Ester Drang has become known for their ethereal, jam-esque grooves and potent, thought-provoking lyrics. But will their new record, and major label debut, deliver infinite directions for the band’s ideas? By William Scott
Somewhere between the sinews of ordinary sound is a region of the sonic stratosphere where the swell of guitar intertwines with a Rhodes melody, floating effortlessly in an electronic dream. Its boundaries are impermeable to bubblegum throwbacks and mindless minions of the monster rock din.
Here, consciousness and perception are stretched into vibrant tendrils of imagination, and nothing is solid save the notes themselves. And if the mind is open to bold, new expressions of auditory euphoria, the will is captured for a time in an emotional deluge that resonates from the base of the spine through the transparent lid of the third eye. Upon waking, all that remains is the tinkle of distant keys and a yearning desire to defy gravity and dive back in.
Drugs, you say? None, excluding nicotine, thanks?we all have our vices. This, believe it or not, is a band. No, not another amazing offering from the British Isles or an obscure coastal post-rock endeavor; this is a quartet from your own backyard, and their musical prowess and innovative style have launched their careers into the new orbit of national acclaim.
Tulsa sound-spinners Ester Drang have been weaving their potent mesh of electronic rock since the mid-’90s, and now, their diligence to their signature craft has earned them historic status on a national record label.
To provide an idea of just how unconventional this fantastic four is musically, it would suffice to point out that they are anything but a traditional, fixed-frame four-piece ensemble.
Bryce Chambers, the group’s enigmatic pseudo-frontman, provides vocals, guitars, piano and synth to the celestial soup. Kyle Winner, on the other hand, provides bass guitar and bass synth for a hearty, droning foundation. Jeff Shoop immerses the mix in rippling guitar and another generous helping of synth, and James McAlister stirs the tempest with liquid drums, piano, synth and sampled mayhem. To be clear, none have any additional arms with which to play all these instruments at once; however, the versatility expressed here is present not only in the studio, but onstage as well, with all members filling the space of sound to the brim in multiple attitudes throughout each performance. Their musical cohesion transmutes genres into a manifestation of their own finely tuned, sonic sensibilities.
Recently, the canvas widened considerably for the Ester Drang crew when lauded indie label Jade Tree signed them to a multi-album recording deal. Though they have released two prior offerings?the EP That is when he turns us golden (self-produced) and a full-length epic entitled Goldenwest (Burnt Toast)?their Jade Tree debut, appropriately dubbed Infinite Keys, brandishes a honed arsenal of instrumentation and insight that formally elevates the band to a whole new level of artistic promise and potential.
Oklahoma Music had the chance to chat with the guys when they were back in T-town for a rehearsal in Chamber’s converted garage/jam shack. As I entered the practice space, the band was going through the new album’s title track, and it sounded every bit as impressive as the studio version. I was also immediately taken aback by the large canvas portraits of each band member in close-up, which adorned the walls. Chambers, the reserved and semi-reluctant captain of the Drang ship, has a knack for the visual as well as the auditory arts.
"We were going to use them for an EP cover a few years ago, but that didn’t quite happen," Chambers laughs. "But maybe they’ll pop up some time down the road."
To look at them, the Ester cronies portray the utmost anti-pretension and seem almost too low-key to measure a pulse. Even the discussion of their major indie label breakthrough didn’t rouse the foursome to a furtive display.
"It’s really hard for us to get blown away by anything, for some reason," McAlister says. "I really think that if Johnny Cash came to the door, we’d just be like, ‘Come on in.’" Ester Drang is the first band in Jade Tree’s history to be signed on the merit of demos alone; an impressive feat, to say the least. "It is kind of funny, though," Chambers says. "Normally the way things happen, you’ll be playing a show not knowing who’s in the crowd, and ‘Joe Label Guy’ comes up and says, ‘Hey, you guys are awesome.’ With this deal, we did all this recording and contract signing, and the label had never met us or seen us play until South By Southwest [industry conference]."
So just how did these 20-something lads from Broken Arrow suburbia get a national record deal? With influences spanning the musical horizon from My Bloody Valentine to Marvin Gaye, and definite style points in common with the Brit-rock scene both past and present, they had a splayed edge to offer at the table. But was it enough to be noticed in a sea of band solicitors? In this case, as the band revealed, it was another example of the power of not what you know, but who.
"They got a demo copy of our first record from the Jade Tree distributor," McAlister recalls. "The strange thing was that I actually sent Jade Tree a copy about the same time. That one got thrown in the trash, but they became interested based on the copy that the distributor gave them. So six months went by and we were beginning plans for our next record. Two weeks before we were to go in the studio, they e-mailed us saying that they had been listening to the demo, they really liked the demo, and they wanted us to do our next record with them."
Goldenwest was heralded locally and via the electronic superhighway as a creative and deliberate epic, as well as a major departure from the local pop platform. Needless to say, critics and fans alike have some big expectations for Infinite Keys. If not an absolute theme, the band concurred, Infinite Keys is an adhesive that represents both stylistic direction and creative process.
"I think it might be a theme, at least musically or subconsciously," Shoop says. "When we started throwing around the infinite keys thing, it was after a lot of the songs had been written, but it came at a time when we were trying to musically piece everything together. We did [as always] a lot of self-mixing of the songs as we were writing them. Basically, I think we were trying to move away from terribly cluttered things."
McAlister picks up the thought and continues, "The way I worked it out in my head was we liked what we said in the songs on Goldenwest?the moods and the feel of it. On Infinite Keys, we, in some ways, tried to convey the same kinds of messages just in more direct ways with the instrumentation ? to get to the same places, but just do it with a little more finesse. We still wanted to be just as visual and picturesque and create the right scenes, but just accomplish that a little more efficiently."
The Ester-fest, in the past, has been categorized wholly as bleeding to the darker side of "shoegazer post-rock." Akin to the recent stellar offering from fellow Okies The Flaming Lips, Infinite Keys does hold some dark recesses, but the overall package has an evidently optimistic tinge, which may cultivate new, evolved ground for the quartet. In addition, the majority of the tracks on the new CD are markedly shorter than those spun on Goldenwest. Could this mean the end of Ester’s ambling epic? The band looks at the change not as a cessation of their previous incarnation, but a crystallization of their musical ideals.
"We just wanted to write songs and not be all about this sit-down, emotional baggage stuff all the time," McAlister says. "Don’t get me wrong; I think that’s great, but I guess we just wanted to do something different."
Chambers adds, "I think the epic feel is still very much a part of the songs. They’re just not so big and never-ending."
The band itself has been a veritable melting pot of personas and addendums over the years. Shoop has only been meshed into the Drang fabric for two years. Yet the band has never lost their intimate focus, with the core trio of Chambers, Winner and McAlister steering their craft into uncharted sonic delirium. The secret, as indicated by the boys themselves, is a certain level of personal elasticity mixed with a natural modicum of band neurosis.
"The three of us kind of have this weird, psychological connection going on," McAlister says. "We have just been playing together for so long that it’s a little strange sometimes. New members may be amazing musicians, but it takes a while to get used to any new addition, especially drummers?and we’ve had like 20."
Their gala studio adventure took them into the footfalls of their mentors. All felt awed by the endless sky now open to them in this brave new world.
"We tracked everything in Denton, Texas, at a place called Echo Lab; then we went to mix it at Soma in Chicago," Chambers says. "Bands like Stereolab and Wilco have recorded at Echo, so it was really exciting for us to work there and see their reels on the shelves and play with the equipment that they used on their records."
"I’m a little bit more of a nerd, and I’m the super fan of bands like Tortoise and John McEntire and the Wilco stuff, probably more than anyone else as far as being a little fanatical about it," McAlister says. "So, I was kind of walking around looking in cupboards for anything weird I could find. But one of the things we actually used that was incredibly productive was a modular synthesizer, an entire wall in size. It was basically the same type of technology that we have, just a lot more complicated. Mikael [Jorgensen] from Wilco was there, and on one song, he helped us patch some drums through it.
"The studio also had a celeste [a percussion instrument]. I had heard celeste samples through a keyboard, but I’d never played one, and that was cool. There was also this super secret loft area where John McEntire kept a lot of drum stuff, and I climbed up there to check it out because, in a way, I think that’s what we were paying for. They also had actual plate reverb there?not the setting, but actual 8-foot metal plates mounted inside a chassis, and it actually sends the audio signal directly through the plate. It’s like a spring reverb in a guitar amp except it’s giant. Every reverb except one on the record was run through it. In fact, there’s only one digital effect on the record. All the delay, reverb, vocals?all of it was analog."
The end product is a latticework of superbly crafted tunes that bear repeated listening without dimming in their appeal. But now that the band has achieved major album support, distribution worldwide, and big studio bang, will the Ester Drang signature of prolific live performance pale in comparison to the Soma mix? According to the band, not a chance in hell.
But which of the disciplines, live or Memorex, is most important to the band now?
"I don’t think you should slouch on either one," says Shoop. "I have a lot of great records by bands that are just terrible live because they’re ? I don’t know, lazy, maybe. And we do try, in many ways, to duplicate what happens on the record in our live performances, but if you just want to hear the exact tracks, listen to the album. There are certain elements, a kind of intangible, that you bring to a live show or else it’s kind of pointless."
All in all, the quartet is ready for the challenges that await them in the new industry sphere. Though perhaps a tad bit shell-shocked, the guys have done well for themselves. They are currently embarked on a five-month North American label tour in support of Infinite Keys.
"We all feel extremely honored and blessed," McAlister says. "In a sense, it empowers us because we don’t have any real excuses anymore. We went to the same studio with the same equipment used by some of our mentors and recorded our record. And I think it’s good to have had the bar raised by putting ourselves in a realm of people whom we really respect. And if we manage to survive, it will mean that much more to us."