Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Once and Future Small Kings

Ithaca has no shortage of bands to go out and see live and support. But there’s certainly room for another, especially one as great as The Small Kings. This past October, the band released their debut album, “Eating Oranges After Dark.” Since then, the band has been playing live all over town. They held their CD release party at Maxies Supper Club and have also played at the ABC Café and Felicia’s Atomic Lounge, among others. In the near future, December 10 will provide the next opportunity to catch the band live as they play the Pourhouse in Trumansburg. They’ll likely be booking additional gigs, so go to www.thesmallkings.com, to check on their upcoming shows. I recently got the chance to ask Bass and Ukulele player Mike Levy some questions about The Small Kings.

Dynamic Meter: What is your history with the Ithaca music scene?
Mike Levy: I've been on the fringe of the scene in several different capacities. I used to maintain an internet radio station (Radio Free Ithaca) that streamed music from Ithaca almost exclusively. So I spent two years immersed in the Ithaca scene. I didn't listen to much else during that time. I got the feel for what made this town's music unique. Even though I was spinning a wide variety of styles, it all fit together because of a common energy and a common devotion to keeping it real, for lack of a better term. Then I reconnected with the scene as a freelance journalist, writing a bit about bands at the same time I was writing about local food, politics and more. But all along I was performing under the radar with The Marty Withers Band, which later became the Small Kings.

DM: How did the band come together?
ML: I met Frank Raponi when I was a substitute teacher in Dryden around 1999. We connected immediately and began playing together here and there. Then Frank met Jeff McCaffrey, and the three of us began playing shows at the Moosewood when they first expanded and opened their cafe. At this point we were called the Marty Withers Band (it's a long, long story). Joel Blizzard came by around that time. This was before he'd taken up drums and long before Thousands of One was a glimmer in his eye. He brought his bongo to a show and tapped along a bit, and we put it out there that whenever he felt up to it, he was welcome to be a part of the band. Even then, our prime directive was that friendship and fun were the priority. Joel fit the bill, and so we always tried to leave room for him to be a part of it. But he was reluctant back then. I can still see him crouched out of site while he lightly plugged away at his drum.

We would mostly play covers in the Marty days, but then we started adding original songs that Jeff had in his pocket. Jeff kept writing, and we collaborated on a few here and there, and before we knew it, we were an original act with a tight, original sound. By this time, Joel had developed into quite the drummer, and we changed the band name to The Small Kings when he hopped on board. We were ready for a serious name. Or, perhaps the serious name was ready for us. Several different folks came in and out of the fold over the years—Chris DeCicco on percussion, Jenna Goodman on fiddle and Benjamin Costello, who played keys and sang on most of the CD. But the core has always been Jeff, Frank, and myself, and later Joel. We've been playing a lot of acoustic trio gigs. Joel's been pretty busy with Thousands of One, and we want to make it as easy on him as possible. So, I play my upright bass when he can't make it, and we all plug in when he's with us. Being able to do both has really expanded our musicianship, I think, and added to our flexibility on stage.

DM: You describe yourselves as playing melodic rock/pop fantasy music. Can you elaborate on this?
ML: We all come from such different places, musically speaking, and our style has taken on just as many flavors. Joel's got the hip-hop and reggae background. Jeff knows every glam rock song worth knowing and also is immersed in power pop and singer-songwriter stuff. Frank has every Dead, Neil Young and Dylan song swimming in his head. And I've got funk talking to me, and I'm a lifelong devotee of the Beatles. So the music we play tends to have all of that—Jeff writes very elaborate pop songs, but we still groove on them and expand on them live and we add harmonies wherever possible. We are also notorious for changing songs on the spot, whether it's tempo or rhythm. As a result, we've gotten very, very good at listening to each other. I like to say that we're like an excellent basketball team—we don't have to look to know where to pass the ball. We've got each others' backs all the time, devoted to pushing the boundaries of our songs and having the most ferociously fun time while we're at it.

DM: What are your influences?
ML: Individually, our influences are pretty varied. But as a unit, we tend to lead toward alt.country bands like Wilco and the Jayhawks. They speak to our collective vibe.

DM: I love the cover art (pictured) for the album. Can you tell me about it?
ML: The drawings came from my friend Dave Palmer, an IC graduate who went on to create the "Blue" character from Blue's Clues. He's now an animation director for another huge hit, The Backyardagins. All the parents out there know what I'm talking about. I sent Dave the rough mix of the recordings, and he sent us about a dozen sketches based on what he heard. We didn't give him any direction whatsoever, knowing that the music would carry him in the right direction. We liked a bunch of them, so we decided to go with the "Let it Be" look. I get to see Dave mostly on New Year's Eve, when we have a traditional 2 am poker game. Dave didn't ask for any compensation for the work he did, but I'd like to think he was paid handsomely over the years, one chip at a time.

DM: You guys have been playing around a lot. How’s that going?
ML: We're having tons of fun, and that's the primary goal. After a bit of a quiet period, we're right back where we left off. The CD release show went off without a hitch, which was amazing since we hadn't played an electric show in over a year. Now we're furiously adding songs to our repertoire. With lots of shows lined up, we're looking forward to varying the set lists and surprising ourselves, and others, when we go out there. We've scheduled a bunch of out of town shows this winter, which is unusual for us. Since the CD is out, we thought we'd test the waters and see what sort of reaction we might get.

DM: Who are you listening to that might be kind of under the radar?
ML: I've been way into the Felice Brothers lately. They've taken over where Dylan and the Band left off. Dr. Dog is another band that's keeps coming back on my stereo. The best way I can describe them is Paul McCartney tunes recorded by an awesome garage band: they have amazing harmonies, playful, fun lyrics, and their songs flow just perfectly. My kids and I have been listening to a lot of the Wiyos, which is sort of a vaudeville, Americana type act. The play songs that Leon Redbone might choose, but as a full band. I first saw their bass player, Joe Bass (aka Joe DeJarnette) at the Clifftop fiddle convention in 2007. He's just a madman on the upright bass, and he can play night and day. Over the course of five days in one campground in West Virginia, I probably saw him play with 30 different people at one time or another. He's the one old-time bass player who plugs stops and starts into his rhythm, and he somehow gets away with it. Plus, he's got an unfathomable slapping technique, so whenever I wasn't playing myself, I was nosing around to see if I could spy him at yet another camp. I haven't been very good at keeping up with the music scene outside of Ithaca. Other than the above bands, I've mostly I've been listening to a lot of old-time music: the Chicken Chokers, Highwoods Stringband, Leake County Revelers, and the Freighthoppers.


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