Maintaining authenticity in a culture of followers, likers, and copycats can be a challenge these days. But if you apply yourself, it is entirely possible to stay original, unique, and fresh – not caving to the masses, not giving in to a product that’s cheap and easily made.
The proof? Homegrown indie band Emby Alexander. The band, comprising friends from college, has been going for almost nine years.
“The best drummer I’ve ever personally known is Jeremy [Lentz], and the best bass player I’ve ever known is Kyle [Grabski],” says singer/songwriter Michael Alexander. “Austin [Harshman], he’s more like me. We’re not big technical guys. But he taught me the difference between artist and musician – and we’re both artists.”
Alexander has been playing in rock bands for more than 20 years. Emby Alexander is named after his initials, but he says he doesn’t consider himself the lead or frontman. “I do all the songwriting, but it’s not all my project. Tour to tour, [the lineup] might change. We try to work with our strengths.”
Alexander says he met his bandmates in college while they were studying audio engineering. Though he loves school and says he always thinks of going back, he didn’t finish. “School was getting in the way of doing musical stuff,” he says. He didn’t want to stick to the strictly technical.
His formal musical education started when he was in elementary school. “Then, in high school, I played electric bass. But I was always in B band. Having an instrument in my hands every day was something I really enjoyed,” he says. “I’d come home and play rock music. But I didn’t see them as related [at the time].”
Alexander’s father played piano, and his mother played cello, so there was always music around while he was growing up. But his tastes developed independently. He and his friends from the Westside would in play punk bands around local venues. When the Rebel Lounge opened as a venue after years of being out of business, Alexander got on stage and shared memories of playing there as a kid when it was the Mason Jar. He remembers it as a sort of homecoming. “I said, we’re so stagnant: here we are, 20 years later, still playing the Mason Jar!”
Jokes aside, he remembers playing there when he and his bandmates were so young they couldn’t buy a drink. They’d get kicked out after their set and then go drink beers in the alley. “Which seems like a much worse thing for kids to do!” But that’s the way the rules go.
Emby Alexander and its frontman, however, are not a band to stick to all the conventions and rules. The band has flown under the radar, true, but it’s largely by choice. In sticking to their own singular and discrete process, everything – from the inception of a song, to the way they carry out a tour, to their warm relationships with other musicians – seems refreshing and decidedly non-mainstream.
Alexander, as a musician, frankly is prolific. He works on music every day and says he comes up with songs, or parts of new songs, on the daily, too. “I rarely sit down, begrudgingly, to work. I usually will make something, record it, listen to it in headphones, listen to it through the car speakers.” Revisiting the recordings either leads him to make connections, technically and lyrically, to other things he’s been working on, or it directs him to build something new.
Over the years, Emby Alexander have recorded five full albums and numerous singles. Alexander says they started touring five or six years ago but got more serious more recently, blocking out weeks every summer.
Through traveling, he and the band have connected with other musicians they find interesting, which has led to some one-time and chance experiments in sound. For example, one of the songs on the last record was a collaboration with B.K. Ferris from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
“We hung out with B.K. Ferris last time, on our East Coast tour,” Alexander says. “We did a crazy jam in the woods when we were there. He lived near the Pittsburgh zoo. We went out in the middle of the night and we could hear the animals.”
Inspired by the ambient noises of the animals at night, the motley cavalcade played music on anything that was available – tree branches, stumps, rocks, you name it, Alexander says. They started a recording, just for fun, and it ended up turning into a song on the last album.
“We both mutually recorded it, and then we shared files. It ended up being over an hour of recordings,” he explains. Alexander took the digital sound files, mixed them, and then edited it down. “I had an 18-minute version, and then I had a 10-minute one. Finally, I ended up with a five-minute version, which I felt for most people was the longest they could tolerate without knowing the context.
“Then the most interesting part was because it was dark, it was a jam that was mostly auditory. I never thought before that you visually jam, but in this case it was a call-and-response, only you had no idea who you were responding to,” he says. “I never realized how much you actually look at people [when playing].
“It was very pure and something I don’t think you could go out with an intention to do.”
Alexander says he likes to carry his trusty Zoom recorder whenever they tour, in case there’s an opportunity to experiment or to capture weird sounds.
Though their most recent album, Cactus Candy, is only a few months old, Alexander says the band plans to release yet another album early next year. It will mark a total of 86 songs in circulation.
When compiling an album, Alexander says he does not organize songs to fit a predetermined mood or emotion, but allows a theme to reveal itself in the editing process. In assembling Cactus Candy, concerns came to the surface about the influences of social media on the human psyche.
“I really appreciate that I have an art [to express myself],” he says. “I look at social media and sometimes I don’t like it too much. There’s just too much toxicity.” Alexander says his concern is that some people get swept away by extreme thoughts and opinions. In black-and-white text, there’s no craft, no nuance, he says. But, unfortunately, for many, that’s their only outlet.
There’s also a lack of forgiveness when someone puts a foot in their mouth. “Your friend could say the dumbest thing while drinking in a garage and you know exactly what it means, but if they say it on social media, you’ll be torn apart.”
Alexander says he’s thankful for having friends, family, and comrades who understand him. Sometimes an idea isn’t bad, just rough. And if you have people around who really care about you, they’ll be patient and let you edit your thoughts – work it out.
When it comes to his art: “I really want it to be something you could apply to your own situation. Whatever it means to you.”
Even the band’s approach to touring is distinctive. Many bands will plan a tour around the release of a new album or find spots to push a single. But because Emby Alexander is pumping out new material all the time, and they aren’t a mainstream radio band (not quite yet, though they’ve amassed an online audience and gotten play on KWSS locally), they get to retain a lot of control over their shows. They don’t play gigs with a preplanned set list all the time, Alexander says.
“We’ll play what I call ‘marathon gigs,’” he says. “It’s not like a typical showcase of bands – beginning, middle, and end. But we will play these gigs where it’s just us for a long period of time because they pay well.
“We’ll take a Tuesday night in some random city and we will play for three hours.” Alexander explains it’s not exactly like a jam, it’s more like being a bar or restaurant’s house band. The band is getting paid to keep people at the venue.
“We play new cities when we can; we like to venture out. We play a majority of new music on tour from the new record. The favorites thing comes into play maybe after the first hour, when we would rather just play whatever we want.” With a song bank as long and broad as Emby Alexander’s, it’s not a problem to play for a few hours.
Alexander says the band will also release a new music video early in 2020. The video is compiled of footage they shot on 8 mm film while touring. Alexander is fascinated by Super 8 and often recovers film and cameras from antique stores and thrift stores when he finds them. His collection is an assortment of just about everything he finds – home movies capturing the moment of birthdays, reunions – even the occasional homemade “blue movie.”
The band’s video has footage of them touring through Utah, Idaho, Montana, Alberta, British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and California. It’s mostly scenes of the band onstage and “goofing off,” he says. But editing it together provided him some meaningful time to reflect and absorb the highlights.
“I’d like to do one of these on every tour from now on,” Alexander says of the music video. It turns out to be a nice way to chronicle the band together, each year, with each new moment and album.
Emby Alexander’s music can be found on Bandcamp and Spotify. For more information about the band, visit embyalexander.com. Their next local show is at Lost Leaf on January 18.