Now Playing: The Pine Box Boys

Maybe Pine Box Boys frontman Lester T. Raww never really had a chance, growing up in rural Arkansas with a mother who sang him to sleep every night with surreptitiously sinister lullabies, “Knoxville Girl” and “Fair Eleanor” and “Pretty Polly,” softly-intoned yet dark traditional tales of blood and murder and love-gone-wrong.

His fate was surely sealed during his teenage years, when his fancy turned to horror movies and slasher flicks. A creative sort — an artist and a musician — young Lester’s fondest wish was be the next Tom Savini, the makeup auteur behind George Romero’s landmark zombie creature features.

All which is by way of saying that it was no small wonder when, living in San Francisco in the early aughts, Raww and a few fellow neighborhood musicians started up an acoustic side project that took a gruesome left turn into the insidious realm of murder ballads.

“The way I grew up, I thought it was perfectly normal,” Lester says with an easy chuckle. “Doesn’t everybody sing songs about killing people? So I started pulling out these old songs where someone was always getting killed, and teaching them to the other guys.”

“And one day I said, hey, I’d like to try my hand writing one of these songs. It went over like gangbusters — the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack had just exploded, and everyone was listening to bluegrass and mountain music. Fourteen years later, we’re still doing it.”

They’re a morbidly colorful bunch, these Pine Box Boys, with Raww on lead vocals and guitar backed up by banjo player “Possum” Carvidi, upright bassist Col. Timothy Leather and drummer Steven “Your Uncle” Dodds. Theirs is a lively brand of mayhem-friendly neo-traditionalism, delivered with the appropriate level of cheek, and imbued with the feral energies of early rock ‘n’ roll.

The Boys been more than tolerably prolific, too, releasing a slew of records as the Pine Box Boys, and a few more under the nom de gruesome of Lester T. Raww and the Gravesite Quartet, all of the releases sharing similarly mordant titles, “Arkansas Killing Time” and “Tales from the Emancipated Head” and “Stab!” And of course, “Lester T. Raww’s Gravesite Quartet Sings Your Children to Sleep,” an album which, contrary to the self-advertisement of its title, is not in any way suitable for actual children.

The response to the Pine Box Boys’ sly but musically sophisticated murder-ballad schtick has been largely positive, Lester says, with but a few hiccups of protest along the way. He notes that the editor of a feminist publication back in San Francisco — a long-time PBB fan — politely told him she could no longer come to shows, having paid closer attention to the band’s lyrical content. Lester adds in his own defense that, “If you listen to enough of our songs, you realize that we are equal opportunity misanthropes.

“Most people who hear us get it,” he continues. “Occasionally, I get some politically correct do-gooders who disparage what we’re doing. But that’s when I know we’re probably doing something right. If no one’s offended, it probably means we’re getting a little too soft.”

The Pine Box Boys will play Preservation Pub Tuesday, June 20 at 9:30 p.m.

Now Playing: The Cosmic Shift

Nashville’s Cosmic Shift are well-named, hailing as they do from the psychedelic space-freak end of the jam-band spectrum, the zone whence launched many a galaxy-probing rendition of “Dark Star,” back in the halcyon days when the Dead were alive and steering their infamous improv vehicle into the nether regions of the multiverse.

Shift drummer Taylor Wade says the band members recognize and embrace their otherworldly improvisational ethic. “It comes from the combination of our individual influences, I think,” Wade says. “We all have a common love for a certain vibe at our favorite bands’ concerts, an interest in a certain community vibe. A group-mind type of music.

“There are certain frequencies of sound that can be a catalyst for things like meditation. And you can feel those frequencies, even if you don’t quite know what’s going on, or what you’re doing. It hits each of us when we’re playing, whenever we reach the point where we hit just the right groove.

“I saw an old interview with Jerry (Garcia, late Grateful Dead leader) once where he explained it,” Wade continues. “He said, ‘By not defining that feeling, it becomes everything, anything you want it to be.'”

Wade is a creative soul, given to such colorful diatribes, to waxing philosophic about his band’s music with a contagious mixture of expansiveness and enthusiasm. He describes how he and his fellow band members — singer-guitarist Joel Forlines, lead guitarist Stephen Harris, and bassist Caleb Hendon — met in Nashville about two years ago, and bonded over their love of the Jam.

“We’ve always had an appreciation for improvisational music, in whatever form it takes,” Wade says. “Our backgrounds are a little different — jazz is a huge influence of mine, while some of the others are more into funk, or rock. But our centerpoint is bands like the Grateful Dead and Phish, improvisational rock.

“When we first got together and started jamming, there was some kind of mojo that was there immediately. It was tangible, and we all knew it.”

Wade tells that improvisation is the soul of the band’s songwriting method as well. Most of the band’s new songs derive from group improv, either by way of open-floor jams, or by way of analyzing and revisiting the same. “Whenever we get into a rehearsal space, we like to open the floor to bring in a riff, an idea. Then the rest of us will create a groove around it, and 10, 20, 30 minutes later, we’re still going.”

And Wade says the band records all of their practice sessions — they have literally hundreds of hours of jamming available in the cloud, on Google Drive. In their spare time, members listen back to every rehearsal, mining old musical veins, for new gems of inspiration.

“Over half of our songs come from listening back to the rehearsals,” Wade says. “That way, we can pick out a particular idea, and come back with a more focused vision of where that idea needs to go. It’s important to allow the music to tell you where to go, to navigate for you. Because if you’re listening carefully, the music will always steer you in the right direction.”

Despite their prolific jamming, and despite having built a considerable following around Nashville, the Cosmic Shift have yet to record a proper album. They’re looking to change that soon, having entered Nashville’s Welcome to 1979 recording studio and recorded their debut EP “Archetype,” due out July 8 under the band’s own imprint.

True to their throwback ethos, the Shift recorded the EP live on analog tape, and will release it on vinyl as well as on CD. “Our producer is an old Deadhead, and he definitely wanted to help us capture that live energy,” Wade says. “Each song was recorded in one take, and we were really happy with the way it sounded.

“We were really feeling the vibe of the studio that day. We learned that the vibe we have in live shows is really important to our sound, and we want that vibe to shine through in our studio recordings as well.”

The Cosmic Shift will play Preservation Pub Friday, June 23 at 10 p.m. along with Positive Mental Attitude.



Now Playing: The Mason District

Ohio-based three-piece the Mason District can’t seem to shake the “Americana” label that follows them all over the internet, and maybe it’s the band’s own fault. The genre tag is featured in each of the band’s music pages, ReverbNation and Facebook and Bandcamp, et al. And the very name “Mason District” seems freighted with a certain rural imagery, conjuring visions of rustic backwaters and dilapidated pickup trucks and jars of misty moonshine garnished with sprigs of browning foliage.

But the label is a little reductive, if not downright inaccurate, as the District’s music has more in common with post-millennial southern and indie rock than it does with most of what passes for Americana nowadays. Their closest musical cousins are probably Nashville’s Kings of Leon, due in no small part to vocalist/guitarist Tom Tobias’ voice, a smoky, lived-in yawp that bears some sonic resemblance to that of KOL frontman Caleb Followill.

“We definitely don’t take the typical American band’s approach,” says drummer Collin Nutter. “I see our music as being more along the lines of back-to-basics rock ‘n roll, with a little southern influence in there somewhere.”

Nutter, Tobias, and singer/bassist Maria Petti first met one another at a weekly jam night at a bar in Cleveland. They bonded over a love of the Black Keys, and spent some months jamming on Keys songs together at the open mic. Cover songs eventually gave way to collaboration, wherein members of the trio brought their own songs to the table.

But things didn’t “get serious”, Tobias says, until 2016, when the band members set noses to the grindstone and churned out their debut EP, “Shotgun Soul.”

“Initially, we were drawn to each other because we were all infatuated with the Black Keys,” Nutter says. “With their music, and with the way their career developed as they went along. And then we all went through a period where we were obsessed with Kings of Leon, and then with Alabama Shakes, and Portugal the Man.

“So once we started making music together, it was obvious to all of us what direction we wanted to go in.”

One thing that sets the District apart from most of their neo-southern counterparts is Petti, who sings backup and sometimes lead on several of the band’s songs. “In the beginning, the first that drew me to Maria was her voice. And when we got together playing, it really clicked. One of my goals for the band as we move forward is to get Maria involved singing more songs.”

That should happen soon, as the band is actively working toward releasing their first full-length, maybe by early 2018. While they already have plenty of new songs at the ready, Tobias says he has a vision to expand the band’s sound, adding keyboards, and maybe a second guitar. “When I first started writing, I wanted to keep it really simple,” Tobias says. “That’s what the Black Keys did. That’s what Kings of Leon did.

“I want to get everyone more involved in writing. And I want to add more sound, develop a fuller sound. We all want to progress, and get to the point where we can say, ‘This is the best work we’ve ever done.'”

The Mason District will play Preservation Pub Wednesday, June 28 at 10 p.m.

Now Playing: Hank & Cupcakes

Atlanta’s Hank & Cupcakes are only a two-piece, but theirs is a sound that’s bigger, sonically richer and more viscerally galvanizing than that of any 12-piece funk ensemble or multiple-strat-toting metal outfit you could think to name. Married couple and Israeli ex-pats Sagit “Cupcakes” Shir and Ariel “Hank” Scherbacovsky call it “indietronic,” but there’s really no way words can do justice to their irrepressible and insistently hook-y brand of electronic indie-pop hybridized with deliriously danceable rock ‘n’ roll.

“We had just come out of being in another band, and we were experiencing a period of creative emptiness, where we just weren’t sure what our next move should be,” says Shir, explaining the band’s genesis during a recent phone interview. “Ultimately, Hank & Cupcakes was born out of that boredom and uncertainty. The two of us just started rehearsing together, with no commitments other than to enjoy being 100 percent creative, just a bass and drums.

“We began exploring very deeply, and we found a way to make up for all the musicians that were ‘missing’ from our lineup. We don’t do things in the traditional way a bassist or a drummer would do things. There’s a lot of creativity and being unconventional involved in the way we approached our instruments.”

Shir gives a good deal of the credit for crafting H&C’s rafter-shaking, multi-dimensional racket to hubby Scherbacovsky, and his ingenious four-string manipulations. “He has this incredibly complex rig, like a mad scientist kind of thing,” she says. “He splits every signal into four lines, with different effects. It makes his bass sound like a full band.”

To be sure, the story of Hank and Cupcakes’ crazy travelogue of a career, and of the consequent evolution of their one-of-a-kind, genre-redefining sound is hella fascinating all by itself.

It all began when Tel Aviv natives Scherbacovsky and Shir met while playing in a band as members of the Israeli army back in 1999. They clicked both musically and personally, and played in a couple other projects together before marrying and moving to Havana to study jazz and indigenous Cuban music.

Their Cuban sojourn was cut short by the country’s uneasy political climate, and thus the couple bounced back to Israel and undertook the aforementioned creative transformation before officially founding Hank & Cupcakes and moving to Brooklyn, NY in 2008.

Stateside, it wasn’t long before H&C’s emergent pop savvy and colorful, cathartic live sets built a buzz, turning the band into a minor New York legend. They started touring outside the state, traveling all over the U.S., playing CMJ and various other stops on  the up-and-comers festival circuit before trekking abroad to Europe and the Middle East.

A publishing deal ensued, and then, on the eve of releasing their debut record, Hank & Cupcakes signed a recording contract from major label BMG.

But the idyll of having a major label record deal proved to be short-lived. “It was a situation where we had an album ready to come out, and all of a sudden, the label started questioning things,” Shir says. “Then they demanded we bring in co-songwriters. And then they said the budget was gone. We were used to being involved in all aspects of our band, from business to music to promotion, but they didn’t want us being our own leaders. They wanted to keep us out of the loop.”

Shir says the band managed to find a loophole in their contract, then secured their release in 2013 — miraculously enough, with rights to the songs they had written still intact. Liberated, they went on to release their debut “Naked” independently in 2013.

Two more albums — including 2014’s “Cash for Gold” and last year’s “Cheap Thrill” — and a move to Atlanta later, and the buzz the band started building before the BMG derailment is mounting yet again. H & C learned to create their own videos, and have since released a slew of video singles, several of them in conjunction with famed fashion photographer Javier Ortega.

The duo have also logged literally hundreds of dates on the road; they’re currently gearing up for a four-month touring run, the end of which will see them head back to the studio to record songs for a fourth Hank & Cupcakes release in 2018.

“I think most of our growth has come thanks to playing all of those shows these last few years,” Shir says. “We’ve become much more elaborate in what we do, and it’s also helped our sound to grow much bigger. Our performance level has gone way up.

“Next up, we’re going to get back into a very intense writing and recording mode. Then we’ll see what the next album is going to be like.”

Hank & Cupcakes will play Preservation Pub Sunday, May 27 at 10 p.m.


Now Playing: Captain Ivory

Maybe they call it the Motor City, but Detroit, Mich. has a musical tradition as rich as its automotive one. From Motown to Mitch Ryder to Parliament-Funkadelic and the MC5, Detroit’s legacy proffers a diverse  yet distinctive mix of heartland rock and heavy metal, low-down funk and silken soul.

Captain Ivory are definitely of a piece with that tradition. The three-year-old four-piece, led by standout vocalist Jayson Traver, play straight-up rock that’s tinged with hints of trad blues and soul, an earthy kind of stomp that seems to pay homage to all of the plainspoken blue-collar values that characterize the city they call home.

“Our focus when we started was to take a blues feel and match to a Detroit kind of sound,” says Ivory bassist Brett Smith. “There’s always been an underdog spirit here, kind of a sense of Detroit vs. the world. There’s definitely a cool music scene going on.”

Captain Ivory’s was an unlikely genesis, however, sparked when guitarist Robbie Bolog found himself in the company of keyboardist/citymate Steve Zwilling on an overseas backpacking trip. The two decided to start a band upon returning home, and recruited Traver, drummer Justin Leiter, and Smith in quick succession.

Traver’s muscular vocals are a defining element of Ivory’s sound, a powerful melding of Bon Scott’s blues-rock wailing and Bob Seger’s heartfelt songwriter schtick, overlaid with a patina of blue-eyed soul. “He’s probably closer than all of us to that Detroit ethic; he grew up listening to Seger,” Smith says of his singer. “Probably his biggest vocal influence, though, was Robert Plant. That’s what gives him that stand-out-of-a-crowd delivery.”

But the unsung member of Captain Ivory, Smith says, is drummer Justin Leiter, a Neil Peart/jazz-fusion enthusiast whose deftness and versatility serve as a fulcrum for the rest of the band. “He has a vast knowledge of his craft, and we kind of feed off that,” Smith says. “He’s able to take all kinds of different ideas, absorb them, and then do exactly what a particular song needs.”

To date, Captain Ivory have released two consistently impressive studio albums — 2014’s self-titled effort, and last year’s “No Vacancy” — showcasing their mighty Midwestern rock chops. But to truly appreciate what the band is all about, Smith says you have to hear Ivory live, where the sturdy-yet-tuneful songs the band laid down on record morph into something else entirely, something wilder and more dangerously potent.

“What we do translates really well into the live experience,” Smith says. “We go over with crowds in a really cool way. The songs have more room to breathe, and they seem to pick up more energy.

“I think our latest record, ‘No Vacancy,’ has a little more of that live energy on it than the first one did. The record was really influenced by being on tour. The name, ‘No Vacancy,’ is about being out there and being afraid, not having any idea where you’re going to stay the night, and having to be somewhere else the next day. So those songs come from a little different place, a whole different set of experiences.”

Captain Ivory will play Preservation Pub Saturday, May 20 at 10 p.m.