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Marina Orchestra: Bringing the Highlife to Knoxville

There is a certain chaos factor locked into the DNA of Knoxville’s Marina Orchestra, a congenital restlessness reflected in both its membership—which often seems to change by the week—and in its musical drift, driven by frontman Justin Powers’ urgent creativity.

And Marina is arguably the city’s most interesting and original outfit because of it. Because though he insists that he’s tired of upheavals, Powers’ make-up seems to be such that he will never be content settling into a comfortable groove.

“Whatever the band’s current state is, it’s always outdated in my mind,” Powers says. “Because I’ve always got something new in my head. I feel like this is the band I’ve always wanted to have. At the same time, I’m never really satisfied. I’m always looking forward.”

Powers dates the birth of Marina Orchestra back to the 2010 South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Tex. He was attending the fest with his previous band, the late local indie rock outfit I Need Sleep, which was teetering on the brink of a break-up.

“I was completely captivated by all the music all over the place,” he says. “So I started romanticizing the idea of ‘If I came back here with my own band…’ The goal I came up with was to bring this band I had in my head back to SXSW. And one year later, that’s what I did.”

But the journey wasn’t an easy one. Powers—a man of manifold and far-flung musical interests—was driven at the time by his discovery of Highlife, a century-old west-African genre wherein certain traditional musics of the region are reimagined through the medium of Western instruments, including horns and guitar.

Powers’ first efforts at founding a new ensemble were a bit… circular, though, like some goofy indie rockers’ version of the old ‘70s nugget “The Pina Colada Song.” “I made a flier that said something like ‘Looking for players for a tropical street band,’” he remembers. “I think there was a picture of a palm tree. And my old bandmates were the ones who found me. So the initial group was basically I Need Sleep.”

But learning whole new approach to music—a style at once rich, rhythmically complex, radically at odds with the aggressive guitar rock Powers and co. were accustomed to playing—was a formidable challenge. “It was a type of music I had never played,” he says. “I needed horns, but no one I knew played a horn. It was a learning process for everyone.”

For those reasons–and because of the strains inherent in holding together a large ensemble unit–Powers’ fledgling Marina Orchestra found itself undergoing a constant stream of line-up changes; the band’s current roster is even a couple of players removed from the group that recorded Marina’s freshly released second album, Oceans.

But in spite of all the departures, M.O. has evolved a beguiling signature sound, characterized by slinky ethno-funk rhythms, spot-on girl-group harmonies, ebullient horns and Powers’ own chirpy yet weirdly compelling lead vox.

What’s next for Marina Orchestra is an open question. For the time being, they’re a bit less… orchestral, the roster having been trimmed to a tidy seven members (down from a peak of 12). They’ve added classically-trained backing vocalist (and Pres. Pub server extraordinaire) Jayme Hogan, to harmonize with longstanding member Rachel Gurley. And they’ve seen another change behind the kit, as Oceans drummer Nick Swafford departed and headed back to school, replaced by Brad Duncan.

For his part, Powers seems to be trapped in a strange limbo, a familiar headspace where he simultaneously frets the band’s damnable inconstancy, yet eagerly considers the possibilities each new incarnation of Marina presents.

“I feel like this is a completely different band than when we started,” he says. “We play a lot of the same songs. But we understand now that we’re not smashing our instruments—we’re caressing them. And we have more groove. I love groovy music, and that’s been our big thing lately, grooving without going into jam-band territory.

“I’m always excited about ‘the next thing.’ And in this case, the next thing will actually be many things. I’ve got so many ideas for this band.”

Marina Orchestra will play in the Preservation Pub Smokeasy Friday, March 28 at 10 p.m.

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