that the album had on him and his bandmates while cautiously avoiding giving it too much of a broader importance. Continue reading →

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The resilience of River City Extension: how the Jersey folk rock band didn’t let change keep them from ‘Deliverance’

River City Extension | Photo by Sean O’Kane Photography
River City Extension | Photo by Sean O’Kane Photography

Fans know River City Extension as a boisterously loud and energetic folk rock group that has toured with up to eight people at a time. Despite the pop sensibilities many folk bands have adopted, this New Jersey crew remained tough at the core, only softening its edge with flourishes of strings and harmonies. This balance helped the band gain equal appeal from the Bonnaroo audience as it did from the one you would find at Warped Tour.

Fronted by guitarist and vocalist Joe Michelini, River City Extension released its somewhat dark, somewhat quirky and introspective sophomore album, Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Your Anger, in 2012 to measurable acclaim. It was the follow-up to the band 2010debut, The Unmistakable Man.

But a lot has changed since those days. Members have came and left, and now the band has slimmed down to just three core members who all reside in their hometown of Toms River. Losing so many musicians brought Michelini to a crossroads, where he and the remaining members made the hard decision to continue on, even though they had no idea where they were headed.

“We sat down and we were like, ‘Ok, nobody knows who our band is, really,’” Michelini says modestly during a recent phone interview. “So, we can make any kind of music we want now. We decided to just work with the people that were willing to be in the band and did want to make music for the rest of their lives – people who had already jumped off the cliff and weren’t looking back, like us.”

Michelini, guitarist John Muccino and keyboard player Patrick O’Brien will showcase the band’s new direction when River City Extension plays Boot & Saddle at 8:30 p.m. Friday, March 28th with openers Wild Rompit and Cranston Dean. Attendees will hear songs from the first two RCE records, as well as their first ever cover song and new tracks off the forthcoming album Deliverance, which the band will sequester itself in a house in the Poconos for 18 days in late April to start recording.

After the crazy, scary journey he’s been on with River City Extension since forming the group in 2007, Michelini says he’s excited to bring the new line-up to Philly, the city he “grew up going to.”

“Philly is the only city that I want to go to around here,” he says. “I’ve always loved it there. We had our first ever album release show in Philly. We’re so excited to play, and we have so many friends there. If the band ever leaves Toms River, it will only ever go to Philadelphia. There’s only one road between Toms River and Philly, and that warms my heart a little bit.”

Guitarist Muccino even had the “wild idea” to make an animated video to promote the show. He wrote the script, did the voiceover, then passed that along to Philly-based animator Joe Shefski to bring the illustrations to life. The video is just one of the many examples of the DIY ethics the band employs, sticking to them despite how hard it is to keep a career in the music industry or the arts in general.

“Everyone just seems to be going on and on, especially since South by Southwest, about how it’s impossible and now it’s all run by brands, etcetera, etcetera,” Michelini says of the industry. “I guess I just have to not be too worried about it. The industry will change as it will, but I want to make music. I know that’s what I’m supposed to be doing.”

Despite River City Extension’s history, Michelini said the songs he’s written with the new line-up over the past year and a half have been some of the most important to him. Continue reading →

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On the Road to Austin with Mumblr: A DIY photo essay about SXSW

Photo by Abi Reimold | abireimoldphoto.com
Photo by Abi Reimold | abireimoldphoto.com

Scott Stitzer lights a cigarette behind the wheel of a big white van as he pulls away from Han Dynasty – the Old City upscale Chinese restaurant where he and his bandmate, Nick Morrison, work as waiters. “The thing that was really apparent about this whole process is that there are people that support us, as people, which is all a human being wants. It’s so gratifying.” Nick and Scott just got off their last restaurant shift for the next week. Not only did Han, the owner of the restaurant, allow them to take off time off, but he also lent them his business van to carry the band and its gear 1,700 miles to Austin, Texas for the 27th annual South by Southwest festival. The band, Mumblr, was invited by their label, Fleeting Youth Records, to play a showcase with local bands from Austin and other artists on the label. Follow along their journey in pictures. [continue]

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“A mix of sleaziness and professionalism”: Philly artists weigh in on their SXSW experience

The Districts | Photo by John Vettese
The Districts at Buffalo Billiards | Photo by John Vettese

The rickety van piloted by Philly psych-thrash outfit Ruby the Hatchet rolled into Austin just a few hours before its first South By Southwest gig last week. Cutting it close, for sure, but the band was just happy to arrive.

“We broke down,” guitarist John Scarperia explained as he set up for the End Records showcase at LIT Lounge. “We were stuck in Tennessee for two days.”

Ruby the Hatchet | Photo by John Vettese
Ruby the Hatchet at LIT Lounge | Photo by John Vettese

Talk about a setback. I ask if they missed any tour shows on the trip down. Scarperia laughs, then says “We didn’t play any. But it was fun, all part of the adventure, right?

The band dished a raucous set of its heady, heavy rock to a modest but appreciative crowd – which included singer-songwriter Nicole Atkins, a longtime friend of Hatchet frontwoman Jillian Taylor. The next day, it rocked Thrasher Mag’s unofficial Deathmatch showcase, and spent the rest of the weekend mingling with the music-devouring masses. Overall, it was a positive experience, and even culminated in Taylor getting a new tattoo (a hatchet, of course).

Ruby the Hatchet was one of dozens of locals that made the trek to Austin this year. Musicians of all styles and degrees of renown represented Philly at SXSW. There were known names like rapper Spank Rock, who played an energized set to a buck wild crowd at the Boyz Noize showcase at The Majestic on Thursday, and alt-bluesman G. Love who played the 18th Floor of the Hilton Garden Inn the same night. There were emerging artists, like folk singer Vikesh Kapoor and punk power trio Amanda X, or SXSW vets like rapper Lushlife, heavy psych heads Creepoid, and dream punks Nothing, who played a 2 a.m. set on a pedestrian footbridge.

Chill Moody | Photo by John Vettese
Chill Moody onstage at Amped Austin | Photo by John Vettese

“I feel like SXSW serves as a hub for discovery,” says Philly rapper Chill Moody, who I caught during his showcase at the Amped Austin lounge on Saturday afternoon. “I met a bunch of musicians and professionals in the music industry in just one week. Built some strong connections that will hopefully help me with the next steps in my career.”

For Moody, who is used to feeding off the love of the hometown fan base he’s cultivated over the past few years – he headlines venues like The TLA and Union Transfer locally – it was an opportunity to perform to complete strangers in smaller rooms, and win them over. The Amped show featured his right hand man Beano, a charismatic and occasionally comedic R&B singer, hopping offstage and dancing in the midst of the crowd, to the delight of many Instagram-snappers.

“It was a good chance to show a different audience exactly what you can do,” said Moody.

Downstairs at the same venue, electronic rock duo City Rain debuted songs from their new Songs From a High School Dance LP, due out in late April. Again, the crowd was (with the exception of myself) strangers, but people fed off singer / songwriter Ben Runyuan’s relentless energy, particularly on the driving anthem “Waiting on a Dream.”

“This is our last showcase,” Runyan said. “So I’m just throwing everything I got into this.” Continue reading →

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Q&A: Get to know Julian Booker, the new host of Sleepy Hollow

Sleepy Hollow host Julian Booker
Sleepy Hollow host Julian Booker

Last April, Sleepy Hollow host Keith Brand announced that he would be retiring from his Sunday morning post of 27 years to spend time working on other creative outlets.  Now just about one year later, the “eclectic, quiet sounds of Sleepy Hollow” have a new voice to carry the show into its next several decades.

Julian Booker took over the mic at the end of February and has already shown a great ability to curate interesting and surprising playlists that fit the Sleepy Hollow mood while exploring new directions and introducing new artists to the rotation.  We thought it would be a good idea to get to know the newest addition to the XPN DJ line-up so we sent a few questions Julian’s way.  Check out his thoughts on the heritage of Sleepy Hollow, avoiding preconceptions and what he does in his time off below while listening to some of the songs he played on his first few Sleepy Hollow broadcasts.

The Key: How did you get started DJing?

Julian Booker: I got my first radio show towards the end of college. I had worked for my father (who has been in radio for over forty years) at Delmarva Broadcasting Company in Wilmington, DE throughout high school.  Later he asked me if I would help develop their HD-affiliate Graffiti Radio, whom I’ve worked with ever since. I started DJing live around the same time and was the house DJ at The Blockley until it closed last December.

TK: How did you spend your Sunday mornings before becoming the host of Sleepy Hollow?

JB: In addition to my new position at XPN, I work as a live sound engineer, so I spent a lot of Sunday mornings sleeping after late nights at shows. My schedule is kind of inverting now, so far I enjoy actually seeing the sunrise.

TK: What drew you to the eclectic Sleepy Hollow format?

JB: I’ve always loved a wide spectrum of music – I grew up listening to everything from The Spinners to Steely Dan to Carole King and music that was popular on the radio at the time – things like Semisonic or New Radicals. So when I began to get older, that eclecticism really started to grow. I try to find elements that I like in everything that I hear – I think it helps to become a more well-rounded listener.

Continue reading →

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Verbatum Jones Brings the Communal Joy #everybodyeats to Philly

Verbatum Jones | photo courtesy of the artist
Verbatum Jones | photo courtesy of the artist

The most characteristic part of a Verbatum Jones gig is the urgent, family-like happiness he throws into the ether. During a concert at Milkboy supporting Halfro, an intensely fun live hip-hop act and some of Jones’s biggest supporters, the 23-year-old emcee turned what could’ve been a throwaway opening slot into a moment-defining wash of positivity. Like a young pastor winning over a new congregation, he enraptured everybody within his limitless enthusiasm. He even got the audience to sing back a whole Mos Def cover – perhaps the highest sign of audience captivation, when you can play another artist’s song with no hesitation from anybody.

The emotionally-hardwired desire to create this sort of communal atmosphere is part of what inspired Verb, born Garry Dorsainvil, to create “Everybody Eats,” a concert/potluck dinner series where the only cost of admission is one dish or drink. The one this Saturday, March 22nd, at a warehouse space in Chinatown North, is the first in Philadelphia (after successful runs in Queens).

“I’m a big fan of music that makes you want to move while you’re eating. That’s how I learned to party, it’s what my cousins taught me. You go, dress nice, say ‘what’s up’ to everybody, great music playing all night…normally, you never paid,” he explains. “A big part of ‘Everybody Eats’ is tailored around that experience from childhood,”

The child of deeply religious Haitian immigrants, Verb recognizes the fundamental, even spiritual links between humans who share the need to eat and dance; “Everybody Eats” is a catch-all for the kinds of experiences and emotions that Verb’s music encompasses, which is why it’s also evolved into a song and a mantra (and, as things go in the 21st century, a hashtag). Rooted in Haitian tradition and expanding into the eclectic tapestry of young Philadelphia, “Everybody Eats” is idealistic and inclusive in all the ways that young community-building art has to be.

“My aunt lived in a very modest shack, and on my first trip to Haiti…she would cook a lot of food when we visited, and we feasted like kings. As she was cooking, and all this music was playing, people would just walk in and introduce themselves from off the block,” he recounts, adding “This was just after the earthquake, and there were a lot of reasons to be sad.” Good times clearly persist in spite of hardship, and it’s hard not to see Verb’s infectious magnetism as an outgrowth of this desire for transcendence.

The cosmic forces behind “Everbody Eats” also guide his artistic trajectory. Having only started rapping a few years ago (after years of being a poet), his initiation at Temple University’s Freestyle Fridays planted seeds that evolved over the release of two EPs – 2011’s (.verb) and this year’s .winter (both of which featured production from Parkhouse Studio’s Kenneth Sullivan). Both releases, available for stream and download from his official website, are rooted in an ethereal sound that echoes of his most obvious influences – human condition-minded emcees from the 90s like The Fugees and Mos Def. Continue reading →