You’ll Take A Shine To These Too Hot Little Devils
A bluesy jangle sparks through the speakers from the opening song on The Get Ahead’s new album and I am immediately hooked. The album is titled Volcano and the song, Could Be Better, acts thusly, gaining energy with drums thrumming and then the slow moan of a low slung saxophone. The vocals enter into the mix and the tempo slows down slightly, giving the listener a sense of calm before the storm…then the chorus explodes into a raw, gritty fury, drawing the listener to their feet.
The band’s sound feels as if you wandered into a swampy speakeasy, deep in the bayou: the one the real people go to…not the tourists. It is a bluesy, soulful sound, dredged from the muddy banks of the Mississippi and filled with a mournful muscle that flexes throughout. Their music meanders through the working class back alleys, picking up influences along the way. An insistent percussion and bass lines drives their unrelenting sound, which is mixed with a dash of grind house gospel and even a tinge of Tennessee twang, all wrapped up with a foot pounding rock and soul at the core.
The Portland, Oregon band’s album Volcano is the digital equivalent of standing in a crowded club, dancing and sweat drenched and along with a multitude of other party going converts. Danny Johnson’s drums match perfectly with Sean Farrell’s dynamic bass riffs as Steve Johnson’s Memphis styled sax creates a backing vocal of its own. Juliet Howard’s beautiful, whiskey soaked bluesy vocals are contrasted with Nathan Earle’s persevering tenor, which he punctuates with a jangling, blues driven guitar. The raw element captured on the record is a thing of beauty and wonder.
On The Road
Over the chaotic holidays, I was able to interview two of the members of The Get Ahead, vocalist Juliet Howard and Nathan Earle, who plays lead and rhythm guitar. In between their brutal touring schedule they were kind enough to answer some questions so that I was better able to grasp some of the depth of the band and their vision. The first question I had was how they created such a “live” recording, capturing the elements of the road in such a sterile environment as a recording studio.
“Analog recording is where it starts.” Juliet explained. “We like to track as much of the instruments live as much as we can, with minimal overdubs. For this record, drums, bass and guitar were all in the same room, which was reminiscent of live shows.”
“We love the energy of live shows.” Nathan added, “We wanted to encapsulate that feeling for the record.”
You can tell just listening to the album that this a band born on the road, honing and polishing their sound on stage without a net. With the high energy needed to perform, what I wondered what their pre-show routine was to get themselves amped up?
“Sometimes, we like to take mate shots or whiskey shots, or both. We try to be as rested as possible beforehand.” Juliet stated. “Nathan and I try to get a vocal warm-up in on the ride over to the show. Nathan likes to do a little stretching and I like to have a hot tea with honey right before going on.”
“We know it’s an honor and a blessing to have the opportunity to entertain and to effect others.” Nathan said. “We don’t take that for granted when we’re performing, regardless of the context.”
Every band has a favorite song that they like to play live. It is very enlightening to see which one that is and gives a little more inside vision into understanding the performers. What is The Get Ahead’s favorite song to play live?
Juliet says that hers is, “Little Devil because it tends to rile people up and get people dancing.”
Nathan’s favorite live performance song is, “Moonstricken, because it commands attention from the audience and it’s a dynamic, beautiful ballad.”
It is also interesting to hear what types of covers songs a band will attempt, especially if it is diametrically opposed to the style of music they normally play. Did The Get Ahead ever cover a song that was an odd or unique choice?
“A soulful version of the Misfits Die, Die My Darling.” Juliet recounts. “That was a fun and silly one.”
Organic Mixture Of The Muse
It seems like there are so many influences going on within the band, from jazz, funk, blues, soul and even a little bit of country thrown in. How do they mix all these different genres? Do band members just organically throw in their own seasonings into the mix or is it something that is planned out from the beginning?
“It really starts with the writing, but everyone brings their own musical background and personality to this band.” Juliet explained. “It’s definitely an organic process. We do not plan out the sound, we let it figure itself out through playing together. If it feels right for the song, we run with it.”
With the raw power and excessive talent of the individual members, there are so many directions that The Get Ahead could go in. What direction do they see the band going in?
“We see the band growing in terms of notoriety and reach, and we really see national touring on the horizon. In the short-term we have a goal of beginning to open for headliners like Charles Bradley, Sharon Jones, and Lee Fields.” Nathan answered, then added that, “The band is also beginning to tighten up and to play more beat-influenced music with a bit more R&B flavor. We really are ready to work with a producer on our next record, and will be seeking management in the near future as well.”
The Working Class Heroes
The one question I had that I knew had to have a story behind it revealed one of the most surprising and in depth answers of the interview. I simply asked where the name The Get Ahead came from…
“The Get Ahead came out of a long search for a band name. Much of my writing is influenced by my upbringing in a working class, blue collar environment as well as my deep interest in the social sciences.” Nathan elaborated by saying, “One of the earliest songs I wrote for this project was entitled Get Ahead. This song was intended as a sort of anthem of the underclass, the Proletariat of Marxist doctrine and what is referred to as ‘lower’ class in the current vernacular. Drawing from my own personal experiences, those of my family, and the stories of those I work with in my professional life a common thread emerged, and the struggle to ‘make ends meet’ and to get from ‘paycheck to paycheck’ sort of became for me a mantra or motto. For me the best and most tangible way of describing this struggle is the effort to get ahead- to get out in front of the demands of hard work and subsistence and to forge ahead into a better, easier time. After releasing our EP with the recording of Get Ahead, we as a group went through many lists of possible names, and finally settled on The Get Ahead because we felt it encapsulated much of the raw energy, focus on visceral everyday experience, and the drive of our work.”
In reference to the band’s name, Nathan went on to say that, “I might be over thinking it, but for me the idea of The Get Ahead also reminds me of the Robert Johnson song Hellhound on my Trail: ‘I gotta keep moving, gotta keep moving, blues falling down like hail. And the day keeps on remindin’ me there’s a hellhound on my trail.’ We’re all fighting the futile battle to conquer our mortality or to come to grips with it in some way, all along knowing that it’s chasing us and will inevitably catch and devour us.”
Anytime you find an artist, or group, who has created something that drives deeply into another persons spirit, they have had to dredge that emotional essence from somewhere deep within themselves. I wondered from what depths does the group draw from to get that signature soulful sound?
“In terms of the emotion and experience that influence us, we really draw from pain and joy, love and loss. Nathan has a real belief that the experience of pain has the ability to expand your experience of joy, and relates this to the music that he writes and performs.” Juliet expanded on this notion by adding, “One very important root of our music is also the effort to be grounded in ‘the moment’ and to not take anything for granted.”
“We also owe a lot to our musical forebears, who have taught us the power and beauty of attempting to share our love and loss with others.” Nathan stated, before going on to say, “And, bottom line, we’re honest on stage. It’s not a gimmick. We care about the music we write and we bring ourselves to our shows and allow our listeners into our experiences.”