This is a Trust-Building Exercise: Timbre Coup’s Virtuosic Improg at Red Square, Review
Having had the glorious opportunity to attend a Timbre Coup practice session, I knew exactly what guitarist/bassist/singer Dan Gerken meant when, at Red Square this past Saturday in the middle of his band’s set, he proclaimed to the audience that it was “Mustache time, bitches,” with a devilish grin.
This, of course, is a reference to Timbre Coup’s foot-stomping, fun new tune, “I Didn’t Know She Had a Mustache,” the song Gerken was clearly most enthusiastic to perform. He twice filled the stop-and-go voids left by the song’s signature riff by posing with his index finger extended across the top of his upper lip as an ersatz mustache. The audience responded with comparable gusto, jumping and dancing as if the dark, sanguine atmosphere of the bar was actually a raging festival’s main stage.
The other band members (Andrew Chamberlaine, who is the band’s only non-original member and is arguably the lead guitarist; Ben Pickering, who shares guitar and bass duties with Gerken; and the percussion fixture Matt Pickering, older brother of Ben) expressed their satisfaction with “Mustache” in differing, individualized ways: Ben, with the casual, easy, laid-back way of a younger brother, smiled happily as he slapped his bass, while the stoic, focused Chamberlaine showed his pinnacle of physicality by nodding his head to near head-banging proportions, and Matt Pickering orchestrated it all from behind his deceptively small drum set. Collectively, the song is surely one of their favorites, if not for its musicality than certainly for its ability to serve as a live staple – an anthem.
I call “Mustache” new because it does not appear on either of the band’s two albums, Fool’s Gold or Check Out This! It won’t appear on their next effort, either, because Timbre Coup has been candid about working on material that will constitute a twelve-song album, which will include each of the twelve months as song titles. They played “August” on Saturday night, and with its refrain of “The day is mine,” it perfectly suited the theme of the evening, which, incidentally, was ‘Happy Birthday!’ (The Pickerings’ mother, Gerken’s girlfriend, a member of Palatypus [another band playing at Red Square that night], and a few friends were all in attendance and celebrating birthdays that evening or at the stroke of midnight. The band celebrated with Gerken’s improvised string rendition of the Happy Birthday song and an offering of cupcakes to the audience.)
Material from their studio work also made its way into the set list. The transition of “Something About Radio” into “Don’t Fly a Key on a Kitestring When It’s Lightninging” was fantastic, keeping the crowd hooked on the distorted, dance-worthy bass lines while staying true to the song order of the album, a pairing that true fans could appreciate. This was just after Ben’s funky bass solo, at which point he handed over the reigns of rumble to Dan. The stylistic differences in their playing gives the band dimension, as Dan’s playing is more dance- and techno-influenced, usually sounding like the music from an epic Nintendo gem, while Ben’s is more subtle and allows for the guitars to flex their aural muscle. This isn’t to say that Ben is unskilled; rather, his unusually long fingers make his abilities appear simple, as though anyone could pick up a five-string bass and replace him, but this is an illusion. He is nothing short of prodigious.
Which isn’t surprising. I’ve known his brother for years, and it’s always seemed (to me, anyway) that a suitable nickname for Matt would be the Great Improvisator. He possesses this perfect blend of determination and knack. With a child-like curiosity, he approaches something with a desire to understand, but his method of doing so is to practice until he has mastered it. He can’t seem to do it any other way. I remember him, in high school, bringing up an interest in juggling. It’s all you’d see him doing for a week. Then, you’d see him juggling several things at once while walking down the hall from class to class. You’d have just enough time to marvel. And then you’d never see him juggling again. He became a fan of the successful jam band Umphrey’s McGee around the same time, and somehow became a protégé of theirs after attending more than a hundred of their live performances and befriending the band members.
When drumming kept his interest for more than a week, I knew he was onto something. It made perfect sense for his abnormal adroit abilities. Before long, he announced he was going to adjust his drum set so that everything was on the opposite side of his body, forcing him to play as if he were left-hand dominant. Eventually, he was in a band called Pick, which played Dave Matthews covers, mostly, and it was from the lead singer of that band that he eventually adopted (not stole, he insists) the name Timbre Coup, changing it from One Track Mind.
His innovation continued into his involvement with current endeavors: Check Out This!, Timbre Coup’s second album, features a song called “PP,” which has Matt playing percussion strictly on pots and pans. It isn’t hard to imagine that this is the route his curiosity would have taken him if there were no such things as drum sets. Likewise, it’s easy to see that Ben followed suit and formed a rhythm section with his brother not because he was forced to, but because there was an inclination, a yearning, one that could only be satiated by the collaborative enjoyment of creating progressive improvisational rock, or improg.
The four members of the band all live together in a building that used to be a restaurant. (An awning over a bright red front door with a Welcome! sign is the only real tell-tale evidence.) When I asked them if they (individually) worried about any of the band members leaving to pursue something else or to join another band, they all kind of looked at each other, looking for reaction, as if what I said was nonsense. “No,” Dan finally said. “I think the fact that we live together really kind of solves that problem.” And that’s true. Any of them would have to upend their life in order to quit the band – they live together and have concentric circles of friends, overlapping social lives. There would be consequences to a rash decision like that, and the fact that all four of them have signed a lease speaks further to their commitment to the band, never mind that the band has a booking agent, Nick, a manager, Greg, and has recently become an LLC (limited liability company).
Just as Ben and Matt Pickering are mostly self-taught and seem to have grown together as musicians, Dan and Andrew are highly musically educated, graduates of St. Rose, and have very distinct, very different musical personalities and methods of creative distinction. Dan Gerken’s facial expression essentially dances with the bass line he’s playing, which only exaggerates the already dominant sound of his instrument. That, coupled with his prolificity, makes him the biggest stage presence in the band: before they pass around guitars like hot potatoes, it is Dan who pats the top of his head to indicate some time change or secret signal. Andrew Chamberlaine, on the other hand, is far more introverted and concentrated, with his only means of showmanship presented by way of his extraordinary technique and his seemingly disconnected, other-worldly way of directing his attention solely to the fretboard of his guitar, as though there isn’t a multitude of fans standing just before him.
As aforementioned, Chamberlaine is the only non-original member of Timbre Coup. His debut as their guitarist came New Year’s Eve, 2008, when they played a holiday show. Formerly of the Albany-based band Reflex, Chamberlaine brings an edgier sound to the band, which sets them apart from other bands in their genre.
“I think with our early stuff, it was easy to hear our influences,” says Matt Pickering, who cites the band’s influences as The New Deal, Umphrey’s McGee, Phish, Primus, and Frank Zappa. “Now, though, we’re sounding different…more like us. And that’s what we want to do. We want to be doing something that nobody else is doing.”
That’s a sort of ambiguous way of going about goal-setting, but one thing is for sure: these are some highly skilled, extremely dedicated musicians, who are fully focused and determined to pursue their dreams. With their reach already extending to Philadelphia, Burlington, and Asbury Park, there’s no telling how far this improg band will go.
Timbre Coup plays regularly in Albany and its surrounding areas. Visit www.timbrecoup.com for dates and locations of upcoming shows.
–Richard Kornak is an Assistant Editor of The Free George.
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