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Feature Wed Oct 07 2015

Audiobakery's In Full Bloom

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The Throne Room on Broadway is a pretty dark venue. The walls are black, the d├ęcor is black, there's a black curtain behind the stage to block the windows that look out on the street below. But into the darkness bubbles an energy from the only glowing part of the room: the stage. On this stage, the four members of Audiobakery prepare for the evening's ceremony. Lead singer and guitarist Brad Bacci takes the mic and beckons to the crowd. "You're about to hear six songs we've never played before," he shares. "This is the first half of the concept album we're recording. It's about the seasons, and tonight we're going to take you from March to August."

"Get up and dance! Bring it in!" shouts bassist Jon Nadel, beaming exuberantly.

And with that, the band leaps into "March," the first track off its upcoming album Perennial Bloom, set for release on next year's spring equinox (you can hear a sneak preview here). Drummer Brett Schomer is a wildman behind his kit, eyes closed with passion as his whole body flails. Guitarist Zak Sprenger is his antithesis, standing perfectly still as his fingers fly through a set of complex runs. Bacci and Nadel stare out at the crowd, singing in harmony and conducting their audience with their facial expressions. The song plays out like a storm--March, they say, comes in like a lion--but if this is a storm, players and listeners are uniting in a spectacular rain dance. There is the sense that everyone in the room has become a singular organism, throwing off light into the surrounding gloom. This is the point of Audiobakery's existence and of its music: bringing people together, opening minds, creating a cosmic event here on Earth.

~*~

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Spend a Saturday morning with Audiobakery, and the vibes of connectedness they emit in concert aren't dimmed--they're expanded.

A week before their show at The Throne Room, the band has invited me over for brunch at Bacci's parents' house in suburban Lincolnshire. Bacci shows me around the place, pointing out the spacious living room floor that he used to pretend was a stage when he was younger. Coming here from the Bucktown loft he shares with Nadel provides a welcome mental respite. "When I hit Route 22, I just expand outward," he tells me. Meanwhile, Nadel and Sprenger walk in and pull up a nice cooking soundtrack on Schomer's laptop. Today's selection: scrambled eggs and pancakes with a side of djent bands Scale the Summit and Animals as Leaders. Making the food and managing the music are communal efforts, the four band members wordlessly dividing responsibilities while keeping up easy conversation about former Mars Volta frontman Cedric Bixler-Zavala throwing boiling water at a crowd. "I'm a big fan of Mars Volta," says Sprenger disgustedly, "but if the artist turns out to be dicks, I'm just not going to listen to them."

Right off the bat, you can tell that Audiobakery goes back a long way, both as a band and as best friends. Such is the comfort with which they conduct themselves around each other, and around other people--despite the occasional inside joke to which I'm not privy, they envelop me in positivity and I feel like an old friend. We move out to Bacci's screened-in porch with our food and over the next two hours, Audiobakery tells me its story.

The band came together early in the members' high school years with Luke Jarvie on drums, focusing its efforts on psychedelic music. By 2010, Schomer had replaced Jarvie behind the skins and as the bandmates moved onto various college experiences, they kept making music together whenever they could. The first fruits to come out of their labors popped up in 2011, when Audiobakery released two EPs: Sounds Yummy and The Duality of Progress. Both exhibit the influence of psychedelia with spacey, phased riffs and Bacci's abstract lyrics, but also incorporate heavy jams inspired by Schomer's metal background. On the whole, they sound like a less commercially aspirant, more experimental, rougher-around-the-edges version of Incubus. Audiobakery's musical and philosophical ambitions are abundantly clear, though, and to this day the band remains amazed by what they were able to accomplish as rookies.

"I think conceptually the lyrics in 'Complexify' [off Sounds Yummy] are some of the best and that's a still defining song for Audiobakery, both lyrically and musically," says Sprenger.

"I would say that The Duality of Progress is still an artistic feat that we're chasing," adds Bacci. "We weren't heady, we didn't think about how we were progressing but it was the first step in a progression, so it was so natural and authentic that when I listen to it I have no regrets."

One thing about the songs from those two releases: they were long. The shortest track off of either Sounds Yummy or The Duality of Progress is "Definition of Self," which clocks in at a substantial 5:23. Like many bands that fall under the wide umbrella of progressive rock (though Audiobakery despises the very notion of genre), Audiobakery's music, then and now, flows seamlessly from one section to the next, differing in texture and style across a swath of soundscape as diverse as the geography of the world--and it accordingly stretches to decidedly radio-unfriendly lengths. The songs don't necessarily drag out, though-- "we know we don't perceive time strictly linearly; depending on how excited or emotional we are we perceive time differently," says Nadel. And because the tempo and energy of Audiobakery's songs are so widely variable, much of the band's catalog blends effortlessly into the listener's complete sensory experience, no matter what that experience is.

Still, though, Audiobakery knew that their songs would need to be accessible to people who weren't as open-minded to the band's highbrow ideas. One solution was to write shorter songs, which they did on 2012's Bound Together, a seven-track record that falls somewhere between an EP and an LP. It found solid success with an online release, landing in iTunes' Top 10 for rock albums.

"We beat Robert Plant," recalls Schomer, bouncing on his seat with a huge smile on his face. This level of animation is totally normal for him.

"It was two days," clarifies Bacci. "It was Friday and Saturday. By Sunday he was back ahead."

"But still," contends Schomer. "It was like, 'Suck it, Robert Plant.'"

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Bound Together contains what Bacci calls "seven of the strangest stylistic statements we could make." There's the hard-driving "Ordinary Beings" leading off the record, followed by the jaunty but foreboding psych-reggae of "Drones," the band's first single. "Salvador Ali," which turns surrealism into an auditory form, is Nadel's favorite Audiobakery song so far, while Schomer and Sprenger both love "Our Ancestors Rode Mammoths," which sounds like a more relaxed version of TesseracT's djenty heaviness. All seven songs, though, contain an element that bridges the gap between pretentious intellectualism and the musical vernacular.

"Poppy choruses!" exclaims Nadel. The other three guys roar with laughter.

"You have to make a concession," says Bacci once things have calmed back down a bit, "and you know what my concession is? Pop music doesn't suck. It doesn't. If you look at our choruses, what we're saying when we put out a good poppy chorus that makes somebody wanna sing is, 'We understand you wanna have fun, we understand you need a breath. We're here with you. We get it. We're human."

Bacci, the band's primary songwriter, calls his lyrics "simple." But it's not a mindless simplicity; rather, he takes his conceptions of vast universal truths and distills them into poetic snippets. Take, for instance, the chorus to "Drones":

Hold onto true virtue
C'mon unplug yourself
Busted fuse, something new
And intuition will endure.

The tune is catchy and anthemic enough to get a crowd of inebriated folks singing along at a concert, but the ideas here are huge: individualism, free thought, an open and receptive mind. To the attentive listener seeking wisdom in Audiobakery's songs, Bacci and company present a wealth of inspiration. Their lyrics and music defy preexisting form in favor of an attempt to access the collective unconscious, the great universal forces that weave together every person's experience.

~*~

The band believes so powerfully in this notion of interconnectedness because they live it. Everything Audiobakery does, from its moments of levity to its entirely earnest creation of art, comes back to the strength of their relationship. Nadel leans back in his chair and tells a story about the time the band collectively saw a hypnotherapist. "She spent 45 minutes talking to us and getting to know us," he describes. "She was asking us questions about our hopes, our dreams, our goals, our fears. And we all know each other so well that we were answering for each other." Five minutes after I hear this anecdote, Bacci is making Sprenger cry tears of gratitude as he tells me how happy they all are whenever they're together.

That's what happens when four guys share a nearly identical guiding philosophy, which in this case is characterized by love of all of life's moments, good and bad, and an extreme open-mindedness. "The moment you don't have a conversation about it, that's far less intelligent than any viewpoint," Bacci explains.

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Over the course of brunch, the bandmates go from discussing the influence of Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Oliver Sacks' Musicophilia on their work to tossing pancake fragments into each other's mouth with a fork. When Bacci lists off all the myriad topics of conversation Audiobakery enjoys, Schomer gets a conniving look in his eyes and, to prove the point, gets him and Sprenger worked up about whether the Oxford comma should be used. Apparently this debate has raged for years, and Schomer has merely reignited the spark. "I'd rather discuss the fact that sharks have two penises," he confesses to me under the hubbub.

Regardless of what the band is discussing, though, they're opening their own thoughts to each other and to bright-eyed mental exploration. And their hope is to connect in a similar way to anyone who hears their music. "If every moment can produce art," says Bacci, "that means that every person we meet can help us produce art." Audiobakery challenges others to expand the horizons of possibility, to allow the band's works to affect them at a soul level, and to take personal ownership of the songs. To that end, they've decided to put out feedback cards at concerts that will allow fans to suggest improvements to the band's set.

"Honestly when Jon first said that, I was like, 'Who's gonna do that?'" recalls Bacci.

"Then he realized, 'I would totally do that,'" laughs Nadel.

He had the idea when Audiobakery was playing at the ItsnotA Music and Arts Festival in Kentucky this August, a benefit concert for suicide prevention that the band names as its favorite live performance to date. Audiobakery, with its galactic-scale soundscapes, instrumental prowess, and mind-expanding mission, is absolutely meant to be playing outdoors to the type of audience that festivals often attract. "Those were the best three days of my life," says Nadel, "and we made lifelong friends everywhere we went. That's making it."

Another opportunity for Audiobakery to share agency over its music presented itself earlier this year. An Austrian documentarian approached the band asking to license three of its songs for use in his film Burning Mountains, which chronicles three mountain bikers who travel to Namibia seeking out the perfect peaks to descend on their cycles. The stunning visuals of time-lapsed night skies and craggy sandstone precipices fit perfectly with the swirly tapping riff of "Salvador Ali" and the sweeping, immense "All I've Done," off the band's 2013 EP Anchors. Confronted with this new and incredible context, Audiobakery was overwhelmed with appreciation for someone else who understood the message of their music.

"As soon as [the bikers] get to the top of the mountain that is perfect, you hear the soaring guitar riffs come in, and then Brad starts singing, 'I bet you'd hold your tongue if you knew/All I've done for you,'" says Nadel. "Where now the 'you' is not a person, it's for this experience, it's for this mountain. It almost personifies the mountain they've been searching for. It was cool watching that and not only being taken aback by the beauty of it, but holy shit he gets the message and he's adapted it for this scene."

"He took a whole other pie slice that we never could've imagined and he added it to the Audiobakery pie," adds Bacci. "And now all of a sudden the ownership for the work extends far beyond our reach."

~*~

What currently has Audiobakery most excited, though, is the progress the band is making on its first full-length release. Bacci first developed the idea of writing a concept album about the seasons five years ago, and now Perennial Bloom is halfway recorded and has a release date set: Spring Equinox 2016. It's been a long process of writing, rewriting, and using false starts for other purposes. Schomer has had to toss out countless drum parts, much to his chagrin.

"Honestly, I've written this record probably like six times," Bacci tells me. "Like a full twelve songs."

"It's especially funny because some of those songs that were originally supposed to be on this album made it onto other albums," Jon chimes in. "Like 'Salvador,' we used to call it 'August.' Now when we're gonna play 'August,' it's like, which one?"

"Anchors became the best four songs that I wrote for the newest season. They were all supposed to be winter," adds Bacci.

So when you listen to Audiobakery's discography, you're really hearing a genealogy of Perennial Bloom. The songs take on a new significance as part of one long continuous experience that showcases the growth in the band's musical abilities, style, and influences. Although Audiobakery has existed in some form for nearly a decade, its members are still quite young men: Schomer, at 24, is the oldest. "I think the coolest and the most mature thing about this band is the recognition of the longevity of your reach," says Bacci. "This album is about to be the infancy of our real statement."

As is to be expected from such a thoughtful, hyper-conscious band--Bacci describes himself and his three best friends as "highly neurotic people," and all of them have been journaling about the experience of creating Perennial Bloom--the writing and recording of the album has been meticulously planned to the finest detail. The songs are named for the months of the year, but their inspiration stems from a number of sources: the seasons, the Zodiac, and the four classical Greek elements (earth, air, fire, and water).

"We're starting at the spring equinox, which is March 20th, and from March 20th to April 21st you're under the Aries constellation," explains Bacci. "The phrase for that is 'I am' [each Zodiac sign has an associated mantra]. That's really empowering, and it's a fire sign. When you think of it from an artistic perspective, there's so much to work with even from those ideas." Bacci hopes that listeners will not scoff at the astrological bases of the album; he wants their focus instead to be on the metaphorical meaning of the Zodiac as an emblem of life cycles, mental balance, and empathic interconnection, issues that he thinks are important for our generation to consider.

The musical aspects of Perennial Bloom, meanwhile, take more noticeably after the changing weather of the seasons and the particular element paired with each month/sign of the Zodiac. Audiobakery has found ways to express these stylistic variations both through the writing of the songs themselves and through various methods of recording. For example, Schomer shares, his drums were recorded using different mics and different rooms depending on what season he was playing.

Most importantly to Audiobakery, they've encouraged their recording engineers to get in on the fun. The studio staff came up with the idea to use a bass amp as a reverse mic to suck the low end out of Schomer's kick drum for the summer songs, and also suggested the use of different types of microphones for each season. "We like to think we bring the weird out of people," says Sprenger. Bacci defines that weirdness as "ownership" of the song.

Long after all the eggs and pancakes are resting comfortably in our stomachs, the band and I clean our dishes and retire to Bacci's parents' living room, where I'll get to hear the first three tracks--the spring months--from Perennial Bloom. I notice a framed version of the Bound Together cover art--a blindfolded woman with an uncovered third eye on her forehead--on the wall. Sprenger, an avid visual artist who has created every Audiobakery album cover thus far, gave the piece to Bacci, who gave it to his parents. "I put my parents through so much shit doing all the exploring I did to write that record," he says. "It was the least that I could do...now every time my parents listen to our music and don't understand it, at least they can look at this beautiful painting they also don't understand."

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We settle onto couches and Bacci presses play on his phone. "March" starts out with what sounds like Tibetan monks' throat singing, a growl that leads ominously into Sprenger's crackling guitar riffs. March is paired with fire, and the song feels like a raging slow burn, carrying a mediated intensity through to the dying embers stage. "I once thought that my body was just a bag of bones," Bacci's voice sings harshly over the flaming notes.

"April" follows, opening with a guitar melody that sounds like raindrops putting out the fires of "March." It's an earth month, and the happy chord progression brings to mind the blossoming of new life. Schomer's steady, laid-back drumming grounds the song in soil and reminds me of the notion that our planet is a single, highly complex organism. When Bacci comes in during a high-intensity section (April, after all, has its showers) singing, "I'll follow your voice," he's acting as a guide for lost souls to return to their mother, Nature.

We finally get to "May," and I can sense the transition toward warmer climes. The backbone of the song is an easygoing reggae-influenced strum pattern over some dexterous bass work by Nadel, but as the song progresses into a vast, central instrumental breakdown, it alternates between turbulent dual guitar leads and smooth-sailing sonic trade winds. "I wanna add some ukulele on this," Schomer comments.

We get to the end of spring and the four bandmates look at me expectantly. "What did you think?" asks Bacci.

I yank my brain back down to Earth. "It was amazing," I reply. "I can't wait to see it live."

~*~

That happens the following weekend at The Throne Room. And the crowd is so into everything it's hearing. The spring songs gain a vivacity that hadn't come through on the recordings thanks to Audiobakery's technical expertise and, more importantly, the band's onstage chemistry. The only error I hear in Sprenger's playing as he rattles off a devilish set of sweeps on his guitar comes when Nadel, bored on his side of the stage, walks over and knowingly enters Sprenger's zone with a huge smile on his face. But the adorability of the move more than accounts for any lost notes.

The summer songs build on their antecedents and couldn't be more perfectly timed--it's nearing the end of September, so everyone is already thirsting for that warm weather to return. 'June' feels like sitting on a beach surrounded by partygoers. 'July' reminisces upon sunny Californication-era Red Hot Chili Peppers at the beginning, but then breaks into an intense flurry of riffs over which Nadel belts out some vocals. "It started out as two separate songs, one by Brad and one by me, and we combined them," Nadel tells me afterwards, flushed with excitement. "How many times do you get to see a bassist go all out like that?" "August" wraps things up with a chuggy, earthy feel, the heaviest that Audiobakery has gotten all evening. But it follows the mood of the room like clockwork as the audience, looking to finish the set with a wallop, headbangs enthusiastically. The band finishes its set to rowdy applause from a crowd that has grown to around sixty. It's been a very successful night, both financially and in terms of Audiobakery's real goal: connect with the crowd. I see a girl filling out a feedback card.

Audiobakery might seem overly idealistic when Bacci says that the goal is to "start a revolution." They might seem a little stubborn in their refusal to define themselves within a single genre, a decision they acknowledge has probably reduced some of their business opportunities. But they have a clear vision for the future, and they're convinced that as more people discover the interconnectedness and universal vibes of Audiobakery's music, their positive impact upon the world will grow. And after tonight, there's already proof that Perennial Bloom will be a huge step in that direction.

Bacci sums up the band's goals nicely: "We just want to write music that's so fucking good that you can't deny it."

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

Our Final Transmission Days

By The Gapers Block Transmission Staff

Transmission staffers share their most cherished memories and moments while writing for Gapers Block.

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