Music

The New Sound of the Columbus

The iconic theater debuts its new music label

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It’s all conversations upstairs at the Columbus Theatre until Keith McCurdy of the band Vudu Sister picks up one of a half dozen guitars from the rack, perches on a stool, Doc Martens tapping, and starts playing. His voice fills the room with something visceral. Alex Garzone jumps behind the drum kit adding the beat, with Ben Knox Miller joining on the tri-bongo beside him. Jeff Prystowsky picks up the bass and Mackenzie Holway puts down the sketch she was working on to add a tambourine. I sit tucked in the windowsill, notepad in hand, trying to translate the intangible energy into words. Before long, my pen is replaced with a finger harp. It’s another Thursday night at the Columbus Recording Company and it feels as though music history is being made before my eyes behind the historic marquee on Broadway.

This May, the Columbus Recording Company (CRC), a joint effort of of Knox Miller, Prystowsky and Holway, will release McCurdy’s second Vudu Sister album Household Items, launching their own locally-sourced, locally-sold independent music label. Dreamt up, recorded, and collaborated upstairs at the Columbus, the CRC is all about developing a creative community and better connecting Providence’s vibrant art lovers and supporters to their thriving local music scene. “There is a different resonance if the music is coming directly from your community,” says Knox Miller, whose band The Low Anthem started in Providence in 2006 and has since released four critically-acclaimed albums and toured worldwide. They’ve made appearances everywhere, from major music festivals including Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza and Glastonbury, to The Late Show with David Letterman, to sharing the stage with Bruce Springsteen for a Woody Guthrie cover at last year’s South By Southwest in Austin, Texas. It’s safe to say the Brown University grads gone big time know a thing or two about making music and getting it to the masses. Much more than a new venture, their passion project at the Columbus promises to be a beacon for musical innovation and rising talent within the creative capital.

When The Low Anthem’s Knox Miller and Prystowsky returned to Providence early last year in search of a venue to set up and record their new album, they met Columbus owner and fellow Brown alum Jon Berberian, an opera singer whose father had bought the theater as a graduation gift decades back. The Columbus had sat empty for three years at the time, having fallen below code. It’s easy to see why as artists, creators, and cerebral musicians, Knox Miller and Prystowsky were smitten with the space. Beyond the beauty of the old school opera house, with its muraled ceilings, gold trimmed portraits of composers and their muses, and a stage with all-original levered light system and red velvet curtains controlled by pulleys – there was the sound.

The Columbus’ acoustics and seemingly endless options to isolate distinct reverb and sounds are a musician’s dream. Built in 1926, before sound amplifiers, the theater allows vocals and instrumentation to push back from the stage through the main space in rich, balanced waves. Using site-specific recording gear, Knox Miller and Prystowsky wired accordingly, from micing the balcony to capture the main stage’s working Wurlitzer (originally used to soundtrack silent films), to setting up shop in the hollow dressing rooms below stage that produce a sound similar to a Nashville reverb tank.

I visit in the middle of recording week for an upcoming release from another Providence band making waves in the local music scene, Smith&Weeden. The upstairs hallway is strewn with the percussion section, cords and strategically placed carpets to absorb the sound. Anyone familiar with The Low Anthem’s album anthology, from 2008’s Oh, My God, Charlie Darwin, to 2011’s Smart Flesh, knows what Knox Miller means when he tells me that he works with “music that demands an exactness.” Each space within the Columbus hones a distinct sound, and the “Actor’s Studio” has become a controlled listening environment, home to mixing boards and mastering sessions.

After experimenting and putting down their own tracks (for most of last year for their upcoming fifth album that is of-yet untitled), Knox Miller and Prystowsky approached the idea of welcoming friends and fellow musicians into the studio space to record. In many ways McCurdy’s second album is the perfect initial pairing for the Columbus. His 2012 debut, Bastard Children, not only made a memorable mark on the local folk rock scene, of which The Low Anthem is proverbial royalty, but stood as a testament to Providence’s community of musical talent. A huge cast of local artists joined him, including Joe Fletcher & the Wrong Reasons, Tig & Bean, The Famous Win- ters, Kate Jones of The Sugar Honey Iced Tea and Michael Samos. Knox Miller had even purchased a hard copy of the first album, McCurdy recalls with a smile.

However, the real gel behind the collaboration was McCurdy’s artistic philosophy going into album number two. Knox Miller connected with McCurdy’s desire to grow and reinvent his sound, while McCurdy respected and admired The Low Anthem’s ability to not only challenge themselves, but challenge their audiences with constant reinvention. “Artists want to evolve,” says McCurdy on the shift in sound heard in the grungier, rock’n’roll feel to Household Items. “I don’t want to do just one thing,” he continues.

The album is still distinctly Vudu Sister’s sound, from the raw sincerity in McCurdy’s vocals to the depth and darkness of his lyrics. The overall feel, however, is much more early-on Seattle sounds than Bastard Children’s backwoods and bourbon folk rock. McCurdy attributes the early ‘90s vibes to his earliest memories of music, listening to Nirvana with a child-like wonder. Knox Miller agrees, saying the Household Items feel was “a sound that was already in (his) ears.”

McCurdy came to the Columbus last October ready to record, bringing his own assorted “household items” to familiarize the studio space. His reincarnated Sister features old friend and bandmate Alex Garzone on drums and his dad on the bass. McCurdy’s story came to life amid burning incense and the relics from his mother’s house – a religious statue, music box and porcelain clown – laying down all of the tracks in three takes or less. “He knew just what he wanted,” says Knox Miller.

Listening to Household Items seems cathartic, with each of McCurdy’s tracks unraveling tales colored with details of his Romanaich gypsy background and a feeling of belonging to the fringe culture. Growing up in North Providence, McCurdy’s passion for music was often his escape from a childhood filled with poverty and tough choices. “I guess it’s good because it makes me hungry,” McCurdy says of his struggle to make ends meet. He hosted an online indiegogo fundraiser to raise the money to record and produce the album and set out on his first cross-country tour timed with its May release date.

When speaking about the creative community revolving around the Columbus, McCurdy relates the energy and natural evolution of the Columbus Recording Company to Seattle’s Sub Pop Records. The label known for bringing grunge to the masses, first signing and releasing records by Nirvana and Soundgarden, started as Bruce Pavitt’s music fanzine Subterranean Pop. A homegrown passion project, Sub Pop nurtured the distinct sound taking over Seattle’s music scene, supporting and sharing it with a broader audience and growing a fan base that has stuck around for the past 25 years. Continuing to support under the radar sounds and the independent music scene, Sub Pop currently represents a number of crossover acts that have maintained their aesthetic while breaking into the mainstream music bubble, including The Postal Service, The Shins and Fleet Foxes. “To think you could be a part of something even remotely similar...” McCurdy muses, and the options become endless. Musician envisioned and run, the Columbus Recording Company is the collaborative space that develops an artistic community, connecting, mentoring and supporting, and letting it grow.

McCurdy isn’t the only one who senses something special is taking place. Every day a rotating cast of characters float in and out of the Columbus emitting a similar sentiment. Meeting in the main rehearsal space, members of the music scene constantly create. One night, Knox Miller plays the saw, with Holway on the drums and artist and inventor Luke Randall taking the microphone, performing his otherworldly beat poetry. Another night, Prystowsky literally reinvents the wheel, bringing his bicycle upstairs, setting it upside down and spinning, the playing cards he holds into the spokes, creating a fluttering sound effect. I reinvigorate my decade-old piano playing skills on one of the antique organs lining the walls, a find of Knox Miller and Prystowsky’s while recently on tour in upstate New York with The Chieftains. Everything becomes an instrument. Everyone feels free to join in on the beats. The walls are covered with posters from last year’s sold out Columbus Revival shows and mementos from local friends and collaborators who’ve met with national recognition, including Joe Fletcher and the Wrong Reasons, Brown Bird and Deer Tick.

The Columbus’ distribution plan is all about directness, connecting with the local community. Holway, who also runs Manic Pixie T-Shirt Girls with friend and Columbus collaborator Rachel Du- arte, as well as a team of interns from the Met School, crafted boxes to display Columbus-released albums out of found items: cigar boxes, fruit crates, a lightbox. The CRC boxes are finding homes in local businesses around Providence, from Queen of Hearts on Westminster to Wickenden Street’s Coffee Exchange. Each business marks a new relationship for the Columbus team, hand picked and person- ally developed. By placing the albums in a variety of venues, they hope to reach an audience that is not yet connected with the local music scene and grow a home base of support, creating a springboard from which to launch their artists.

The Columbus team will also be championing McCurdy and the local music community at this summer’s prestigious Newport Folk Festival. The Low Anthem’s Knox Miller and Prystowsky will host a Homegrown showcase in July, marking their return to the Newport Folk Festival. They’re bringing some of their favorite local acts along for the Fort Adams ride, including Vudu Sister, last year’s WBRU Rock Hunt winner Roz Raskin and the Rice Cakes, Last Good Tooth and Death Vessel, with more bands to be announced closer to the date. “Know your farmer. Know your musician. It’s that simple idea that community and our relationships give meaning to the products we buy, the food we put in our mouths, the music we put in our air,” Knox Miller writes, introducing the Homegrown lineup.

“The great thing about music is the profound impact it has on human beings,” McCurdy tells me. The great thing about the Columbus Recording Company, is the profound impact I can already see it having on McCurdy, myself and the music that is shaping a soundtrack for Providence.

Vudu Sister’s Household Items release party will take place Saturday, May 4 at the Columbus Theatre, from 8:30 until midnight. Tickets are $10, and are available for pre-purchase online.

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