The young Chapel Hill band makes their Venn diagram-like approach to music-making work.
BY PETER BLACKSTOCK
The first thing you notice when Morning Brigade takes the stage is the band’s up-front duo. At center stage is Peter Vance, a magnetic presence with a disarming smile and a much bigger voice than his waiflike stature would suggest. At his side is Mary Koenig, similarly small in stature but equally charismatic, harmonizing with Vance while ringing out notes on bells and clacking out beats on the rims of a floor tom.
Behind them, the string tandem of cellist Christian Adams and violinist Eli Howells helps flesh out the sound. Sometimes they’re called upon to carry or enhance the melody, but just as often they’re driving a song’s rhythm, or casting a mood. Finally, there’s pianist Gabriel Reynolds at stage right and Nathan Spain behind the kit; if they seem in the background at first, it eventually becomes clear that their work is the foundation of Morning Brigade’s dynamic sound.
You might not even notice that, hey, there’s no bass, and no electric guitar. Reynolds contends the band members themselves didn’t really even notice at first, either. “When you look at it, it looks like some really conscious decision — that we must have had a really calculated move where we were like, ‘We’re going to be the band that doesn’t have a bassist,’” he says. “But at some point, we were just like, ‘Oh, shit, we never got a bassist, did we? Oh, but we’re kind of doing OK anyway. Well, I guess that worked out!’”
No harm done to Above Our Heads, the band’s remarkable self-produced debut disc, which they released independently in December 2012. Vance has offered the cumbersome yet intriguing phrase “epic autumnal indie folk rock” to describe the album’s 10 tracks, which bring to mind primary influences such as Bright Eyes or Of Monsters And Men. In the end, though, Vance’s evocative lyrics and the group’s collaborative approach toward structure and arrangements allow Morning Brigade to establish their own engaging identity.
Part of that might be because of the absence of bass, suggests drummer Spain. “I think what it’s forced us to do is to really consider that aspect of the songwriting: Where are the low frequencies going to come from? And there are parts of the songs when I’ll ride on the floor tom for a while, but there are other parts of the songs where we have to say, ‘Christian, you need to carry the bass,’ or ‘Gabe, you need to carry the bass.’ It really requires us to delegate that responsibility among band members. And while we’re doing that, then we’re also thinking about, where are the highs going to come from? Rather than detracting from our sound, I think it really adds to it, because we put a lot more thought into it.”
At 19, Spain is the youngest member of an unusually young band; keyboardist Reynolds is the oldest, at 22. He’ll graduate from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill this year; everyone else is a Tar Heel junior, save for sophomore Spain. Most of them have been playing in bands (or, in Vance’s case, performing solo) since their high school days, though their experiences and influences range fairly far afield. Vance admits a fondness for acoustic surf-dude Jack Johnson; Reynolds digs electronica wunderkind James Blake; Spain calls his last band “pretty heavy blues rock”; Howells has a soft spot for Irish fiddle music.
A typical show might find them supplementing tracks from Above Our Heads and other originals with a couple of choice covers from modern bands such as the Decemberists or Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros. But they also occasionally reach back to an era well before any of them were born: At a recent George Harrison tribute show at the N.C. Triangle’s storied club Cat’s Cradle, they won over a largely boomer-generation audience with their imaginative renditions of “I’d Have You Anytime” and “Let It Down,” which they’ve since incorporated into their own sets.
Such an openness to a variety of musical catalysts is a big part of what makes Morning Brigade tick. “We’re so open with each others’ tastes,” Vance says. “I do love all the music that everybody listens to — but I don’t know if that’s necessarily because we all have a similar taste. I think it’s because we all just enjoy most music, maybe.”
That inclusive spirit ultimately gets focused and distilled into what has become the band’s collective vision. “It’s almost like a six-part Venn Diagram — it’s six completely different playlists that meet in the middle on a few bands,” Spain says of the common ground amid Morning Brigade’s musical influences, and by extension its songwriting. “Generally where it starts is, six completely different ideas of where it’s going, and we all kind of compromise into, ‘Wow, that sounds like this, and I really enjoy that.’”
Reynolds cites “Mosaic,” a standout track from Above Our Heads, as an example. “There’s a chord in the song that, I guess it used to be a C, and it just wasn’t quite having the impact we wanted. And we were like, ‘Well what if it was an A?’ Just little changes like that, that are part of the song, not just adding an instrument,” he explains. “Or it could be like, ‘Where does the song go next?’ And we’ll experiment together. Someone will have the idea, and that ends up being where the song goes next. So, a lot more than just the parts are written and sort of conceptualized by the group.”
Spain is quick to add, however, that “all of the momentum starts from Peter bringing an idea to the table. It’s usually just a few chords, a verse and a chorus maybe, and a few lyrics. But that’s where it starts. Of 30 or 40 songs, we haven’t started a single one from an idea other than Peter’s.”
Even so, Vance doesn’t seem interested in setting himself apart from his bandmates. It’s worth noting that all of the songwriting on Above Our Heads is collaboratively credited to Morning Brigade. “I wouldn’t have it any other way,” says Vance. “If I had the exact same songs and took out all the other instruments, they wouldn’t be the same songs.”
[Photo Credit: Connelly Crowe. Pictured, L-R: Christian Adams, Nathan Spain, Peter Vance, Gabriel Reynolds, Mary Koenig, Eli Howells]