Introducing BAMM.tv’s Featured Artist feature: a selection of great music, exclusive articles and prize giveaways (among other things) from one of our favorite up-and-coming artists. This month we put San Francisco three-piece Geographer under the spotlight …
Crack open the dictionary for a second. There’s something interesting about the definition of the word Geographer – “one who partakes in the study of the earth and its features and of the distribution of life on the earth, including human life”, and also charts an “ordered arrangement of constituent elements.”
Now, we’re not going to pretend that this definition is news to you (we hope you’ve proven yourself to be something of a smartypants by downloading the BAMM.tv app anyway, so we’re sure your literary skills are up to scratch). But think about it. Or – to be more specific – take a listen to Geographer’s music, then think about it.
Ordered arrangement? Yep – carefully crafted ciphers through which all sorts of melodic twists emerge. Constituent elements? Yep – an amalgamation of different sounds, instruments and genres fused to a cohesive and gripping whole. Human life? Oh yeah – like all great music, there’s a helluva lot of universal soul in there.
Not that they’d be so analytical about it. “We want to make good-sounding records,” they state, “and we want to play for people.”
So: are you one of those people yet? And if not, why not?
Geographically speaking (see what we did there?), Geographer’s roots can be whittled down to a New Jersey / San Francisco hybrid. If it helps, just imagine Tony Soprano’s drive round the NJ Turnpike soundtracked to The Grateful Dead … or maybe not. Locations and logistics aside, let’s get to the heart of the matter: and it’s a great big pulsating heart that beats at the core of Geographer.
Sometimes – not always, but sometimes – great art can emerge from terrible loss. It’s a redemptive fact of life that Geographer founder Mike Deni knows all too well. Mike moved to San Francisco from New Jersey following the tragic death of his father and sister, and began to channel his distraught emotions into the amazing musical soundscapes we hear today.
When he conscripted fellow band members Nathan Blaz (cello, electronics) and Brian Ostreicher (drums, vocals), this creative prowess only began to spiral. “When I first moved to SF I went to the Hotel Utah open mic every week to perform,” Mike remembers. While at the Utah – a 100-year old institution of local legend, whose 7-day-a-week live music showcases are invaluable to exposing upcoming artists – he “met Kacey Johansing, and she introduced me to Nate and Brian, who all knew each other from Berklee College of Music in Boston.”
Mike already had a roster of deeply personal songs written, and the Geographer line-up gelled so well that little revision was needed. Kacey would be present for the recording of the first album, but would then depart the band, leaving them to function as an even-tighter three piece. “We all come from different musical backgrounds, with different backgrounds that sometimes bump heads and always push the songs past where they were originally intended to go.”
It’s this unity that has seen the band develop their sound over the years. “Over the course of our three recordings,” Mike explains, “we learned what it means to be in a band, and we learned what we are each capable of as musicians, and more importantly, what we each want to be capable of as musicians. I think we also feel a little bit of comfort from the support we’ve gotten from San Francisco and the west coast, that gives us the strength to make risky decisions and try new things.”
As for the recordings themselves? Well … let’s take a closer listen, shall we?
Geographer’s first album release came in August 2008 – the enigmatically-titled ‘Innocent Ghosts’, a name which perfectly reflects the hazy, unpredictable and heartfelt content within. It wasn’t, say, the breakout debut smash of a ‘Funeral’ or ‘Oh, Inverted World’, but to the kids in the know that didn’t matter – they’d just discovered their new favorite band, and they got there before anyone else.
And – let’s face it – when you’re making steely-eyed journalists get emotional, you know that you’re onto something. “Singer Michael Deni explores themes of love and loss with his soupy, trustworthy coo,” enthused Liz Levine at The Owl. “Softly delivered and yet with a strong conviction, he seems empowered by the lessons and experiences the lyrics suggest, so that he quickly becomes a trustworthy narrator.” She wasn’t alone in her enthusiasm – Toronto’s AWMusic lavished five stars on the debut album, claiming that “some songs just come to a slow start … but are worth this adventure this album puts you on.”
It was in October 2008, however, that more high-profile attention beckoned. Long-running music monthly Spin Magazine listed the lads as being ‘one of the three undiscovered bands you need to hear now’ – alongside Canada’s Library Voices and Los Angeles’ Thailand. While new media acolytes may take umbrage with the term ‘undiscovered’ – what exactly does that mean, in this age of fractured exposure and streamlined, individualized cultural consumption? – there was no denying: people were starting to sit up and take notice.
Two years would pass before their return – which, given the intricate and carefully thought-out nature of Geographer’s music, is practically a speedrun in creative terms. 6-song EP ‘Animal Shapes’ would be released in 2010. Expanding on their sound – heavier synth, faster rhythms – it also gathered great reviews, with Music Under Fire labeling it a ‘fantastic effort’, and Pinpoint Music reflecting that the “tight and almost flawless approach to presenting six songs is stunning”.
The most noticeable thing about the reaction to the E.P? E.Ps just don’t get that level of attention, artistic seriousness and fan devotion anymore (maybe with a few exceptions: Animal Collective are usually happy to release short collections every now and then, which are lapped up by an eager following). The fact that ‘Animal Shapes’ was being – and still is – analysed and cherished with the same vigour as a full-length album is very telling: Geographer are a band that matter.
2012 would see them matter even more. Myth – their second full-length album, and highest-profile release to date – emerged to much anticipation, and carried with it the most complex backstory yet. “The album deals with the many ways myths play into our modern lives,” the band explained, in an exclusive video interview with BAMM.TV. ‘I think people think that we live in a mythless society, because we have science and education, but I think that we still live according to a lot of myths which are designed to be instructive … but which people take a little too far. A myth is a story that helps you learn how to live. But I think a lot of times, people take myths as reality.’
If this makes Myth sound like that most precarious of propositions – the overblown concept album – fear not. It’s Geographer’s best work yet – simultaneously their most accessible yet creatively defining. Less ‘carefree’ (if that term can realistically be applied to the band) than the preceding E.P, it delivers a solid one-two punch on both sonic and emotional fronts.
Such a diverse body of work, of course, suggests a unique and experimental artistic approach. How exactly do the Geographer boys create their sound?
‘We’re obsessed with finding the perfect sound,’ Mike says, ‘whether it’s with a synth patch or effects pedals.’
‘When we write music it happens one of two ways. One is really acoustic and one is really electronic. A lot of songs start from a sound – I’ll be chasing something I want to hear or just messing around – and then I’ll build the song out from there. Then sometimes I’ll just be at home playing chords, singing along.’
‘A lot of the time I’ll try to write a certain kind of song, but that never works. You just have to get free and enjoy playing your instruments. Then something will come out of that and I’ll show it to the others.’
‘Usually it starts sonically. And then that informs the subject matter. I’ve only started with lyrics once, they usually come last and it usually takes me a while to write them. I’ll usually just be songwriting in a stream-of-consciousness way, then some hook or some line will come out of that.’
Hmmm. He makes it all sound so (relatively) easy, doesn’t he? This is one of the most surprising things about Geographer overall: despite the complex beauty of the music they craft, it’s as if – like all great artists – it seems to come from a pure and simple place. Here at BAMM.tv, we’ve been lucky enough to witness this remarkable dichotomoy on a number of occasions. We recorded the guys when they unleashed their full-on electronic sound to a sell-out crowd at SF venue The Independent (“our proudest moment to date was selling out the Independent for the first time … we had no idea that many people were listening to our music”) and also when they performed an intimate, haunting acoustic set at the Engine Works venue (“that night at Engine Works was a truly amazing experience for us”).
Despite this variance, deconstructing the Geographer sound(s) is a task they’d rather not undertake – like performing an autopsy on Santa Claus, or catching sight of the sweaty puppeteers who bring Kermit and Gonzo to life. In the end: what’s the benefit? “I just say [we sound like] indie rock with cello and synths,” Mike shrugs, “because it’s impossible to describe music. No one ever hears what they expect to. Like: how do you describe Oasis? Heavy guitars with a whiny vocalist. Or Paul Simon? Good music.”
‘Good music’. As mission statements go, it’s hard to argue with that. And even harder to argue with a second mission statement – one which the band fire up each and every time they take to the stage. “Put all your delusions of grandeur aside,” they say, “and give the crowd the best show you’ve ever played.”
Who knows? The best show they’ve ever played might just result in the best show the crowd has ever seen. And then – geography be damned – pretty much everyone is exactly where they need to be.
OTHER BAMM.TV STORIES YOU MIGHT LIKE: