By KJ Philp, February 2017 Web Exclusive. Back to Echo’s Desperado 2017 coverage.
Once upon a time, a drummer and a keyboard player met while playing together in a jazz combo at a local community college. The year was 2010 and their names were Stephen Avalos and Garrison Jones, respectively.
Four years later, they met vocalist Holly Pyle at a few local jazz show and the trio immediately started composing music together at a driven pace.
Then, adding elements and arrangement ideas of Shea Marshall (who brings bass clarinet, saxophone, harmonica, accordion, synth, bass to the band when he's not performing with his regular project, The Sugar Thieves) completed the band. And House of Stairs officially born in August 2014.
As part of the 2017 Desperado LGBT Film Festival, House of Stairs will take the stage beginning at 3 p.m. Jan. 29. Echo caught up with Pyle ahead of their performance to find out more about the band and what performing at the festival means to them.
Echo: The band is named after MC Escher’s manipulations of 2D mediums. Explain the conversation that led up to that making that decision.
Pyle: We quickly discovered that we share a lot of common ground, including an appreciation of optical illusions and MC Escher’s work in general. My lyric writing is densely visual – I create layers of multiple pictures that arrange themselves in a sort of woven texture, interlocking via key words. We combine that construct with deliberately complimentary metrics and harmony to create our own mulit-dimensional aural landscapes, similar to how MC Escher redefines two dimensions on paper. After looking through an MC Escher art book, we thought ‘House of Stairs’ worked best to describe our method and musical intentions.
Echo: You describe your sound as “A jazz-based collective that draw from funk, soul and pop influences to create a distinct progressive soundscape.” What do you feel that adds to the phoenix music landscape?
Pyle: A few general deviations: We don’t have a guitar or regular bass player, include two keyboardists, incorporate live vocal looping, make use of both acoustic and electric drums, and use improvisation frequently. Phoenix does have a jazz scene, but I think we’re making good strides in introducing people to jazz who might not otherwise listen to it or appreciate it. We have a solid camaraderie with a local hip-hop band called The Stakes, they bring together elements of hip hop and jazz with a soulful singer. Twin Ponies and The Hill in Mind are another few examples of creative arranging and progressive execution that have some alignment with what we’re after. Aside from our instrument composition, what makes our music truly unique is our poetic concepts, approach to composition and the amount of layers we’re able to generate from a small group, and not just on a local level. We have a well-crafted live show and have been frequently commended for our wide dynamic and stylistic palette.
Echo: How has your genre helped launch you (versus if you were a pop or garage style band)?
Pyle: We’ve managed to make a good living inside of our sound – we struggle with finding a genre label that fully captures the project, for now it’s somewhere between progressive and chamber soul. We’d probably have an easier time if we fell into a more popular genre category, but we’re down for the challenge.
Echo: You've played for LGBTQ audiences before (specifically, the 2016 Phoenix Pride Festival); what makes LGBTQ audiences unique?
Pyle: We met Dawn Bowman while playing at a restaurant once and were thrilled by the opportunity she afforded us to play for the Pride Festival this past year. It’s a community that is very important to us and we’re happy to follow up with an appearance at the Desperado LGBT Film Festival. I think what makes these events special, and the LGBTQ community in general, [is that] every individual is indeed an individual; we as a society find ways to lump different people into groups, by race, religion, sexual affiliation etc. - I see the LGBTQ community as role models for being able to observe and cultivate honor of what makes us different, while also seeking unification within their mutual goal of being completely authentic. As a band we have a similar goal; our ability or lack thereof to define our genre is not as important as staying true to exactly who we are and what we represent as human beings who happen to play music. We look forward to constructing our set at the Desperado in a way that best exposes the heart of who we are. Plus, [we're] planning to throw in a Melissa Etheridge arrangement for good measure.
Echo: Does the band have a favorite song to perform?
Pyle: We have an original song called "SCUBA." It has no actual lyrics besides made-up syllables that sound like a different language. It also includes eight live-tracked vocal parts and is played in a very uncommon meter with many different textures. It has a lot of freedom despite its density and is simply fun to perform. We also have a dense arrangement of Across the Universe with 15 vocal parts alongside the full band.
Echo: How would you describe your EP Step One?
Pyle: Given our short time as a band at the time during its creation, it falls closer to the jazz and pop spectrums. The EP is ordered from lightest to darkest content-wise, covering quite an emotional and harmonic spectrum. The later tracks better capture where our music has headed since Step One was released.
Echo: Any plans for a new album?
Pyle: We’re currently in preproduction for a full-length album. If all goes to plan we plan to release the album before summer.
Echo: Tell us one little-known fact about the band.
Pyle: We have pretty serious music, but laugh at just about anything almost constantly. Shea also likes to pull pranks; we once left a birthday card with 75 balloons at Garrison’s doorstep, signed “Happy Birthday Jennifer from your friends at team 7” – fake signatures included. The band members also like to draw, a lot.
Echo: If you could say one thing to anyone interested in coming out to see your performance at Desperado, what would it be?
Pyle: For anyone seeking an inclusively artistic experience, this would be the one to see.
Echo: Is there anything else you'd like our readers to know?
Pyle: Coincident to the band’s mission towards authenticity, our song content often dabbles in exploring mental illness and suffering, seeking presence and healing through cultivating the details. By observing patterns in history and our everyday lives, from bees to gravity, we find a solace and a stronger sense of connection to life and each other. There’s always a puzzle that can be solved just beyond our fingertips; our feelings and senses provide vessels of learning and discovery which we translate into our music. So while our original music is often very emotional and exposed, there’s actually something very happy and peaceful about capturing an experience accurately.
House of Stairs will take the stage at the 2017 Desperado LGBT Film Festival beginning at 3 p.m. Jan. 29. For more information, find them on Facebook at facebook.com/houseofstairsmusic or visit houseofstairsmusic.com.