When Polyrhythmics first gathered in a Seattle recording studio a decade ago, they planned to make a vinyl record and then, perhaps, go their separate ways.
The plan wasn’t necessarily to be a band, the kind that share sweaty back seats, beer and broken relationships together on tour. They were a recording project.
And that decision made sense. They had eight members, and they played instrumental music, not pop songs driven by a vocalist. They considered their music to be something you’d listen to as a soundtrack to your life, not something you’d lip-synch to on the way to the grocery store.
But they played an album release show because they did want the record to sell, and that meant promotion, and that meant a couple more live shows before they could move on to do something else. And perhaps, even just because of that one first night, the plan changed.
“The reaction playing live was unexpected,” said Ben Bloom, the band’s guitarist, in a phone interview with BandWagon. “The subsequent shows went really well as well. That sort of fed the fire and turned us into a live act.”
Yep, almost against their will, the Polyrhythmics are a fully-fledged touring band. They tour every year, in fact, and pass through Colorado this month, playing June 2 at LuLu’s Downstairs in Manitou Springs, June 3 at Knew Conscious in Denver and on June 5 at 830 North in Fort Collins. They’ve kept nearly the same lineup for the past 11 years now too, a feat in-and-of itself, so touring seems to work well for them.
As much as the band emphasizes recording — they are as perfection-oriented as Steely Dan in that way — they turn into something more like Dave Matthews Band when they hit the road, allowing the vibe and the venue to dictate their set and how they play it. They learned a bit from the other groups while playing in jam-band festivals. They will do partial covers of songs that lead into their own takes or works, and they will noodle on songs they’ve played a thousand times, using onstage effects and collaborating on the overall aesthetic with their own sound engineer.
“When we started, we wanted to perform the music we recorded,” Bloom said, “and now our live set is a living, breathing thing that we do every night. There is this ethos from the fans that they want to see something new, and that feedback has played into what we do live. We are still sort of trying to reach something every night. We are trying to leave room for magic.”
The band still records, of course, and the primary goal is to still make records. They don’t like releasing singles, a strategy that goes against today’s grain (some bands release ONLY singles now). What Polyrhythmics do simply requires more space – room for a longer, sonic narrative. Bloom means it (even literally) when he says they try to create a soundtrack to people’s lives: Some of their work has appeared in movies, TV and in placements for ads.
“Cinematic music is sort of what we do,” he said. “Our records carry out a vibe from beginning to end.”
They now have their own studio called Blue Mallard, run by their bass player, Jason Gray. They have recorded other artists there too, among which are the famed Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio, who have enjoyed this resurgence of instrumental music’s popularity as well. It’s now “cool to be an instrumental band,” Bloom said.
“We will do stuff with vocalists,” he said. “But I think a vocalist defines the band to a tremendous amount. We want to be a band. We are an instrumental band. That’s what we do.”
A collection of meticulous studio musicians is the definition of Polyrhythmics in the recording process, but surprisingly, the road is where Polyrhythmics (and their albums) get a lot of their identity. They let the venues and audiences themselves be more of the defining element for their music.
“We try to soundtrack the night everywhere we go,” Bloom said, “and the vibe of the room will play into that. Then we will take those experiences and bring them back into the studio.”
BandWagon Presents Polyrhythmics on Thursday, June 2 at LuLu’s Downstairs in Manitou Springs and Sunday, June 5 at 830 North in Fort Collins. Complete tour dates at Polyrhythmics.com – tickets at BandWagonPresents.com