Now Playing: Indighost

The foothills of Southern Appalachia are better known for nurturing bluegrass and traditional string music than for birthing trippy hard-rock outfits. But Dan Fehr, guitarist for the Bristol-area five-piece Indighost, believes the region’s alternately lush and brooding rural scenery is a perfect fit for his band’s haunting brand of neo-retro psychedelic rock.

“I think our approach to this type of music is very much, ‘This is how it is in the Southern Appalachian region,'” Fehr says, speaking from home in a recent phone interview. “For me, the hills and hollers — I get influenced by that, by being in nature. I love getting out and riding my motorcycle through the hills. I think the atmosphere of the area inspires people in different ways.”

Indighost began a couple of years ago, co-founded by Fehr and fellow guitarist Cody Gilner, both of them late of the Bristol act Rickshaw Roadshow. Fehr notes that Rickshaw Roadshow had already been evolving from its initial folk roots to “more of this Led Zeppelin III rock-folk thing.” Fehr says he and Gilner were interested in doing something “a little wild and dangerous,” and began listening to a raft of new music.

“We were listening to a lot of music we thought was new and exciting,” Fehr says. “We got a lot from the Obelisk (a Maryland-based stoner/doom/psychedelic rock blog) — that was an amazing source of cool, exciting bands that are making things happen. We immersed ourselves in what was around. I believe that big part of being a musician is subjecting yourself to lots of different art and music.”

The two guitarists recruited drummer Taylor Cogdill and bassist Quentin Garrett. But while Gilner and Fehr were both capable singers in their own right, they wanted someone else to take the vocal helm of their new band. Then singer Randi Denton submitted her aural resume.

Fehr had already seen Denton perform a couple of years before, when she sang a lead role in a stage performance of “The Rock Horror Picture Show.” She made a lasting impression with both her evocative, weirdly beautiful voice, and with her savvy stage presence. After listening to her mix CD, Fehr felt Denton’s own music was a good fit for the band he and Gilner were trying to create, and quickly brought her on board.

Since then, Indighost have released 2015’s “Treeline” EP, and last year’s full-length “Heirophant.” Both albums present a take on modern psychedelia not too far removed from that of Austin-based outfit the Black Angels. But whereas the Angels mostly mine the territory of classic ’60s psychedelia, Indighost infuse the music with additional elements of heavy blues-rock, stoner fuzz and post-millennial indie.

For his part, Fehr describes the Indighost sound as “taking ’70s hard rock and mixing it with the West Coast psychedelic scene… We’re trying to push the envelope. If it’s new, we’re interested.”

The band has also created a stage show appropriate to the music’s psychedelic bent. “We have lots of visual elements to our music,” Fehr says. “Live, we have almost a liquid light show, where we use a projector and a screen. Our goal is to elicit a very specific feeling with our music.”

Fehr says the band is already at work on a follow-up to Hierophant, a record he says will be at once darker and more rock-centered, more reflective of the puissant energy of the band’s live performances.

“We played a lot of shows in 2016, and this record will be a synthesis of what we’ve learned,” Fehr says. “Rather than being high-fidelity, we want it to be raw, like you’re standing three lines back at our live show.

“We’re going for a darker vibe; it will be more aggressive, while maintaining the sense of mysteriousness that drew people in on our other records. If (Hierophant) was sunny, this one is the moon. It’s definitely midnight.”

Indighost will play Scruffy City Hall Sunday, March 26 as part of the Funny Ears Fringe Festival.

Now Playing: Yasameen Hoffman-Shahin and Ben Maney

Most people recognize Yasameen Hoffman-Shahin (aka “Yas”) as the brassy, big-voiced frontwoman of popular Knoxville neo-soul-rock outfit Electric Darling. But more recently, she’s gained additional traction with her side project, a duo (and occasional four-piece) she began with longtime local keyboard ace Ben Maney.

One of their earliest shows — and their first public performance — was at the opening ceremony for last year’s Big Ears Festival, a gathering at downtown’s Square Room. “Ben has been a teacher at the Community School of the Arts for a long time, and I attended the school from the age of five through age 18,” Yas explains. “So last year, the school asked the two of us to pull something together, to represent them for the opening.

“They sort of pitched it as ‘just a little thing at the Square Room,'” she laughs. “I figured we’d be background music. But when we got there, there were all these big performers from the festival attending and playing, too. It was very ‘official.’ But it was for the best, because the audience turned out to be very receptive. And Ben and I realized we might be on to something.”

Now in her mid-20s, Yas has already enjoyed an impressive career as a performer in Knoxville. As a child, she sang in church and at community events. Upon entering college, she majored in opera production at the University of Tennessee, and sang with both the UT and Knoxville opera companies, both before and after her graduation.

Then she started sitting in with rock and R&B bands at area clubs. “I was singing with the Knoxville Opera Chorus, and I was singing at jam nights at different places,” she says. “And I had a regular gig singing at Second Presbyterian. So I was singing R&B, rock, classical, sacred music, sometimes all of that in the same week.”

Yet it wasn’t until 2015 that she became a permanent member of a band, when now-fellow Electric Darling members Cozmo Holloway and Kevin Hyfantis recruited her for their new project, having themselves experienced her vocal prowess at various open mics.

As for her new work as part of a duo, Yas says she and Maney have taken the stage together perhaps eight times over the last year since Big Ears — sometimes as voice-and-keyboards duo, and sometimes as a four-piece backed by drummer Alonzo Lewis and bassist Daniel Shifflett.

“We do everything from old standards to our own take on modern electronic and R&B,” says Yas. “We do ‘Summertime,’ and ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.’ We do some Fiona Apple songs; we do Solange. Anything that moves us, we’re willing to adapt to piano and voice.

“I’d say that the things we collaborate best on are jazz-pop, or adult contemporary. We do some of Ben’s original songs, too, which have kind of a Jamie Cullum kind of sound. Those work well, too.”

Yas explains the creative sympatico of her partnership with Maney as a combination of comfort and chemistry. “I think we’re really comfortable playing with each other,” she says. “Together, we create this free and open creative space. It’s a passionate, fun, play-anything-you-want kind of situation.

“And it makes for a very lush sound. As a keyboardist and pianist, Ben fills up a lot of space. And I’ve always thought of my own voice as an instrument. So there’s a lot of things going on, even as a duo.”

Yas says she and Maney have tried writing songs together on a couple of occasions, but that their schedules don’t allow for too much collaboration. Maney has been an in-demand teacher and sideman around town for at least 20 years, and Yas has been busy recording a new EP with her Electric Darling bandmates. “That doesn’t make for a lot of down time,” she says with another chuckle.

“Maybe we’ll write together more in the future,” she continues. “We’ll definitely be playing more together. And who knows? Maybe we’ll end up recording one day.”

Yasameen Hoffman-Shahin and Ben Maney will play Scruff City Hall Friday, March 24 at 6:30 p.m. as part of the Funny Ears Fringe Festival.

 

Now Playing: Ben Maney w/ Yasameen Hoffman-Shahin

For those of us who’ve been around for more than a minute, it seems inconceivable that soft-spoken improvisational ace Ben Maney has been lending his colorful keyboard strokes to artists all over the spectrum of the Knoxville music scene for something like 25 years now. Indeed, Maney’s musical history goes all the way back to popular early-’90s fusion-jam outfit Free Formula, to late-’90s rockin’ blues act Michael Crawley and the Mac Daddies, to the prog-rock band People of the Square, to the mid-‘oos jazz-fusion group fronted by local guitar player Mitch Rutman.

Hell, Maney even did a stint with the circus, when he departed the University of Tennessee music program in 1995 to sign on with the traveling band for Ringling Brothers, joining fellow Knoxvillian and former Smokin’ Dave and the Premo Dopes bassist Dave Nichols on the road.

Nowadays, Maney says his teaching work keep him busy enough that he no longer has to scrounge for the next job. Maney teaches piano and keys privately, and also with the local non-profit Community School of the Arts.

“I’m not hustling for gigs these days, which is kind of nice,” Maney says with a laugh. “I’ll still do some private shows from time to time. But it’s not ‘wait ’til the phone rings, then see what happens’ anymore.”

Maney does have one project he’s happy to tout, however, that being his collaboration with the talented Electric Darling vocalist Yasameen “Yas” Hoffman-Shahin. With Maney being a teacher for the Community School of the Arts, and Yas having been a longtime student there, the two teamed up after CSA executive director Jennifer Willard recruited them to play a special one-off show together at a school function some time back.

“It was fantastic,” Maney says of his first musical summit with Yas. “We played a couple standards. She was amazing. Jennifer kept calling us, so we did an event or two after that. Eventually, we started doing shows outside the school.

“We definitely clicked. When you click with someone musically, there’s not much need to think too hard about it. And there’s a real spontaneity to our collaboration.”

Maney notes that while he and Yas were trained in opposing disciplines — at UT, he was woodshedding jazz under local piano ace Donald Brown and his assistant, pianist Matt Fries; Yas was trained in classical music at the university, singing with the opera company — they both picked up plenty of other tricks along the way, playing a host of different genres at venues of every description, churches and local clubs and sundry open mic nights.

Still, Maney says the foundation of their successful collaboration is rooted more in a mindset than a skill set. “She’s a seasoned and educated musician, as well,” Maney says. “And we talk about form and structure from time to time. But we can also just get by pretty well without those conversations, sometimes surprisingly well. That allows for a lot of creativity and expression to emerge.

“I’ve always had an easier time when I’m not tied down to a particular structure. I’m used to letting arrangements flow according to what I’m feeling. And Yas is very good at adapting to that. She’s intuitive, with an amazing sense of timing and a very good ear. It makes things very comfortable.”

And while both he and Yas have played extensively in the blues and rock idioms, he says their work as a duo — which has largely consisted of either interpreting jazz and pop standards, or on readings of Maney’s original compositions — shines best in more contemplative contexts.

“There’s a nuance in what we do, and when we go uptempo, we seem to lose some of that nuance,” Maney says. “There are things she does with her voice when we play that she can’t do with a full band, and I feel the same way with my keyboards. When we do peppy, jangly numbers, it just doesn’t work as well.

“The direction we’re heading is a place where we can explore space a little bit more. We’re starting to get into more brooding, darker sounds and arrangements. I’m experimenting with electronics too — you’ll get a taste of that at our next performance.”

Ben Maney and Yasameen Hoffman-Shahin will play Scruffy City Hall Friday, March 24 at 6:30 p.m. as part of the Funny Ears Fringe Festival.

Now Playing: Kerchief at Funny Ears Fringe Festival

Singer-guitarist Brittany Hill started her current three-piece touring unit Kerchief as a solo project in 2014, as an outlet for the creative and songwriting instincts given only partial vent in her previous outfit, the Springboro, Ohio-based Vanity Theft. Three years, two EPs, and one full-length release later, Hill is close to realizing Kerchief as an ongoing collaborative — not a solo project, but a full-fledged band.

“My initial goal was to start my own project and keep making music that I wanted to make,” says Hill, who moved to Cleveland, Tn., from Ohio in 2013. “The band itself was somewhat of a rotation for a while, with seven or eight different members who passed through. Then last fall I found a couple of people who’ve been steady with me, and hopefully they’re going to stick.”

Hill began her musical career earlier than most, becoming the lead guitarist in the aforementioned Vanity Theft at the tender age of 16. Toggling between three and four members over the course of its career, the band offered up an energetic brand of pop-rock equally indebted to ’80s rock and new-wave/electro pop, a hybrid of the Runaways and the Bangles tinged with just a hint of post-millennial emo and indie.

After signing a small record deal and releasing one album on Adamant Records in 2011, the band members went their separate ways, with Hill joining family members in Cleveland and pursuing her solo muse.

Hill’s first Kerchief release, the “Demonstrations” EP in 2014, introduced a beguiling mix of alt-rock, electro-pop, and singer-songwriter aesthetics. Elaborating on the antecedents of Kerchief’s style, Hill says she was weaned on ’80s and ’90s indie rock, and that she took a special interest in strong female performers who came up through the 1990s. “I always looked up to Gwen Stefani,” she says. “I’ve followed her career. Like me, she’s gotten more into electronics as she’s gone farther.

“I really get into pop music, too. I’m a big Lady Gaga fan.”

In fact, Hill’s influences are heavily told on all three Kerchief releases — including 2015’s full-length “Machines and Animals,” and the “Corner House” EP from last year — each of them redolent of the 1990s and the dawn of commercial alt-rock, an era when female frontwomen like Stefani and Poe and Shirley Manson and Kim Deal abruptly stormed into the public eye. Like those women before her, Hill has a quirky, distinctive vision, an impeccable sense of phrasing, and an ear for a pleasing melody.

Given that Kerchief began life as essentially a one-woman show — Hill has played most of the music on her three releases — the arrangements on these early records are often sparse, defined by skeletal keyboard frameworks and colored by intermittent swaths of guitar.

As Kerchief becomes more of a group effort, Hills says the character of the music may change, too. “When we play those songs live, there’s kind of a balance between the electronic and acoustic elements,” Hill says. “We have a sampler that the drummer triggers for certain parts. We don’t have a keyboardist right now, so live, the music is different from the recording. But we think it’s different in good way.

“As we move forward, I want to see us become more of a band. My bass player also sings, and we’re going to start writing songs together. Kerchief began as a solo project as more of a necessity, than from me expressly wanting to be a solo artist. I see it evolving into a solid, permanent three or four member group down the road.”

Kerchief will play Preservation Pub Saturday, March 25 at 7 p.m. as part of the Funny Ears Fringe Festival.

Now Playing: Step Sisters at Funny Ears Fringe Festival

Most young rock ‘n’ rollers turn down the volume as they age, dropping the three-chord punk schtick in their later years in favor of blues and singer-songwriter gigs, or maybe for a cover band or two.

But when members of Nashville’s Step Sisters got together in 2015 — most of them having crossed the 30-year-mark and the unofficial threshold of adulthood — it was for the purpose of effecting an abrupt collective U-turn and re-embracing the louder, more lethal sounds of their youth.

“We had all been in other bands,” says bassist Matt Johanson. “And we all wanted to do something heavier, because we had been playing in blues and blues-based projects. We figured that even though we’re veterans, we’re still young at heart.”

Two loosely-organized do-it-yourself recording sessions later — one of them taking place in the back room of a local brewery — and the freshly-dubbed four-piece Step Sisters had enough music first for a four-song local cassette release, and then for a proper five-song EP, “Thick,” available now on the Sisters’ Bandcamp page.

“Thick” showcases an outfit strongly influenced by Nirvana, and the heady, early days of Sup Pop Records. Frontman Clint Wilson sings in a ragged-yet-melodic howl, and the band churns through adhesively tuneful song structures with an intensity that bridges the fraught divide between frenetic punk-rock scrappiness and authoritative metalloid heft.

But there’s something else in the mix, too, a patina of modern alt-rock psychedelia overlaying the familiar grunge-punk core. Johanson admits that the Step Sisters have drawn very deliberately from a melange of modern influences, though the band’s core mission is still vested in more traditional metal and punk.

“We drawn on some modern stuff like Goner Records out of Memphis, and especially (garage rocker) Jay Reatard,” Johanson says. “And a lot of the West Coast psychedelic sound played a big part in who we are, stuff like Ty Segall, and Thee Oh Sees.

“I think our main influences, though, are the bands we heard in our younger days; those were the sounds we really wanted to recreate. Clint and I love Nirvana. Adam (Swafford, guitarist) is from the Led Zeppelin school of thought. And then there’s Black Sabbath. Sabbath, and heavy metal in general, is what got me into picking up an instrument in the first place.”

Johanson promises those influences will figure even more prominently on the band’s next release. Between touring jaunts around the Southeast, he says the Sisters managed to log some heavy studio time in February, laying 12 new tracks for a yet-untitled new album, tentatively slated for release at the beginning of summer.

“The new record will be us really laying into some heavy, psychedelic songs,” Johanson says. “There’s not a lot of let-up there. It’s pretty heavy, and it’s fast. We’ve got a new tag line for the release of this one — ‘You can breathe when the record’s done.'”

The Step Sisters will play Scruffy City Hall Friday, March 24 at 11:30 p.m. as part of the Funny Ears Fringe Festival.