Blocker plays Art Bar at 12:15 a.m. Dear Blanca plays Trustus Theatre at 12:15 a.m. Barnwell plays Art Bar at 1 a.m. Boo Hag plays Hunter-Gatherer at 1 a.m.
The only constant is change.
This old saw is especially true in music, where an artist’s muse wonders of its own accord, largely indifferent to the demands of the audience. The challenge, then, is to grow in a way that remains genuine to both the creative impulse and the identity of the project in question.
This weekend’s Music Crawl will feature four Columbia rock bands who grapple with this conundrum, confidently solving it — and finding inspiration in the creativity and savvy of the groups around them.
Art First, Audience Second
The growth of Dear Blanca has been easy to see across the last few years. Earlier releases paired Dylan Dickerson’s powerful voice with redemptively roughshod instrumentation that called to mind the likes of Pinegrove and Diet Cig. But the group’s newer work mixes in R.E.M.-ish melodicism and a focused urgency that recalls Modest Mouse.
Take “Perched,” Dear Blanca’s contribution to the 2018 sampler put out by Palmetto State music blog SceneSC. It’s a gem that evokes Dear Blanca’s early recordings but adds sophisticated counter melody, invigorating fretwork that calls to mind Thurston Moore and Pat Metheny, and polyrhythmic embellishments. Dickerson’s trademark howl remains, but it’s dialed up to a fever pitch, readlining through its highest octave during the chorus.
Dickerson attributes the band’s artistic growth to not worrying about alienating its audience.
“When you’re making art in general, selfishness should be a priority,” he posits. “It feels great if someone enjoys the music. But I’m not overly worried about what anyone will think of the music because I know that’s not my end goal.”
This sentiment is echoed by Boo Hag’s Saul Seibert. The band finds the guitarist and yowler paired with drummer Scotty Tempo, constantly veering in new directions with its swampy garage rock. Last year’s The Further provided a narcotic blend that at times brought to mind The Stooges and The 13th Floor Elevators, while this year’s quieter, more patient Testify has a spectral, haunted Delta Blues feel — imagine Robert Johnson playing Sabbath on a Gibson ES-335. In addition to Testify, Boo Hag has released two 7-inch singles in 2018, and is finishing up a project with beatmaker MIDIMarc, which promises yet another bold direction.
Each of Boo Hag’s records is written differently. The Further was composed through jam sessions until Seibert and Tempo liked what they heard. For Testify, the vocals came first, with guitar parts added later. For Seibert, keeping things fresh is essential.
“I try to go away and be alone for as much time as possible while writing,” he offers. “Apart from solitude, there is no process to be honest. It looks different for us every time.”
Shake It Up
Barnwell also makes a big shift with its newest EP. The band trades the shuffling, twangy melodies of 2016’s Motel Art for pop-spiked indie rock with comfortably frayed edges and nervy propulsion on Lose Your Teeth. Songs like the opening “Either Way” pack a wallop of infectious melody and dynamic tritones.
Singer and guitarist Tyler Gordon believes Barnwell’s tight-knit lineup keeps its identity intact despite the sonic alterations.
“To be able to have the same four people instead of constantly cycling drummers in and out like we used to,” he explains, has “made for a lot more consistency and the live shows have gotten better.”
“I just have gotten more comfortable with the way I write songs,” Gordon adds. “Once you get comfortable with the way you do it you can kind of branch out.”
As with Barnwell, Jade Blocker strives to be conscious of her music’s roots, even as she pushes it forward. These days she’s most often seen with Blocker, the infectious power-pop band she started last year, rocking out front with a guitar or in the back behind a drum kit. But when she started performing her songs around town it was just her and six strings.
“I’m trying to hold on to that, like, solo singer-songwriter part,” she says. “‘Cause I’m not used to playing rock ‘n’ roll. I’m used to playing the vulnerable songs that make people feel things.”
She brings up “The Moment” as an example. She says the ballad is about a “period in my life when I was going out to bars and things like that. Everybody was, like, moving too fast and people were just not being true to themselves.” Even though she now performs with a band and not by herself, she still tries to put herself in the mindset that inspired it.
“I wrote this song about being present in the moment — ‘Don’t try to rush it. Or get your next fix,’” she explains. “As a solo song, it’s a little bit Norah Jones and a little bit Imogen Heap.
“When I played that song acoustically, people would get really emotional. And just be like, ‘I really need to pause for a second and think about what I’m doing. Got to be present. Be fine. Be good with it. Be at peace with what happened and be at peace with what will happen.’”
Even though she might be playing drums instead of guitar, she strives for a similar impact, even though energy and instrumentation have changed.
Inspiration Is Everywhere
Beyond their own creativity, all four acts point to the number of impressive artists doing work in Columbia as motivation. For Dear Blanca’s Dickerson, the local rock market has become so fertile that it’s hard to resist mingling other stylistic ideas with his own.
“I find a new reason to be inspired all the time,” Dickerson offers. “Every weekend there’s something that I would like to see musically, and I feel like people outside of Columbia are seeing that more and more.”
Barnwell singer and guitarist Tyler Gordon feels similarly, describing the local rock community as a friendly space that provides ample opportunity for cross-pollination. For him, the quality of the acts playing in town — and the variety of sounds they explore — is a constant motivator.
“Columbia has so many good bands right now,” he says. “I mean, it’s absurd that I have so many friends in so many bands that are just legitimately great.”
“I always make jokes that I just want to be good enough that I don’t hate my friends for how good they are,” Gordon deadpans.
The caliber of local live acts has pushed Gordon to be a better showman.
“It’s important that you always got something to offer people who are going to come out to your live show,” he notes. “They’re gonna come out, they’re gonna pay, they’re gonna try to find parking, they’re gonna have to go to work the next day sometimes. They’re putting forth an effort to see you play. So make it worth it for them.”
But working to improve and evolve isn’t a calculated move. It’s what makes the whole enterprise of having a rock band worth doing.
“Keep writing,” Blocker says of her mindset. “Keep an open mind always. With every band. Don’t be afraid to broaden your horizon with a different thing.”
Dickerson offers similar advice.
“Don’t be scared of change,” he offers. “There’s been a lot of things in our band that have changed over the years. But there’s always been a core with musicians and ideas that carry over from record to record. Usually, that’s fuel for the fire. Let it be exciting,”
Boo Hag’s Seibert sums it up more briefly: “Work hard. Don’t break up.”
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