with EMPIRES and AARON MARK BROWN
WE ARE MOTOPONY
Throughout history, individuals have been playing with the delicate balance between polarities. Often, the combination of two opposites makes for a harmony previously unknown, a sum greater than its parts. Motopony is the embodiment of this notion – a band built on a bedrock of contrasts and the gorgeous alchemy of seemingly conflicted sounds, and the feelings mapped over them. Guided by soulful machines Daniel Blue and Buddy Ross along with guitarist Brantley Cady and drummer Forrest Mauvais, there is a warm efficiency to the hard-soul/glitch-folk contained on the quartet’s self-titled debut.
But then, that was always the idea for lead singer and songwriter Daniel Blue. “A lot of people run from machines into nature, and a lot of people run from nature into machines. Somewhere in there, there has to be a balance,” explains Blue. The origins of Motopony certainly reflect this duality. The band’s beginnings are intrinsically tied to Blue’s – they both begin at the bottom of a waterfall, then traipse through the southwestern states before sweeping up into the Pacific northwest. It was there that Blue picked up the guitar at age 27, after years of expressing himself through the design label he began years previously, but has since put on hiatus to pursue music. The impetus to pick up the guitar was less a choice than a necessity, and it’s remained that way ever since. “I freaked out. I was alone in my warehouse where I made clothes and had parties. I grabbed this guitar I’d bought ten years earlier, and started playing this song.” Blue’s foray into music happened to be the five-year anniversary of his mother’s death, and the nascent stages of Blue’s songwriting were consumed by this loss – his grief the lens through which everything refracted.
In the intervening four years, the depth of Blue’s songwriting has deepened and grown, and is only complemented by Ross’s tempered arrangements. Motopony’s debut is steeped in thought and burnished by longing – for another person, a lost time, an unnamed cause. Romantic relationships are the engine of the four-time-engaged (but never married) Blue’s art, but there is a great deal else on the album. Blue’s twang on lead single “King of Diamonds” seamlessly weaves through Ross’ disarming pace, drums chugging and xylophone tones brightly harmonizing with Blue’s voice as he tells the story of searching for something he realizes he already has. The anxiously beautiful picking on “Wake Up” gives way to an honest look at the state of the world and one’s self in it. Despite its darker tone, Blue considers it a “callout of darkness,” not into it. The stark and solemn tone sets the track apart from its warmer counterparts, as Blue’s universally relatable anxieties unfurl across the song. Another stand-out track is “Seer” – a composition that recounts of the mythology of Motopony, a type of theme song that tells the tale of Blue’s origins. Piano lines spike the bridge as Blue’s tunings wind around his voice, which dwells in a register that demands attention. Blue’s vocals delive rboth boasts and character flaws with the same swagger, before taking aim at an unknown you. Motopony does quiet and plaintive as well as loud and raucous, as on the hushed acoustics of “Wait for Me,” a heart-rending vision with a fair amount of confession. Eerie, atmospheric sounds echo in the background as a searing string ushers gorgeous female backing vocals that drift in and out throughout the song.
But before Motopony could create their stunning debut, they had to meet. A fateful dinner party in the spring of 2009 would bring together the much-needed other piece of Motopony: multi-instrumentalist and co-producer Buddy Ross. After orbiting each other in the music scene for years, the two were brought together at a songwriter’s dinner in Tacoma, WA. “I had never heard him sing before,” says Ross. “He was a unique character – I didn’t expect him to sound the way he did. I was taken aback by it.” Blue had been impressed with Ross years earlier when they’d intersected while working on someone else’s album. “It was clear he was a genius,” says Blue. A month later, the partnership was formed, and Blue began sending Ross the first set of songs that would eventually comprise the Motopony debut. Blue’s bizarre tunings – three E-strings, spaced out in an odd pattern – were the perfect marriage to Ross’s modern, anchoring cadences. Ross was initially reluctant to form a band, but was ultimately swayed by the strength of the music. “The songs are really captivating – and there’s so much space for me to fill it up with what I do,” explains Ross. With pre-production done at a remove, Blue began trekking to Seattle a few times a week for practice, and ultimately moved there to make the band work.
While the band may count Seattle as their home now, a natural current runs deeply through the band’s music, and Ross and Blue contend they would not sound the way they do were it not for their Pacific Northwest roots. “We’re not place specific, but I do think our music is born out of eight months of rain in a year and the love of nature because it’s so damn green. There are lots of open spaces. I really love our place, and I think that shows up in what I’m trying to do.” When Blue talks about the nature Motopony holds dear, he might as well be talking about his music. “A lot of the harmony I see in nature is that strange juxtaposition of worlds that don’t seem like they should collide, that effortlessly seem to be happening in tandem and you can’t take out one piece. You can’t run from it.”
Empires have emerged from the deep freeze of Chicago with a collection of tunes imbued with a thick-skinned Midwestern charm. “Orphan” – the band’s upcoming album on Chop Shop / Island Records has producer John Congleton (St. Vincent, The Black Angels, Explosions in the Sky) at the helm, perfectly capturing a band in their truest form. Empires are out on the road this winter & spring – with stops at SXSW and various festivals – introducing songs from the new album, including the debut track ‘How Good Does It Feel’.
While Brown might describe himself as a folk singer at heart, Realities of Grandeur is not your standard singer/songwriter fare.
While often technically accurate, “singer/songwriter” fails to adequately portray the complexities of a fully realized epic that plays as a veritable journey through the history of American (and British) music. Classical string arrangements here, big band jazz piano and horns creep in there, the aforementioned folk influence, and then the whole thing seems to teeter on the edge of exploding into one big musical, show-tune. But in only the best way possible. Though the influences are undeniably there and the quality of songwriting may allude to familiar classics at times, (Harry Nilsson, McCartney, Paul Williams, Dylan, The Muppets…) any familiarity of Realities of Grandeur is hinted at- more like the memory of a memory than a derivative sum of the parts.
After a writing and recording process that spanned nearly three years, the 11 songs contained within the album possess a strong continuity of music and subject matter that document the struggle to completion. “I discovered at some point that the main reason I write songs is to remember things that are important to me… things that I tend to forget,” says Brown. Topics range from prime numbers to recipes for simple living, or perhaps more accurately; recipes for simple dying. In fact, inevitable absolutes, like death, are a main thematic element of Realities of Grandeur. “This album is often about absolutes and learning to accept or deal with them… because they certainly do exist and are often inconvenient. But it is my intent, in life and music, to find the purpose and hope implied in absolutes.”
Join the Facebook Event!