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|New York’s Tarantula A.D.
A.D.'s three gents spill it on their first full-length, Book of Sand, and the trials and tribulations of being an instrumental band
by Katie Sauro
Listening to Tarantula A.D. is an all at once gorgeously symphonic and deeply profound experience, the delicately balanced metal guitars and trembling cello crescendos falling into place amidst the harmonizing backing vocals of all three members of the band.
But it is impossible to truly grasp what is happening instrumentally by sitting at home and listening to them through a couple of cheap speakers—you have to see them perform live in order to understand just how epic their music is.
The mostly-instrumental band from New York, made up of cellist, violinist, and pianist Danny Bensi, guitarist Saunder Jurriaans, and drummer Greg Rogove, recently passed through Seattle on its second tour in as many years, armed with their first full-length, Book of Sand. They opened with the first track from their new album, “Conquest,” and as the song progressed, a darkly grandiose drama of rises and falls, starts and stops, twists and turns, soon began to unfold, introducing the crowd to a combination of chamber and classical aspects and hardcore metal.
Clearly all three members of the band are incredible musicians on their own, switching off on their instruments, sometimes even mid-song. But as the band gets deeper into their set, complete cohesion takes over, and layer upon layer, the melody builds in intensity until it climaxes and falls as quickly as it had risen, only to build once more. You can begin to see the complexity and the care with which the band writes and plays their songs.
“Everybody has sketches and stuff that they do independently, but the real writing happens collectively,” said Rogove of the band’s songs. “Basically we tell stories to each other… everybody’s kind of instructing each other. It just keeps building and building and snowballing until it becomes one massive experience.”
“We just start playing, and it’s free and open. It’s completely organic, no structure, no boundaries,” added Bensi. “It’s like catching a wave.”
And that is exactly what happened about 2 ½ years ago, when the three of them met. Bensi described this first meeting as instant chemistry, almost as if summoned by a greater power. Bensi and Jurriaans had already been playing together a little bit, and Rogove was introduced to the band through a friend. They started rehearsing and wrote a song right there on the spot. They hadn’t planned on being an all-instrumental band, in fact, Rogove says they made absolutely no decisions musically, content to let things happen as they may. At one point, they auditioned a singer, Rogove’s girlfriend and member of CocoRosie, Sierra Casady.
“We tried it out and it was wonderful, and we still work with her, but as far as being another member, that idea was just lost. She was busy doing her thing, we were doing ours, and it just never came together in that way… But we stuck together nonetheless,” said Rogove smiling.
Tarantula A.D. does include some vocals on their songs, but they are mostly background vocals that are there to underscore the song. However, Rogove does take lead vocal on a song entitled “Sealake.” He enjoys singing, as do the other members of the band, so it is likely that on forthcoming albums, there will be more of it.
After self-releasing an E.P. in 2004 and recording their second E.P. “rogue style” (which included breaking into studios in the middle of the night and recording in a post office in Queens), Tarantula A.D. was picked up by Kemado Records, who released the already-recorded E.P., Atlantic. Though they now had a label and had studios readily available for their use, for Book of Sand, they decided to maintain their recording philosophy, traveling to tiny Orcas Island, Washington, to get away from all the distractions of everyday life, searching for inspiration. They definitely found it.
“We decided early on in the recording process that if we did it in a vacuum, it didn’t sound anything like us,” said Rogove. “It was a whole ’nother band, it was a whole ’nother personality. So we took to recording it along with the atmosphere in which we were playing, and that became another instrument. It became a definite part of the composition, a special voice that lets the music exist in reality instead of a closed, stale, soundproof room.”
With the door left slightly ajar and the wooden feel of the cabin’s acoustics surrounding them, they proceeded to record Book of Sand. Whatever happened on tape, whether it was birds chirping or chairs creaking, they felt that it connected them with nature and the real world, so it was all left on the record. They even bring this naturalness on tour with them, standing on stage amidst plants and other shrubbery, birds calling out every once in a while.
After they had recorded the major tracking, Jurriaans and Bensi went back to New York to mix the album, while Rogove flew to Europe to catch up with Devendra Banhart and the aforementioned Casady, who both provide vocals on the album. Banhart had asked the band to record on his song “Cripple Crow,” so in return, he appeared on Tarantula A.D.’s song, “The Fall.” Banhart even toured with them earlier this year.
Recording the album in so many different places would seem to most people to be a bit of a hassle, but in the end, the band felt it was worth it. Computer-enhanced perfection is one way to record an album, but Tarantula A.D.’s process works for them, and all three members of the band agree that they would do their next album this way too, finding a new spot that would evoke the same kind of inspiration that they found on Orcas Island.
“There’s one major thing that we all really strive for, and that’s playing with honesty and true emotion, there’s no acting,” said Rogove. “That’s one of the harder things to really capture on tape, to really really feel someone’s true connection to the spirit of the composition, to their instrument, all those things. That’s what we really try to zero in on.”
Their natural recording process has allowed them to do just that through constant re-invention and a fresh outlook, but they are still constantly pigeon-holed into a certain category of music, just because they have strings and classical elements, and it can be frustrating, said Bensi. Sometimes, he continued, they are compared to bands like Rasputina, simply because they have a cello, when in fact they sound nothing like them.
Just after Bensi finishes his rant, a fan comes up proclaiming he has the perfect band for Tarantula A.D. to play with. They’re from New York, and, oh yeah, they have two violinists and two cellists. Bensi looks at me, raises his eyebrows, and smiles. It’s annoying, yes, but still quite amusing.