Written by Guy Shechter
Photos by Brett Witten Photography and Guy Shechter
I have always held a high level of respect for Papadosio; upon introduction to their music I could immediately sense their sincere and genuine approach. In my interview with their drummer Mike Healy the night before the show at The Sinclair, I confirmed that they are a group of hard working musicians that are willing to do whatever it takes to live their dream.
[LiS] So let’s start from the beginning. I understand you guys met at an open jam spot at a small bar in Athens, Ohio?
[Mike Healy] Yeah there was brew pub that used to be called O’houlies, which now is called Jackie O’s, and they would hold a weekly open jam every Tuesday. Some of the best musicians in the area would come every week, set up their equipment, and just improv for like five hours straight. Anthony was living in Athens and Billy, Rob, and I were going to Ohio Univeristy and so the four of us went every single Tuesday night religiously for about two years. It was such a great place for us to meet each other, meet all the other musicians and really learn how to improv. I feel like it takes a real musician to be able to do that. There are so many musicians that are classically trained and can play complex pieces of music, but have no idea how to play unless they are reading notes off sheet music. We learned so much from all the different people that came through O’houlies.
While all this was happening Sam, Billy’s little brother, was going to school in New York at Skidmore College for music theory. He ended up dropping out his senior year to join the band. We always knew we wanted him to join, but being a few years younger than the rest of us we wanted to wait for the right time.
Billy and Sam are not only brothers, they also both play keyboards in the band. Can you tell us a bit about how that dynamic works?
Billy is the synth guy, he does all the big synth sounds and trippy noises. Sam holds down the classical piano world, holding down the rhythm section.
When you are improvising on stage, do you use any communication methods or tools?
Most of our songs have an area where we can go off on a tangent and get weird. If the song doesn’t really have a segment where we can do that easily, we can improvise during the transition to the next song. We used to rely mostly on hand signals for different key changes, for stopping, half timing, and those kind of things. This fall we brought on Cameron Gifford as our monitor engineer. He has worked with The Disco Biscuits and Conspirator for many years, and we’re grateful to have him now working with us – he has been a life changer. Now we are all using in-ear monitors so we can hear each other much better, and it allows us to use talk-back mics so we can actually talk to each other during a set. This enables us to discuss different ideas of how we want to get to the next section or the next jam. We communicate so much better now and sound so much more professional and on point.
How does the crowd effect the improv process? Does the crowd’s reaction factor into the talk-back conversation?
Honestly we can’t hear the crowd too well because of our in-ear monitors, so we’re usually pretty lost in our musical world. A big part of who we are is that we play for US. We feel so fortunate to have fans that come out to see our shows, but we don’t really cater to what we think the crowd might be feeling. If we see that a crowd is dancing really hard that might inspire us to play more dancy jams, but at the end of the day it’s always about getting into the zone and just making our music. We know that this is the purest way to create music and that is what our fans really want.
How do you build your setlists?
We make sure every time we come back to a city that we are playing a completely different list of songs. We have over 55 original songs now and we do our best to cycle through them all. For example the past three nights we played an entirely different setlist each night, without repeating a single song. When we come up with new songs, we might play them a little more frequently to help get people hip to the new material, but once we feel that goal is achieved we stop repeating those songs as well. We switch it up as much as we can really; with how much we tour, songs will start feeling old to us real fast if we repeat them too often. Once that starts happening the improv will suffer and no one wants that to happen.
How does new material come about? I’m sure not every song is written in the same way, but can you walk us through a typical process when writing a new song?
It really does depend on the song. Sometimes someone will have an entire song completely written out on their computer with everyone’s parts pre-programmed. They will bring it to the band and we will each learn our parts and add a bit of our own flare to it. Other times someone will have a few riff ideas that they will bring to the table, and someone else will come up with lyrics or other ideas for different sections. Then sometimes we will be jamming in the rehersal room and come up with an idea and just power through it together, writing each part collaboratively. This is usually the most fun for us, everyone really enjoys the organic writing in that sense.
You guys do indeed tour relentlessly, and this must take its toll on you both individually and as a band. Maybe you can share with us some of the struggles you go through?
The past five and a half years we have done over 150 shows every year, which puts us on the road about 200 days out of the year. It’s a lot easier when we have the tour bus. This whole fall tour we have been back in the van trying to lower some of our debts, and it’s been crazy… Kind of like a flash back to the old days. We’ve been using the tour bus for the past two years, but we had to make the more responsible decision to try and better our lives in the bigger picture. It’s pretty rough in the van, we’ve had a few over night drives that had everyone rockin’ the neck pillows. No one gets good sleep like that, but you just have to wake up and power through the next day with lots of coffee. Honestly, that is the most difficult part about touring – the sleep schedule. It’s easy to get on stage and rock a show, but it’s pretty hard to maintain high spirits when you’re consistently not getting a full night’s sleep.
What is the biggest challenge you face as a band?
I would have to say that the financial end of things has to be the most difficult part of being in a band. Especially for bands that don’t blow up quickly or sign a record deal. For the most of us who go the route of putting in the long hard touring hours, it becomes all about learning how to be okay with getting into a bunch of debt and pushing through. Lots of people start getting into debt and freak out, quit, and go get a “real” job. You really have to be okay with knowing that this is what you want to do, and that your going have to work really hard for a long time before you start seeing success.
As a band we have definitely had our ups and downs, and so many people have helped us out along the way, but we are doing it for the love it and we can really see a bright future ahead of us. Especially now that we have different kinds of aids and managers working for us, that really helps push us along. Having people that believe in you, have your back, and are there to make sure that we will always be able to stay on the road makes a worlds difference.
This interview really lifted the veil and gave me insight into Papadosio’s inner workings, rejuvenating me with a new sense of excitement for their show. As I turned the corner and started walking up to The Sinclair, I could immediately tell this was going to be a high energy night. I arrived just after the doors had opened, and there was already a large crowd outside and inside the venue. This makes perfect sense since Boston’s Papadosio fans have actually been waiting for this show to happen for about a year now. Last winter Papadosio was supposed to play at The Sinclair with Consider The Source, an amazingly talented Middle Eastern influenced band, but the show was cancelled because of a snowstorm. Boston fans were left hungry, but Papadosio made up for it, bringing EarthCry and The Malah to open for them this time. The show sold out earlier that day, and it was great to see that everyone came out early to catch the opening acts.
EarthCry played first, warming up the crowed with his healing spiritual sounds. Music is often described as healing, but in this case there is more literal meaning to the use of this description. In his debut album Heal The Earth, Heal Yourself – Heal The Earth, Hear Yourself Papadosio’s guitarist Anthony Thogmartin incorporated ancient solfeggio frequencies which have been used all over the world by a variety of cultures for their healing powers. Read LostinSound’s review of the album HERE.
The solfeggio set is comprised of six frequencies, each with its own distinct healing characteristic:
UT – 396 Hz – Liberating Guilt and Fear
RE – 417 Hz – Undoing Situations and Facilitating Change
MI – 528 Hz – Transformation and Miracles (DNA Repair)
FA – 639 Hz – Connecting/Relationships
SOL – 741 Hz – Awakening Intuition
LA – 852 Hz – Returning to Spiritual Order
Thogmartin created a song for each healing power, tuning the overall track to the specific frequency. During the live performance, he would use actual tuning forks, letting the vibration reverberate through the room. This was akin to enjoying the sound of a gong or a Tibetan bell during meditation, and the incorporation of this majestic and powerful effect in electronic music was fascinating. The set varied from tranquil and introspective to more upbeat and driving while maintaining a potent spiritual context.
The Malah are a trio hailing from Denver, CO that breed a sophisticated blend of hip-hop sounds, electronic dance beats, and instrumental improvisations. It was impressive to watch only three people on stage create such complex and multi-layered music. With Seth Fankhauser holding down the percussion, it is really just Brandon Maynard and Elliott Vaughn creating all the melodic sounds. The fullness of their sound is accomplished by having both of them play keyboards in addition to their guitars (guitar and bass respectively). In order to pull this off, each musician must be versed in a wide array of styles. Maynard at times played smooth chords that laid in the background, and other times he played fast looping riffs that became the driving force of the song. Vaughn toggled back and forth as well, laying down rhythmic bass lines and also taking the lead, creating horn sounds and mimicking other instruments on his synth keyboards. Safe to say there wasn’t a dull moment, and the crowd was loving it the whole time.
The Sinclair is a fairly new venue and since I have only been there a few times, I was still developing a feel for the place. Seeing the sold out crowd wait in anticipation for Papadosio to come on, it occurred to me what a great set up they have there. The dance floor doesn’t extend very far in any direction, and the balconies wrap all the way around the room. This design allows for people to fit in every nook and cranny and still get good views from where ever they stand. The capacity of the venue is only 525 people but the layout makes it feel like there are much more than that which helps elevate the energy.
Papadosio walked on stage around 11:00 and took their time working their way into the first song. Once the initial roar of excitement cooled down, they started playing just simple sounds. Birds peacefully chirping, gentle violin notes, some soft tribal hand drums. Very slowly each band member joined in, gradually and naturally building momentum until they reached just the right moment to bust into the glorious and uplifting opening guitar riff of “The Plug.” As bright lights flooded the room, all you could see were wide open eyes and huge smiles. Be it in a movie, an article, or a concert, introductions are a very important element of any performance and Papadosio knew exactly how to draw in and captivate the audience.
“The Plug” went on for a solid 15 minutes and had a dancy improv portion in the middle with Thogmartin using an octave effect pedal on his guitar. This effect allows him to take a note and glide from the bottom to the top of a octave with the push of his foot, adding a nice hypnotic techno feel to the jam. Next they went into “Cloud Found.” This song is relatively new and a good display of the wide spectrum of styles Papadosio can play. A looping synth line segues into an electronic but hip-hop drum beat with emotionally charged singing from Thogmartin. Later the song becomes more orchestral with powerful grand piano lines accompanied by an intricate looping guitar riff. “Cloud Found” doesn’t see much improv until the end of the song as they transitioned into my personal favorite, “Snorkle.”
When Papadosio wrote “Snorkle,” they meant business. Always a crowd pleaser, this song is impeccably written with so many intricate parts all perfectly organized for maximum rage factor during a live performance. The song opens with Healy laying down some seriously body moving drum work. As if from a place far away, subtle but intriguing synth notes start trickling in as Thogmartin begins playing a heavily delayed paw-muted riff. This intro is a great example of how Papadosio uses their two keyboard players, brothers Billy and Sam Brouse. While the synth line and guitar riff are intertwining, the second keyboard player lays down swirling psychedelic sounds in the background, giving the song atmosphere and depth. After building the momentum and dropping a funky progressive rock section, they transition into the improv portion of the song. All the instruments drop out and except for the drums, leaving Healy to play the equivalent of an electronic drum solo filled with all kinds of glitchy syncopated sounds. Slowly one by one the band members enter the musical conversation, each listening to what the other has to say and responding in turn. The improv takes the audience on an exploratory sonic adventure. Part blues, part jazz, part electronic, the jam starts out simple with lots of space and builds to a peak before plunging into the second rehearsed section of “Snorkle.” It is sections like this that are at the heart of Papadosio’s live performances. The audience is divided between those who lose themselves in music, and those who stare in awe trying to follow all the unspoken communication taking place on stage.
After Papadosio finished getting down and dirty, it was time to bring back the positive energy with some happy-go-lucky tunes. It is common practice for jam bands to take songs that fit well together and play them in sequence without any pauses, transitioning seamlessly from one to the next. “The Sum” > “Find Your Cloud” > “Paradigm Shift” is a perfect example of why this live performance strategy works so well, each song building on the one before it and in this case seemingly delivering a message.
“The Sum” is a peaceful song based around a duet between playful bell like piano sounds and a jazzy guitar riff. The lyrics are spiritually inspiring, like an anthem advocating that we honor and appreciate the amazing and beautiful creations that we are:
Why are you where you are?
Who put you there?
Have you ever wondered why?
Have you tried to care?
You are her best idea, the dream of the Earth
What you imagine is the sum of your worth
The mission is spelled out for us and everyone
It’s like it’s always been there
After wrapping up “The Sum,” without pause the band all step back and patiently start working their way into the next song. After a solid five minute improvised intro, they break into “Find Your Cloud.” Bringing the energy up a notch, this song has a faster pace compared to “The Sum” but has a very similar pleasant vibe, with lots of soaring piano lines and sound effects that remind me of some sort of eastern spiritual harmonica. Where “The Sum” had a reflective feel to it, “Find Your Cloud” is more celebratory. It is difficult to say where this subtle difference stems from, and in truth I don’t think there is any single aspect of these songs that one can pin point as the source of the distinction. Being a musician myself, I am inclined to think that Papadosio didn’t sit down and plan how to create these specific vibes, but rather played from the heart and allowed the music to flow naturally. The clear expression of these emotions is a true testament to Papdosio’s connection to their music and their ability to communicate their message through it.
Now that we had reflected on how we live, honored and celebrated our humanity, it was time to kick things back into high gear. Where the previous two songs put people into a smiling meditative state, “Paradigm Shift” is more of head banger. Dark and ominous at points, blissful and happy at others, this song definitely got the dance floor moving and had a nice long improv section in the middle. After ending the song, Thogmartin expressed his gratitude, “Thank you so much, we are seriously having a ball up here. This is a good time!” Sometimes I feel this is taken for granted; to me it is always nice to hear a heartfelt acknowledgement that the band is having just as much fun on stage as we are in the crowd.
The last two songs of the set were new, and as always seeing songs for the first time is a unique experience. Expectations play such a huge part in how we enjoy music and so not knowing what to expect adds a different dimension to the live experience. “Cushion” is a relatively simple song, with a relaxing hip-hop drum beat and a repeating guitar riff. Between breaks in the guitar riff are bright grand piano lines, reminding me of a walk in a park on a summer day. “Dream Estate” is an interesting song. It starts with joyful lyrics sung with a piano line matching the notes of the melody and eventually leads into something of a rock opera section reminiscent of Queen, with a dramatic guitar solo accompanied by orchestral piano phrases. It made for a great theatrical ending for the set.
“Magreenery” was originally on the setlist as the set closer, but I’m assuming was cut out due to time constraints. This is a shame, “Magreenery” is an opus of a song that always gets the crowd going. However, it also usually clocks in around 20 minutes long and considering all the heavy improv Papadosio played during and between songs, it made sense that it had to be skipped.
After an encore break with a few “One more song!” chants the band graced the stage one more time to play a rocking 11 minute version of “New Love.” This is another new tune that starts out in a funky-chill-out-lounge style, with a sliding smooth guitar riff and lots of atmospheric synth sounds in the background. The song seems to be split into two completely different sections, separated by a break in the music and a cue from Healy on the drums to transition. Phish are famous for using this transition method, and it left me wondering if there is a conscious connection by Papadosio in using it. The second half of “New Love” is very improv based and exemplifies Papadosio’s signature style, blending rock and roll with elements of jazz and classical music, tastefully inserting psychedelic dance sections whenever possible and always maintaining full awareness and control of the flow of energy.
From start to finish, this felt like a well thought out show. I’m not sure how much of this is due to careful song selection in creating the setlist or a masterful navigation through the songs during the actual performance. Regardless of the method behind the madness, the important thing to take away is that Papadosio is a master of their craft. As mentioned in the interview, being in a band and playing over 150 shows a year no doubt has its plights, but like all hard work it certainly pays off. The years on the road have left Papadosio wise beyond their years, and I have no doubt that their way of growing organically from the roots up and always staying true to themselves and their message will take them far down the road of success.