Luce Unplugged: 5 Questions with Near Northeast

Amelia on October 7, 2015
Near Northeast, playing at our next Luce Unplugged

Next on Luce Unplugged, our free, after-hours local concert series, we're featuring sets by two rising D.C. acts. Friday, October 16 from 6-8 p.m. we will be kicking it off with Cruzie Beaux aka Kristina Reznikov who "brings digital beats and distorted guitar together for a grand time," and describes her sound as "loud, heavy, and raw." Next, Near Northeast will play melodic folk, perfect for fall weather. You'll be able to grab snacks and drinks from our cash bar, plus Three Stars Brewing Company will be at the show providing free beer tastings.

If the music isn't enough to pique your interest, stop by to check out the Luce Foundation Center's 3,000 plus artworks (always free). On a recent trip there, Near Northeast were so inspired by one of the center's pieces that they wrote a song in tribute. Read more about the song, the band's history, and their songwriting process below; catch their set at Luce Unplugged at 7 p.m.

Eye Level: Tell us about the band's history.

Avy (guitarist): Kelly and I met in late 2013 when we both answered a call for backing musicians for a one-off classical & folk Indian music concert at the Kennedy Center. We played with a terrific classical dancer and singer, with Kelly playing violin and me doing my best to approximate the timbre and cadence of various Indian string instruments (sitar, sarangi, sarod) on my guitar. I asked our original drummer Alex (who's now based in Lisbon) to play cajon at the Kennedy Center, so even from the beginning our style captured a range of world music influences, and we've continued that with the release of our first album Curios. Austin joined the fold in 2014 after we realized we not only liked each other and could play our instruments with a modicum of originality, but we also could write well together.

EL: Describe your songwriting process.

Kelly (singer/violinist): A lot of our songs start with a riff or chord progression on the guitar. We start to work our other instruments into that, and then once there are distinct sections fleshed out, we argue about structure for a little while to find general rise and fall of the song. Then I usually take a rough cut home and sing over it until a vocal line and lyrics emerge. Then we tighten it up. That process seems to let us all end up with parts we feel responsible for, and won't easily get bored of.

Mr. and Mrs. America by Rex Clawson

EL: We're super excited that you wrote a song in dedication to a Luce artwork, Rex Clawson's Mr. and Mrs. America. Tell us about the song and the piece.

Kelly: I was drawn to the sinister feeling I got while looking at this ostensibly jolly, bright-colored piece. The figures seemed somewhat innocent, smiling proto-citizens with badges for fig leaves, and there's a kind of eerie symbolism of those badges. Avy had written those two very dramatic opening chords, and I think when he sat down at the piano it sort of freed him up to build something unusual around them.

Avy: The three of us went on a little field trip to the Luce Center where we all picked our favorite pieces, and Mr. and Mrs. America struck us as particularly unique in its eccentricity and emotional impact. The dual figures seemed almost musical to me, and I started coupling dissimilar chords and progressions to mimic the unusual partnership I was seeing on the canvas. If you listen to the song, there are a lot of unusual connections, both with how we couple the guitar with the piano, or the violin to the melodica, but also in how we couple chords and time signatures to fit in inelegant, but refreshing ways.

Kelly: Lyrically, I was trying to write something that sounded sort of naïve and earnest: young people exploring a new place that was weary and damaged in ways that predated them, buried animal bones, crows living in disused machines, green pennies deep in a well.

EL: Favorite lyrics?

Austin: Kelly writes most of the lyrics, and if there's a thread that weaves them all together, it's impermanence. Here's one of my favorite lines, from "Impala": "Bad weather's gonna break your teeth in time." It's a visceral line that, if you speak it out loud, comes off the tongue with a gentle rhythm. I think that struggle between opposites —beauty/ugliness, chaos/order— is something we think about a lot. I also enjoy that "in time" can be interpreted as either "eventually" or "in rhythm." But I'm just the kind of person who finds it darkly humorous to imagine teeth being broken to a beat.

EL: How would you describe the D.C. music scene?

Avy: D.C. attracts a certain type of driven, creative, but ultimately prudent and circumspect young person. And I think this comes across in the music and art scene. Many folks came here for a job, or grad school, not to pan for gold. Sometimes this leads to a difficult balancing act between pushing ourselves, creatively, while also being the best in our professional life. But ultimately, I look around and see that I'm playing along someone who has devoted her or his life to international development, gender equality in the workplace, or immigration reform, and I think, how cool is that? Only in D.C.

EL: Where do you find inspiration?

Everyone: Mostly from our Near Northeast musical canine member Darwin, who is as excited as we are to play this amazing music series!

Luce Unplugged is presented with Washington City Paper.