Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Native Noise: Torches


Accessibility: 5
Originality: 10
Musical Prowess: 8
Recommended Listening: 7
Crush Factor: 6
Overall: 7

Stephen Guidry, founder and frontman of current DC band Torches, has lived a varied history during his last decade as a DC musician––first playing with local band the Parlor Scouts (still “intermittenly in existence”) and then transplanting to the Cassettes until late 2008. When the Cassettes disbanded, Guidry decided he need an outlet for the songs he’d begun writing during his years with former bands, and this time chose a new band from among his friends, many of whom he already knew to be musicians. The product was, of course, Torches. The group, celebrating its tenth show overall with this performance at the Black Cat’s backstage, has gone through a plethora of changes in just a year––read about them, more on the band, its mechanics, and valuable insight on the past and workings of the DC music scene below!

Torches, now in its tenth incarnation as a band, has never played consecutive sets with the same line-up. I was taken aback by this momentarily, but Guidry explained it neatly––”I always imagined the band as being somewhat modular, I want to songs to work––I hope the songs work––no matter who’s playing them.” I managed to meet most of this week’s band, but am still unsure who was permanent and who was just passing through. (For the sake of journalistic decency, I was so sick during this interview I could barely see straight, and neglected to get the first and last names of those around me. I have cobbled together what I could from transcript and the vast Internet.) When Torches tours late this June in preparation for a full-length album recording session (and release in the fall), for example, they’ll just be with a skeleton crew, picking up and dropping people along the way. Just Guidry and bassist Jill? Fine. Guidry and the drummer? Fine as well. Guidry went on: “with some exceptions, a good kind of pop song should be able to sit on it’s own, so that’s the kind of idea.”

Torches are, however, far from the kind of conventional pop song Guidry’s statement brought to mind, I later learned watching their live set. As lead oboe-ist Jocelyn explained the mechanics of the band to me (“banjo, oboe, harmonica, accordion, drums, bass, cello,”) I could only think of one word: cacophany. (A second, fleeting thought: Man Man. I later discovered both were, in a sense, correct first-glimpse assessments.) Jocelyn, however, spoke with an element of pride about her group’s unique sound: “one of the things that’s pretty cool about this band is that it takes a bunch of instruments that may have played at different times in different incarnations––sure, you may have heard an oboe and a cello together before, in an orchestra or whatever––but now we all play to our strengths, and bring those bits of character to the group, and that shows.”

I also asked Torches what they thought of the DC scene––they are the oldest band I’ve chatted with thus far, and offered me a concise overview of the past decade or so of DC music. In their words:
 Ten years ago, DC’s sound revolved around a few strong labels that were churning out records and fresh beats night and day (Dischord to name the largest, calling bands such as Q and Not U, Fugazi, and The Dismemberment Plan its own). However, in recent years, these labels, while still around, have waned in strength as the bread and butter of the DC music scene––and thus, or perhaps as a causal factor, DC’s “sound” has diffused into something entirely undefinable. The band seemed torn along several different sentiments: Guidry spoke of the atomizing effect the diffusion and introduction of internet self-releases have had (“ it becomes about you releasing your own stuff, as opposed to the previous notion of banding together”––Torches’ first release was on the internet as well, no finger-pointing:, the saxophonist however seemed to think that DC had something special going on in its diffusion of sound, that there truly was something for everyone to enjoy in the acts currently playing around the city. Oboeist Jocelyn, again on a positive note (current prediction for the next DC bands I interview, based on the last two: the blonde, curly-headed instrumentalist always has the nicest things to say), brought up the pride DC bands feel in being part of a certain, distinct kind of creative culture, a pride they demonstrate when they play outside of the district, representing their hometown.

As far as the live-set goes, it was a lot like Torches’ description of their band’s sandwich: “a Dagwood, bachelor sandwich: never the same sandwich twice, but still the hope that it always tastes good.” This sandwich fit in exactly with both the fact that the band had never appeared like this before (did Dagwood ever see the same sandwich twice?) and the seemingly random assortment on instruments in a unique musical incarnation (Dagwood wasn’t going to discriminate what went in the sandwich: the whole fridge!). The tunes were wild and swampy, with lots of foot stomping and yowling and oboe-ing about the stage. The crowd needed to beaten over the head several times with Torches’ jangling wall of sound, but they were soon dancing appreciatively. The lyrics were lush and entertaining (“Dr. P” was a “hoot,” (yes, that was an oboe pun) though I’m still unclear what the song was really about), and the matching carnations each member sported were as charming as the crowd banter. Torches is certainly not everyone’s slice of musical pie, but I have a feeling––a hope, perhaps––that they may be once they pin down a line-up for at least two shows in a row. Or perhaps that kind of consistency would simply be beside the point.

Give them a listen here:
Tumble along with them here:
Check out a (horribly recorded) video of Guidry and his two leading ladies:

-- Fiona Hanly
Host, "Sweet N Flo," Mondays 12-1 pm on WGTB

Native Noise is a weekly column highlighting local bands, appearing on Wednesdays on the WGTB blog.

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