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Watching 1939 Ensemble earlier this year, I had this idea that there are two types of musical performers. The first is the kind of musician whose act involves them taking the spotlight, playing the music but also dancing around, going crazy, physically making themselves into the focal point of the performance. The second kind of performer is the kind who is so focused on the creative act that the music itself that becomes the focal point for the audience.
This second type is characterized perfectly by 1939 Ensemble, Portland’s percussion-driven instrumental quartet whose sound, though it has evolved over the years, has always remained the group’s sole focus. The Ensemble started as a multi-instrumental percussion duo and has since added two members and a host of new instruments–notably trumpet, synthesizer and guitar–and is set to release both an EP and a full-length album in the coming year. I visited the band at their North Portland practice space, where they were busy unloading from a weekend spent playing up in Seattle with BADBADNOTGOOD.
Speaking to them, it becomes clear that they think of music in a way that’s less about parts or players than it is simply about sounds and their relations, the balance of layers and textures that come together to give any musical work its sense of depth. This is also what it’s like to watch them play, four guys not so much playing as manifesting something there between them, a presence composed of sound.
ELEVEN: Since you all play multiple roles in the band, can we just go around and say what all you do?
Jose Medeles: I’m Jose, I play drums and a little bit of moog.
Dave Coniglio: I’m Dave and I play drums, vibes and moog.
Knate Carter: I’m Knate and I play guitar and vibes.
Josh Thomas: I’m Josh, I play Trumpet, moog, and a little pocket piano.
11: 1939. What’s the significance of that year?
JM: It’s the year that Chick Webb died, one of the greatest drummers of all time, and it’s also the year that a set of our vibraphones were made. It just made sense at the time. It’s hard to get a band name, The Red Hot Chili Peppers was taken, Queens of the Stone Age was taken…
DC: What? who names their band that? (laughs)
11: So Jose and Dave, you were the original members, and you’ve since added Josh and Knate after 2012?
DC: Yeah, Howl & Bite came out in 2012. Jose and my first show as a duo was December of 2010, 2010 was when we started rehearsing.
JM: Yeah, we had the duo, but I always wanted to have a trumpet player, I love the trumpet. Dave knew a trumpet player, so that’s when Josh started to come sit in with us, and then he officially joined the band when he moved to Portland.
11: And now you’ve got Knate on guitar as well. Four is a pretty round number, is that about how many you’d like to stay with, or do you see yourself expanding further?
JM: Well, you know, it is tough to say. We would never say yes or no to anything, you know what I mean? But I love that we are a quartet. I feel like we’re a gang now. (laughs) Three, you could put up a fight, but four? You’ve got pretty good odds.
11: And Currently you’re working on your next LP, New Cinema?
DC: It’s done now. That’ll be coming out hopefully around April of next year.
11: I heard some of the tracks, and the main thing I noticed with the guitar was that you’re working now with more chord changes and progressions, whereas in your earlier stuff it seemed like the melodic aspects kind of became this base layer and the real changes were primarily rhythmic ones. Could you speak a little bit on that development?
DC: Yeah, when Knate got into the fold, I felt like we were able to make more like, songs, whereas before we had more like, movements. I think Knate could speak more on that, but yeah, good ear, you’re totally right.
JT: I also have a thought on that. One other big development in terms of our chord progressions was the introduction of the Moog, because the band didn’t really have a bass element, except for noise or effected vibraphone, so when we had an instrument playing the role of low end, that caused us to have to choose bass notes, and got us thinking about harmonic structure, at least for me playing that instrument.
KC: I think it’s pretty well documented that on the first record especially, Howl & Bite, everything was a bit more thematic, there were expressions and plays on these themes, and those were the works, and I’ve been enjoying listening to the band since they started, but there was definitely a change when Josh joined and they had the Moog and the Trumpet, and I felt like at that point it started moving into more structure, and then when I came in, just having four people capable of playing multiple instruments, the options were really available, because you can have texture, and you can also have a driving instrument. But it all flowed really naturally, I felt like we were coming up with material very quickly, and it was easy for anybody to take the reigns, and then give it up to everybody else to add their interpretations.
11: The way you guys talk about music, you’re talking not so much about each of your specific parts, but just the different elements that the song needs to have, and whoever is able to contribute those elements with the instrument you have. Do you guys just sit down and jam stuff out, or do you write things and try them?
DC: I think it’s a combination of both, everybody brings things to the table. It could start off as Jose coming up with a rad beat on drums, and then we’ll build around that. We do jam, for sure. And sometimes someone might come in with a melody line, and the other people will destroy it and turn it into something else.
KC: Yeah, once there’s a thread to follow, it’s great to be able to sit back and listen to what we’re working with, and at that point it becomes clear what needs to be added, and none of us are precious about needing to be in the spotlight, or anything like that. We’ll listen back and say “Wow, the core of the song is really there, it just needs some texture.” So then you can add, say, some skitter-scatter delay elements, or a white noise element, just to fill out the atmosphere.
JT: I’d like to piggyback off that and say that I’ve been really impressed with the way that this group works in terms of the lack of attachment from each member when it comes to preconceptions about musical ideas. I’ve been in so many bands where that person that brings the idea to the table will fight tooth and nail to maintain their own vision of the song, but we’re all ready to shift gears if a better idea comes along.
11: The first time I heard you guys was on my birthday this past year, when you opened for Tortoise and RJD2 at the Crystal–great show by the way–but there was a really playful, improvisational feel to what you were doing. How much of your live performance is improvised?
DC: As far as the song structures, it’s pretty thought out ahead of time, but I do think in any song there are moments where you can take a chance and do something you’ve never done before, I feel that way definitely while playing drums. With the vibraphone, that’s not as much the case. Since we’re running pedals, that improvisation might just be me hitting a pedal I haven’t used before, or some effect. I’d say that it’s pretty thought out what we’re going to perform, but there’s definitely room for everybody to have a moment or two to experiment.
KC: Yeah, I think there are structured sections to be able to improv, you know, one of the tunes ends with Jose really just having his way with the drums, and that never sounds the same, but there’s this allotment of time where he can do whatever he wants. With vibraphone and Moog, those are for the most part locked down parts. I think the trumpet probably has the most freedom, it’s just Josh’s whim, what he feels like he should contribute to that particular moment.
JT: I feel very lucky that I get to improvise a lot in this group. A big goal of mine is to not overplay, to play for the song, but yeah, I get to do electric Miles Davis every night, it’s great (laughs).
11: For the most part the horn occupies the space that might be taken up by a vocalist. It seems like a decided thing that you’re an instrumental group, have you considered working with vocalists at all?
JM: Yeah, on Black Diamond Pearl, we worked with a vocalist, Holland, of Like a Villain. She added this soaring vocal on a track, so that was really exciting and fantastic. The door is always open to back up someone, or have someone sit in with us. I don’t know if it would be a permanent thing. I really do love being an instrumental band.
11: And you guys just got done playing some shows with another instrumental band, BADBADNOTGOOD. How did that go?
JM: Fantastic! Both shows were sold out. We met them a few years ago when we played with them at Mississippi Studios, and they asked if we wanted to do a few shows together this year, it was great.
11: You have another show coming up this Friday December 22, which by the time of publishing will already have happened, but that’s the tenth anniversary of Banana Stand Media. Can you speak a bit about your relationship with Banana Stand?
DC: Yeah, they’ve always been really supportive of us. They’ve asked us to go down and participate in the basement, and they’ve always been really kind. I just love what they do, we all do, they celebrate local musicians, and it’s just incredible.
JM: We’re honored and flattered that they’d ask us to play their party.
DC: I’d like to throw out also that our next show after that is on January 12th, which is our EP release party at Mississippi Studios.
11: That’s Beats and Saints, the EP, and that’s coming out before New Cinema? Were you guys writing those at the same time? Was the EP separate? How do you characterize those two projects?
DC: They’re definitely separate. The EP was kind of an exhale for us, and a chance for us to work on other people’s music, since we worked so hard on our full-length. It was fun to pick out some songs to cover, and rework them and bring in friends to play on them, and to do it in our own space. We didn’t go to a studio, per se, we just did it in our environment, which was great just to have fun with it, to say, “Let’s do a Mingus track and have no upright on it.” That’s crazy, you know? (laughs)
11: Was that recorded here?
DC: That was actually in our other space that we had, but pretty darn close to everything you see here.
11: Is this now your main space?
JM: Yeah, and it’s sounding pretty great in here. We’ll see how it goes. I think it would be a dream to do our next full-length here.
11: It is pretty sweet. I have to ask, what’s going on with the fox? Is that a fox? Does he have a name?
JM: That’s Elvin. Elvin the coyote. I found him. I didn’t stuff him, but, uhh…(Laughs) I like that he’s always watching.
11: And you have the tiger mask there that I’ve seen in various videos. Is that your spirit animal?
JM: I think it is, it’s kinda become that.
DC: That was our first step in production, I taped that onto our vibraphone, and next thing you know, we’re wearing capes. (laughs) But yeah, I like the tiger.
11: One thing I always like to ask is who are some groups or artists who you think are doing really important work, who are you listening to?
DC: Locally I’ve been really into Kelli Schaefer, I saw her at The Banana Stand last week, and I think her album is fantastic, so that’s what I’ve been listening to. I get into an artist and I just listen to that for a month or two straight.
KC: Locally for me there’s a singer/songwriter named Johanna Warren that I’m blown away by, her songwriting ability, and her voice is otherworldly. As far as bands, I really like what Cat Hoch and Bryson Cone are doing, I think they’re pushing some cool boundaries, the way Cat has really enveloped herself in a shoegaze revival is cool, she’s got kind of a My Bloody Valentine thing going. As far as outside of Portland, pretty much anything Nels Cline does is going to be inspiring to me.
JT: I really like the stuff that Steve Lacy is doing, from the band The Internet. He’s only 19 and records on his iPhone, but it’s really cool. I’ve listened to a lot of Vulfpeck and Thundercat over the last few years. As far as trumpet players, Jose really got me into Rob Mazurek. He’s amazing. Dave Douglas has always been a huge influence.
JM: Bullet Boys, Rat, Faster Pussycat, Van Halen, Bang Tango, The list goes on. Kiss. The Melvins. Sabbath.
11: Anything you’d like to add on at the end here?
DC: Just to say again Beats & Saints, The EP, will be out through Jealous Butcher on January 12th.