Scruffy City Hall’s 2014 Band Eat Band competition final in August hosted a remarkable line-up of performers, maybe as much local talent as has ever taken the same stage on the same night in Knoxville, Tenn. But no band shone brighter—or drew a more enthusiastic response from the near-capacity crowd—than seven-piece self-described Trop ‘n’ Roll outfit Marina Orchestra, the night’s eventual winners.
Playing a mix of songs from their two sterling self-released albums, plus a well-timed cover of Jackie Wilson’s ‘60s soul nugget “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher”, Marina O. carried off a performance that was as much musical celebration as it was a concert proper, a groovy, good-times showcase of the band’s distinctive brand of pan-African/island funk-pop.
And though the band had already been together since 2010, the show in so many ways represented Marina Orchestra’s coming-of-age. “I don’t think I had ever won anything in my life,” says Marina singer, co-founder, and bandleader Justin Powers. “It was great, because none of us expected to win. But it helped us mature as a band. It made us question everything, and it made us step up our game.”
Now the band has released a pair of lovely acoustic renderings of songs from their first two releases—“Midnight Tonight” from Take on the Silence, and “Body Language” from 2014’s Oceans—and is looking to establish a stronger presence in other cities throughout the southeast.
With other, brand-new songs already in the can, awaiting the next release, it seems that the four-year-old outfit is beginning to hit its stride. “I couldn’t be any happier with where we are right now,” says Powers. “With this band, I’ve accomplished so many of my goals. And yet I’ll never stop setting goals with them. And there’s a beauty in that. I’m never completely satisfied. Yet everything is perfect in the moment.”
Powers is an interesting fellow; soft-spoken and thoughtful, yet deeply driven, spurred on by an often-unfathomable muse—equal parts tortured artist and boy-next-store. One could say that the story of Marina Orchestra is his story, seeing as how his is the creative spark that founded the band, and it is his vision and sheer force of will that has kept it moving through various upheavals.
But that would be reductive, nor would it be fair to other members who have passed through Marina’s ranks over the last four years. No, Marina Orchestra’s is also the story of the bond between Powers and fellow founding member/bassist Tim Eisinger. And it’s the story of how a group of friends and kindred spirits have collaborated and clashed, come and gone, creating a whole that is truly greater than the sum of its not-inconsiderable parts.
It’s a story of fate and serendipity and perseverance; it’s a story made for and of the digital era, of how a gang of white suburban indie rock kids created Knoxville’s most interesting local rock outfit from a flotsam of old African dance and big-band records, classic world-beat stylings largely unknown stateside outside of music nerd circles and ‘net-savvy tech geeks.
It’s been chronicled in this space before how Marina rose from the ashes of erstwhile Knoxville rock band I Need Sleep. Teetering on the brink of a collapse, INS nonetheless made an appearance at the 2010 South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Tex., where Powers found himself captivated by the sheer volume and diversity of music on display across various bars and stages.
“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 was forming in my head back to SXSW. And one year later, that’s what I did.”
Which is the short version of how Marina came together, but hardly the complete one. The idea fomenting in Powers’ active brain involved a mélange of African styles, gleaned from many hours of plumbing the Internet for unheard musics, and propelled by his increasing distaste for I Need Sleep’s aggressive brand of punk-inflected indie rock.
“I’m always interested in new music, and I’ve gotten pretty good at scouring the web for out-of-print LPs,” Powers says. “I’d find a record from Ghana that I loved. So, let’s see who else was playing popular music in Ghana in the 1970s.” An early favorite was Orchestra Baobab, which Powers had discovered through a jazz-savvy high school buddy. “I thought they were this little-known band with one record,” Powers says. “Little did I know they were the band for Senegalese music.
“In the ‘70s, they were killing it; they toured all over the world as the Senegal National Orchestra. But as a white kid growing up in Chicago, how would I know something like that? It would be like asking me the price of tea in China.”
His discovery of Orchestra Baobab was a jumping-off point. Driven to find music that was of a piece with the Orchestra’s Afro-Cuban hybrid style, Powers discovered Miriam Makeba, an activist South African soul artist brought to international prominence through the efforts of Harry Belafonte in the 1960s. “It was very swing-y jazz music,” he says. “And it was music that on the one hand was familiar to me, but on the other had these melodies that were completely foreign… different scales, different approach to vocals.”
And then came Ignace De Souza, a Ghanese highlife trumpeter whose records provided the igniting spark for Powers’ new creative fire. “I was listening to De Souza when I said, ‘I should start a band like his,’” he recalls.
So then it fell to Powers to find other musicians with whom he could share his budding obsessions. Yet he knew from the start that Eisinger—I Need Sleep bassist, and a grade-school pal from his youth in Chicago—was a necessary part of any new endeavor. “Tim and I had always played together,” says Powers. “So it wasn’t even a question that he would play in Marina Orchestra.”
But for better and worse, Powers ended up filling out the ranks of Marina’s earliest incarnation with some very familiar faces. As the story goes, Powers put up a flier seeking “players for a tropical street band,” stenciling the flier with the image of a palm tree, as if to add a metaphorical exclamation point to this new direction.
But like the protagonist in the old ‘70’s pop nugget “The Pina Colada Song”—about a man who places a personal ad to escape a stale relationship, then hooks up with his own girlfriend on the resulting blind date—Powers found that his best response came from members of the band he was trying to leave. “So the initial version of Marina Orchestra was basically another version of I Need Sleep,” he laughs.
The early days of Marina Orchestra were marked by the chaos of a quick evolution. The first incarnation featured multiple percussionists, and a rhythmically dense approach that was pared back as the band traded in drummers for horn players, its membership swelling to a peak of 12 singers and players onstage at a given show.
The name derived from a house that Powers had rented in South Knoxville in the I Need Sleep era. “It had this big, awesome deck that looked like a dock,” remembers Eisinger.
It was dubbed the Marina, a reference embedded in an old I Need Sleep song.
By the time Marina recorded the debut their debut Take on the Silence in May of 2012, the band had evolved its signature sound, a striking mix of reggae and island musics and burbling guitar-driven Afro-pop, the whole of it filtered through a post-millenial indie-rock aesthetic.
What didn’t stop evolving was Marina’s lineup. While the founding core of Powers, Eisinger, and singer Rachel Gurley held steady, the band transitioned from its original percussion-heavy lineup, to a horn-based outfit, and finally to the seven-member unit (with one horn, and a single drummer) that recorded Oceans in 2014.
Though certainly challenging—“For a while, it was kind of free-form,” says Powers, “like, whoever is available would come out and play a show.”—the transitions were much less tumultuous than one might imagine. Says Eisinger, “With so many changes, you’d expect more drama. We’re still friends with everyone who has been in the band. Priorities change, that’s all.”
Trombonist/guitarist Alex Stevens was a pivotal addition in 2012. Though currently the band’s only horn player, Stevens actually provided the impetus for Marina’s new acoustic recordings with his deft finger-style guitar chops. “Alex is a great guitar player, and he could probably teach a music theory class,” says Eisinger. “He’s sort of the unofficial theory teacher for Marina Orchestra.”
But best is the story of Brad Duncan’s arrival in 2013, an event that hearkens back to the days of I Need Sleep, when Powers was living in the Marina house—a coincidence that seems to cry out for a grander explanation—in South Knoxville. “Every time I’d go out on the deck, I’d hear someone playing drums, coming from somewhere in the neighborhood,” Powers says. “They would be playing for hours, just straight beats. I always wanted to go ask them, ‘hey, do you want to play drums?’
“I found out later, after he auditioned for Marina Orchestra, that that drummer was Brad Duncan. I’m pretty sure it was Destiny that we would meet Brad Duncan, and he would play in this band.”
Duncan is featured on a few tracks on Oceans, with the rest featuring previous drummer Nick Swofford. The record is Marina’s most complete exposition to date, a deep, sonically engulfing work that yields fresh epiphanies with each listening.
Its potency is exceeded only by the experience of seeing a Marina Orchestra show live. Because for all of the band’s complex musicality and curious genre-blending, Marina is truly an outfit that is best experienced rather than considered— i.e., heard through the relatively sterile medium of recorded sound. The word that best describes them in a live context is “ebullient”—rich, joyful, celebratory, and funky—but funky in a way that defies, and exceeds the standard Anglo/American grasp of the word “funk”.
Even with new songs in the till, Powers says live performance—and touring—is where the band’s focus will be directed in the coming year. “I’ve decided that the most important thing to do right now is to get on the road,” he says. “So that’s what we’re doing.
“I call it ‘strolling the block,’ going in a circle, hitting all the cities in a 300-mile radius—Nashville, Chattagnooga, Louisville, Lexington… We’ve developed a pretty good system where we do weekend shows, four to six out of town per month. And that allows people to stay good with their regular jobs. And we’re getting some money out of it. We’ve gone from just saving money for the band, to doing payouts. We can actually give ourselves a guarantee when we play a show out of town.”
For Powers—who at one time seemed motivated as much by fear and angst as by the will to create—the current state of affairs for Marina O. makes for a refreshing change of pace. “It’s been like a whole new perspective for me,” he says.
“I’ve recently been so motivated and positive by what’s going on with the band. It’s been more of a success story than anything. I’ve been feeling really good about what we’re doing, and it’s been a direct result of putting our heads down, doing some hard work, and not just expecting things to fall in our laps.”
Marina Orchestra will play Preservation Pub Wednesday, Dec. 31 at 10 p.m.