Listen to the Arbor Christmas All-Stars Interview and Key Session

The Classic Brown | Photo by John Vettese
The Classic Brown | Photo by John Vettese

Our first ever Christmas Key Studio Session was released this week, featuring the Arbor Christmas All-Stars – members of numerous South Jersey bands who each year record a compilation of original holiday songs and throw a benefit Christmas pageant. The session aired on WXPN on Christmas Eve, featuring an interview with Dave Downham of Gradwell House Recording (where the performances were taped) and longtime Arbor contributors Brian Mietz, John Masino and Tom Ryan. You can listen to the entire session as it aired in the player below; download the songs plus outtakes, see a short video and check out a photo gallery at the Key Sessions post here.


The Key Studio Sessions: Arbor Christmas All-Stars

It's A King Thing | Photo by John Vettese
It’s A King Thing | Photo by John Vettese

On the one hand, the annual Arbor Christmas Compilation and Pageant is a local curiosity, something that could only happen in this area (South Jersey, along the PATCO line to be specific) with this particular group of local musicians, creative folks and friends acting as the driving force. Every year, bands like Ages, By Surprise, It’s A King Thing and The Only Ghost in Town converge at Gradwell House Recording in Haddon Heights to record emo / indie / punk inspired holiday songs for a series of free compilations (Volume 14 is out now!) and put on a loose and lighthearted holiday pageant, typically heavily informed by geek culture, at various South Jersey venues.

On the other hand, it’s something more, and speaks to the strength of community. The Arbor Christmas shows began in 2000 when a group of local musicians, spearheaded by Jon Montague, got together to put on a show for their friends. When Montague passed away after battling GIST shortly after the second show, his friends carried on in his memory. As founding member Mike Maier remembers on the Arbor Christmas website:

Jon and I wrote the script for the first two shows together. There almost wasn’t a show the second year because Jon had been in the hospital, but he insisted on doing it when he got out. It was that following January that he had passed away. After that, I had made promises to everyone that we would continue doing shows in memory of Jon. Jon’s brothers, Adam and Jamie, were in full support of this idea and became heavily involved. Brian Mietz had also been a big part of the show since the second show.

Since then, the four of us have assembled the show every year. I write the script with plenty of help from Adam, plus ideas pitched by Brian and Jamie. Brian also designs the artwork for the CDs that are given out at the show (another idea of Jon’s. The first year was a cassette!) Most everyone involved in the show helps in some way with putting it all together. Between the food, the decorations and Dave and Steve (Gradwell House Recording) providing time at the studio to record. I think the fact that it’s such a group effort is why it’s more like a party than a show. It’s all very personal to us.

Over the past fourteen years, the Arbor Christmas Pageant has not only become an annual celebration of Montague’s memory, but also a time for friends to converge and families to mingle. It’s even begun to span generations – while some participating bands are in their mid-20s, folks who were there at the beginning have kids now, and in some cases, kids old enough to participate. Singer Jeffrey Blatcher of the band Ages has participated in so many Arbor Christmas installments that it has its own Christmas album collecting all their songs, and Blatcher’s two daughters Iris and Starla, who perform as The Infiniteens. And the pageant has grown in size and scope, with its beginnings in Montague’s apartment for a small group of friends and growing today to an event at larger community halls that draw hundreds of attendees.

Not only is the show cross-generational, it’s civic-minded. The compilation may be a name-your-own price download (which, sure, sometimes means “free”) but when money is donated,  it is split along with proceeds from the pageant between a scholarship fund at Haddon Township High School in Montague’s name; a GIST research charity; and music programming in Camden public schools.

This Christmas, we got together a crew of the Arbor Christmas All-Stars – Ages, The Classic Brown, The Infiniteens, It’s A King Thing, Bacio, Norick Eve and Endor Endor – to record some of their favorites Christmas originals from over the years on location at Gradwell House Recording. Check out photos of the session in the gallery, stream and download the set below and watch a video montage of the recording session after the jump. And have a very happy holiday from all of us here at The Key!

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Download the Ages Christmas Anthology for free (playing the Arbor Christmas show on 12/22)

It’s kind of funny to think about, but South Jersey four-piece Ages didn’t form to write regular old indie rock songs. It started as an excuse for four friends from the local punk scene to record original Christmas music every December. Having contributed to a baker’s dozen of the famed Arbor Christmas compilations, Ages have recently released their own anthology of all the holiday songs it has recorded over the years as a free download. It’s all here, from “Merried With Children (What to Expect When You’re Expecting Christmas)” to “Frankincense of Style” (featured on Helen Leight’s 12 Days of Christmas compilation in 2008) and the excellently-titled “Rolling Down The Ice Backwards.” Listen to it below, download it at Bandcamp and catch Ages this Saturday, December 22, as part of the 13th Annual Arbor Christmas Show.


Interview: Dave Kain and Kyle Costill of Bands In The Backyard

A decade ago, Dave Kain and Kyle Costill were the organizing force behind Farm Fest, an annual music gathering in Kain’s parents’ suburban New Jersey backyard. Don’t be fooled by the uber-hippie name and setting; the event showcased indie, punk, and hiphop luminaries from the Delaware Valley, such as Man Man (back when it was called Gamelan), Plastic Little, and the organizers’ old band, Trouble Everyday. Today, the long-time friends apply that same idea to Bands In The Backyard, a video series and website that takes the region’s musicians out of the rock club and studio, and places them in pastoral surroundings. Since launching in August, BITBY has captured Ages playing in the grass lot behind Johnny Brenda’s, White Birds late at night at Bucks County’s Shrine of Czestochowa, Norwegian Arms in a tent, and Break It Up along a creek in Oaklyn, NJ. I caught up with Kain and Costill last week at 30th Street Station to get the lowdown on the project’s genesis, and its aspirations.

The Key: The obvious thing BITBY reminds me of is other site-specific video series, like Black Cab Sessions. But what makes your approach unique is that the videos aren’t entirely site-specific—they’re in a variety of settings. With Black Cab, it always eventually ends up in the cab. With BITBY, each thing is its own animal.

Dave Kain: That just happened naturally, organically.

Kyle Costill: The original goal of it site is we have a band perform every month, in my backyard. I live in Jersey, and it started out because I go outside, and I just notice how the seasons change. It sounds a little hippie, but I want to show when we have a different band every month in the same space, how the sound and also the surroundings can kind of change together. So we’re going to show a full year when we’re done, we’re going to release a Kickstarter-funded 12” called August To August. And it’s going to be all 12 acts and the tracks they recorded. We’re trying to find the right local charity to pair up with, but we really want to donate 50 percent of everything we raise to put a green space in Philly somewhere to benefit the community.

TK: How did the other elements of the project come about?

KC: We started doing it, and it was just so much fun. And outside the original goal, we just saw the opportunity to film the bands we love. I thought oh, we can do this thing called BITBY Live, or BITBY Backstage. Whether it’s bands, or we did a piece with Art In The Age Of the other day. We went to Data Garden. We want to be able feature places like Sweet Jane Vintage. We’re doing BITBY Bits, we’re calling them, where we can interview people that are artistically doing something positive that we can get behind. Me and Dave, we’ve been in bands forever…

DK: I think you said it best when you said if this were around when we were in bands, we’d think it was the coolest thing ever. We wanted to make something that would be attractive to bands, and accessible too.

KC: Our big thing is we want people to feel like they’re part of it, we want it to benefit everybody. The community aspect is the most important part to me. We’re encouraging anybody who goes to a lot of shows, who is into filming bands, not to hesitate to e-mail me. We’ll go through it, and if stuff’s good, we’ll post it and give credit. We’re looking to build this into a working community, we’re putting the feelers out there. And there’s so many other great sites that are doing stuff that we love—you guys, what Shadow Scene does, Philebrity is awesome, The Deli, they’re helping us out with our parties.

TK: I feel like that’s definitely changed over the past 10 years. When I first started covering Philly music, there weren’t as many outlets supportive of local musicians as there are today. There wasn’t as much camaraderie. There was a lot of smack-talking.

KC: You know it! It was a lot more hostile. When we were in a band, we got in spats with Philebrity. But I was a 23, 24 year old kid—I’m 30 years old now. And now, we owe so much…like, I was so surprised and happy when I saw Philebrity post our Ages video. It was like woah, this is awesome. It’s cool that people aren’t thinking of it in a way where, “Oh, they’re doing the same thing as me, I don’t want to associate with them.” Before, that’s how it was. If you were doing something, and somebody else was, it couldn’t be. But I really feel like the people that are covering music in Philly right now, and that are doing things like Phonographic Arts and Union Transfer and Kung Fu Necktie and Little Bar, everybody that’s doing it has been involved for so long, it’s so genuine. It’s like the workers taking over the factory, or something.

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Weekend Picks: BITBY showcase at Little Bar, Andrew Bird at The Grand Opera House, Dum Dum Girls at Union Transfer

Tonight at Little Bar, the folks from Bands In The Backyard will premiere the series’ third episode, featuring Arc In Round. (Previous episodes have featured Faux Slang and Streetwalkers.) The screening will include live performances by Ages, Renderers, Sore Eros, and Not Fur Longs. Ages and Not Fur Longs—along with Psychic Teens (who opened for Zola Jesus last night at First Unitarian Church—have each been highlighted in BITBY’s bkstg sessions, which features one-camera shoots of bands performing stripped-down versions of their songs at local venues prior to playing on stage. Ages performs with Renderers, Sore Eros, and Not Fur Longs (with DJ sets by members of Faux Slang and Arc In Round) at 8 p.m. at Little Bar; tickets to the show are $6.

Also playing: CSS + MEN, EMA at Union Transfer (8 p.m., all ages, $15);

Writing the score for a darkly humorous indie film is no easy task; the composer must detail every strained emotion and hint of action through a series of scales and cadences. For Andrew Bird, however, this style of writing seems as simple as blinking. Norman (out in select theaters Oct. 21st) is a coming-of-age film about a boy, a love interest, and routine family issues—and Bird’s soundtrack depicts just that. The classically trained violinist abandoned his experimental and sometimes ostentatious arranging for a more minimalistic instrumental approach. Bird’s orchestral roots are exposed in pieces like “3:36” and “Medicine Chest,” which incorporate somber violin solos over longing instrumental backdrops. He paints a musical tale that is as comprehensive and aesthetic as its visual representation. Andrew Bird performs with Martin Dosh at 8 p.m. at The Grand Opera House; tickets for the all ages event are $29.50. —Caitlyn Grabenstein

Also Playing: Odd Future at Union Transfer (8 p.m., SOLD OUT); The Wombats + The Postelles, The Static Jacks at Johnny Brenda’s (9 p.m., 21+, $15); Buried Beds + Dignan, Geology at Kung Fu Necktie (7:30 p.m., 21+, $8); XPN Welcomes The Jayhawks at Keswick Theatre (8 p.m., $34.50–$45); Small Houses + Hezekiah Jones, Chris Bathgate at Studio 34 (7:30 p.m., all ages, $10); Suzie Brown + Carsie Blanton at Tin Angel (7:30 p.m., 21+, $12); The Smashing Pumpkins + Fancy Space People, Light FM at Tower Theatre (7 p.m., $52–$79.75)

The members of Dum Dum Girls have always dressed to impress. Since hitting the scene with its debut album, I Will Be, last year, the ’60s-inspired quartet is almost always found clad in matching black nylons, red lipstick, and heavy eye makeup, hiding behind a veil of thick, glossy bangs. Though the ladies have always looked quite mature, their second album, Only In Dreams, carries a sound that has finally caught up with the group’s aesthetic. Though still creating a nice balance between beachy grooves and low-fi subtleties, the group’s latest batch of songs sounds less like adolescent heart doodles and more like someone who’s mastered the complexities of The Bell Jar. Born in the wake of lead singer Dee Dee’s mother’s lost battle to cancer, Only In Dreams strays from the typical boy-crazy narratives and instead acts as a cathartic confession of insomnia, restlessness, and change. Dum Dum Girls performs with Crocodiles and Royal Baths at 8:00 p.m. at Union Transfer; tickets to the all-ages show are $15. —Marielle Mondon

Also Playing: Rumer + Bill Ricchini (of Summer Fiction) at World Cafe Live (8 p.m., $18); Fierce Bad Rabbit + Oh! Pears, Dad Rocks, Attia Taylor at The M Room (8 p.m., 21+, $7); Portugal. The Man + Alberta Cross at Theatre Of Living Arts (7 p.m., $25)


Video: Watch Psychic Teens (opening for Zola Jesus tonight at FUC) perform in Kung Fu Necktie’s basement

The folks over at Bands In The Backyard have just posted a video of Psychic Teens performing in the basement of Kung Fu Necktie back in late September. You can watch the video below.

Each month, BITBY posts a new video featuring interviews and performances by up-and-coming bands. Previous episodes have featured Faux Slang and Streetwalkers. (Tomorrow night at 8 p.m. at Little Bar, the series will premiere its third episode, featuring Arc In Round; the screening will include live performances by Ages, Renderers, Sore Eros, and Not Fur Longs.) The Psychic Teens video is part of BITBY’s “bkstg” series, which features one-camera shoots of bands performing stripped-down versions of their songs at local venues prior to playing on stage. Both Ages and Not Fur Longs have also recorded BITBY bkstg sessions, which you can watch here and here, respectively.

Psychic Teens opens for Zola Jesus and Xanopticon tonight at 8 p.m. at The First Unitarian Church; tickets to the all-ages event are $13.


Download the new Key Studio Sessions Compilation Volume 2 for free

The Key Studio Sessions Compilation Volume 2—which you can download for free here —features one exclusive track recorded at the WXPN studios by 17 local acts, including Arc In Round, Dutch, The National Rifle, Denison Witmer, Hop Along, Matt Duke, Catnaps, Penrose, Arches, Lantern, Nicos Gun, Restorations, Ages, Sisters 3, The War On Drugs, Sonni Shine And The Underwater Sounds, and Work Drugs.

Want to hear more? Click here to listen to the full sessions by all 17 local acts. You can also download the previous edition The Key Studio Sessions Compilation, Volume 1, in its entirety as a .zip file here.


The Key Studio Sessions: Ages

“Our record took, no pun intended, ages to finish,” says Dave Downham, guitarist for South Jersey indie four-piece Ages. That might be because a full album wasn’t always in the cards; the band initially came about as an excuse for some friends from the South Jersey punk scene to record original Christmas songs for their local label’s holiday compilations. By the time Downham and singer Jeff Blatcher realized they wanted to make non-seasonal music in the mid-aughts, they were both enmeshed in their respective careers: Downham co-owning Gradwell House Recording and Blatcher working as an air balancer (one of the most interesting and unusual day jobs I’ve heard of). Hence, Made in the Trade, their seven years in the making full length debut that was, they admit, occasionally worked on during downtime at the job. It’s a spunky set of power pop goodness filtered through their late 90s punk roots – think Nada Surf – and the punchy performance at their Key Studio Session made me all the more excited for their set at Johnny Brenda’s this Friday. Download the Key session below, stream the album here, get more information on their show here . And tune in to the Key Studio Sessions hour on XPN2 tomorrow at 7 p.m. to hear the full session and an interview with the band.


Tonight: Gradwell House Showcase (featuring It’s A King Thing, Ages, and Bacio) at Kung Fu Necktie

It's A King Thing

South Jersey’s Gradwell House Recording has become a hub for some of our favorite musicians in the region: The Atomic Square, By Surprise, In Grenada. There’s even a name for this loose-knit collective: the Diner State Scene. One gets the vibe that this is the type of recording space run by musicians for musicians—and indeed, the space is helmed by Steve Poponi of It’s A King Thing and Dave Downham of Ages. Both of these bands are on a Kung Fu Necktie bill tonight, celebrating recent releases; King Thing is unveiling the vinyl pressing of last year’s Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo (an album title only a linguist could love). Meanwhile, Ages is performing a set of songs from its phenomenal new record Made In The Trade. (You might remember the band from its extensive catalog of Christmas songs, but don’t pigeonhole—this album is awash in all manner of Idlewild-by-way-of-Nada-Surf goodness.) Also on the bill is West Deptford post-rock combo Bacio, featuring sometimes Gradwell House engineer Matt Weber on drums. Call it a scene showcase, or a studio showcase, or a solid bill rooted in South Jersey. Download a track from each act below, and check out the show tonight at Kung Fu Necktie. It’s A King Thing performs with Ages and Bacio at 8 p.m. at Kung Fu Necktie; tickets to the 21+ show are $8.


Philly Local Philes: Ages’ “Merried With Children (What To Expect When You’re Expecting Christmas)”

AgesDave Downham sure is one Christmas lovin’ guy. His band with long-time South Jersey friend Jeff Blatcher, Ages, has spun its jovial indie-pop stylings into numerous original holiday tunes over the years, appearing on practically every Arbor Records Christmas Compilation—often twice. Not familiar with Arbor House? Each year the local label/collective/scene, centered around Gradwell House Recording Studios (where Downham works), puts out a free downloadable collection of seasonal tunes by local faves like The Atomic Square, It’s A King Thing, and By Surprise. This year’s comp is the 11th in the series; the jangley whirlwind linked below, “Merried With Children (What To Expect When You’re Expecting Christmas),” appeared on the 2009 comp, while Ages’ “Frankinsence Of Style” (also from the series) was spotlighted in Helen Leicht’s 12 Days Of Christmas in 2008. Downham’s old band The Secession Movement also contributed to the earliest installments (his other old band, Up Up Down Down Left Right Left Right B A Start, apparently, was not as seasonally affected). If you’re feeling particularly festive this holiday weekend, download all 11 Arbor Christmas comps to soundtrack your gatherings. For added fun and mischief, down some eggnog every time one of Downham’s songs plays—though be forewarned, that might be dangerous.