The local bands that you should be listening to.
Photography by Liesa Cole
Assisted by Andi Rice
Production, styling, and makeup artistry by Lindsay Garrett
Written by Lindsey Osborne
Makeup by Somica Spratley
Hair Styling by MaryJane Clements
Eric Essix’s MOVE>TRIO
“What it all boils down to for me is the fact that I am just as excited to pick up a guitar and play in 2015 as I was when I first started in 1969,” says Eric Essix. “I still just love it.” Essix has made a name for himself in the Birmingham jazz scene (and beyond) and has released more than a dozen albums in the last couple of decades, with hits like “Rainy Night in Georgia.”
Most recently, he has joined with Kelvin Wooten (keyboards and bass) and James “PJ” Spraggins (drums) to create the MOVE>TRIO. “It is a combination of all our influences as three guys born and raised in the South and in the church,” Essix explains. “It’s gospel, it’s blues, and it’s funk with the spirit of jazz. Lots of improvisation…lots of fun!” In fact, Essix says that his favorite part of being a musician is the vibe created within a band. It’s a way, he says, to keep things new. “For me, the biggest challenge as a musician has been trying to keep my music and brand fresh and profitable in today’s constantly shifting and highly competitive music industry. In some ways, this environment led to the development of my new band as my primary creative outlet,” Essix says. “Along with the fact that this ensemble has totally invigorated me spiritually, it has also addressed some pretty important business considerations as well.
“One thing I really love is that we are all equally invested in the band and have committed ourselves to making it work,” he continues. “We all have separate projects to manage outside the Trio, but I think there is a realization that we are stronger together than we are totally on our own.”
Eleven Year Old
Jake Hethcox (vocals, guitar) and Sam Reynolds (bass guitar) weren’t much older than 11 when they began playing together—they started when they were in the eighth grade (the band was named because, according to Hethcox, “11 is the last good year as a kid. Still pretty innocent, not quite a bratty tween yet. I’d like for the music to reflect that not-so-cynical portion of fleeting childhood.”) In 2008, Hethcox and Reynolds began writing together, and they released their first album, Harikiri Krishnas, in 2012. Since then, they’ve released three singles and a second album, American Lizards, which hit this year. Drummer Max Andrews joined the two last year and has been with them ever since. They describe their music as “sometimes heavy, sometimes bouncy, sometimes sneaky, sometimes fuzzy.” Indeed, it’s a mix of deep vocals and assertive notes that work together well.
“Published poetry is pretty much dead, so I use music as an outlet for all of my words and ideas,” Hethcox says of his “why” behind making music. The group says they’ve got plans to put out another album in the next several months and tour. They say they’ve realized this life isn’t an easy one, but it’s the one that they want. “Time is the most challenging part,” Reynolds says. “Time and inspiration.” And even more than that, it’s one that makes them proud. “I’m proud of how well received our music has become,” says Andrews.
Janet Simpson and Will Stewart have been playing music separately for many years and have been each been involved in a host of other groups. They came together this year to create Timber, which led to the recording of an eponymous EP that’s awaiting release from Nuby and have plans for more to come. “I try to approach recording as if it’s still a live performance. If you go into it with the idea that you can do take after take until you get it right, it takes the emotion and feeling out of it—flaws and imperfections make a recording so much more interesting and human, in my opinion,” Simpson says.
Timber’s music has an ethereal feel—it’s full-bodied and soulful. Stewart says fine-tuning their sound is a continual journey. “It seems like we’re still trying to find our ‘sound,’ which is probably the case for any band in its early stages. The more we play and write together, the more we figure out each other’s tendencies and nuances, and I’m very excited about the direction of the new material,” he explains.
Simpson agrees: “Will and I are still in the nascent beginnings of what we’re doing. We’ve both been musicians long enough to know that being here in this moment is the best and most rewarding thing,” she says. “We’re happy each time we get to create and play together and always look forward to the next opportunity, but working together is totally brand new, so I think we’ll just relish the newness and let the process tell us what’s next.”
Steel City Jug Slammers
With a name like “jug slammers,” it has to be good, right? Well, it is in this case. The Steel City Jug Slammers—comprised of Nick Bate (mandolin, guitar, vocals, jug); Jerrod Atkins (guitar, kazoo, vocals, washtub bass, jug); Steven Bate (guitar, banjo, mandolin, vocals, kazoo, jug); Jacob Mathews (washtub bass, vocals, guitar); Corey Medders (banjo, vocals); and Zac People (jug, vocals)—take you back in time with a healthy dose of twang. Atkins puts it perfectly: “Our music is a good time, stuffed with entertainment and wrapped in history.”
The band came together in 2012 when Nick set out to organize a solid jug band, joining Atkins and recruiting the others, his brother and old friends. They put out their first album, Steel City Jug Slammers, in 2012; the band has also been featured on Animal Planet, filmed for documentaries, become a Jug Band Champion, and asked on as guests for NPR’s A Prairie Home Companion.
The guys say they have a lot of fun, but most of all, they love to see audiences falling back in love their music, which is rarely produced these days. “Jug band music is free and fun and takes a certain skill set and acute ear to pin down just right. I hope it conveys the point that sound is everywhere and made from just about anything and anyone can do it whether you are rich or poor,” Mathews says. “My dream for this type of music is for it to be remembered and preserved and for the men and women who performed and perform it, past and present, to be honored and recognized for their hard work. The one thing I would tell people about jug band music is this: Dance!”
“This album is heavy. The backstory is unbelievable. I’m excited that people will finally get a chance to hear it,” says Jesse Payne of his upcoming album, Heirloom, set to release this month. It took three years and a lot of overcoming to produce it, he says. “A lot of life changes occurred throughout the recording of the album and there were times I wasn’t sure we would ever finish it,” he explains. “We all just kept going as if there was no other choice.” The “we” refers to Payne’s band, which includes Thomas Warren (bass vocals); Steven Janes (guitar, soundscapes, and vocals); R. Daniel Long (drums, jaymar, and vocals); Mason Boyd (percussion, drums, and vocals); and Tyler Mills (keyboards, accordion, and vocals). Heirloom is Payne’s second full-length album, joining 2010’s Nesting as well as two EPs, 2007’s Beyond the Leaves and 2011’s Buffalo.
Payne describes the music as “post-folk.” “‘Post-folk’ is a term coined by Thomas Warren. I feel like it describes what we do perfectly,” he says. “It’s folk music without the traditional approach, instrumentation, or sound.” Payne has an individual way of viewing his music, too—like the art that it is. “I tend to view the songs more as audio paintings, colors. When it comes to art, I love the abstract,” he explains. “I enjoy mixing the personal with the historical while adding hints of literature to paint an image that portrays a certain emotion. The rhythms, soundscapes, lyrics, and music all belong to the same canvas. I also like leaving space for individual interpretation.”
Lovelight the Messenger
“I hated rap…then Kanye West came along,” says Lovelight Cross, the man behind Lovelight the Messenger. Cross first began recording music back in 2008 with one of his fraternity brothers. “A guy named Chris K. Davidson, who now has quite a name for himself in the Birmingham music scene, allowed me to feature on one of his songs on his very first full-length studio album,” he says. “When I heard my verse all polished, I knew I wanted to rap for the rest of my life.”
Cross says his music is a blend of alternative rock and hip-hop, but his message is one of love. “I try to convey messages of positivity mostly, but I believe music is art, and art captures specific moments,” he explains. “So my music captures different moments in time and life. So one song can be really sad, and the next really fun. If I could tell people one thing about it, I would say, ‘Actively listen to all of it.’”
Cross says that he is equally passionate about making music and sharing it in Birmingham, particularly hip-hop. “The most challenging part about being a hip-hop artist in Birmingham is the fact that most people don’t know or care. Many people talk about this musical revival Birmingham is experiencing, but hip-hop is not being included in it,” he explains. “One of my main goals is to expose the general public of Birmingham to hip-hop. It’s too easy to avoid it, and I would like to put hip-hop in a position where you almost have to experience it sometimes.”
In their own words, GT’s music is “heavy, fast, and slow. Sounds like victory!” Perhaps the biggest victory for this rock band is that they manage to pursue music in addition to all of the other endeavors they’re invested in. “We don’t think music has to be your sole path. We all have other interests in our lives, but we love music,” the band says. “Like most other things in life, any success takes dedication, effort, and sacrifice—and a lot of help. Juggling jobs, while trying to practice, write, play shows, and record is difficult. Communicating Vessels and other Birmingham musicians have been very supportive of our and other bands’ efforts.”
GT is comprised of Scotty Lee (guitar, lead vocals); Byron Sonnier (bass, background vocals); and Mark Beasley (drums, background vocals). They released two EPs in 2013—Heavy Dreams and Get Tryin’—and Beats Misplaced hit in 2015. One thing GT promises is a unique sound. “We use unusual tunings and some unusual song structures. It makes us sound distinctive,” they say.
“We enjoy creating sound; the energy of playing live shows is hard to beat,” the band continues. “In terms of writing and recording, we enjoy coming up with individual parts that fit the song and make it sound whole. It’s a fun game.”
Mandi Rae & The Status
“It’s music in the morning and music at night,” says Mandi Rae, “and that’s what makes life reach its maximum enjoyment for me.” Rae began singing as a child and playing guitar after high school. After that, she says, things just made sense. “I played all the spots: Baileys, Bottletree, Highland Coffee Co, Marty’s, all of which are just a memory now. I opened a few shows for the Avett Brothers. I had a great trajectory for music, but life changes. I met my husband and started a family and moved to Denver,” she says. While in Colorado, Rae’s husband became ill and passed away in February of 2013. That experience pushed her back into music as a way to survive. She moved back home to Birmingham with her two young daughters and began to play again. “Having death so close, and experiencing it so viscerally, the only thing I knew to do to survive mentally was to play music again. I hit the ground running,” she explains. “Most people don’t understand that that was the way I grieved. Grieving to me did not entail sitting and staring at a wall and pulling my hair out. I just went into survival and I figured out I wanted to live. I wanted to live every moment as fully as possible and the only way to do that was to write songs and play shows and connect with people.”
The Status includes Rae (vocals and rhythm guitar); Warren Amos (lead guitar and vocals); Alex Hinson (drums); Jay McCarley (bass); and Derek Nolin (keyboard). “My favorite part of playing at the moment has to be playing with my band. They are wonderful musicians and creative songwriters and help to bring my music to life!” Rae says. The band produces music that she calls “authentic. That’s about the best I can do there. Our genre is all over the place, but whatever it is, it’s a good time.
“I want people to take what they know or what they think and throw it out the window when they hear my music or see me play, because I’m different,” she says. “My band is different. We all march to the beat of our own drum and that is super fulfilling for me.”
“I want to make music that lasts,” DeQn Sue says. “Music that you will think about for years to come.” DeQn Sue began singing in church; it was after seeing her father sing the gospel favorite “Precious Lord” while performing in a stage play about Thomas Dorsey, the song’s composer, that she discovered her destiny. “I don’t believe in Plan Bs,” she says. “Music makes me tick and wakes me up in the morning. So I never felt that I had a choice really.”
She says her music—a theatrical alternative pop that she describes as “a quirky, poppy, serious, and sarcastic jumble”—has a mission behind it: “I hope to convey individuality and hope through what I create and I fight every day to do so,” she says. Indeed, in her song “Magenta,” she aims to provide a platform to connect with her listeners: “I know I’m not the only one / that feels the way I do / and the way I feel can’t always be described by yellow, pink, and blue / Let me live and learn.”
DeQn Sue, whose name is derived from the character name that her father, Rod Perry, made famous on the hit 1970s TV series S.W.A.T.—Sgt. David “Deacon” Kay—and her mother’s first name, is a Los Angeles native and splits her time between LA and Alabama. Being a performer means something different for her than for many of her peers—she says she won’t allow her music to promote any themes that aren’t positive. “That doesn’t do anything for our culture to me,” she explains. “It’s very important to make sure that you can look back in 20 years and know that even though you’re in a different place, you’re still proud of what you’ve done.”
If you’re looking for rock and roll—more specifically, intricate rock and roll—you’ve found it in Dead Balloons. The group is Chris Seifert (vocals and guitar), Sam Sanders (drums), and Rollie Kraus (bass). Seifert and Sanders have been playing together since high school. “We knew that music was what we were going to do for the rest of our lives,” Seifert says. “We decided to move to LA once we turned 18. We played in the slums of East LA for six months, playing house shows and in bars. It was wild but a great learning experience for us.” While there, they had a falling out with their bassist and were called home by family needs. Back in Birmingham, they met Kraus through a mutual friend and found it a great fit. Now, they’re like family. “We are very close with each other. Of course we bicker from time to time, just like siblings would,” Seifert says. “I think our closeness contributes to our music in a positive way. The audience can really feel that energy when we perform.”
Their debut album releases in September, but they’ve already received much acclaim. “We’ve been surprised by how far we have come, and how much we have grown,” the band says. “And also by all of the hype we have received. We are very thankful for that.
“Our dream is to bring our music into peoples lives making a positive imprint,” they continue. “Just being able to play music forever is the dream.”
“I’m sure in some parallel universe I could’ve been a paleontologist or an astronaut, but in this life the only thing that really makes me happy is playing music,” says Michael Shackelford, the guy behind Future Elevators. So, he plays on (he began by playing drums as a kid with his family, which was full of musicians), sharing his music with Birmingham and beyond. It’s “fresh and modern with a classic twist—like a drink,” he says. In the past, he’s worked with Jim James of My Morning Jacket and Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley, as well as a number of notable Birmingham names like Duquette Johnston and Taylor Hollingsworth.
Future Elevators’s first album is set to release soon, and Shackelford played 99 percent of the instruments on the record. “Being 30 years old and expecting my daughter when I started recording this album meant there was no time for fooling around. I had to be efficient. I had to be my best,” he says of laying down the album. “If my entire life was going to be worthwhile and successful, I had to give it everything I had and put my heart and soul into this record. It was quite an emotional journey, but I feel I succeeded in the way that I can say I pulled that sled uphill like the little dog in The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. It’s my best effort to date, in my opinion anyway, and I hope people enjoy it.”