The back story of Brooklyn’s Turbine is a rather serendipitous one. When lead guitar player and vocalist Jeremy Hilliard moved to Manhattan from Virginia back in the late ’90s to study music and form a band, he happened to move in next door to guitarist and harmonica player Ryan Rightmire. The two musicians could literally hear each other playing music through the walls of their respective apartments, so ultimately they approached one another to jam. The pair quickly found that they shared a mutual affinity for jazz and Bob Dylan, particularly the stripped down singer/songwriter/harmonica tunes of his early career. So, they began writing tunes together and before long, they recorded their debut album as a duo in 2004.
Eventually, as the pair began exploring more improvisation and psychedelic channels, they decided to add a rhythm section and they found bassist Justin Kimmel, who literally showed up at their first audition. Shortly thereafter, Octavio Salman joined on drums, and the rest, as they say is history. Now, having two studio albums, a live release, and performances at Bonnaroo, Wakarusa, 10K Lakes, Gathering of the Vibes, and the Telluride Bluegrass Festival under their belts, the band hopes to take a big leap forward with their latest album, Blue Light City* (June 24th).
On the Feel of the Album
For the first time, the band worked closely with a professional producer in the studio setting with John Davis, who recorded The Black Keys’ Grammy winning song Tighten Up off their recent album, Brothers. Turbine felt that Davis’s gritty and psychedelic, yet modern approach was perfect for what they sought to accomplish on Blue Light City. “We had definitely never worked with a producer to this degree, and I think it’s by far the best our music has ever been presented,” Jeremy Hilliard explains. “John came to our rehearsals, so he knew the music going in, and he helped us with arrangements, the ordering of the songs, and some really key decisions to make the record sound like a whole. Take Eddy the Sea,” Hilliard continues, “the song itself is pretty rootsy, so you might think it should have some piano or something, but he chose to make it more ambient and psychedelic.”
Listen: Eddy the Sea
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Blue Light City maintains the theme throughout the album of having core song structures that could veer in multiple directions. If played straightforward in the original duo setup, they could easily be classified as roots or Americana songs, but in working with Davis and embracing their own experimentation – particularly Ryan Rightmire with his applications to the harmonica – the album manages to give the songs a complete aural transformation. “The psychedelic sounds are something we love, and John embraced it right away. We love that type of stuff, especially Ryan and all of the sounds in his sonic palette, and when you get into a nice studio, you really get to mess with it.”
On the Subtle Complexities
A cursory listen to Blue Light City doesn’t really do the music justice. The members of the band possess high degrees of musical training, and constantly push themselves to incorporate difficult song structures, time signatures, and melodies. Rightmire, for instance grew up a classically trained French horn player before discovering a fondness for more exploratory music, while Kimmel studied at the Bass Collective in New York City. The new album is laced with subtle intricacies that listeners might glance over without even noticing, because not only does Turbine make the effort to include these elements, but they also aim to disguise them.
“With the odd time signatures,” Hilliard explains, “the fun part about that is trying to make them sound regular. You know something that’s danceable or propulsive rhythmically, while being out of the ordinary?” The opening track on the album, The War of 9161 (The Pledge) for example, is written in 5/4 time, but it’s virtually unnoticeable without consciously thinking about it, because it feels quite natural. “We really enjoy concealing the fact that the music has a lot of odd meters.”
Listen: War of 9161 (The Pledge)
“Special of the Day was really fun too, and it took us a really long time,” Hilliard continues. “That’s a long and complicated song. There are parts in there that are in seven, there is an unorthodox structure where there is not an even number of bars in the verses, there are also new themes introduced at the end of the song, and the verses don’t even resolve. In fact, the chorus is actually the resolve for the verses. Finally, Justin spent a lot of time working on the counterpoint of the harmony, so if you listen really closely, you can hear that he actually plays every note in the chromatic scale against the bass tonality at some point in the song. In other words, as the song moves along it cycles through every kind of tension you can put against the root note.”
Even the songs that come across as straightforward on the album manage to sneak in some complexities. “We actually have to try harder to write things that are more straightforward. On Set Me Free, which actually sounds like just a soft ballad, there is a bar of seven in every verse. There are really only a few straightforward 4/4 tunes on the album.”
On the Harmonica
In the (over)saturated circuit of improvisational rock bands, it never hurts to have a differentiating characteristic. At the end of the day, it always boils down to strength of the songwriting, technical abilities and the quality of performances when it comes to winning over fans, but in terms of turning new heads, a quirk of some sort can be extremely beneficial. I doubt that anybody would argue that when they first heard the Dave Matthews Band, that their wailing violin jams didn’t pique an interest, or upon discovering the Disco Biscuits, that their trademark trance sound wasn’t immediately ear-catching.
[Photo via Turbine's Facebook Page]
With Turbine, it’s Ryan Rightmire’s harmonica playing. Not only does he possess elite chops, but he has become an innovator in applying effects to the harp, emulating other instruments, and giving the band a distinctive overall sound. “On many of the songs, the harmonica takes the role of the keyboard, but not always,” Ryan described. “I love when it sounds like a synthesizer or Hammond organ, but also a computer or a DJ turntable. This album has a real futuristic feel, so I knew I’d have to bring a sci-fi approach to my playing.”
“The challenge was how to give the album cohesiveness,” Rightmire continues. “Here’s a good example. On both Members Only and War of 9161, I play the recurring melody line. I think in the past, I might have tried to differentiate them with different effects, but now I use the same phasing warbly sound on both. I like how this sound comes back in a familiar way. A song like Special of the Day has so many sections, you’ll invariably pull out some crazy sounds just to keep the listener on their toes. Sometimes I can get streaky, and just get really into something weird. A new combination of your breath, the harmonica reeds, and the effect circuit can really surprise you, and it becomes the flavor of the month. Well, I tried to get this one in particular that our producer dubbed ‘Space Guerilla’ on most every song. Even he was surprised when it made it on Behind These Walls, but it was just what the song needed. If you’re reading this go put it on and find the Space Guerilla before he finds you,” Ryan laughs.
Rightmire has definitely begun earning the respect of his peers, having been given a sponsorship from Hohner, one of the world’s leading manufacturers of harmonicas. “We were on tour in California and all went to the NAMM music conference at the Staples Center. I snuck an effects pedal and a harmonica through security and went right to the Hohner spot,” he remembers. “There were huge banners of Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder and John Popper hanging overhead. I found an amp, hooked it all up, and asked all their employees to gather round. I gave them a quick demonstration of my approach and things just took off from there. They really love the harmonica played by a balloon trick too. Maybe a balloon endorsement is next.”
So how many harmonicas does a sponsored harmonica player have? “Honestly they’re everywhere,” Rightmire expresses dauntingly. “People will see 30 of them and think that’s a lot, but they have no idea. I do like opening beer bottles with them though, that’s really my crowning achievement on harmonica.”
On the Writing Process
For Turbine, the process of writing songs comes in various forms. In some cases, Jeremy Hilliard, the band’s primary lyricist, will bring complete compositions to the table, but it’s often the collaborative works that give the band the most enjoyment. “My favorite stuff is where we all kick around ideas together,” he says. Sometimes, one of use will come to the table with a musical idea and we’ll all flush it out together. Other people will throw ideas or melodies out, we’ll write lyrics together, and we’ll use everybody’s input. Then, I’ll usually take it home and finish off the lyrics to pull it all together.”
[Photo via Turbine's Facebook Page]
One of the glaring standout tracks, Members Only, came to fruition in this manner. “That one started with the bassline,” Jeremy clarifies. “Then Ryan added the harmonica melody and I started throwing in some words. Next, Ryan started throwing in some words and we kind of made up the bridge together. That’s really the best way to do it, where we kind of improvise and all write the song together.”
Listen: Members Only
“Eddy the Sea I wrote one night on the beach,” Hilliard remembers. “I was by myself with a twelve string guitar and it was warm, but there were storm clouds threatening at times, and other times the stars would come out. I played all night and at some point in the night the song stared to take shape. I played only that song all night and by the time the sun was coming up I was singing Eddy the Sea as we know it. That was a magical one, they are not all like that.”
As Jeremy Hilliard points out, the band tends to derive a lot inspiration from being outdoors. “Another magical one was Special of the Day. Ryan and Justin and I had an off night in Chicago and we found ourselves outside at a beautiful gazebo with a few acoustic instruments. We collectively improvised part of a verse and chorus of what we now know as the song. It effectively gave us a glimpse of the whole and it took us over a year to work it all out and actually complete the music. Then I took the music home one night, after thinking about the lyrics for a long time, got a bottle of wine and lit a candle and wrote the words.”
In general, the band’s bassist, Justin Kimmel, played a more integral role in the writing process as compared to the previous releases, mainly due to the sheer fact of having been in the band longer and contributing more to the material over the past few years. This time around, the band really took advantage of his musical abilities. “Justin did a lot of the writing on this album as far as the music goes. The last record, we had basically finished the songs right before he joined, so he didn’t get the chance to contribute nearly as much.”
On the Band Dynamic
The makeup of Turbine’s personalities is what helps drive this band forward. On the one hand, it’s the serendipitous instincts that brought them together in the first place, but on the other it’s a hell-bent-for-success approach whereby they drive one another toward continuous improvement and getting the music in front of as many people possible. In the end, it’s this mix of a carefully managed, yet free-spirited music career that will keep Turbine propelling onward.
* Full Disclosure: I am personally involved with the release of this album via Mason Jar Records, and also friends with the members of the band.