Break on Through
John Giovanni storms Next Big Thing competition
by Rick Levin
|Photo by Dmitri Von Klein / monovita.com|
Not to curse anyone with comparisons or anything, but I imagine a Doors practice minus Jim Morrison might have had something of the same sly, tacitly intimate flavor of the impromptu jam session I recently witnessed by Eugene band John Giovanni. I don’t dig the Doors all that much, really — respect, sure, but their music leaves me cold. Too technical or something, despite all that heady sex-and-death mojo Joan Didion describes firsthand in The White Album. For me, the Doors’ experimentalism seems like costume drama, a game of chess fobbed off as checkers by self-conscious art school geeks.
I do, however, like John Giovanni, quite a lot, actually. They, too, seem like art school geeks, but they also look like they’re having a lot of fun with the dynamics of their music. And watching the three instrumentalists bang out a handful songs in the cramped quarters of a living room, with the 17-year-old lead singer and “soul” of the band absent, I realized just how good these guys are. First of all, they’re all strong, intuitively smart musicians; they’re comfortable together, even playful, but also dead serious about their music — in a pen-behind-the-ear sort of way; and, best of all, they either don’t realize any of this, or are genuinely unconcerned about it. For them, the music genuinely is the thing.
So long story short: With French-Canadian-born vocalist Genevieve (pronounced Jon-vee-ev) Bellemare up north in Corvallis or McMinnville or wherever she was last weekend, the rest of the band invited me over to get a sense of their style beyond “Slumber,” the song that won the inaugural Next Best Thing Eugene contest. Not that I don’t like the single — it deserved to win. It’s a peach of a tune: A jazzy, hypnotic torch song that implodes, unexpectedly, in a chorus that is abstractly and keenly beautiful, before finally breaking apart like glass, with instrumental lines sending shards of notes in all directions. It’s Bellemare’s beyond-her-years vocal work — evoking the fragile, elegiac croon of Billie Holiday — that gives “Slumber” its heart, but the band sits right in the pocket, filling in the loud/quiet crooks of every lyrical turn.
Now here’s the kicker: Nobody in John Giovanni thinks “Slumber” is anywhere near their best song; it just happens to be the only one they had recorded. (“It’s kind of a downer that we had to use that song,” Bellemare said. “It was so not get down and funky.”) In fact, bassist Zev Levine didn’t even tell the band he was entering the contest; he just went ahead and did it. What’s more, John Giovanni didn’t have a band Facebook page until very recently, the salesperson equivalent of not having a business card. And they’ve only been playing together for about a year. None of them are half my age, and I’m not that old. Needless to say, this whole winning thing has caught the kids in John Giovanni a bit off guard.
If Bellemare is the heart of the band, keyboardist and composer Eric Valentine is the brains — literally, the guy with the pen behind his ear at practice, the Ray Manzarek figure, if you’ll grant the skewed analogy. A jazz student in the UO School of Music, Valentine is part egghead and part cut-up: During the practice I watched, he spent equal time hunched over the piano, ears perked, and jumping around all crazy-legged and pounding the keys like Jerry Lee Lewis. For influences he cites everything from Steely Dan to Charles Mingus, and it’s obvious he’s constantly thinking about arrangement, direction, risk.
“The first time playing with Eric was kind of intimidating because he has such a huge knowledge of music theory,” Levine said, who’s had no formal training beyond high school band. Levine pointed out that, in the past, when he and drummer Nate Curry would jam (they’ve known each other since they were toddlers) there was “pretty much complete disregard” for structure. “Once we started playing with Eric,” Levine went on, “I realized he was good to where it didn’t matter where we went with a jam — he knew exactly how to handle it. Eric does everything technical,” he added.
Even for Valentine, who played in a previous band with Bellemare, the process of creating music in John Giovanni has been something of a revelation. “When Genevieve and I started playing with Zev and Nate, it was a different musical experience for me than I’d ever had,” he admitted. First they changed up some old material, fixing parts that were “strange or didn’t work.” Then Bellemare started bringing in new songs, in the form of melodies hummed into a tape recorder. “It was interesting to watch how they transformed,” Valentine said of putting the flesh on the skeleton of a melody. “It took me a long time to get used to communicating my ideas with the band. Our jam sessions used to be disjointed, and lose energy halfway or keep going for 10 minutes. Now we communicate way better, without even looking at each other.”
“We’re trying to get all of these genres together,” Curry said of the band’s creative process, which is rooted in jazz but can take off in just about any direction at the drop of a hat, drawing from such diverse influences as Tool and Radiohead to Phil Lesh, Paul Simon and Django Reinhardt. Once, they ended a live cover of Steely Dan’s “King of the World” with, as Levine explained it, “me and Nate’s roommate doing a death metal shriek in a priest suit.”
At the center of it all is the driving inspiration of Bellemare’s songwriting, which usually begins with a bit of melody that strikes her when she’s, well, perhaps least disposed to get it down on tape. “I always have my melodies come to me I’m peeing,” she said. Once, she wrote one song in five minutes in the bathroom. “I do lyrics later,” she added.
A high school drop-out who currently lives in McMinnville and works as a courtesy clerk at a grocery store, Bellemare said she grew up with “church music all the time” until her older brother “corrupted” her by exposing her to bands like Pink Floyd, Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers. But it wasn’t until she overheard her mother playing music by jazz singer Diana Krall that she was totally bowled over. “And then I started going crazy,” she said, and her hunger for more jazz led her, inevitably, to classic vocalists like Nina Simone and Billie Holiday, to whom she’s frequently compared. “I get that all the time,” she said of the Holiday reference. “I just don’t get it. I must sound like a black woman.”
Bellemare called winning the Next Big Thing Eugene contest “really strange,” though she and the band appear upbeat about the opportunities more exposure could bring their way — especially in the way of live local gigs. “I love playing live,” Valentine said, describing his antics at a John Giovanni gig as “screaming, hurling my keyboard, jumping up and down, slapping the audience” — in other words, not your typically mannered jazz-school behavior.
“Playing live is definitely my favorite part of being in a band,” said Levine. “I think the most important thing a band can do is have an enjoyable live show. I’m not saying we’re there yet, by any means, but it’s definitely something we’re going for.”
You can watch John Giovanni go for it live at one of several Next Big Thing CD Release Parties taking place around town this weekend. John Giovanni plays with Starboard Morning at Luckey’s Saturday; that night will also feature performances by Judy K. Vogelsang, Fred Van Vactor and top-five finalist Tyler Fortier at John Henry’s; and Jamalia and top-fiver Rootdown rock out at Joe’s. On Thursday, Nov. 12, Kingdom County and top-five finalist Bad Mitten Orchestre play Cozmic Pizza; Volifonix and Essentials hit The District. Friday shows feature Lucky Doug, Half Shark Half Jesus and top-five finalist Reclaiming Jane at Diablo’s; and Vial Experiment and Issa at Black Forest. For times, covers and more information, see Nightlife listings.
From the rolling rap and percussive guitar strumming of the intro to the confectionary glee of the chorus kicking in, Rootdown’s “Summertime” fits the classic blueprint of a radio-friendly single. The song is catchy and straightforward, a spiritual sentiment of thanksgiving that is lifted up, literally and figuratively, by the upbeat aura of reggae. Like the ultraviolet rays it celebrates, “Summertime” gets under your skin. Band founder and lead singer Paul Wright — a Eugene returnee from the laid-back groove of Southern California beach culture — sprinkles the song with nice details that are easily grasped by anyone who recalls “soakin’ up the sun until it gets dark” during those long, hot days of August. And when he decides to “thank the creator for all that we have,” the emotion is buoyant and all-embracing, a cosmic call for everyone to chill out and love one another. The band plays it loose and funky, and the song’s minimalist effects — a horn riff, some ‘70s style gee-tar reverb, a synthesized vocal bridge — only add to the single’s guilt-free feeling of letting your toes sink into warm sand.
Tyler Fortier, “Pale Moon Rise”
“Tasteful” isn’t necessarily an adjective relished by most musicians — the word conjures ideas of playing it safe and coloring inside the lines. When applied, however, to the choices singer-songwriter Tyler Fortier makes on “Pale Moon Rise,” tasteful takes on the more orthodox and architectural meaning of being so well crafted that it seems things couldn’t have gone any other way. If Fortier’s voice recalls, at times, the scads of similarly sensitive dude crooners like John Mayer, his careful craftsmanship also gives momentary glimpses of early, Garfunkel-less Paul Simon. The chops are there, especially in the textural layering that distinguishes “Pale Moon Rise” from the monotonous herd of mumble men: the song actually goes somewhere, adding steely strings, gospel backing vocals and a punchy beat. It’s good stuff. And if Fortier’s future moons wax a bit more “Pink” than “Pale,” watch out. He could really start turning some heads.
Reclaiming Jane, “Anthems for Endings”
The plinky piano intro on Reclaiming Jane’s “Anthems for Endings” brings to mind, somewhat distractingly, Jason Segal’s Dracula rock opera from Forgetting Sarah Marshall — “Die, die, die” — but once things get underway, the song sets its fangs into a serious pop hook and doesn’t let go. The fuzzy guitars take their cue from The Jesus & Mary Chain, creating a sustaining wall of sound that belies the songs roots in the la-la-lah, hand-clappy pop of post-‘80s boy bands. That’s nothing to sneeze at; bouncy beats, sad-happy lyrics and catchy choruses are the immemorial lifeblood of the airwaves, and the high schoolers — yes, high schoolers — that make up Reclaiming Jane put a nice twist on the old formula by roughing everything up around the edges. Matt Edewaard’s vocals are engagingly croaky yet tuneful, like Davey Jones gargling gravel, and the musicianship has a teetering, rollicking quality that translates into a sort of fuck-yeah ebullience. And, yes, the song does contain actual hand clapping. “I can see everything from here,” Edewaard sings defiantly. Like, for miles and miles.
Bad Mitten Orchestre, “Saints of the Blue Avenue”
Bad Mitten Orchestre claim influences running the gamut from Benny Goodman and Bob Dylan to Tom Waits, Django Reinhardt and Cat Stevens, which either gives you a good idea or no idea at all what to expect from this odd amalgamation of fiddling, accordion-squeezing, banjo-picking and kazoo-blowing cabaret artists. Think of Kafka’s Vienna, of monochrome portraits torn at the edges, of swordfish trombones and smoke in the eyes and gin on the breath, and just maybe you’ll begin to understand the quirky, cartoony appeal of “Saints of the Blue Avenue.” The song is so gorgeously evocative and involving it creates a mysterious world all its own. The quintet’s musicianship is sharp and sophisticated, but never off-putting; they sound like they’re having a blast. If “Saints” isn’t exactly your typical single, it nonetheless pulls you in with the first line, “Well there were seven bloody Marys at the edge of the bar, waiting for seven bloody men to step in,” after which it waltzes you around in a narrative as absurd and haunting as The White Album’s “Rocky Raccoon.”
About That Contest
The driving ambition for our first ever “singles” song contest was twofold: to build up the paper’s presence in and support for Eugene’s thriving music scene; and to provide a spark that would inspire creativity, dialogue, excitement and some healthy competition among the city’s diverse musicians. If that sounds corny or naïvely idealistic, we stand accused. No, the intention was not to line our pockets or promote our pet bands by some corrupted trap-door voting process.
The inaugural process was far from fault-free. The rules, especially concerning the final judging process, were not as clearly spelled out as they could have been. We should have said who the final judges would be, and how the voting process would break down. And, yes, voting did count. It was votes that determined the top 40 songs that went to our panel of judges, but judges were able to consider to any of the songs, including last-minute entries.
Voter fraud occurred, like the scheme of programming numerous computers to vote for a particular band every four hours. We had ways of tracking ballot stuffing and caught it.
This contest got a lot bigger than we thought it would. We figured the contest would bring in 30, 40 entries, tops. But in the end we capped entries at 150-plus. Audience participation was huge. The Next Big Thing website had 25,000 visits from 8,000 unique visitors, and on average each of those visitors listened to two songs per visit.
If you’re pissed that you lost, consider this: Your music was exposed to new listeners; you were invited to praise, bitch and discuss music in a local public forum; you probably learned a thing or two about art and commerce and audience reaction. And, as they used to say in Boston about the Red Sox, “There’s always next year.” That’s how we’re looking at this, and we’re open to any criticism and suggestions you are kind enough to hurl in our direction; you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org Being constructive helps.
Thanks, everyone. We couldn’t have done it without you. — EW staff