Saturday, May 16, 2015

Brooklyn band Fireships releases new album, bringing soaring Americana sound to Chicago



Innovative indie artist Andrew Vladeck soars into new musical horizons with his new band, Fireships.

Fireships released its self-titled debut album in April on End Up Records, and will perform May 21 at Uncommon Ground, 1401 W. Devon Ave., Chicago. The show starts at 9 p.m.

I had the chance to talk to Vladeck about his new band.

Q - It seems like the video for "Countdown Time" was fun to make. Growing up, did you ever dream of becoming an astronaut? What was it like going inside an actual Mercury Era space capsule? 

I didn’t dream of becoming an astronaut per se, but did daydream that I was Han Solo.  Who didn’t?

 That space capsule from the “Countdown Time” video might as well have been the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon. It was AMAZING.

The “Countdown Time” story is really a metaphor for all fantastic dreams and ambitions that we have as children, but we reckon with as adults.

Q - Explain the meaning behind the band’s name.

Our name is taken from an amazing footnote in American history: the little Hudson River sloops that repelled mighty British warships during opening hostilities of the battle for New York during the Revolutionary War. The nascent U.S. navy stuffed old river sloops with dry timber and stealthily pushed them towards the men-of-war under cover of a moonless night, at the last moment setting them ablaze, scaring the warships away.

I was inspired by how my hometown’s ancestors harnessed the dualistic nature of fire and water to literally and figuratively fight darkness with light. I was inspired by the victory of the underdogs.

This resonated more deeply as I was writing the album. I realized that songs themselves are fireships; composed of fire and water and cast into the night to brighten our lives. Amen!

Q - You also wear your old park ranger uniform in the video. Why did you want to become a park ranger and what did you learn from the experience? How did you become known as “The Singing Ranger?”

For me becoming an Urban Park Ranger was one of those dream jobs. I love how Urban Park Rangers exist simultaneously in nature and the city, witnessing and interpreting how the two interact and frame each other.

I learned that nature is tenacious and can find a way if we help it only a little - and be joyously surprised to hear coyotes in the Bronx, (!!!) to see a turtle laying eggs in Brooklyn, or a raccoon’s footprints in the Central Park mud.

I learned that people, from every walk of life all over the city, we’re equally gleeful when encountering something marvelous in nature, and also grateful for a chance to safely connect with other people - strangers - and share an experience, which was something we Rangers were fortunate to provide.

As for the singing bit, I was on assignment at a park event when I played a song before the scheduled performer - from that moment on I was farmed out to ranger events all over the city.

Q - Legendary composer David Amram is featured on the album. How did you hook up with him and what do you think he brought to the table?

I was so fortunate to meet him through my Honey Brother bandmate Ari Gold, whose father Herb Gold is a legendary writer of the same vintage as David Amram. David brings incredible musicality, generosity, and wisdom to every interaction.

It is a joy to know him, and every time I hear his playing on my record I feel great gratitude. And responsibility too - to share my gifts the way David shares his.

Q - I understand that Grammy nominated musician David Bromberg, who has worked with the likes of Bob Dylan and John Prine, gave you your first guitar and lesson. What were the biggest things that you learned from him?

David taught me that being passionate about music was not enough - I needed to work hard, be patient, self-critical, and self-reliant, while still keeping the joyous embers glowing, and not concern myself with anything but the talent or inspiration I could manifest.

Q - Besides this project, you also are in the bands The Honey Brothers and Balthrop, Alabama. How do you juggle all your different projects? Which project is your top priority these days?

There is no juggling these days. All hands on deck for Fireships!

Heave away! Haul on the bowline - full speed ahead!

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Chicago band Bassel and the Supernaturals using music to entertain, provide understanding


Bassel and the Supernaturals frontman Bassel Almadani believes that music should do more than just entertain.

Almadani, who is Syrian-American, also believes that music should be used to help provide empathy and understanding, especially about what is happening in war-torn Syria.  Almadani and his band will perform May 15 at House of Blues, 329 N. Dearborn St., Chicago, as part of the venue's annual "Local Brews, Local Grooves" event.

I had the chance to talk to Almadani about the band's activities.

Q - Great talking to you. The band will be playing as part of "Local Brews, Local Grooves" on May 15, your birthday, no less. Are you looking forward to the gig? What do you think about the concept behind the event? 

We are incredibly excited!! House of Blues is a legendary venue, and I've been looking forward to performing there with my group ever since I moved to Chicago in 2010.

On top of the fact that it's a gorgeous room, we've been offered the opportunity to co-headline an event that is centered around Chicago's culture and robust music scene. On my birthday too! Could a guy ask for a better birthday gift?

As for the concept, it's truly phenomenal. House of Blues and Live Nation have a rich history of working with top-notch acts from all over the world.

"Local Brews Local Grooves" allows them to integrate Chicago's homegrown talent into one of their biggest parties of the entire year. We are truly honored to be part of an event that puts the spotlight on our own city. 

Q - I'm sure you've heard the band's music described in many ways. How would you describe the band's music? What would you like for people to get out of your music? 

Combine Steve Wonder, Allen Stone, and Steely Dan's "Aja" to land in our general ballpark. Our music is contemplative, soulful, and dynamic. The stories are both emotionally saturated and accessible.

My goals vary depending on the setting, but my intention is to give the paint brush to our audience to create their own portrait. 

Q - I understand your next album will address the ongoing conflict in Syria. Describe what people should expect from the album and how you were inspired to write songs for the album. 

Going off of my last comment, I believe that the most effective way to bring our listeners closer to the Syrian crisis is to help them personalize the emotions that Syrians are facing on a daily basis.

By telling stories of love, loss, helplessness, and ambition, we are able to humanize the Syrian population. In a time where the war in Syria has become no more to most Americans than an occasional headline, it is more crucial than ever to put a face to the crisis.

The Syrian people need a voice now more than they have at any point since the beginning of the Syrian Revolution in 2011. This is what has inspired me to write and share stories related to the conflict.

Q - What made you want to relocate to Chicago from Ohio? What do you think of Chicago's music scene and how do you think the band fits into it? 

I had my sights set on moving into a bigger scene with greater resources and challenges, and Chicago was the natural choice for me since my brother already lived here and I had a corporate job lined up that would allow me to reinvest directly into the project. Moving to Chicago without being attached to a community allowed me to dig deep for a sound that I could identify with, and I gradually shifted into the world of soul-jazz.

I quickly fell in with incredible musicians that exemplified these styles, found a niche, and contributed to a community of artists supporting other artists. 

Q - The music business continues to change. How have you tried to keep up with the changing nature of the music business? 

That's a fact! Of course there's no recipe, so our method is pretty simple: Be innovative, create a memorable live experience, and put our noses to the grindstone.

The deeper our connection is to the music when we're performing, the stronger the connection will be for the listener. Soul music is transparent, and it's easy to see through the bullshit.

That being said, I've also made a bigger effort to collaborate with universities and charity organizations across the country on humanitarian seminars in addition to our performances. Given my cultural background and connection the crisis in Syria, this has been a significant opportunity for me to connect directly with audiences seeking more information in a laid-back and accessible environment.  

Q - What are the band's short-term and long-term goals? 

On the short-term, we're genuinely looking forward to finishing the new record. We've been working diligently on this material for the last couple years, and it's beyond exciting to see it all coming to fruition. 

On the long-term, we're excited to release the new record and to build off of the momentum. We've seen a lot of success over the last few years in Chicago and on the road, and we're planning to expand our influence.

There's a big and beautiful world out there, and we're ready to explore it so that we can inspire ourselves to keep writing and recording. 

On both the short and long term, I plan to continue providing a voice for the Syrian people in any way that I can. I will continue to host humanitarian seminars, charity events, and fundraisers for as long as the crisis in Syria continues. 

I am always wide open to ideas on how to make a greater impact, so please don't hesitate to reach out to me at bassel@basselmusic.com to discuss.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Chicago band The Empty Pockets getting ready to release first full-length album, will play at Uncommon Ground


Chicago band The Empty Pockets is a DIY type of band.

The band built a studio to record its first full-length album, "The Ten Cent Tour." To celebrate the release of the album, The Empty Pockets will perform May 29 at Uncommon Ground,  3800 N. Clark St., Chicago.

Nate Jones also is on the bill. The music starts at 9 p.m.

I had a chance to talk to singer/guitarist Josh Solomon about the new album.

Q - Great to talk to you. Congratulations on the fact that 92 percent of "The Ten Cent Tour" is funded. Does the fact that people are willing to invest in the record give you additional gratification that people really believe in what the band is doing? What is the meaning behind the album's name?

Hey thanks, we appreciate that. To be brutally honest, we were a little bit leery of the whole "crowd funding" model for a variety of reasons. We don't want our music and band to be a "charity."

We LOVE supporting real charities, and we do a lot of work every year to help amazing charitable organizations reach their goals and help people in need. Our favorites include Rustic Falls Nature Camp, Marillac Social Center, Paul Seiwert Foundation and Family Service Society.

So going into our PledgeMusic campaign for our new album, The Ten Cent Tour, there was a nervous energy. We have gotten a very positive response so far - people seem genuinely excited about the album's release and it's cool to see.

We really do think giving fans an opportunity to support the album from the beginning, and get an insider look at how we created it and why, is a great thing.

The PledgeMusic campaign is about halfway through as of today and almost fully funded. We feel the love and it's amazing.

The name came out of the core concept for this album. Before production began the band talked a lot about the kind of album we wanted to make. Roots. Serve the songs. Old school.

Real instruments played only by us. Real voices, unaffected and devoid of auto-tune and expensive processing.

An album where music, lyrics and performances shine. We knew that we'd need lots of time in the studio to get it right.

So instead of using our album budget to rent out a studio, we took a risk and tried building a modest studio ourselves. This album is the first creation out of that project.

Essentially, the record itself is the "dime tour" of our hand-built studio's hand-crafted songs... The Ten Cent Tour.

Q - In sitting down to record the album, what were your goals and do you think you
accomplished them? What made you want to build a studio to record the album? How do you think the studio affected the band's sound?

The effect of the studio was felt most in the lack of urgency to finish a particular moment. When you rent studio time, you have a budget and a limited amount of hours. You know how many songs you want to record and you have to get it done in the allotted time or... well... you're screwed.

So, if you go in one day to record a lead vocal and for whatever reason the vocalist just isn't "feeling" it... too bad. You record it anyway.

In our studio, we threw away entire days of work. We spent however much time was needed on each and every moment.

If any band member felt inspired while going about their day, they'd pop into the studio to lay it down. The pressure was gone. And great performances can't be forced. 

Q - The band has shared the stage with the likes of Jennifer Hudson and has opened for Dave Mason and Dickey Betts. What has the band learned from such experiences?

From Jennifer Hudson... how to take the stage. Wow, man! She really knows how to take a stage and own an audience. From Dickey Betts, how to relax and let the the music come to you.

Dickey is so good at reading a room while still staying true to himself and his band. He also commands his band with a wave of his hand, a gesture of his guitar or even a look in his eyes.
We've been touring a lot recently with Rock 'n Roll Hall of Famer, Richie Furay (from Buffalo Springfield), and from him, among many things we've learned, is how to be the best and most generous person and performer you can be. It's all about the audience.

Doesn't matter if you are tired, in a bad mood, or if something is happening in your life... what matters is that people came to hear great music and it's our sacred responsibility to give it to them. 

Q - I'm sure you've heard the band's music described in various ways. How would you describe the band's sound and who or what are your band's biggest influences?

Each band member wound probably name their own influences. All of us would say THE BEATLES, in capital letters like that. We are all Beatles freaks.

Van Morrison. Bob Schneider. Brandi Carlile. Our music is Americana Roots Rock. We focus on great songs, powerful vocals and rich harmonies. We want to groove hard and move people. 

Q - How would you say the band's sound has evolved over the years?

We have always been a live band first and foremost. We play music for an audience.

That's who we are. Because of that, our songs, our arrangements, our sound is always evolving.

A few of the songs on the new album have been in the live set for a number of years but they've changed so much over time at shows. We've become funkier, more rhythmically intricate as we've improved as musicians, as the relationship between the drums and the bass and the guitar has become more innate.

We've become more relaxed. We want to win over every single person in every audience we play for... and while I think that's a good goal, it can also be restrictive.

There needs to be balance between "winning over" the audience while also staying true to ourselves and who we are as musicians and songwriters. 

Q - What are the band's short-term and long-term goals?

Short term: Release this new album to our current fan base and reach as many new ears as
possible. Tour our butts off, like we always have.

Finish our next record, which is halfway done. We have some opportunities on the horizon that we can't announce yet to play with some pretty heavy hitting artists that we are excited about.

We are heading to Vietnam as a band and with my family to play some shows and visit my sibling's orphanages.

Long term: Play music for the rest of our lives and make a living from that however we can. Never stop.

Getter better. Rinse. Repeat.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Author Kelley Grant releases first novel, "Desert Rising," speaks at Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo

Kelley Grant has had a busy week.

A few days after her first novel, "Desert Rising," was released, Grant was part of a panel discussion - "Authors of Epic Fantasy" - at C2E2. "Desert Rising" is the first book in a three-book series being published by Harper Voyager Impulse.

I had the chance to talk to Grant about the book.

Q - It's been a big week for you. I understand that the book was released on April 21.

And it's my first novel that I've had published. It's released digitally first, and then in May, it will come out in paperback.

Q - And this is your first time at C2E2, I understand. What are your impressions?

It's just a kaleidoscope. It's just all these wonderful costumes, and there is just so much to do. It's just amazing.

Q - How did the idea for "Desert Rising" come about?

I actually started writing just a book about somebody who is going to school in a weird place. And I hated the main character. She was so boring.

And it ended up that I really liked what was supposed to be the villain. So I ended up switching those, and out of her desert culture, I created the whole world, I created the four deities, and I created the companion animals - the big cats that are with her and help her communicate with the four deities.

All of those kind of came out of that little switch, and realizing that sometimes it's more interesting to have somebody who's very bold and doesn't turn back.

Q - I understand that growing up, you were an avid reader, that books were really your lifeline.

We read constantly. My mom always read to us.

We didn't have a lot of money growing up, but anytime we wanted a book, my mom would buy it for us.

Q - And do you think that propelled you to want to become an author?

When I was a kid, I didn't know anybody who was an author. I knew coal truck drivers.

I grew up in Ohio's Amish country, and women were expected to get married at a young age. But my parents wanted a lot more for me than that.

It wasn't until I was in college until I realized that writers were normal people, and that writing was a career path. That was a big boost for me.

Q - I understand that you have a three book deal with Harper. What was it that impressed them?

They liked my characters, and they like the worldbuilding a lot. I love to build worlds, and I love the mythology of things.

Tolkien was really into languages, but that's not my thing. I really like worldbuilding myths. What is the mythology, and how does that create a culture?

So I have this whole culture with at least a 1,000-year back story.

Q - What appeals to you about the fantasy genre?

I really like it when an author can kind of take the problems of this world, and take them outside of the world, so you can see them without an emotional bias.

It helps you see things in a different way, like racial bias outside of this world, and can flip it around a little bit. You can see how different cultures are thinking.

Q - A lot of fantasy books are being turned into movies and TV shows. Do you see this book series being made into a movie? 

Wouldn't I love that? It would be a lot of fun. I think it would be a lot of fun to see how they would choose my characters.

Can they train a cheetah to be a companion animal? I don't know. Of course, they can do so much with computer-generated imagery now.

Q - You also teach yoga. What do you get out of doing yoga or teaching yoga?

I have been diagnosed with being seasonal clinically depressive. Yoga has helped me.

It calms the mind, all those worrisome thoughts. It really ups my energy, too.

It's also been great for writing. Meditation has been wonderful.

I can calm my mind a lot faster. It's really helped my focus.

Q - Do you have any words of wisdom for an aspiring author or writer?

Don't give up.  Keep trying. You really have to keep trying.

You have to have faith in yourself.